A Tough Place to Be a Woman with a Cause

Article excerpt

She is accused by some hard-line ayatollahs of trying single- handedly to undermine Iran's Islamic revolution. Petite and soft- spoken, she looks no match for her bearded detractors. But Shirin Ebadi is made of steel.

"Any person who pursues human rights in Iran must live with fear from birth to death, but I have learned to overcome my fear," she says.

Ms. Ebadi was Iran's first woman judge before the revolution, after which the ayatollahs decided women were too emotional and irrational to hold such posts. She now lectures in law at Tehran University, is a vocal campaigner for women's and children's rights, and takes on cases other lawyers would never dare touch.

And she is an unofficial spokeswoman for Iranian women, who played a key role in the May 1997 landslide presidential election of the reformist Mohamad Khatami and have since been striving for a more active role in public life.

Iranian women, in fact, already have some impressive accomplishments to their credit. With 14 women in Iran's 270-seat parliament, they enjoy better representation than their sisters in the US Senate. More Iranian women than men have passed university entrance exams in recent years. They are snapping up jobs that were once exclusively male, such as bus driving.

And earlier this month, Iran announced plans to revise the way women are portrayed in primary-school textbooks. The education minister, Hussein Mozafar, regretted the "lack of enough knowledge of women's capabilities."

Where women still see inequities

Although Iranian women can enter most professions, they say a glass ceiling makes it difficult to reach senior positions. But their greatest complaint is the legal system, which remains heavily loaded against them. A blatant inequality, for instance, is the law of "blood money" paid by a murderer to the victim's family in return for the family waiving its right to insist on the death penalty. Blood money for a woman is set at only half that for a man.

Family law is another area where activists have called for reform. Because of campaigners like Ebadi, however, a husband can no longer automatically obtain a divorce without paying hefty alimony. But women often waive their right to alimony solely to keep their children. Even so, women are allowed to keep boys only until the age of 2 and girls until 7.

On Ebadi's wall in her office in central Tehran is a certificate of congratulations from the Washington-based Human Rights Watch, "proudly honoring Shirin Ebadi for her courageous dedication to the preservation of fundamental freedoms through her service as a human rights monitor." In addition, a small Statue of Liberty stands on her desk.

But she bristles at claims by hard-liners that her work is providing ammunition for the "Global Arrogance," America. "I'm an Iranian, I'm proud to be Iranian, and I'll live in my country as long as I can."

Still, Ayatollah Mohammed Yazdi, until recently the head of the judiciary, indirectly blamed her for instigating July's unrest - five days of student demonstrations provoked by a dormitory raid at Tehran University. People like her, he thundered in a Friday prayers sermon that was broadcast on national television, had been filling young people's heads with nonsense.

Undaunted, Ebadi continues to speak out. "We still don't know who the rioters really were," she says. "They are trying to say the whole thing was the responsibility of a few people. …