Shirin Ebadi, Women's Studies Classes Examine Patriarchy, Social Inequality

Students from Hamilton’s Women’s Studies classes were invited to attend a question and answer session with 2003 Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi before her Great Names Series lecture on April 24.

Ebadi, who has the dual distinction of being both the first Muslim woman and the first Iranian citizen to receive a Nobel Prize, began the question and answer session by saying that she was, “glad to see male faces in women’s studies classes. Women’s rights does not only pertain to women…Sometimes it is understood, though it is mistaken, that when we talk about women’s rights…we want to take the rights of men.”

Instead, according to Ebadi, there are in fact more than enough rights to go around, it is simply that the patriarchal culture, which permeates all societies, prevents their free and equal distribution. She went on to assert that women’s rights and democracy go hand in hand—if there is no basis for equality between human beings, there can be no equality in political systems either.

Expanding on her theory of patriarchy, Ebadi said that contrary to popular belief, women can also propagate and sustain patriarchal culture. She described patriarchal culture as “hemophilia,” a disease that is transferred from mothers to their sons. Furthermore, according to Ebadi, patriarchal culture “uses everything to justify itself…for example, religion.” It is because only men have been able to interpret and create legal and religious texts for so long that these institutions have been sources of women’s oppression. For these reasons, Ebadi stated that it is crucial to educate women about how patriarchal culture unfairly disadvantages and oppresses them, and then teach and encourage women to fight against it. This belief has formed the basis of Ebadi’s life’s work as a human rights lawyer and women’s and children’s rights activist.

After briefly discussing her work, and her theories of patriarchy and social inequality, Ebadi took questions. One of the dominant themes that came out was that, contrary to popular belief, Iranian women are not passive in their oppression. Instead, there is a vibrant feminist movement in Iran, fighting against the repressive, patriarchal legal, religious, and political reforms that took place after the 1979 Iranian revolution.

That is not to say that just because the Iranian feminist movement if flourishing and, in some instances such as child custody reform, quite effective, that participating in the movement is without its risks. Indeed, according to Ebadi, there are currently 30 feminist women in prison for fighting for equal rights—their imprisonment is justified by the false accusation of their having threatened national security. Ebadi herself has spent time in prison and had her life threatened on several occasions because of her activism.

The second major theme that emerged was that it is not religion, Islam specifically, that is inherently patriarchal and oppressive. Rather it is the male-dominated interpretation of religious texts to justify the subjugation of women that is oppressive. In order to remedy this issue, Ebadi calls women to create a woman-centered interpretation of religious texts that does not necessitate or justify their continued subordination.

Professor Lolita Buckner-Inniss asked whether or not, considering that the United States legal system still has problematic laws regarding women’s rights, the Iranian women’s movement would want to use it as a model for their own reforms. This is a view that many people in the United States, from “missionary feminists to war hawks” seem to take for granted—that women in Iran would greatly benefit from our legal system and jump at the chance to emancipate themselves by adopting it.

In answering, Ebadi stated that no set of laws works for all people in all situations, rather:  “laws are like coats, they have to fit the people who wear them… [and while]…there are principles that have to be shared all over…the principles that are shared all over are not only American principles, they are human rights principles…[but] they have to be able to adapt to different nations.”

Instead of blindly adopting United States laws and social customs—which would be in itself a new form of oppression—Iranian women want and need to create for themselves a human rights centered legal system that best suits their needs and goals.

Ebadi’s discussion and responses shattered commonly held beliefs of “missionary feminists” and war hawks alike about Iran, Islam and Iranian women. That is that Iranian women are passive victims incapable of fighting against their own oppression, that Islam is an inherently patriarchal and violent religion, and that “West is (uniformly) best.”

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