International Woman of the Year and well-known Iranian human rights activist Mehrangiz Kar talks to 300 at UCLA about her colleague, Shirin Ebadi, winner of the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize.
[Internationally known Iranian author, attorney and human rights activist Mehrangiz Kar addressed a remarkable meeting of more than 300 in Dodd Hall at UCLA November 24 on her famous colleague, 2003 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi. The audience was overwhelmingly Iranian exiles from the large community known as Irangeles in the Southern California area. More unusual and a sign of the success in the university's outreach into the Iranian community, Ms. Kar delivered her address in Persian and the question period was also conducted in Persian with some English translation. Below we present highlights of the meeting. First is a part of the introduction of Mehrangiz Kar by Professor Leonard Binder (Political Science), acting interim director of UCLA's Gustav E. von Grunebaum Center for Near Eastern Studies. This is followed by Mehrangiz Kar's initial remarks that she delivered in English, and a full English translation of the address that she delivered in Persian.
[The meeting was sponsored by Center for Near Eastern Studies, the Iranian Studies Program, and the Center for the Study of Women, all of UCLA, and the Institute of Globalization, Gender and Democracy and the Department of Women's Studies, both of the California State University at Northridge.
[Brief remarks were also given by Nikki Keddie, professor emerita of Iranian and Middle Eastern History, UCLA. Nayereh Tohidi, associate professor of Women's Studies at California State University, Northridge, read the English version of Mehrangiz Kar's address and served as chair and translator for the question period.]
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Introduction by Leonard Binder
The development of Iranian politics has been closely watched since the revolution. But it is only in the last five or six years that we have been able to make sense of what has been going on. If we have been able to improve our understanding, it has been due to the possibility of entering into a dialogue with Iranian scholars, activists, and intellectuals, several of whom have attracted international attention. We are extremely fortunate this evening to have with us one of the most outstanding of these personalities. A legal scholar, a human rights activist, and a prolific author. Mehrangiz Kar is an attorney, writer, and activist working toward the promotion of democracy, the rule of law, and human rights within the framework of the Islamic legal system of the Islamic Republic of Iran as it has developed since the revolution in 1979. Despite the fact that her works and efforts have been frequently impeded and curtailed by the intelligence services of the Islamic Republic, she has been active as a public defender in Iran's civil and criminal courts and has published regularly in several influential and independent Iranian journals. Banned from making public appearances within her country, whether at conferences or on the radio and television, Ms. Kar has used international forums as a platform for voicing her opinions and advocating adherence to the democratic political, legal, constitutional and human rights of the Iranian people.
In April 2000, following her participation in a symposium in Berlin, she was arrested and imprisoned on charges of acting against the national security of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Three of the five charges against her are pending, for which she may be arrested upon her return. From October 2001 to the present Mehrangiz Kar has been the Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow of the National Endowment for Democracy. She has been working on a project entitled "The Juridical Foundations of the Crisis of Democracy in Iran," a project that explores the theory and practice of law within the context of the Islamic Republic of Iran to assess the possibility of effecting changes from within the government and establish a democratic political system.
Mehrangiz has received many human rights awards. The one that I like best of all is the International Woman of the Year, an honor bestowed upon her by Italy and Canada in the year 2000. Kar has published 14 books and over 100 articles in newspapers and journals in Iran. The titles of these books include Women's Participation in Politics: Obstacles and Possibilities; The Legal Obstacles Against Political Development in Iran; Violence Against Women in Iran; Legal Structure of the Family System in Iran.
This evening Mehrangiz Kar will speak to us on the significance of the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to her colleague Shirin Ebadi and the struggle for human and women's rights in Iran and the world. She will speak in Farsi, after which we will hear a brief summary of her remarks in English.
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Introductory Remarks by Mehrangiz Kar, Given in English
Tonight I would like to talk about the role, the finishing, and the characteristics of a typical political activist in Iran. The reason I chose to discuss this topic is that Shirin Ebadi, the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, is an activist, among other things. I would rather give her my talk in Persian considering that the majority of people in the audience speak Persian. The English translation of my talk is available here for those interested in reading it, and I have also asked Professor Tohidi to read it following my talk.
But before that I am interested to talk about Shirin Ebadi. A very short story in English. Shirin Ebadi is a brave activist. She tried her best to play a very important role, to open and promote the human rights discussion after the Islamic revolution in Iran. She became a human rights activist before reform in Iran, so she is not related to the reform movement only. She was an activist before reform in Iran.
Before the revolution Iranian women had the right to become judges. Shirin was a very successful judge. After the revolution, female judges were removed from their jobs. Shirin was one of them. After that all women judges got angry and depressed. Shirin used this as an opportunity to redefine herself. She started to criticize the legal system. As a first step she published a book about children's rights under Islamic law. In my opinion this book is her most important work. At the same time she established an organization to protect the rights of the child. It was a turning point in her career, because now she was working both at the theoretical level with her writing and the practical level with her NGO, and advocating for children's rights.
After a few years she got her license to practice law. At this point she started to defend people charged with political crimes and she has continued to this day her work on the theoretical and practical level, which is rare in Iran.
Shirin is a special person. But in reality she is a symbol for many special people who worked to further human rights in Iran after 1979. In my opinion the international community has with this award changed, to recognize the extraordinariness of activists in Iran. While I think Shirin is very deserving of this award, I think this was a political statement by the Nobel Committee, with a message encouraging the Iranian government to stop women's rights abuses in the name of Islam, and another message to the Iranian people that the international community is aware of their struggle and their ability to address political challenges.
Shirin Ebadi is very brave. Because she never stops. What is significant about Shirin is her conscientiousness and her activity. But the people who admire Shirin should be worried for her life. Some parts of the hardliner groups are very violent. They don't like to see a woman the center of news. I pray for her life and I ask you to pray for her life.
The reason why Shirin was jailed was because she continued to push hardliners in association with one of her political cases without regard to threats against her. Of course she was released after 20 days, mostly because of pressure from reformists and the international community and the Bar Association in Iran.
She is a practicing Muslim. She prays. She fasts. But at the same time she belongs to a school of thought that believes in the interpretation that Islam and human rights do not conflict.
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The Nobel Peace Prize for Shirin Ebadi and the Struggle for Human and Women's Rights in Iran and the World
(English translation of address given in Persian by Mehrangiz Kar)
The terms "activist," "advocate" or similar expressions are relatively new in the political lexicon of Iran. The Nobel Committee awarding the peace prize to an Iranian woman human rights activist is a tribute to the activists' indefatigable quest for Human Rights in Iran. Shirin Ebadi is an outstanding example of the vigorous and influential community of activists.
The 1979 revolution provided ample opportunity for the members of the small but growing community of activists to experience the bitter and the sweet consequences of a revolutionary change. Consequently, they became acutely aware of the political intricacies of revolutionary transformations and developed into the most trusted voice on social issues. Foreign correspondents appreciated the value of their independence to the extent that they carried a list of the names of social activists to be interviewed. In contrast to the earlier violent image of Iran, the transmission of interviews and commentaries of social activists have introduced the world to the tolerant, peaceful, and patient characters in Iran of today.
To offer a more accurate picture of the social activists in the cultural and political arena in Iran, I shall briefly discuss some fundamental characteristics intrinsic to the Iranian social activists:
1. Despite the security threats, the Iranian social activist slowly but surely has continued their struggle for human rights.
2. The Iranian social activist in every field of their expertise has struggled for democracy, human rights, women's rights, and freedom of expression. In this endeavor the expansion of the artistic field has occupied a prominent place.
3. The Iranian social activist has witnessed the blood baths of the earlier years of the revolution, therefore rejects any violent response against the regime. But concomitantly exposes the state's abuse of power and defends the rights of the victims of government-sponsored violence.
4. From the second decade of the revolution to the present, the Iranian activist has attempted to draw on the positive aspects of the existing laws to defend freedom and democracy. In this respect they have used the law as a shield against the enemies of freedom.
5. The Iranian activist has held the Iranian authorities accountable to the full application of the Human Rights Charter.
6. The Iranian activist has transformed the political language of postrevolutionary Iran from the language of belligerence and violence to the language of moderation and tolerance. Such transformation is evident in the press coverage of the activists' statements.
7. Although the Iranian activist is committed to their political ideals, they have rejected ideological dogmas in favor of pragmatism. For a while, this strategy protected them against the dangers of security agencies' wrath and guaranteed their longevity in the political and cultural arena.
8. The Iranian activist has shunned emotional response to state sponsored violence. In the absence of strong societal institutions to support mass movements, Iranian activists have avoided provoking people into political actions that could result in swift suppression by the security forces.
9. Despite the careful precautions the Iranian activist could not avoid danger for long. The security apparatus evaluated the long term challenge of social activism as detrimental to its existence and decided to physically eliminate the vocal dissidents; hence the application of the infamous "chain murder project." Chain murders refer to the brutal murder of numbers of prominent secular intellectuals and activists.
10. In short, the main challenge of Iranian activists has been survival. They have strived to claim their mere presence in the political, cultural, and social fields. Unfortunately the state has not tolerated such a modest ambition. In the past two years many prominent activists have been either jailed or forced to exile. Under tremendous pressure they increasingly feel isolated, despondent, and insecure.
Under such gloomy conditions the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to an Iranian activist. Once again the name of Iran and its political situation has caught the attention of the world. The prize has prompted the international media to ask the pertinent question -- who is Shirin Ebadi? And what are the consequences of this award for the Iranian people? To answer these questions one must be reminded of the political situation in postrevolutionary Iran.
From the early days of the revolution, many Iranians became disenchanted with the apparent contradiction between revolutionary ideals and brutal reality. Many revolutionaries and radicals militated against the reactionary structure of the new constitution. They aimed at eradicating the forces of reaction with revolutionary zeal and speed. But the judiciary, utilizing the defense of Islam as a justification, promptly suppressed the opposition. The eight-year war with Iraq provided the regime with the perfect excuse to increase the level of violence that led to the horrific mass executions of the political prisoners.
The end of the war ushered in a new political atmosphere characterized by limited opening in the cultural sphere. The government granted permission for the publication of a few independent journals, which signaled the beginning of a new era. The journals Adineh, Gardun, Donya-e Sokhan symbolized the new openness. During the same period the judiciary as the sword of the revolution against the secular legal experts softened its position in regards to legal representation. For the first time in years attorneys were allowed to represent their clients.
At this political juncture the Iranian activist whom I referred to earlier was born. The earlier "radical" or "militant" stances were abandoned in favor of political activism and advocacy. Although in the postwar era, the situation had somewhat improved, but the security forces still showed zero tolerance for radical politics. Islamic judges facilitated the security concerns by labeling the opponents of the regime as "corrupter of the earth" or "apostate," charges punishable by summary executions. Undeterred, activists continued their struggle for greater freedom. The new breed of activists concentrated its efforts on socio-cultural issues. The activists relentlessly pursued issues relating to women's rights and human rights, in films, journals, and books. Themes relating to the plight of women and abuse of human rights occupied a prominent place in movies and articles. The activists searched for laws and regulations that would allow them leeway in expressing their views without serious repercussion. They ingeniously became masters in the art of negotiation with the censorship authorities. Within the framework of the existing laws and with all the limitations imposed on them, the new activists maneuvered to spread their ideas. The activists by sheer perseverance and tenacity reminded many of the disillusioned Iranians of the suppressed ideals of the revolution. All these activities started before the election of the reformist president Khatami. Therefore, I dare to say that the "Iranian activists" planted the seed of the reformist political discourse that has dominated the political debates in Iran.
At the height of the euphoria over the reformist election victory, numbers of activists and publications that espoused reformist views considerably proliferated. The reformist activists that enjoyed the support of a governmental faction assumed that they could press for freedom, democracy, and human rights without impunity. They were sadly mistaken; in the era of reform the activists realized that they had "freedom of expression but not freedom after the expression"! Nevertheless, they succeeded in providing information to the public starved for the alternative view on politics.
I would not go into details over the controversies surrounding the Berlin conference [held in August 2000 to discuss the future of reforms in Iran--ed.]. In short, the conference provided an opportune moment for the conservatives to strike back at the reformists. The judiciary has resorted to the old tactics of intimidation to subdue the nascent reformist movement. Massive closure of the reformist publications, arrest and imprisonment of reformists and activists, among other things have effectively demoralized the reformist supporters. Since the conservative onslaught the activists have endured agonizing pressure to continue their valuable work. I am afraid that the activists, with all the dedication and courage they have demonstrated, are collapsing under the pressure. Presently numbers of activists are in prisons or forced into exile. I believe and hope, that [awarding] the Nobel Prize to an Iranian woman activist who has courageously fought for human rights will revitalize the deteriorating human rights conditions in Iran.
I believe the award carries a double message, one to the Islamic Republic and the other to the Iranian people. On the one hand, the Nobel Committee warns the government to abide by the international human rights laws, and on the other hand, it declares that the international community supports the democratic aspirations of the Iranian people.
I hope both messages are understood properly!
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Note on Mehrangiz Kar
In May 2002 Mehrangiz Kar was awarded the prestigious Ludovic Trarieux International Human Rights Prize by the Human Rights Institute of the Bar of Bordeaux. Their website (http://www.idhbb.org/uk-page3.2.htm) says in part:
"Mehrangiz KAR, is a human rights lawyer, writer, essayist, and former editor of the now-banned Zan literary review. Her work as an activist for women's rights often put her in conflict with Iranian authorities. Kar has published widely on women's issues in Iran. Her publications include Children of Addiction: Social and Legal Position of the Children of Addicted Parents in Iran (1990); Quest for Identity: the Image of Iranian Women in Prehistory and History Vol.1 and 11, (Vol.1 1992, volume 11 compiled and ready for print), which she co-edited with Shahla Lahiji, Iran's first woman publisher; Angel of Justice and Patches of Hell, a collection of essays which look at the status and position of women in pre- and post-revolutionary Iran; Women in the Iranian Labor Market (1994); and Legal Structure of the Family System in Iran."
The Bordeaux attorneys also have a campaign to free Mehrangiz Kar's husband, who is 70 years old and is imprisoned in Iran:
"After she arrived in the United States, her husband, journalist Siamak Pourzand, aged 70, disappeared. He was brought to the phone a number of times to call Mehrangiz and their daughters Leila and Azadeh to pass on the message that they must refrain from speaking on his behalf and must avoid contact with the media. Realizing the more profound danger in submitting to censorship, Mehrangiz and her daughters decided to expose the situation and spoke freely with representatives of the media. Mehrangiz has appeared on PBS television, and has spoken on VOA, BBC, NPR, and numerous European radio networks in the hope that international pressure will help save her husband. Their many attempts to get information concerning Siamak's condition and the status of his case from various government entities and several human rights organizations in Iran has met with failure."
Mehrangiz Kar was named a "human rights hero" by Amnesty International in 2001.
Further information about her is also available on the international Pen website: http://www.pen.org/search/node/mehrangiz%20kar
Published: Thursday, December 11, 2003
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