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Islam and Human Rights

Shirin Ebadi. (MKMK/Flickr)

Shirin Ebadi. (MKMK/Flickr)

NEW YORK, Jun 8, 2004 - Shirin Ebadi, Iranian lawyer and human rights activist, was awarded the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize for her work promoting democracy and human rights. This is a transcript of the speech Ms Ebadi delivered on "Islam and Human Rights" for the Citigroup Series on Asian Women Leaders series at Asia Society's New York headquarters.

 

Note: First few sentences by translator unrecorded.

Ms. Ebadi is emphasizing the common cultural roots that are shared between people. The interest in this common fate will assist us to gather and collect our problems and think about solutions that are compatible for everyone, with everyone's belief systems and values.

One of the questions that has always come to mind—specifically, in regions where we live—is the connection between religion and democracy. This connection is there and has, since time immemorial, been a controversial issue of debate among philosophers and thinkers. There are some who believe that man is a creation of God and on this basis he has been assigned certain duties; man has no rights before God; his relationship to the Creator is based on duties assigned to him by God.

Of course, if there are cases where rights are mentioned, these rights are only vis-à-vis other people and naturally their source is defined through divine ordinances. According to these people, the majority opinion of the populous cannot be a source of rights or duties since it is possible that the majority are wrong. The philosophy behind the prophet-hood of all the prophets that we have known was a result of this debate: when a nation was misled and misguided, a prophet was sent to save the people so that the majority of those who were engaged in wrongful deeds and constituted the majority of the nation could turn to the right path.

Those who follow this point of view cannot tolerate any other views. To them, the world is looked at through the eyes of their predecessors. Through their minds and way of thinking, they seek to offer solutions to the problems of today. This group of people do not show respect or accord many rights to the elected representatives of the people or parliamentarians. They believe that the legitimacy of a parliament lies in seeking to understand divine laws and regulating them in the form of civil law. Nothing more. In other words, the parliament does not possess the right to separate itself from divine laws and draft other laws.

This challenge—that is, the connection between democracy and religion—arises from this debate. Centuries ago, with the rise of the Renaissance and the period afterwards, this way of thinking actually diminished in Europe. However, in the East, specifically in Islamic countries, the relationship between religion and democracy has not yet been resolved, and it is therefore a source of numerous political differences and controversies as well. The unfavorable status of democracy in the vast majority of Islamic countries emanates from this mindset that Islam is essentially incompatible with democracy and human rights.

And of course Islam is only what the government stipulates as its own ideology. Any other interpretations of Islamic Shar'ia offered by other Muslims is considered completely irrelevant. In these countries it is in fact religion that has become government or rather that the government has turned religion into a form of its own belief.

In such a framework, anyone who opposes a government is considered to be a heretic and an enemy of Islam. And through this tool, political opposition groups are forced into silence and the bravery to rise and oppose is ripped from the people. It is maintained that people can more easily oppose an intellectual, secular government than oppose an ancestral way of thought or a religion that has existed traditionally.

The situation and status of women in particular is very unfavorable in a large number of Islamic countries. Islam is a religion that gives value to women. The Holy Prophet said that only people who are lesser can find themselves disrespecting women. Therefore it is implied that in the Qu'ran itself, women and men are addressed equally.

So with this in mind, how is it that in some Islamic countries the value of a woman's life is regarded as half that of a man? In many of these countries, polygamy exists as well. In the vast majority of Islamic states, women do not have the right to self-determination, the right over their own fate, specifically when they choose to marry - with the justification that women have to abide by the wishes of their husbands, their freedom and will is taken away from them.

In many societies women are regarded as a tool for creating children, and of course, only sons. The respect for women comes from the number of sons they have given birth to. And there are so many other unfavorable laws and regulations against women.

Since I am an Iranian, allow me to speak about the status of women in Iran a bit. Iran has an ancient civilization. We have many educated women. Sixty-three percent of university students in Iran are girls. That is to say, there are more educated women than men.

In such a society, laws are required that respect the rights of women. However, regretfully, in our laws there are numerous cases of discrimination based on gender. I will only mention a few. Polygamy is accepted by law. A man can divorce his wife without sufficient reason. However, it is extremely difficult for a woman to seek divorce from her husband.

The value of a woman's life is regarded as half that of a man. Therefore, if a woman or a man is run over by a car in Iran, the compensation that is given to the woman is half of that offered to the man or his surviving relatives. Two women witnesses are required in order to compensate for only one male witness before the court.

There are also many other unsuitable laws. Since Iranian women are educated and aware, they cannot accept these laws, and for this reason the feminist movement in Iran has broadened. In objecting to discriminatory laws in Iran, certain people and groups have been very active. They have actually been very active for many years. Fortunately, I can see two of them here tonight, and I would like to name them and mention them. One is actually one of my professors, and one is a dear colleague of mine: Dr. Laheji and Ms. Mehrangiz Kar, and I am really grateful for their efforts in Iran. (APPLAUSE)