The Magazine

Iran's First Lady

From the November 3, 2003 issue: Meet Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi, a voice for human rights in the Muslim world.

Nov 3, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 08 • By AMIR TAHERI
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I think the era of revolutions has ended. Also, there is no guarantee that another revolution would provide something better than the one we had 24 years ago. After years of reflection I have come to the conclusion that revolutions never deliver what they promise. What I am working for is a reform movement in all walks of life, political, social, cultural, and, of course, individual rights. Like me, the people of Iran are deeply disappointed with the Islamic Revolution. In the Islamic Revolution and the war with Iraq that followed, countless families lost their children and/or parents. The nation lost the flower of its youth. Also, millions of Iranians were forced into exile. The cost of this revolution will take generations to absorb. The only way out is through peaceful reform. Khatami is not the only proponent of reform. The failure of his administration is not the failure of the reform movement. In any case Khatami's second and final term will come to an end. But that will not mean the end of our people's aspirations.

In practical terms, how do you think change could come in Iran?

History is never written in advance. It is always full of surprises. Change could come through elections. What we need is an amended electoral law that allows citizens to vote for any candidate they wish. If the present system continues and the Council of the Guardians of the Constitution retains its power to fix the elections, the Iranian people are certain to massively boycott the next general election in March 2004, just as they did in the recent municipal elections.

Should the Islamic Republic be replaced with a secular regime?

There is some confusion here. What we have in Iran is not a religious regime, but a regime in which those in power use religion as a means of staying in power. If the present regime does not reform and evolve into one that reflects the will of the people, it is going to fail, even if it adopts a secularist posture. I support the separation of state and religion because the political space is open to countless views and interests. This position is actually supported by the grand ayatollahs. So it is in conformity with the Shiite tradition.

What would you say to those who say Islam is incompatible with human rights?

That they are wrong. It is true that human rights are violated in most Muslim countries. But this is a political, not a religious, reality. We have had all sorts of regimes in Muslim countries, including secularists, Marxists, and nationalists. They, too, violated human rights. If corrupt and brutal regimes oppress their people, in what way is this a sign of Islam's incompatibility with human rights? The Baathist regime in Iraq was supposedly secular. And in North Korea we do not have an Islamic regime.

So you believe that we should leave religion out of political discussions.

As individuals we are all affected by our religious beliefs or lack of them. That is a fact of life. What I am saying is that we should not allow anyone to impose his interpretation of religion on others by force, intimidation, or peer pressure. People should stop putting the adjective Islamic before or after every word so that they can interpret everything in the interest of their corruption and brutality. They talk of "Islamic" psychology so that they can claim that women are weak, unstable, and unfit to have a role in decision-making. They talk of "Islamic" economics so that they can justify the abuse of the nation's wealth. They talk of "Islamic" education so that they can justify their policy of brainwashing children and youths. They talk of "Islamic" philology so that they can twist language to suit their aims.

Some feminist circles have hailed you as one of their own. What is your reaction?

The problem that women face in Muslim societies is not because of religion. It is a result of the patriarchal culture.

What we need is a gender-neutral reading of Islamic texts. The humiliation inflicted on women is the result of a diseased gene that is passed to every generation of men, not only by society as a whole but also by their mothers. It is mothers who raise boys who become men. It is up to mothers not to pass on that diseased cultural gene. I am not against men. I am against a patriarchal culture that denies equal rights for half of humankind.

There is some talk that you might lead a list of pro-democracy candidates in the next parliamentary election or even become a presidential candidate in 2005.

I am a human rights militant and a lawyer and have no other agenda. I can tell you that I have no plans to stand for election. The prize given to me shows that the method I have used in the past two decades has been the right one. I am the friend of the powerless, the voice of the voiceless. I must prove that I am worthy of the honor bestowed upon me.