Aug 10, 2009

Iran Awakening by Shirin Ebadi

Iran Awakening by Shirin Ebadi

Iran Awakening is Shirin Ebadi’s account of her life in Iran, and of her work as a lawyer and activist who specialized in children and women’s rights—and which earned her the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003.

Shirin Ebadi begins by telling us the story of her childhood – she was raised in a progressive family who never taught her that she was inferior because she was a woman – and of her days as a law student at the University of Tehran. The Islamic Revolution of 1979 happened ten years after she had begun her career as a judge, and though she initially supported it, she quickly realized how hostile the new government was towards women – as well as towards anyone who dared to oppose it. Wearing a head scarf became mandatory for women, and that was only the first sign of worse things to come.

Because she was a woman, Ebadi was eventually reassigned to a secretarial job, and soon after she requested early retirement. But in 1993, after it became legal for women to practise law again, she resumed her work and became a lawyer who only accepted pro-bono cases, most of them related to freedom of speech, political prisoners, human rights, and the legal status of women and children.

Due to recent events, I wanted to gain a better understanding of what has been happening in Iran, and I thought that learning its recent history would be a good first step. Specifically, I wanted to hear a voice from within Iran, so after Jenny reviewed this book I couldn’t resist ordering it. Of course, no one book can contain all the answers, especially not one as short as this one, but Iran Awakening did teach me a lot.

I really like Shirin Ebadi. I like the fact that she is living proof that Islam and democracy, Islam and feminism, are not incompatible; that a country’s government does not always speak for its citizens. This is pretty obvious, of course, but it’s still something that is sometimes forgotten.

In the following passage, Ebadi explains why her goal has always been to try to work within the system to improve human rights:
It so happened that I believed in the secular separation of religion and government because, fundamentally, Islam, like any religion, is subject to interpretation. It can be interpreted to oppress women or interpreted to liberate them. In an ideal world, I would choose not to be vulnerable to the caprice of interpretation, because the ambiguity of theological debates spirals back to the seventh century; there will never be a definitive resolution, as that is the nature and spirit of Islamic interpretation, a debate that will grow and evolve with the ages but never be resolved. I am a lawyer by training, and know only too well the permanent limitation of trying to enshrine inalienable rights to sources that lack fixed terms and definitions. But I am also a citizen of the Islamic Republic, and I know the futility of approaching the question any other way. (…) If I’m forced to ferret through musty books of Islamic jurisprudence and rely on sources that stress the egalitarian ethics of Islam, then so be it. Is it harder this way? Of course it is. But is there an alternative battlefield? Desperate wishing aside, I cannot see one.
I have to respect her choice, especially in the face of all the work she has done. And it’s only natural that someone who’s seen the consequences of violence from so close would try to avoid a violent uprising at all costs. There are quite a few terrifying passages in the book – descriptions of what happened to political prisoners, as well as of cases of child abuse.

There were two incidents that happened to Ebadi herself that really struck me: in the first one, she describes how out of fear of being imprisoned, she burned any left-wing literature she had on her shelves shortly after the revolution (a fear which was, I must add, very much well-grounded). She tells how her young daughter saw her burning books in their backyards, and she how she wondered how she could possibly explain this memory to her when she was old enough to understand it. In another episode, a forty-something year-old Shirin Ebadi is stopped when she was going on a skiing trip with her family, and because the men’s bus, where her husband was, had already departed, she had the police call her parents to ask them if she had permission to go skiing – an adult with two daughters of her own, being treated like a child simply because she was a woman.

Despite the fact that she very much doesn’t condone its government’s actions, Ebadi does love her country, its history and its people, and she doesn’t glorify the West. Hers was exactly the kind of perspective I was looking for. Like I said before, no one book can possibly tell the whole story, but Iran Awakening did give me a new understanding of things.

Notable passages:
It was not until I was much older that I realized how gender equality was impressed on me first and foremost at home, by example. It was only when I surveyed my own sense of place in the world from an adult perspective that I saw how my upbringing spared me from the low self-esteem and learned dependence that I observed in women reared in more traditional homes. My father’s championing of my independence, from the play yard to my later decision to become a judge, instilled a confidence in me that I never felt consciously, but later came to regard as my most valued inheritance.

For women, public space—from the produce stand to the park to the bus stop—became fraught with uncertainty. You simply did not know where, at what hour, and under what pretext you might be harassed, and often the confrontations with the komiteh turned alarming. After I was arrested myself once or twice for bad hejabi, or improper Islamic dress, I concluded there was little one could do for protection against a state that simply wished to impose a climate of fear. And that was the ultimate aim, I suspected, a fear so pervasive that it would keep a woman at home, the place where traditional Iranian men believed they should be.
(This passage reminded me of this panel from Persepolis – which as you can see I loved enough to take a bad quality picture of it when I couldn’t find it online.)
In the last twenty-three years, from the day I was stripped of my judgeship to the years doing battle in the revolutionary courts of Tehran, I had repeated one refrain: an interpretation of Islam that is in harmony with equality and democracy is an authentic expression of faith. It is not religion that binds women, but the selective dictates of those who wish them cloistered. That belief, along with the conviction that change in Iran must come peacefully and from within, has underpinned my work.
Other Opinions:
Jenny’s Books
Lotus Reads
The Novel World

(Did I miss yours?)


  1. Wow, this sounds like a powerful look at Iran and how people live in contemporary Iran.

  2. I really admire Shirin Ebadi's dedication and her passion for justice. She reminds me a lot of another woman I have looked up to: Aung San Suu Kyi. Their stories are different, but their underlying goal is the same.

  3. Have you read Reading Lolita in Tehran? Reading your review, I got huge deja vu flashbacks to that one. Azar Nafisi is a lot like Shirin Ebadi, except she was a professor instead of a lawyer. She was initial for the revolution but changed when she realized what it meant. She had to leave work and later tried to return. She fights for literature and womens' right to learn and read. She loves her country despite hating what it's doing to people.

    Reading Lolita was one of the best nonfiction books I've ever read. Now I'm sort of itching to reread it. :) It sounds like this book is every bit as powerful.

  4. This sounds like an amazing read and one that I will be checking out for sure. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on it!!

  5. I'm glad you enjoyed it! (Well, I don't know if "enjoyed" is the right word for a book about something this upsetting...)

    Despite the fact that she very much doesn’t condone its government’s actions, Ebadi does love her country, its history and its people, and she doesn’t glorify the West.

    This is exactly what I thought was so good about Ebadi's book. She reflects the good and the bad in Iran, and as well, reading about her after I finished the book, I am so impressed by the things she has done.

  6. Oh, I want this, want this, want this! And after reading Amanda's comment, I now want Reading Lolita, too...which I'd heard of before, but really didn't have a clue what it was about.

  7. Yes, I agree with Amanda, also. There are many similarities between Azar Nafisi and Shirin Ebadi. I recently re-read Reading Lolita in Tehran, prompted, as you were, by recent events (it is definitely worth a second look; one sees so much more in it--especially now). Nafisi's follow-up memoir sits here from the library as well as a book by Sandra Mackey, The Iranians, that the College Student has insisted that I read. So your review has played into a current obsession. I will definitely be looking for this book!! Thank you so much!

  8. I'm glad you mentioned Persepolis - this reminded me so much of that movie.

    You may enjoy my brother's review of it here

    It also reminded me of a book by a Moroccan woman - "The Harem Within". That was really fascinating as well. It made me think very differently about Islam's attitude to women.

  9. This sounds like a great book. I think that it's really important in books about Iran to see that before the revolution, women had rights, and many supported the revolution until it was taken over by the religious right. It sounds like this book really nails the complexity of the country and it's people.

  10. This sounds like a very powerful book. What this woman has seen and been part of must make her so strong. I have Reading Lolita in Tehran which Amanda mentioned, so I think the book you reviewed might be a good followup,even though Amanda mentioned deja vu.

  11. Serena: It's actually more focused on the years after the revolution, the Iran-Iraq War and the 90's than the present time, but it does help us understand what's happening now.

    Hazra: I see what you mean. I'm glad Ebadi has managed to remain free.

    Amanda: I haven't read Reading Lolita in Tehran yet, but I really really want to!

    Samantha, you're welcome! I hope you find the book as interesting as I did.

    Jenny: Yeah, "enjoyed" is probably not the best word, but it was a great read. Thank you again for recommending it!

    Debi: Reading Lolita in Tehran had been on my radar for a while, but I want to read it more than ever now!

    ds: You're most welcome! And thank you for telling me that Nafisi had another memoir - I hadn't heard of it before. I recommend visiting Jenny's blog, as she has been reading several books on Iran also.

    Masha: Thanks for the link! I haven't watched Persepolis yet, but I did read the book and absolutely loved it.

    J.T. Oldfield: Exactly. It's always more complex than it seems from the outside.

    Vivienne: She really sounds like a remarkable woman. Now I want to follow this up with Reading Lolita in Tehran! I'm sure they're different enough not to be repetitive, despite the similar topics/circumstances. Also, I think your next graphic novel should be Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. You're going to love it, promise. (If you don't, I'll send you cookies by way of apology :P)

  12. This sounds fascinating, I will have to add it to my TBR pile.

    I'd wholeheartedly recommend Reading Lolita in Tehran as well, it provides real insight into life in Iran during and after the revolution as well as literature.

  13. I'm drawn to books about women and Iran. There's so much to learn from these women and their struggles. Excellent review and information!!

  14. I'm so glad you liked this book Nymeth. I had read a review of this in some newspaper a few years back and it's been on my wishlist ever since. I need to push it up so I can buy it soon :)

  15. It's not the kind of book I would usually pick up, but I will recommend it to the reading group I go to as it's something we would enjoy discussing by the sound of it. It's crazy about the skiing trip.

  16. Sarah, I will make sure I read it!

    Staci: Then you'll enjoy this for sure :)

    Violet: I look forward to hearing your thoughts on it!

    Rhinoa: I might not have picked it up either if not for Jenny's review, just because I'm so picky when it comes to memoirs. But this was more like a personal account of history, and that I liked a lot.

  17. This looks great - and definitely reminds me how much more non-fiction I need to read! I saw Amanda mentioned Reading Lolita in Tehran, and it's on my TBR list, too. I'll add this one and see which one I can get my hands on first!

  18. I've only read one book relating to Iran. It was called Honeymoon in Tehran, and I thought it was very good. It was about an Iranian/American journalist who goes to Iran to write magazine articles relating to governmental hostility, and winds up falling in love and getting married over there. It was very a very revealing look at Iran, and I thought it was especially timely. Let me know what you think of it if you decide to check it out.

  19. Kay, I hope you enjoy them both! I've been making an effort to read more non-fiction this past year, and I've discovered some great books I wouldn't have picked up before.

    Zibilee: Ooh, thanks for the recommendation!

  20. I recently read and reviewed Hooman Majd's "Ayatollah Begs to Differ",

    which is a book on the culture of modern Iran. It gave good insight into how and why Ahmadinejad was elected, though it gave scant attention to women and women's issues, so it sounds as if these book swould be good complements to each other.

  21. Hi Ana, I'm not sure if I'd read this, but it looks like a powerful read. I usually shy away from books like these...

  22. We also support human and women’s rights in Iran. Fashion, environmental responsibility and social justice can all be combined to change the world, please read our post for more info:


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