Islam and Human Rights

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)

A more important and remarkable issue is that the situation of women in Islamic countries is not always the same throughout the Islamic world. There are differences. Some countries have better laws and others still live like 13 centuries ago. So the main question is: which one is the true Islam?

The legal status of children is also very unfavorable in Islamic countries. Children are often regarded as objects, even if they are regarded as precious objects, they are regarded as the possession of the father's side of the family, his family or himself. And therefore very unsuitable laws have been drafted regarding the rights of the child.

Again, as an Iranian, allow me to talk a bit about what Iranian law says with regard to the rights of the child. According to the Islamic Penal Code ratified in 1370 (Iranian calendar year), that is 13 years ago, if a father or the paternal side of the family kills his child intentionally or not, he does not have to be punished. He will have to go through a ten-year prison sentence at the most. In other words, the killing of a child represents cases in which a sentence is commuted or a lesser punishment is given.

In Iran, the marriage age is low. Thirteen for girls and 15-years-old for boys. Also, the age for criminal liability is very low. Therefore, juvenile crimes have a very low threshold. Nine years of age for the girl and 15 years for the boy. In other words, if a 10-year-old girl or a 16-year-old boy commits a crime, they are treated the same before the law - they are given the same treatment by law as an adult person, the same as if I were to commit the same crime. And this is incorrect because the ability to think and contemplate in human beings is incomplete at least until the age of 18.

Muslims who are aware maintain that the general essence and prevailing spirit of Islamic laws have to be fully understood and that laws should be regulated and drafted in accordance with that general spirit and also based on wisdom and intellect, which is regarded as a source of legislation in Islamic Shar'ia. The words of God must be interpreted based on intellect and intellect is based on the knowledge of humankind. Clearly, an interpretation that came about 500 years ago, based on religion, is different from an interpretation that will come today.

This is nothing new or innovative in religion; rather it is the correct implementation of the religion of God. But what leads to such interpretations of religion or such misunderstandings of religion is the patriarchal culture in the East, specifically, in Islamic countries. This culture does not accept that men and women are equal but it also does not accept democracy and human rights.

Again, as an Iranian, and given the fact that I did say a few words about laws in Iran with regard to women's rights, allow me to refer to a law on democracy in Iran. In accordance with election laws, the Guardian Council must pre-qualify candidates for the Majlis or the Iranian parliament, the Consultative Assembly. In other words, people do not possess the right to vote for whoever they want. Instead, they must choose among the candidates who have already been qualified by the Guardian Council, and choose their representatives on that basis.

As we see, the rights of the child are directly connected to democracy. The rights of women are directly connected with democracy. That is to say, in countries where the legal status of women is weak under the law, democracy is also incomplete, and vice versa.

In such a culture, tribal customs still prevail. "Everyone for one, in the hands of one decision maker, and one for everyone," this is a slogan which is hard to say, but in practice it is actually done. The safeguarding and protection and transfer of this patriarchal culture is not specific only to men, because although women are victims of this culture, they have an effective role in transferring it, too.

Let us not forget that as the hemophilia disease is passed on through the mother, a child is infected through the mother, the patriarchal culture can also be transferred through the mother to her sons, because every man is after all raised by his mother. What people feel challenged by in Islamic countries and actually object to is this patriarchal culture, not Islam as a religion. The foundation of Islam is respect for the dignity of mankind.

In reality, the main problem does not lie within Islam. The key point is that for various reasons, Islamic governments do not wish to offer or accept an interpretation of Islam that would be compatible with human rights and individual, social and democratic freedoms—freedoms in democracy. Thus, the culture that prevails in Islamic countries, including the political culture, demands a transformation, a metamorphosis. So that with open eyes, it can revisit social realities and offer laws based on the needs of the time that would be compatible with both the spirit of Islam and also fulfill the needs of people in that specific time period, offer answers for them.

The most important step that can be taken for a cultural transformation is education about Islamic principles in a correct manner for Muslims. True Islam has to be taught to Muslims. And they have to learn that one can be a Muslim and live better, that one can remain a Muslim and respect human rights and democracy and observe them. As a result of this education which must prevail among Muslims, religious governments will be forced to respect the rights of their people and to refrain from imposing individual thoughts in the name of religion.

Today we see that some Islamic governments or states have no tolerance for any degree of opposition to their points of view or about their performance. They call it an opposition to Islam and find a reason to suppress all forms of opposition. Such governments maintain that they are representatives of God on earth. And that their beliefs-- they actually seek to introduce their way of thinking as religion and as Islam. They guarantee that any level of opposition is quelled and suppressed completely, and that any criticism of government is equivalent to criticism of Islam.

This is a good justification, a good excuse rather, that they use to force freedom-seekers to remain silent and also to put fear in the hearts of Muslims. They are accused of losing their faith in their religion. People who oppose and object to the performances of their governments suddenly find themselves accused of various things. They are lost in this web of accusation, and in fear, they withdraw. This is how tyrannical regimes hide behind the sphere of Islam and continue the oppression of their people.

Islamic intellectuals must resort to every means available to them to touch the hearts of the Islamic masses, to represent true Islam and then seek to examine the performance of the government on the basis of true Islam. They must engage in political criticism and constructive criticism of the government so that they may have a wider audience. Political criticism of a government that claims it is representing Islam will be insufficient if it is not based on a true understanding of Islamic principles. It will fail to attract the Islamic masses. Muslims should be made aware that the key to heaven does not lie in the hands of Islamic governments. And every act of the government, even in the name of Islam, is not necessarily Islamic. If this happens we will bear witness to genuine Islamic movements, not terrorism.

This is a solution for the 1 billion Muslims on this planet, or one sixth of the people of this planet, people who seek to safeguard their religion but also feel that they deserve to live under better conditions. On the other hand, those who seek to resort to war as a means to attain their group interests will prioritize and underline certain weaknesses that have nothing to do with the religion of Islam but rather are misinterpretations of Islam, and as such they seek to theorize war.

They claim that Eastern civilization, particularly Islamic civilization, is essentially incompatible with Western civilization, and that this difference is inevitable. These groups seek to attribute the wrongful deeds and actions of a few individuals or a group of Muslims to Islam, so that they can prove more easily that Islamic civilization is incompatible with Western civilization.

Islam is not a religion of terror or violence. Rest assured that if someone is killed in the name of Islam, the name of Islam has been taken advantage of. Every wrongful act committed by an individual or a group cannot be recorded as that of an Islamic act—it should not be recorded under the name of Islam.

We, too, did not attribute the wrongful acts of certain individuals or groups in Bosnia-Herzegovina to Christianity, for Christ is the prophet of God and the messenger of peace. The defiance of numerous UN resolutions on the part of the Israeli government and the events that happen in the part of the world where Israel lies will not be attributed to Judaism for Moses was chosen by God and is a messenger of rights and justice. The wrongful deeds of human beings should be separated from the religion and civilization to which they belong.

Civilizations do not clash. More importantly, they have many commonalities. Let us talk about those commonalities, not their differences. Let us not justify war. No one will come up victorious from war. Thank you very much.