Can This Regime Be Saved?

Reviewed by Marla Braverman

Iran Awakening: A Memoir of Revolution and Hope
by Shirin Ebadi with Azadeh Moaveni
Random House, 2006, 232 pages.

Returning to Tehran from Paris in 2004 after winning the Nobel Peace Prize, Iranian human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi was met at the airport by hundreds of thousands of supporters. Noting that the last time so many people had gathered at the Tehran airport was in 1979 and the person arriving from Paris was Ayatollah Khomeini, Ebadi was struck by the difference: This time, judging from the sea of headscarves, the majority of the crowd was made up of women. They had walked for miles and blocked the streets, waving signs and singing pro-democracy anthems. But there was one sight in particular that made her breath catch. A woman stood with a child in one hand and a sign in the other, reading, “This is Iran.”
And what exactly, most readers will ask, is that? After nearly three decades since the Iranian revolution, the “real Iran” remains an enigma to outsiders. The reasons are clear, and many. The regime closely controls the flow of information between Iran and the West, heavily censoring the media, academia, and artists. Foreign journalists are rarely granted access to the country, and those who speak publicly of the regime’s injustices face arrest and torture, even death. And finally, few Westerners rate the “Death to America, Death to Israel” Iran of current hardliner president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as a vacation hotspot—or would rate it as such, were they able to obtain visas.
Thus the recent wave of books from Iranian “insiders,” revealing another side of a nation of black chadors and austere clerics—the existence of a vibrant underground youth culture, a hive of virtual resistance to the regime in the Iranian blogosphere, and a rich scholarship on Persian civilization, art, and literature, among other things—leave many Westerns confused as to which is more representative of the Islamic Republic. Is it the conservative clerics who scorn democracy, viewing, as scholar Ray Takeyh writes in Hidden Iran (Times Books, 2006), the “essential purpose of the state as the realization of God’s will on earth”? Or is it instead the largely secular, pro-democracy youth of the cities, with their faces turned toward the West?
Perhaps no one embodies best the contradictions that define today’s Iran than Ebadi herself, the “human face” of the country’s struggle for democracy and human rights. One of Iran’s premier female judges during the shah’s rule, Ebadi, a devout Muslim, was an outspoken supporter of the revolution that proceeded to “eat its sisters,” stripping her of her authority and reducing her to a secretary in the court over which she once presided. She later reinvented herself as an attorney, a position she obtained on account of the regime’s “involuntary pragmatism” following the devastating Iran-Iraq war. She then juggled the demands of motherhood in a traditional (read, “patriarchal”) culture with an ever-growing load of politically charged, frequently dangerous cases that pitted her against the regime she helped bring to power.
Unlike many Iranian critics of the mullahs, Ebadi has lived to tell her tale, and the result is Iran Awakening: A Memoir of Revolution and Hope. Here Ebadi, with the help of talented journalist Azadeh Moaveni, recounts her country’s violent transition to theocracy, and describes the effect of Islamic rule on Iranian women and children through the lens of specific cases she argued. Also unlike many of the regime’s critics in the Iranian diaspora, Ebadi remains hopeful about the Islamic Republic’s prospects, believing that reform can come about “peacefully, and from within.” Maintaining that the Islamic Republic’s more rational policymakers see “a tainted human rights record as a self-inflicted wound,” weakening the regime’s international standing, Ebadi is confident that the country’s homegrown opposition“not least a nation of educated, conscious women who are agitating for their rights”can eventually harness the power of a nation’s resentment and exact a shift to democratic governance.
Hers is a story of immense courage and extraordinary dedication—and, sadly, of misplaced optimism, as well. Given both the current entrenchment of the hardliner regime—which has proven itself remarkably indifferent to the international outcry over its human rights abuses—and the utter disarray of the reformists, the prospects for a peaceful transition to democracy today seem more distant than ever. Yet as Ebadi’s troubling attitude toward the revolution makes clear, she is not one to let ugly realities cloud her hopeful vision.
Westerners familiar with the outcome of the 1979 revolution—an upheaval whose consequences were disastrous for most of Iranian society, but particularly for women—will undoubtedly wonder foremost how an educated professional like Ebadi could have numbered among its ardent supporters. Raised by a wealthy and progressively minded father who impressed the idea of gender equality on his daughter from an early age, Ebadi was granted opportunities denied to most women from religious homes. So, too, was she later deferred to by both the men in her courtroom (in her role as judge) and the man in her home (her husband, from her description, is a near parody of a cowed, subservient spouse). It would appear, then, that Ebadi came to view her power as a given—a fact that might, perhaps, explain why she gave so little thought to the consequences of hitching that power to Khomeini’s star.
A prominent judge in the Justice Ministry on the eve of the revolution, Ebadi had long subscribed to the general, free-floating aversion felt by many Iranians toward an unpopular government. Revulsion at the shah’s excesses and corruption, and his overt fawning toward the West; bitterness at his increasing authoritarianism and the violent tactics of his secret police; and anger at his aggressive interference in the Iranian economy and judiciary are a few of the reasons for Ebadi’s disdain for the monarchy. Thus, in the summer of 1978, when the “mood had turned thoroughly vicious”—Khomeini rained invective down on the shah from exile, clerics led the call for religious revolution, and leftist intellectuals joined forces against the government—Ebadi found herself, “quite naturally,” drawn to the opposition voices. After all, she writes, “Whom did I have more in common with, in the end: An opposition led by mullahs who spoke in the 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?”
Soon she began to lend the cause her support—support that, coming from a respected female in the government, was especially welcomed by the revolutionary movement. In tones perhaps more reminiscent of a charity fundraiser than a religious coup, she explains that “as the days went by, the fervor touched everyone around me, and we all looked for ways to participate.” Her participation included an attempt by members of her court to oust the minister of justice, as per Khomeini’s instruction. A senior judge, seeing her among the pack, demands, “You of all people, why are you here? Don’t you know that you’re supporting people who will take your job away if they come to power?” To which she replies, in one of the book’s more ironic moments, “I’d rather be a free Iranian than an enslaved attorney.”
In the end, it turned out, even “enslaved attorney” was a rank too high for a woman in post-revolution Iran. Within months of Khomeini’s assumption of power, the new regime imposed an Islamic penal code, which, Ebadi explains, “turned the clock back fourteen hundred years, to the early days of Islam’s spread, the days when stoning women for adultery” was considered an appropriate punishment. According to the new laws, the value of a woman’s life and of her testimony in court was half that of a man, and a woman had to receive her husband’s permission for a divorce. Moreover, women were “enjoined” to demonstrate their fidelity to the revolution by wearing headscarves and modest dress; inadequate compliance came at the risk of arrest or worse by roaming bands of Islamic vigilantes. Not surprisingly, women were also banned from all managerial and executive jobs. Thus did a revolution that mobilized a caste of traditional women for its rise to power cement its authority through their marginalization, leaving them with nothing but, in Ebadi’s words, “a visceral consciousness of their oppression.”
Ebadi hopes this consciousness will change Iran in the long run, and time may yet prove her right. But as the outcomes of her many high-profile cases make clear, the path to reform is a far longer and bumpier one than she seems willing to concede.

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