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Book Review: Iran Awakening by Shirin Ebadi, Winner of the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize

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What does it take to be a Nobel Peace Prize winner? The individual winners are a diverse lot, but having read some of the words of Nelson Mandela and the most recent winner Muhammad Yunus, and having just completed the autobiography of Shirin Ebadi, Iran Awakening, it seems there is one unifying factor — a clarity of vision that enables these exceptional individuals to understand their own actions, and the workings of their society. That's combined with a certain pig-headed determination to effect change, and the courage to maintain that even in the face of death.

That makes them sound almost inhumanly perfect, but Ebadi's book is a very human text, if unusually honest for an autobiography, for you feel she insists on always being honest with herself. She'd be a loyal, but uncomfortable, friend – always able to see through her compatriots' self-deceptions, and her own.

Ebadi's tale is also that of Iran – and particularly of its women. She writes of her mother – a bright woman prevented in the 1940s from attending college by marriage, obediently in love with her husband, yet also consumed by inner demons that emerged as paranoiac fear. So it was her father who was the chief shaper of her life – and he was, she says "as unpatriarchal as could be imagined, for his time". Crucially, he treated her and her brother as equals, to the astonishment of their servants.

It was not until I was much older that I realized how gender equality was impressed on me first and foremost at home, by example. It was only when I surveyed my own sense of place in the world from an adult perspective that I saw how my upbringing spared me from the low self-esteem and learned dependence that I observed in women reared in more traditional homes. My father's championing of my independence, from the play yard to my later decision to become a judge, instilled a confidence in me that I never felt consciously, but later came to regard as my most valued inheritance.

Her father was deputy minister of agriculture in the popular government of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, which was overturned in a US-backed coup in 1953, but after the Shah's takeover stepped back from politics, so Ebadi spent her adolescence and early adulthood in something of a political bubble – like many of the Third World technorati fulfilling a moral, practical role while largely avoiding broader issues. She was obviously an exceptional student, for after graduating in law at the age of 22, she immediately became a judge. The Shah's repression was, she says, carried out in the military courts, and so, she says, those in which she worked were "largely fair and uncorrupt".

Yet Ebadi, like many of her middle-class compatriots, supported, indeed was initially inspired by, the Revolution.

It seemed in no way a contradiction for me – an educated, professional woman – to back an opposition that cloaked its fight against real-life grievances under the mantle of religion. Faith occupied a central role in our middle class lives … Who did I have more in common with, in the end: an opposition led by mullahs who spoke in their tones familiar to ordinary Iranians or the gilded court of the shah, whose officials cavorted with American starlets at parties soaked in expensive French champagne? … [On the day the Shah was overthrown] I felt that I too had won, alongside this victorious revolution. It took scarcely a month for me to realize that, in fact, I had willingly and enthusiastically participated in my own demise. I was a woman, and this revolution's victory demanded my defeat.

Demoted to clerk, Ebadi kept turning up at the ministry each day, although refusing to do any of the menial work expected of her. She was anyway, she admits, distracted by her personal situation – seeking fertility treatment overseas (she eventually had two daughters). Yet she didn't withdraw into herself. She writes of learning that Islamic law was to be implemented, turning the clock "back fourteen hundred years, to the early days of Islam's spread when stoning women for adultery and chopping off the hands of thieves were considered appropriate sentences. I felt my body become hot and prickly with a boundless rage. A dull pain began to twitch in one of my temples…"

She hung on grimly in the judicial department for a statutory 15 years, dealing internally with that anger, but then retiring, and when in 1992 an official decision allowed women to practice law, she began to work in the commercial and trade fields, hoping that, as under the Shah, these would remain relatively uncorrupted. This wasn't to be, so she decided to take only pro bono cases:

I had to choose cases, I realized, that illustrated the tragic repercussions of the theocracy's legal discrimination against women. I could recite a litany of objectionable laws – a woman's life is worth half as much as a man's, child custody after infancy goes automatically to the father – until I was out of breath. But a personal story is more powerful than any dry summary of why a given law should be changed. To attract people's attention, to solicit their sympathies and convince them that these laws were not simply unfair but actively pathological. Iranian culture, for all its preoccupation with shame and honor, with all its resulting patriarchal codes, retains an acute sensitivity to injustice.

This battle, with its many horrifying tales – that of 11-year-old Leila Fathi, raped and murdered, and her poverty-stricken parents made homeless and distraight by the struggle to punish her killers, and of nine-year-old Arian Golshani, left to be killed by an abusive, drug-addicted father, her mother helpless to rescue her – occupies perhaps a smaller part of the book than might have been expected. Yet you almost feel Ebadi is tempering the tale, feeling that her Western readership might wallow in its horrors and use them against Iran – perhaps rightly.

Yet shocking as these are, the most viscerally affecting section – told initially in the prologue – is the moment at which Ebadi, acting as a lawyer and trying, during a brief glasnost-style moment under the regime of President Khatami to expose the operation of clerical death squads targeting intellectuals, finds her own name on a death list. Characteristically, she goes straight back to work, suppressing her feelings until the labour is done. Yet she's also honest about the shock:

I took a taxi home, lulled by the vibration of the dusty Paykan beneath me until we reached my house. I ran inside, peeled off my clothes, and stayed under the shower for an hour, letting the cool water cascade over me, rinsing off the filth of those files, lodged in my mind, under my fingernails. Only after dinner, after my daughters went to bed, did I tell my husband. So something interesting happened to me at work today, I began.

As that passage indicates, Ebadi, writing with Azadeh Moaveni, tells her story with simple clarity – you'd wish many Western legal judgements were so delivered – and Iran Awakening is delivered at a cracking pace. Her life is always in parallel with national politics, so it would also serve well as an initial primer on modern Iranian history.

She won the Nobel in 2003 and yet the book only came out this year – no doubt to the considerable commercial frustration of the publishers. That was because Ebadi had – not content with continuing the still enormously difficult battle for the rights of women and children in her own country – taken time out to challenge an illiberal American law banning the publication of the words of Iranians. She could no doubt have obtained an individual exception as a Nobel winner, but was characteristically not content to do that. Facing her legal challenge, the US Treasury Department backed down.

It was one more victory in a life spent battling against enormous odds. Yet it is clear that Ebadi has never lost sight of the fact that many Iranian women lack even the simple weapons she has been able to deploy against the power of theocracy. She'll keep fighting for them, and it behooves us all to keep paying attention – for it is sometimes the only protection she and her clients have.

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About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.
  • Mayank Austen Soofi

    I have been noticing this book since a long time in the bookshops. But I’m always unsure of biographies/autobiographies of Nobel peace laureates. Most of the times they are extremely full of themselves and the impression is that these ‘heroes’ started working for their causes right from the time of their birth. But this review carries a different and interesting take on this memoir of Shirin Ebadi. Besides, it is written with the assistance of the talented author of Lipstick Jihad. I think I’ll have to buy this book. Thanks for the review.