Women, Democracy and Islam: A Nobel Laureate's Views on Human Rights

By Le Huy Quoc-Benjamin, Nguyen Tang | UN Chronicle, December 2004 | Go to article overview
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Women, Democracy and Islam: A Nobel Laureate's Views on Human Rights

Le Huy Quoc-Benjamin, Nguyen Tang, UN Chronicle

"I am here not as a representative of any government nor any political party, but as a defendant and a lawyer of human rights, defending the people who have devoted their life to human rights", 2003 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Shirin Ebadi said as she began her lecture on the human rights connection to peace and social development (see UN Chronicle Issue 1, 2004). Her presentation on "Women, Democracy and Islam" in June 2004 at UN Headquarters in New York was sponsored by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

Mrs. Ebadi began her career as a judge in Tehran. Since 1979, she has worked as a defense lawyer for political dissidents and taught at Tehran University's College of Law. She has shown her independence, activism and advocacy as founder and leader of the Association for Support of Children's Rights in Iran, and through a series of publications, including "The Rights of the Child--A Study of Legal Aspects of Children's Rights in Iran", published with the support of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).

The accomplishments that Mrs. Ebadi has achieved have come from her concern not only about her country, or solely the role of women in Islamic countries and the world, but also for universal human rights. Committed to protecting human rights, she feels they are the foundation for creating a more just and free world for all.

In her lecture, Mrs. Ebadi said that even though more than 55 years had passed since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the world was still not free from the scourge of war. Fear and insecurity, which have always been salient features of developing and totalitarian countries, had affected both developed and democratic societies. The tragedy of hunger, poverty and backwardness, manifested through lack of access to drinking water, health care and medicine, was still haunting a large part of the global population, of which over one sixth rely on a daily income of less than one dollar, she said.

International law concerning human rights, ranging from civil, political and economic to social and cultural rights, has been recognized yet its implementation has been less than stellar. She suggested that until human rights were universally recognized, and the entire world would understand that freedom and justice were inseparable, this impasse would not be broken. In her own words, "no one can reach social justice without freedom, and you cannot eliminate poverty, discrimination and social classification without freedom".

Mrs. Ebadi also reviewed the eight UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs): eradicate poverty and starvation; achieve universal primary education; promote gender equality and elevate the status of women; reduce child mortality rate; improve maternal health; fight devastating diseases such as HIV/AIDS and malaria; ensure environmental sustainability; and develop and expand global cooperation and partnership for development. She stressed that the reason that the goal of expanding global cooperation was last in the MDG list had to do with the fact that "the performance of the other goals depends on the fulfillment of this very goal".


The difference between developed and developing countries was striking, she said. According to a UNDP report, life expectancy in Japan was 81.3 years, but in Sierra Leone, it was only 34.5 years. Some 82 per cent of the Ugandan population had a daily income of less than $1; in Angola, only 154 of 1,000 children born would survive the first two years. Mrs. Ebadi asked: "Honestly, how can one fill this deep gap without international cooperation?" There were other concerns, however, that needed to be taken into consideration when international cooperation was at play, especially when this cooperation was portrayed merely by granting loans and credits. As she explained, "granting loans [to countries whose governments are non-democratic] is equal to assistance to the dictator and opposition to the oppressed people".

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