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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Open Doors Open Minds

In the spring of 2000, Shirin Ebadi received several phone calls from confused journalists around the world, who told Ebadi that they had heard she was in prison. Ebadi explains in her new memoir that the Iranian government sent press releases of their arrests to the West before the the arrests took place so that the western media outlets could file the story on deadline. Ebadi was well aware of her eminent arrest because she had been reading wild accusations against herself every day in the paper.

“If the headlines fall below the fold or appear intermittently,” writes Ebadi, “the handcuffs are a good two or three weeks away. If the libel against you is making the front page every day, if the fury has become palpable in the top headlines, you know you should pack your overnight bag.”

Ebadi received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 for her work promoting justice for women and children in Iran and around the world. She will speak to promote her new book, Iran Awakening: A Memoir of Revolution and Hope, this Tuesday.

I had the opportunity to speak to Ebadi via her Farsi interpreter, Shirin Ershadi. Ebadi is a devout Muslim with a studied knowledge of the Koran, a fact that eludes some of her vehement critics. “People don’t understand Islam, and interpret it as a violent religion,” Ebadi said, “Islam is not violent. In the Koran it is emphasized that one must forgive.”

When asked if she minded continuously defending her religion, she responded, “No, not at all. That gives me power. It’s most important that Islam is understood.”

Ebadi said that the most important step for Iran to take towards democracy is to hold free elections. Right now, candidates must pass a competency test administered by the Guardian Council. “This is the first law that must be repealed,” Ebadi said.

Ebadi had advice for America too, “The U.S. is a very important superpower,” she said, “The best policy is to ratify international conventions and encourage other countries to accede as well.”

Ebadi has a Persian story that she likes to repeat. She repeated this fable to Michelle Goldberg in her May 15, 2006 interview, “God was sitting in seventh heaven, and truth was like a mirror in the hands of God. This mirror fell from seventh heaven to earth, and it was shattered into little pieces, and every piece went into a house. All people got a little piece. So everybody has a piece of the truth. Therefore, you have as much truth and rights as I do.”

Reem Zaen, President of the Muslim Student Association at Umass Boston said that she thinks Ebadi’s accomplishments go “against typical Western stereotypes of Muslim women.” Zaen said that Ebadi is evidence of “the fact that a Muslim woman can do anything.”

Ebadi and her friend USC professor Muhammad Sahimi wrote an eloquent editorial in the January 19 issue of the Los Angeles Times this year, about the Iranian nuclear question, titled, “Defusing Iran with Democracy.”

“Iran’s nuclear program began accelerating around 1997 when the reform-minded Mohammad Khatami was elected president — just as Iran was developing an independent press, and just before a reformist parliament was elected in 2000. The reformists supported the nuclear program but wanted it to be fully transparent and in compliance with Iran’s international obligations. These were reassuring signs that it would not get out of control.

“But instead of backing Iran’s fledgling democratic movement, which would have led to nuclear transparency, the U.S. undercut it by demonizing Iran.

“While Khatami proposed people-to-people dialogue between Americans and Iranians, Washington chose to block Iranian scholars, artists and authors from visiting the U.S. Although Khatami helped the U.S. in Afghanistan, President Bush designated Iran a member of the ‘axis of evil.'”

Ebadi wants to tell the world, “65 percent of Iran’s university students and 43 percent of its salaried workers are women.” By unearthing the injustices in the world, Ebadi discovered that she could make a difference.

“I learned very quickly that one of the most powerful tools at the disposal of the legally powerless was the media.”

The story of Ebadi’s life is painted personally and honestly, and bears remarkable similarities to George Orwell’s novel 1984.

When Ebadi wanted to write her memoir in the United States, Wendy Strothman, the person she chose as her literary agent, informed her that they would be restricted from working together by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. The OFAC regulated all editorial and business contact with embargoed nations. I am ethically obliged to inform our readers that Shirin Ebadi’s literary agent is my mother.

Ebadi and Strothman worked together with the help of a Chicago Law firm that worked pro bono to argue their case to the Treasury Department. The OFAC’s regulation had restricted scholars and scientists from Cuba and Iran, but the issue did not gain national exposure until Shirin Ebadi, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate was restricted from publishing her book in the U.S.

“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 U.S. government, the self-proclaimed protector of a free way of life, would seek to regulate what Americans could or could not read, a practice that is called censorship when enacted by authoritarian regimes,” Ebadi writes in her epilogue.

Because of her celebrity, Ebadi could have easily received special treatment from the Treasury Department, but her sense of justice would not allow her to rise above the ranks of those who have been wronged. The team fought the legality of the OFAC regulation. Due to the uproar raised by the media, the Treasury Department conceded, and the regulation was repealed.

Ebadi’s reputation as a critic of Iran’s Islamic State and patriarchy, means that she receives a plethora of hate mail. While researching a death squad execution, Ebadi discovered that she was on a hit list and was ‘next’.

When Ebadi is adamant, which is often, she will point her finger in a gesture of absolute resolve. Her unrelenting pursuit of justice has won her admirers and brought much needed attention to her fight.

Ebadi was born in Hamedan, Iran, and was raised in Tehran. The life changing moment of Ebadi’s early life was when the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran, Mohhamad Mossadegh, was deposed by Kermit Roosevelt, the grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt, at the head of a CIA led coup.

Mossadegh had nationalized Iran’s oil industry, and was a hero among his people, but a major source of irritation and anger to British and American oil barons. Ebadi writes, “With nearly a million dollars at his disposal, [Roosevelt] paid crowds in poor south Tehran to march in protest, and he bribed newspaper editors to run spurious headlines of swelling anit-Mossadegh discontent.” The jealous shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi rode this wave of manipulation to the seat of power.

Ebadi went to school in Tehran and became a judge at the age of 23. During her education, she enjoyed attending protests, and did so almost every day. The students would yell and shout for lower tuition, but the real target of the protests was the shah. The court system over which Ebadi presided was separate from the military court that dealt with the shah’s dissidents. Ebadi’s courtroom was fair, due to the fact that she was not allowed to handle the important political cases; she was far from the counterfeit trials and corruption of the military court.

In the late 1970’s the invectives of the exiled Ayatollah Khomeini were echoed throughout Iran. The people were fed up with the shah’s elitist rule, and they turned to the cleric Khomeini. Ebadi became swept up in the excitement of the revolution. She believed in what Khomeini had to say, and mullahs had a widely known history of political involvement in Iran. Mosques were a safe haven for many to discuss grievances with the shah.

What Ebadi thought she had signed up for, which was freedom from the shah’s monarchy, was hijacked by a zealous theocracy. The new revolutionary government changed the climate of Iran. Shortly after the revolution, a group calling themselves Followers of the Path of the Imam Khomeini, rushed the U.S. embassy in Tehran and took hostages. The revolutionary government publicly praised the hostage-takers and their anti-American rhetoric, but secretly the government was dealing with America, exchanging arms for hostages in what became famously known as the “Iran-Contra Affair”.

The revolutionaries, overzealous and contemptuous of women, shocked Ebadi and her friends. The new regime was more oppressive than the shah had ever been. Ebadi, six months pregnant, was stripped of her position as a judge.

In 1992, Iran made a bid to catch up economically with the rest of the world, the Iranian theocracy repealed some of the restrictions they had imposed. Ebadi was allowed once more to practice law. She began working for pay but became so disenchanted with the corruption of the courts that she decided to work exclusively pro bono for political cases, and the protection of 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,” Ebadi writes.

“I was fighting on their battlefield. And I could not simply pull out a copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and wave it in the faces of clerics who found seventh-century penal practice instructive.”

Unlike many of her friends, Ebadi chose to stay in Iran during the terror of the Iran-Iraq War. She watched the news in horror, seeing the reports of Saddam Hussein using deadly mustard gas on Iranian troops. She learned that the U.S. had provided detailed satellite maps of Iranian troop movements to Hussein. Ebadi learned what it means to lose loved ones and to have her protests and rights stifled.

Shirin Ebadi will speak through her interpreter on Tuesday, May 23, 2006, at 6:30pm. The discussion will be held at First Parish Church Meetinghouse, on the corner of Mass Ave and Church St., Cambridge. Tickets are $3, and can be purchased at Harvard Bookstore, 1256 Mass Ave, Cambridge; or by calling 617.661.1515.