The coincidentally very timely event “Euromediterranea” organised by the
Alexander Langer foundation has as theme “Equal Rights Iran”. In that context, the International Andreas Langer Award 2009 went to the Iranian Narges Mohammadi, but she could not attend because her passport was taken by the authorities. During the opening of the event two days ago, she has joined by phone to give the acceptance speech. Advertisement for the “One Million Signatures” campaign passed the revue as well. Other events are scheduled, one of which was held yesterday morning at the European Academy in Bolzano about women’s rights in Iran, and human rights in general and, given the current situation in Iran, also about that. The event hosted both 2003 Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi and distinguished Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena.
Shirin Ebadi talked about the lack of equal rights for women and men in Iran, though noting that it is not at all that great in other countries either. Women in Iran have the right to vote—a right obtained even before Swiss women did—, there are 30 MPs, one of Achmadinejad’s vice-persons is a woman, and the majority of university students are female. However, exercising the right to divorce is rather difficult for women (not for men) and the life of a woman counts for half of that of a man (e.g., in court, two testimonies of women value the same as one testimony by a man). After describing the facts, Ebadi asked the question “where do those laws come from?” Sharia? No. Easy counter-examples can be, and were, given from different countries and regions that use the Sharia but have widely different laws for women (education for women allowed or not, women allowed to drive a car or not, etc.); i.e., there are multiple interpretations of Islam. Instead, local customs and the cultural patriarchy are to blame and there are things being done in name of religion, which are actually not written in the books as such. The solution Ebadi then proposed is to have a separation of state and church (in casu, state and mosque, but the translator said church), which is not a panacea, but she expects that equal rights for men and women of all denominations and ethnic backgrounds will fare better in such a configuration.
Much can be written on the current affairs, but Ebadi summarised her impression succinctly: people are tired of violence and they want reforms, not a revolution.
Giuliana Sgrena, who spoke after Ebadi, started with a quick note on the sad state of affairs and rights of women Italy, but swiftly proceeded to the lousy news coverage, which provides situations, snapshots, but not the discourse. This is also applicable to the current news coverage about Iran, which will be out of sight (and probably out of mind) of the Italians, but out of sight does not mean that the issues are solved. Returning to the theme of the event, she rhetorically asked how one could talk about democracy if women do not even have full rights, be it in Iran or other countries in the world. What she has observed reporting from different countries where the population is predominantly Muslim, is that there are many commonalities in the (lack of) equal rights, yet that the disadvantaged groups feel isolated. In addition, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights should be, well, universal. In line with Ebadi’s speech, Sgrena said that religion and culture/tradition are being exploited to sustain a patriarchal society. Last, she’s convinced one should not strive for tolerance (I assume she included with that also cultural relativism) but for equality.
After the speeches, it was time for people in the audience to ask questions. One that generally receives little attention was raised by an attendee from South Africa, which is about the emancipation of men to keep up with women’s emancipation (apparently not going well over there). This reminded me instantly about a silly state-sponsored advertising campaign in the early ’90s in the Netherlands saying that “A smart girl is prepared for her future” so as to get girls to choose a technical study to obtain a real job and be economically independent, which was promptly countered with the slogan “a real bloke irons his own shirt” in the sense that they should give a hand or two in the household and with raising the offspring (it rhymes in Dutch: ‘een slimme meid is op haar toekomst voorbereid’ en ‘een echte vent strijkt zijn eigen overhemd’ see discussion [in Dutch]). So, how is the situation in Iran? Ebadi mentioned that they have many men participating in the equal rights campaign, some of whom even got arrested for being involved, and that an important convincing argument was that with equal rights, men are better of as well: it’s a win-win scenario.