10th OIC Summit should officially hail Shirin Ebadi as the first Muslim woman and Iranian Nobel Peace Laureate to underline its commitment to the thesis of the compatibility of Islam with democracy, human rights and women’s rights

Media Statement
by Lim Kit Siang

(PenangSaturday): DAP hails the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize award to Iranian democracy and human rights activist Shirin Ebadin.  The 10th Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) Summit in Putrajaya on Thursday should officially hail Shirin Ebadi as the third Muslim,  first Muslim woman and first Iranian Nobel Peace Laureate in the 102-year history of the award to underline its commitment to the thesis of the compatibility of Islam with democracy, human rights and women’s rights. 

An endorsement of the conferment of the 2003  Nobel Peace Prize to Shirin Ebadin by  the 10th OIC Summit in Malaysia, which is expected to be attended by 35 heads of state and government including Algeria, Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Pakistan and Sudan, will distinguish the 10th OIC Summit  from all previous OIC Summits and conferences in its  34-year-history, as it would give a  thrust to the hope expressed by the Norwegian Nobel Committee “that the prize will be an inspiration for all those who struggle for human rights and democracy in her country, in the Muslim world, and in all countries where the fight for human rights needs inspiration and support”. 

Ebadi, who had not known that she was one of the candidates for the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize, had paid a heavy price for her courageous advocacy for human rights in general and women’s rights in particular.  The first thing she did with her newfound fame at a media conference in Paris  where she was on a private visit was to call on the Iranian government to respect freedom of expression and for the release of  all political prisoners in Iran. 

Iran’s first woman judge in 1974, Ebadi lost that post in the Islamic Revolution five years later when Islamic clerics took over and decreed that women were too emotional and irrational to pass judgment in the courtroom. 

She turned her law practice into a base for rights campaigning, for political dissidents , women and children in Iran.  She provided assistance to pro-reform students who were prosecuted after six days of clashes in 1999 at Teheran University which left one person dead and dozens injured. She was denounced by hardliners in the Islamic theocracy  as an enemy of the system. 

In 2000, she was detained  for 25 days and banned from legal practice for five years in a suspended jail sentence when she represented  two liberal intellectuals who were stabbed to death in a series of killings in 1998 and was accused of distributing the video-taped confession of a hardline hooligan who claimed that prominent conservative leaders were instigating physical attacks on pro-reform gatherings and figures. 

Now a writer and part-time university lecturer, Ebadi has stepped up the campaign for women’s rights, arguing passionately that Sharia law could be adapted to modern times without undermining religion in the officially Shi’ite Islamic Republic, stressing that her struggle was against Iran’s patriarchy, not Islam. 

Among the gender injustices in Iran she has listed are: 

  • Women are legally half of a man. If a man and a woman were both injured in a car accident and they sued the person responsible, the woman could only get half the damages that the man could collect.
  • The family of a female murder victim receives about half the average compensation – also known as “blood money” – that is paid to a male victim’s relatives.
  • A woman needs her husband’s permission to work or travel abroad and a man’s court testimony is considered twice as important as a woman.
  • Iranian men can divorce almost at will, but a woman who wants to divorce must go through a legal battle that can take years and may end with her relinquishing her rights for a divorce.
  • Self-immolation by women is on the rise in Iran due to discrimination against women, particularly in rural areas.

If the trials and tribulations of the 1991 Nobel Peace Laureate Burmese Opposition Leader Aung San Suu Kyi are  any guide, Ebadi might be hailed around the world as a courageous champion of human rights and women’s rights within the Islamic tradition but she would not find her advocacy any easier whether in Iran or the Muslim world, as evident from the reactions of hardline Iranian clerics who dismissed the award as a "disgrace". 

Iran has been the  subject of at least six  Amnesty International bulletins in the past two months, ranging from the Guardian Council’s rejection of the Iranian Parliament proposal on August 12 to accede to to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW); its call to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei for an independent and impartial investigation into the suspicious death in custody of Zahra Kazemi, a Canadian-Iranian photojournalist; concern about the incommunicado detention and torture of prisoners of conscience; and the imminent risk of execution of  a woman, Afsaneh Nouroozi, after the death sentence against her was upheld by the Supreme Court. Alfanesh Nouroozi was convicted of killing the head of police intelligence in southern Iran, which she claimed was an act of  self-defence to protect herself from being raped. 

World organizations and leaders, like the United Nations, the European Community, the German Chancellor, had hailed Ebadi’s award.  Malaysia and the OIC should not lag behind in the  applause and  endorsement of  the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize Award.


* Lim Kit Siang, DAP National Chairman