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Oct 21 / Elizabeth DiNovella

Mideast in the Midwest

“Democracy is incomplete in Iran,” said Noble Peace Prize winner Dr. Shirin Ebadi, who spoke yesterday at the UW campus. But democracy in Iran, she said, must come through Iranians and not foreign troops.

Ebadi was the first woman to become a judge in Iran in 1969. But the laws imposed after the 1979 revolution forced her from the bench. She became a secretary in the courtroom she used to preside over. She left and went on to become one of the greatest human rights lawyers in Iran. (The Progressive interviewed her in 2004.)

Wearing a black double-breasted suit jacket with slacks, her brown hair cut short, Ebadi spoke with eloquence and searing determination.

She began her talk discussing how the Iranian government discriminates based on gender. Women are not equal to men under current Iranian law. She listed examples, including unfair divorce laws and travel restrictions, but noted that 65% of university students are women. “These laws are not compatible with Iranian culture,” she said.

Ebadi also noted that, “Freedom of speech is severely restricted.” In the last year alone, several newspapers have been shut down by the government.

What is source of these laws, post-revolution? The government claims the source is Islam. “Their interpretation of Islam is wrong,” she said, saying it was possible to have human rights under Islamic law.

As for democracy, majority rule is not a good enough definition. Democracy must exist within a framework of respecting human rights, she said. For example, discriminating based on gender, like Iran, is problematic, as are restrictions on free expression (Cuba, China). And the U.S. government uses national security as a way to curb civil rights, she said, mentioning the illegal domestic wiretapping by the Bush Administration. (She seemed more concerned about eavesdropping than some members of Congress.)

Human rights cannot be a pretext for another war in the Middle East. “We love Iran and will not allow it to become another Iraq,” she said.

She went on to discuss the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, back when Saddam Hussein was the U.S. government’s friend.

Ebadi said that Saddam was indeed a dictator, but it wasn’t as if he were the only one. “The difference between Saddam and other [dictators] is that Saddam happened to sit on a lot of oil.”

The U.S. has had a “misguided” foreign policy in the Middle East. People in the Middle East do not like their governments, many of which are U.S. allies (Saudi Arabia, UAE). So people are then suspicious of U.S. policy. The only exception is Iran, she said.

Due to human rights violations, the Iranian government is unpopular with its people. But outside the country, Iran is popular due to the decades of U.S. government’s misguided policies.

“Anyone who says ‘Death to America’ is popular in the region,” she said.

“The only solution is for the U.S. to give up protection of anti-democratic governments in the region,” she said and outlined a few simple and brilliant steps:
–stop selling weapons in the region
–no diplomatic relations if there is no parliament.

If the U.S. government took these measures, anti-U.S. sentiment could subside, she said, adding, “so people can see that saying ‘Death to America’ does not fill stomachs.”

She ended her talk with a bit of poetry. “Let us be as forgiving as the skies. Let us spread friendship like the wind, let us rage against discrimination and ignorance like fire.”

She added: “Let us be kind to one another, really kind.”

After hearing Ebadi talk, I went a few rooms over to hear the Palestinian hip-hop group DAM. They were amazing, blending Arabic rhythms with booming bass lines.

What I love about hip-hop is how it gets tweaked internationally by its local adherents. Someone in the crowd asked if the kids break dance in the Occupied Territories. No, DAM explained, they do their own hybrid: a mash up of hip hop and the dubka, a Middle Eastern folk dance.

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