peace prize does not turn the west into the defender of
women's rights worldwide
Tehran a few years ago I met Shirin Ebadi, the lawyer who
has just won the Nobel Peace prize. Her integrity and bravery,
even in the face of frequent threats and arrests, certainly
make her an outstanding figure in her country and beyond
- and of course a great recipient of the prize.
she would be the first to argue that in many ways she is
not unique in Iran. She is part of a growing reform movement,
and in her views on women's rights she seems to speak for
many Iranian women. The hardliners' struggle to keep control
of her country constantly runs up against the growing awareness
of women, and the younger generation has been inspired by
Ebadi and other female lawyers and journalists and politicians.
Everywhere in Iran there are educated, forceful women who
are dissatisfied with their situation and who are arguing
for reform. Ebadi herself told me: "Even the traditional
women here - even those who have not been educated and who
live at home - even they are looking for their rights."
the west often seem to believe that we have a sort of monopoly
on feminism. Maybe it is hard for us to believe that women
who wear those dark veils can be working for equality. But,
as Ebadi says constantly, the clothes are not that important.
"There is something more important than our hijab here
in Iran," she said to me. "Other rights must come
first. When a man can easily divorce a woman and she struggles
to get a divorce from him - this is more important than
whether or not we cover our hair. When men automatically
get custody of children, this is even more important. When
we have solved our other problems, then let's talk about
important to listen to women such as Ebadi and to remember
that the traditions which are often seen to divide women
are not as important as what unites them - the desire for
those irreducible human rights, such as equality before
the law, equal political power, and protection from violence.
If this award helps us to recognise how women in every culture,
including Muslim countries, feel that they own feminism,
then it is a precious gift not just to Shirin Ebadi and
the Iranian reformists, but to us in the west.
in another way the award was a rather easy one for a committee
based in western Europe to give out - not so much for what
it celebrates, but for what it criticises. Of course we
all hate the Iranian government right now: part of the "axis
of evil", with its nuclear programme and its wicked
views on the United States and Israel, Iran is an easy country
let's not forget that women elsewhere in the region still
face almost insurmountable problems - and that some of them
are made harder because of the behaviour of the west. It
would have been interesting to see how western governments
might have responded, for instance, to an award for a feminist
in Saudi Arabia or
Kuwait, where the regimes that have held back women's
rights are actively supported.
if you are looking for women to honour in the Muslim world
for their human rights struggles, it is hard not to talk
about the activists in the Revolutionary Association of
the Women of Afghanistan (Rawa). Their work against the
Taliban has become legendary; they are the women who kept
hope alive through their underground work in Afghanistan
and among the refugees. Yet their struggle has not stopped
since the UN-backed government took over. These women still
work under threat to their lives, and they are still silenced
Rawa has made constant demands to the UN - and to the American
and British governments - for more respect for women and
children's rights, they have seen women's interests pushed
aside in the outside powers' eagerness to appease the warlords.
Now Afghans are seeing the small advances that women have
made threatened by continuing insecurity on the ground and
the outright misogyny of the ruling factions that are backed
by the west.
to give such public recognition to one of their activists,
such as the charismatic Sahar Saba, or the group as a whole,
would be very troubling for the west. It is much easier
for us to reward a woman who is working against a government
no one loves than it would be to reward a woman working
against a government the west has created.
Ebadi reminds us, the struggle for women's rights is an
international struggle. But it is a struggle where western
powers are not automatically on the right side.
article was first published in the Guardian.