Shirin Ebadi, Until We Are Free:
My Fight for Human Rights in Iran
Manal Al-Sharif, Daring to Drive:
A Saudi Woman’s Awakening
Anyone with an elementary understanding of today’s world knows that there is a major geopolitical tug of war going on between Saudi Arabia and Iran, two regional powers competing for influence across the Middle East. That same anyone knows that Saudi Arabia and Iran represent home bases for the two major branches of contemporary Islam: Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran. And of course our anyone knows that Saudi Arabia is a close ally of the United States, whereas Iran is considered to be among the world’s rogue nations, a member of an “axis of evil,’ to use President George W. Bush’s memorable phrase. Iran is the seat of the ancient and venerable Persian Empire; it became known officially as Iran only in the 1930s. Saudi Arabia, the home of Islam’s two holiest sites, Mecca and Medina, was carved out of vast tribal areas in the 1930s. Iran shocked the world in 1979 when it overthrew Shah Reza Pahlavi to establish what is formally known as the Islamic Republic, where ultimate power rests in the hands of a theocratic Supreme Leader. Saudi Arabia is ruled by the House of Saud, the “last significant absolute monarchy on earth” (p.12), to quote from Karen House’s incisive study of Saudi Arabia, reviewed here in October 2014.
Within the last year, a woman from each published a noteworthy memoir detailing her struggle on behalf of human rights in her country: Shirin Ebadi, Until We Are Free: My Fight for Human Rights in Iran; and Manal al-Sharif, Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening. Ebadi is a human rights lawyer who won a Nobel Prize in 2003 for her human rights work in Iran, especially on behalf of women, children and refugees. She was both the first Iranian and the first Muslim woman to receive the coveted award – and later became the first recipient to have her medal confiscated by the state. Al-Sharif won international acclaim in 2011 for leading a campaign in Saudi Arabia to allow women to drive. That campaign landed the divorced single mother in a Saudi jail, arrested for what Saudi authorities termed, with no sense of irony, “driving while female.” Just last month, the Saudi government announced that women will be immediately eligible to apply for drivers’ licenses, and will actually be permitted to drive on Saudi roads a mere nine months hence, in June 2018.
The two authors are a generation apart: Ebadi was born in 1947, al-Sharif in 1979. But they have much in common. Each is a devout, practicing Muslim. Throughout as-Sharif’s memoir, references to the Prophet Muhammad are invariably followed by PBUH in parenthesis, “peace be unto him.” Each has a deep love for her home country. “The story of Iran is the story of my life,” Ebadi writes at the outset of her memoir. “I am so attached to my country. . . [and] feel a duty to my nation that outweighs everything else” (p.3). Al-Sharif expresses similar sentiments throughout her memoir. Yet, today both live in exile far from home, Ebadi in Great Britain, al-Sharif in Australia.
The two memoirs are of almost identical length. Although they tell very different stories, each author must confront the inescapable reality that in her home country, religion and the state are inextricably intertwined. Shite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia may be fierce geopolitical rivals, with religious clerics in each dismissing the other’s brand of Islam as heretical. But in both countries, Islamic law, norms and customs are the touchstone for governance, with individual rights and the rule of law brutally subordinated to perceived national interests. Neither offers a hospitable environment for resourceful, independent women pressing for seditious ideas like human rights and full equality for all citizens.
* * *
During the regime of Shah Pahlavi, Shirin Ebadi became a high-ranking judge in Iran, one of the country’s few female judges, even though she had opposed the regime. Initially a supporter of the 1979 revolution, Ebadi quickly ran afoul of the new, radical Shiite regime. When ruling clerics determined that Islam prohibits women from serving as judges, she was stripped of her judgeship and demoted to the position of court clerk. She then embarked on a far more perilous career course as a human rights lawyer, a niche within the legal profession which, to put it mildly, was destined to displease Iranian authorities.
Ebadi used the money from her Nobel prize to found the Defenders of Human Rights Center, a focal point for work on human rights within Iran. She led a movement to remove landmines remaining from Iran’s eight-year war with Iran, and to provide assistance to victims injured by the mines; she defended religious minorities facing discrimination in the fiercely Shiite republic: and she helped organize a movement termed the One Million Signature campaign, which focused on demonstrating how Iranian laws hurt women of all social classes and religious beliefs. Her memoir gains momentum when one of its two major villains, Mohammed Ahmadinejad, was first elected president in 2005.
Ahmadinejad freely used and abused religion to consolidate power. He unleashed religious extremists who filled the ranks of the state’s voluntary militias, “encouraging their most intolerant attitudes and giving them subtle signals that should they wish to punish those who deviated from their strict view of Islam, the state would not get in their way” (p.59). These extremists broke up anti-state lectures, set up check points to harass youth listening to Western music in their cars, and raided private parties where people might have been daring to have fun. At some point during Ahmadinejad’s first term, Ebadi went from being a thorn in the government’s side to what it considered an enemy of the state, part of a global conspiracy to undermine the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
The task of following Ebadi and seeking to silence her fell to the memoir’s other major villain, Mr. Mahmudi, a particularly enterprising intelligence agent. Mahmudi began watching Ebadi’s every move with an obsession that never waned. Because she was too visible and too powerful for the state to target directly, Mahmudi and his colleagues systematically undercut all the constituent pieces of her professional and personal life. Hounded by Mahmudi, the Defenders of Human Rights Center was forced to shut down, closing the “main intellectual and social hub for those in Tehran working on civic activism” (p.103).
When state authorities took away her daughter’s passport, it became clear to Ebadi that the state had started going after her family. “It wasn’t just content with me anymore. I had witnessed this over the years with many of my clients, dissidents and activists whose relatives suffered state intimidation, were hassled and threatened and sometimes blackmailed or imprisoned, all ‘collateral damage’ in the quest to get the original target – the dissident or activist or journalist in question – to drop their activities. It was the dirtiest of the methods the security agencies used, exploiting these families and their emotional ties” (p.126).
The 2009 presidential election, pitting Ahmadinejad against reform candidate Hossein Mousavi, a former prime minister, and one other candidate, proved to be a fateful turning point for Ebadi. Ahmadinejad’s popularity prior to the elections had “sunk abysmally; Iranians widely reviled him for ruining the economy and for the repressiveness of his rule” (p.131). Mousavi seemed to have a genuine chance to replace Ahmadinejad. Yet, in an election widely considered to have been plagued with irregularities, Ahmadinejad was declared the winner after the first round with 62% of the vote. Huge numbers of Iranians took to the streets to protest the results.
Ebadi happened to be in Majorca at a conference in the immediate aftermath of the elections. Her husband and professional colleagues counseled against her returning to Tehran amidst the civil unrest and ensuing government crackdown. As the crackdown continued, Ebadi came to the realization that should she return to her native country, her passport would surely be confiscated, she would likely be jailed, and perhaps even executed. She therefore elected to stay abroad, relocating to London with her daughter, who had taken a job there. But the attempts of Mr. Mahmudi and fellow state intelligence agents to destroy Ebadi intensified rather than diminished while she was out of the country.
Most heartbreakingly, her husband of more than thirty years was the victim of a state sexual blackmail plot to place him in a compromised position with another woman, a former girlfriend prior to his marriage to Ebadi. The plot marked the beginning to the breakup of what had been a solid, loving relationship. Disappointed that her husband had succumbed to the state-manufactured temptation, Ebadi writes that she was “even more furious, more floored, by the depth of evil of the intelligence agents. Their malice and cunning truly had no limit: they were prepared to do anything – crush people’s children, their marriage – to achieve their ends.” She asked herself, “How much could they take away from one person? They had taken my judgeship, my entire life’s ambition; when I resurrected myself and built a human rights center, they took that too; with their violence and electoral fraud, I had lost my homeland. And now they had tried to take away my husband” (p.166-67).
Iranian tax authorities subsequently reinterpreted Iranian law to conclude that Ebadi owed taxes on her Nobel Prize, a matter that seemed clearly settled at the time the prize was awarded. This required Ebadi to sell what seems like a very comfortable Tehran apartment to pay back taxes, along with a rural property her family was particularly attached to. The amounts generated by the sale of the properties proved insufficient to satisfy the tax claims, and Ebadi became a formal debtor to the Islamic Republic. The secure family life Ebadi had known in Tehran was thus shattered beyond repair. She was hopelessly in debt to the state for alleged back taxes; she separated and then divorced her husband after 30 plus years of marriage; and state authorities briefly confiscated her Nobel medal, until the international outcry forced them to return it to her family.
In London, Ebadi became active in the Centre for Supporters of Human Rights, supporting pro-democracy elements in Iran by working with other lawyers who had left Iran in the aftermath of the 2009 protests. The memoir ends with Ebadi in Britain, afraid that the intelligence services will target her directly for assassination there, something they had not quite dared to do directly while she was in Iran. To this day, Ebadi has not returned to Iran.
Although Ebadi’s memoir lacks detail on precisely why state intelligence services concluded that she was an enemy of the Islamic revolution, her outspokenness as an independent woman was clearly an affront to state authorities. Whether the state would have been quite so ferociously persistent with a male civil rights lawyer is left to the reader’s speculation, but the overall thrust of the 1979 Islamic Revolution has plainly been to try to redefine the status of women. Somehow, Ebadi emphasizes, Iran was able to retain a “burgeoning, vibrant women’s movement. . . [which] had managed to flourish, despite Ahmadinejad’s emergence” (p.68-69). Literacy among Iranian girls and young women is nearly 99 percent, she indicates, and women make up over 60 percent of all university students. “[I]f you walk the streets of any Iranian city at rush hour, you will see women streaming out of workplaces, boarding buses and subways alongside men. They are an active, engaged part of public life and they increasingly often serve as primary breadwinners in their households” (p.264).
Iran has long suffered from honor killings, forced marriages, and domestic violence although, Ebadi notes, with “far less severity than many of its neighbors” (p.264). But the legal structure of the Islamic Republic, based on medieval interpretations of sharia law, “enshrines gender discrimination and violent punishments, including lashing and stoning . . . Iran remains a country where a man can marry up to four wives, where women face enormous challenges securing a divorce, and where a married woman cannot travel without the written permission of her husband. The list of discriminatory laws that are unfit for Iran’s modern society is long” (p.254-55). Ahmadinejad “singlehandedly snuffed out [Iran’s] women’s movement and, most dangerously . . . renormalized the idea that women should be open targets for the state and ordinary Iranians alike” (p.263).
Consequently, the climate for women in contemporary Iran is “deteriorating by the day” (p.262). Women can no longer work in Tehran’s cafés and restaurants; female musicians are no longer permitted to perform onstage; and female civil servants in Tehran are no longer permitted to work along side men, on the theory that “women working long hours outside the home in the company of male colleagues undermined family life” (p.262). Ahmadinejad instituted gender quotas in state universities, “making it impossible for women to study physics, chemistry, and tens of other subjects” (p.260). In 2014, authorities in Tehran forbade women from watching the World Cup in public cinemas and cafés, particularly disappointing for young people. These moves were “part of a stealthy segregation plan, deployed piecemeal over time in and across different spheres, that threatened to remake public life in Iran and push women, who participated vibrantly despite the state’s myriad restrictions, to the margins” (p.262). Treatment of women in Iran thus seems to be headed in a direction similar to that so firmly entrenched in its bitter geopolitical rival, Saudi Arabia.
* * *
Manal al-Sharif’s memoir makes clear that the interdiction against driving is but one example of the almost unimaginable control and subjugation of women in Saudi Arabia. Saudi women need permission from male guardians to travel, obtain passports, enroll in school, sign contracts, or undergo medical procedures. Most public places, such as parks, beaches, and buses, are rigidly segregated, and public schools are both separate and blatantly unequal. In 2002, fifteen girls died inside a segregated girl’s middle school. The religious police, al-Sharif recounts, barred the girls from exiting through the front door because they were not following proper Islamic dress code. “When the school door was opened and they were finally carried out, it was as charred corpses” (p.66). At another point in her memoir, al-Sharif describes how she was not allowed to board a public bus because she did not have a male guardian accompanying her. At that point, I screamed to anyone within earshot, using my most profane language, “At least they let Rosa Parks onto the bus, for crying out loud.”
Yet, in a country ostensibly seeking to modernize, the Saudi ban on women driving stands out as both wildly inefficient and absurdly contradictory. Unless a husband or male family member is available, it requires women to rely upon a male taxi or hired driver for every trip of daily life, such as shopping, commuting to work or taking children to school, not to mention emergency trips to the hospital. Moreover, as al-Sharif points out:
[A] society that frowns on a woman going out without a man; that forces you to use separate entrances for universities, banks, restaurants, and mosques; that divides restaurants with partitions so that unrelated males and females cannot sit together; that same society expects you to get into a car with a man who is not your relative, with a man who is a complete stranger, by yourself and have him take you somewhere inside a locked car, alone (p.10).
But al-Sharif’s memoir is about far more than her campaign to allow women to drive. After beginning with her arrest and time in a Saudi women’s prison, it shifts back to tell her life story before finishing by focusing again on the driving campaign. Her story delivers powerful insight into the challenges of Saudi life, particularly for young and intelligent women.
Al-Sharif grew up in Mecca, Islam’s holiest city, in sub-standard housing, without running water or a telephone. Her mother, born and raised in Egypt, attained only a fourth grade education. Her father was an illiterate Saudi taxi driver. Beatings were a regular part of her family upbringing, mostly by her father, occasionally by her mother. Her mother had a fiery temperament and late in life was diagnosed as a likely bipolar schizophrenic. Yet, she also had an uncommon belief in the value of education for her children, and instilled in al-Sharif a thirst for learning. Al-Sharif excelled at the girls’ schools she attended.
In one of the book’s most difficult passages, al-Sharif describes in gut-wrenching terms how she was “circumcised” at age 8, subject to female genital mutilation, a practice designed to protect girls from “‘deviant’ behavior by “removing her desire for sex” (p.57). It was a trauma from which she never fully recovered. A few years later, when al-Sharif told her cousins about her first menstrual period, they “informed me that I could no longer talk to my male cousins, let alone play with them. If one of my male cousins wanted to a walk past where I was sitting, or even enter the house while I was there, I had to first be hidden out of sight” (p.88). Saudi females, al-Sharif indicates, pass through two stages in their lives. “First, as young girls, they are supervised and monitored; then, as adult women, they are controlled and judged. Their first menstrual cycle is the abrupt turning point. There is no transition into adolescence” (p.89).
Al-Sharif further complicated her adolescence through a religious conversion that lasted into her early 20s, becoming an ultra-devout, practicing Salafi Muslim. Even by Saudi standards, she stood out for her religiosity, upbraiding family and friends when they were insufficiently observant. Although she had previously been “crazy over books” (p.73), she abandoned all but religious reading and urged her brother to give up his interest in decadent Western popular music. At the heart of the Salafi religious ideology, al-Sharif writes, is a “deep belief in Hell,” which led her to an “all-consuming fear that I, as a Muslim, wouldn’t reach the level of righteousness and devotion required to escape condemnation from the eternal hellfires” (p.96). But the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, led by young Saudi men of her age, transformed her religious convictions. “I could not believe that God would demand the killing of innocent people,” she writes. “I was done with Salafism” (p.133-34).
After completing university, al-Sharif landed a job as a computer security specialist at Armaco, once Standard Oil’s Saudi outlet, today owned by the Saudi government. But Armaco remains a state within the state, as it as been since its beginnings in Saudi Arabia in the 1930s. Its huge compound, which al-Sharif compares to a “perfect Southern California town” (p.3), was set up to make Saudi Arabia more inviting to expatriate Armaco workers, with housing, shopping and amenities that are unavailable within the rest of the kingdom. Even though the Saudi state now runs Armaco, many of the severe norms and mores of Saudi life do not apply on its compound. For starters, men and women work together in the compound, side by side. Imagine that.
While working at Armaco, al-Sharif met the man she would marry – and later divorce. Al-Sharif’s account of her courtship is a Saudi version of a more universal eye-on-the-guy tale. She developed a mad crush on a man she had only seen briefly at work and knew almost not at all. Somehow, they met and courted in a way that was well at odds with Saudi norms, not least because it was conducted without the initial approval of either family – for a while, without even the knowledge of the families. But later, both families were brought on board and gave the relationship their blessing. Al-Sharif and the young man married and had a child together. But they did not live happily ever after.
Her husband proved to be more traditional than al-Sharif had anticipated in his views of the proper role for a married woman; by Western standards, he was plainly abusive. When the marriage broke apart, al-Sharif was able to maintain something akin to custody over her son. But she had to give him up when Armaco sent her to study in the United States. Al-Sharif spent a year in New Hampshire, where she learned to drive and obtained not only a driver’s license but also a rental car, paid for by Armaco. It was “no small irony,” she writes, “to think that Saudi Arabia’s largest company was openly paying for a Saudi woman to drive abroad” (p.199).
Al-Sharif’s year in the United States and her driving experiences there emboldened her. Upon return to Saudi Arabia, she became active in a group termed Women2Drive, which used Facebook and other social media to attract potential women drivers. Women2Drive followed a 1990 Saudi women drivers’ protest, in which 47 women had driven on city streets for about one-half hour. That protest “stalked them for the rest of their lives” (p.210). The women and their husbands were banned from foreign travel; those who held government jobs were fired; and all became targets of religious condemnation, “denounced as immoral vixens, boldly seeking to destroy Saudi society” (p.210).
In 2011, the comments on the Women2Drive Facebook page, mostly left by men, were “menacing, saying very directly that our campaign was designed to corrupt young girls and that we were ‘betraying Islam’” (p.214). Al-Sharif nonetheless “clung to the belief that if I could just show Saudi society that no harm would come if a woman drove, many of the other issues surrounding the campaign would simply vanish” (p.221). She studied the Saudi traffic codes and other relevant legal instruments and concluded that there was no formal legal interdiction against women driving; it was simply a matter of custom.
In preparation for Women2Drive’s national driving campaign, al-Sharif allowed herself to be filmed driving, with the intention of posting the film on YouTube. She describes her mixed feelings of fear and fearlessness as she pulled out behind the wheel onto a Saudi road in the town of Khobar:
My heart began to beat faster as I turned the key, heard the engine catch, put my foot on the brake, and switched the car into reverse. My decision to drive had been made in a moment of anger, but now I felt pure calm rise up inside me. I was committed to driving because I was convinced, after having read and understood the traffic code, that there was nothing actually forbidding me from doing so (p.224-25).
Shortly thereafter, however, in the middle of the night, Saudi authorities came to her house to arrest her. She spent nearly two weeks in a Saudi women’s prison, not a pleasant place for women transgressors of Saudi custom and order. Her imprisonment attracted huge attention within Saudi Arabia and internationally. The Saudi press accused her of operating as a traitor and spy on behalf of foreign enemies. Saudi religious clerics denounced her for blasphemy and for seeking to destroy Islam, describing her as a whore. She was released from prison when her father, two of his cousins, and their tribal chief traveled to the Royal Palace to meet 86-year-old King Abdullah. Although the King made no commitments at their meeting, al-Sharif was released later that day. By this time, she had become an international celebrity.
Al-Sharif was named to Time Magazine’s list of the world’s 100 most influential people of 2011 and received the Oslo Freedom Forum’s first Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent. She resigned from Armaco when it refused to allow her to travel to Oslo to accept the award. Notwithstanding her international celebrity status, official Saudi Arabia gave no ground on the issue of women driving. The government endorsed a report in the fall of 2011 warning that if women were allowed to drive, “prostitution, pornography, homosexuality, and divorce would ‘surge,’” and “within ten years, there would be no more virgins” in Saudi Arabia (p.270).
When death threats against her became too ominous, al-Sharif fled Saudi Arabia for Dubai with her new husband, a Brazilian national whom she had met at Armaco. She left without her son, whom she had to leave in the custody of her first husband. In 2014, she gave birth to a second son. She lives today in Sydney, Australia, where her second husband relocated for his work, but returns periodically to Saudi Arabia to see her son from her first marriage.
* * *
Only the most hard-hearted readers will fail to be stirred by these two valiant women and their stories of overcoming oppression and resisting the bullying of religious and state authorities. But each has been forced into exile, required to work for change from outside her home country. Although women behind the wheel may be commonplace in Saudi Arabia by this time next year, I finished the two memoirs thinking that women in both countries seeking full rights as citizens still have a long, uphill drive ahead of them.
Thomas H. Peebles
October 24, 2017