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.

Leila Fathi, an eleven-year-old from an impoverished village in rural Iran, was brutally raped and murdered by three men in 1996. Although a court found the men guilty and sentenced them to death, the judge ruled that the “blood money” for two of the men was worth more than the life of the murdered girl. He thus demanded that her family come up with thousands of dollars to finance her killers’ execution. Driven to homelessness in their pursuit of the necessary funds, the family came to the attention of Ebadi, who constructed “a simple, elegant defense” that drew on principles and precedents in Islamic law: “It was unjust for a girl to be raped and killed, and for her family to have lost every possession and become homeless through the legal proceedings that followed; it was unjust that the victims were now being victimized further by the law.” The outcome? Ebadi was chastised for criticizing Islamic law; the court acquitted the defendants; and Leila’s parents slowly descended into madness.
Then there is the notorious case of Iranian-Canadian photographer Zahra (Ziba) Kazemi, arrested by the government in 2003 in the wake of the student protests at Tehran University. Her crime? Photographing families outside Evin Prison awaiting word of their missing loved ones. Four days after her incarceration, Ziba was admitted to a Tehran hospital in critical condition; only a week later did her relatives learn that she was no longer in custody, but rather in a lethal coma, the result of a savage beating. By representing Ziba’s family, Ebadi writes, she hoped to expose the casual violence rampant in Iranian prisons. Yet despite Ebadi’s efforts—and those of the Canadian government—to hold the regime accountable for Ziba’s brutal murder, the case was dismissed.
In these and other cases, such as that of the famous “serial murders”— the brutal killings of dissident intellectuals Dariush and Parvaneh Forouhar and two leftist writers, to which the regime publicly owned up—nothing remotely resembling justice was meted out. Indeed, although these cases frequently became public issues within Iran—candidates from Leila’s province even ran on platforms that took positions on her case—and the judges knew “that both [they] and the judiciary would be forced to justify their decision in the court of public opinion,” often, Ebadi is forced to admit, “they simply did not care.”
Of course, in the face of a violent and intransigent regime, it would be absurd to expect much of Ebadi’s attempts to take on the system. Even her largely ineffectual pursuit of justice has nearly cost her life: When investigating government documents pertaining to a murder case, she discovered that her own name had been next on the regime’s hitlist. Nor is this to say that her work has been for naught; quite the contrary. By casting light on things the regime would rather keep in the shadows, Ebadi’s work, and the attention it has garnered, may be credited with lending the reformists increased international support—even if these efforts often come to little good at home. Furthermore, as Ebadi reminds herself in the dark moments when injustice prevails, “raising people’s awareness of their rights was itself a contribution.”
Nonetheless, it is hard not to come away from Iran Awakening with the sense that Ebadi is too quick to see a silver lining, and too determined not to dwell on the cold reality of the Islamic legal system. We see this, for example, when she expresses profound disappointment that the regime’s subversion of her investigation into a murder case had dashed hopes for a “new era of state accountability.” “Powerful, shadowy hardliners in the Islamic Republic,” she laments, “seemed disinclined to fight their battles through the political process”an understatement ad absurdum. This is also evident in the description of her preparations for Zahra Kazemi’s case:
By representing her family, I wanted to show the world what transpired in Iran’s prisons, and hopefully prevent such careless brutality from repeating itself. The court proceedings fell short of our expectations, and the judge later said it was impossible to identity the official who had struck the fatal blow to Ziba. But that day, her mother and I focused on our legal strategy. She had brought me Shirazi lemons, and their scent wafted through the office, the same way the orange blossoms of Shiraz perfume the air in spring.
One feels, when reading passages such as these, that Ebadi is fearful of allowing the facts to speak for themselves—that is, of depicting a regime so vicious and single-minded in its determination to concentrate its power that it is beyond the sway of appeals to a reformist, tolerant brand of Islam. These perplexing acts of restraint, often disguised as unflagging optimism, may be explained by necessity: Were she too harsh in her criticism of the regime, or seen as suggesting that Islamic law is inherently incompatible with the rights of women, she would most certainly not be permitted to continue living and working in Iran, let alone publish her memoir in English. Yet, this attitude might in fact stem from a different source, one that is much more disturbing.
This brings us to the more troubling aspect of Ebadi’s memoir: Her belief that the revolution was not a great misstep for Iran, and that Khomeini was no worse for Iran than the shah.
To make her case for this difficult-to-defend position, Ebadi frequently resorts to sentimentalism, writing, for example, of the shah’s flight from Iran that “when he fled, he ended two millennia of rule by Persian kings. People filled the street, celebrating…. We felt as though we had reclaimed a dignity that, until recently, many of us had not even realized we had lost.” Then there are the specious comparisons between the two rulers: When she mentions the shah’s efforts to emancipate Iranian women by (among other things) banishing the veil, she states that, “Reza Shah was the first, but not the last, Iranian ruler to act out a political agenda—secular modernization, shrinking the clergy’s influence—on the frontier of women’s bodies”—as if an equivalence can be drawn between the shah’s action and the regime’s imposition of a rigid, full-body dress code for women. Notably, Ebadi also uses this method when discussing the United States government in the book’s conclusion, a government about which she has not one kind word to say. When, for instance, she describes American sanctions that complicated her efforts to publish her memoirs in the United States, she writes that “in Iran, the Islamic system censors books, casts up Internet firewalls, and bans satellite television in an effort to prevent Iranians from accessing information from the outside world. It seemed incomprehensible to me that the United States government, the self-proclaimed protector of a free way of life, would seek to regulate what Americans could or could not read…. What was the difference between the censorship in Iran and this censorship in the United States?” Of course, the American government’s willingness to revise its regulations—indeed, the fact that it might have been forced to by a federal-court decision ruling it unconstitutional—reveals the preposterousness of Ebadi’s comparison.
Most troubling, though, are Ebadi’s romantic descriptions of the revolution itself, which frequently reach toward the sublime. For instance, when recalling Khomeini’s “ingenious” instruction to the Iranian people, in the months following the shah’s flight, to stand on their rooftops every night at an appointed hour and scream Allaho akbar, Ebadi writes:
Each evening, my husband and I climbed the stairs to our roof and dutifully bellowed Allaho akbar for a full half hour, until we were hoarse. I remember gazing out across the rooftops of the city, people milling atop the low-rise buildings for as far as the eye could see, turning their heads to the night sky so their voices could rise. The gorgeous, hymnal air of these lofted cries hung over the stilled city, so spiritually enchanting that even my stolid, cynical friends were moved.
These are not the words of a repentant revolutionary; rather, they are those of someone who believes that the revolution had merely “veered off course, [and] lost sight of its ideal of freedom and independence.” Ebadi not only refuses to admit that her support for the revolution was misguided, she even sounds distinctly condescending when describing the appeal of the reform-minded candidate Khatami to a populace desperate for an alternative to the regime she helped put in place:
His landslide victory, a staggering 70 percent of the vote, amounted to an unequivocal popular mandate for change. But the dreamy expectations in line around me on election day unsettled me. People didn’t seem to want reform so much as a whole new Iran, and in four years, please, thank you very much. People wanted all the laws that discriminated against women to be wiped from the books…. The longing and expectation ran so deep that, frankly, I was frightened.
People’s yearnings have overtaken their realism, I thought.
What is it, exactly, that Ebadi yearns for? Not, clearly, “a whole new Iran,” but rather one that, having merely lost its way, remains to be put on the right course. But in this, it seems, her own yearnings have overtaken her realism. With Ahmadinejad’s victory in 2005, the conservatives consolidated their control over every branch of government. Even those mild advances the women’s rights movement had made during Khatami’s presidency have been rolled back; so, too, has the regime used the fear of an American attack as a pretext for increased and intensified abuses against women. Meanwhile, the reformists are scattered, unable to agree on a strategy. Should they reform the regime from within? Or raze the Islamic republic, and let a new Iran arise from its ashes? If democracy and human rights are indeed to prevail in Iran, it will likely not be on account of Ebadi and those among her generation of reformists who insist that the “revolution had been betrayed.” Rather, we must look to the younger generation, who owe no debt of loyalty to the past, and are plagued by no such divided loyalties in their quest for a better future.

Marla Braverman is an Assistant Editor of Azure.

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