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Mariela Baeva
Mariela Baeva
Member of the European Parliament for Bulgaria
2007 - 2009
(first direct EP elections in Bulgaria);

LEED to OECD partner (Nanotech)

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A Warning for Women of the Arab Spring

I hope that in the countries where people have risen against dictatorships, they will reflect on and learn from what happened to us in Iran.


I do not agree with the phrase “Arab Spring.” The overthrow of dictatorships is not sufficient in itself. Only when repressive governments are replaced by democracies can we consider the popular uprisings in the Middle East to be a meaningful “spring.”

Since women make up half of the region’s population, any democratic developments must improve the social and legal status of women in the Arab world. It appears the Tunisian society has strong civil institutions, and there is much hope that democracy can take hold there. But in Egypt, many political actors are talking about returning to Islamic law, which could result in a regression of rights for women and girls similar to what we experienced in Iran in 1979.

There are interpretations of Shariah law that allow one to be a Muslim and enjoy equal gender rights—rights that we can exercise while participating in a genuinely democratic political system. Shariah law and women’s rights do not have to be mutually exclusive. Although the 1979 revolution in Iran is often called an Islamic revolution, it can actually be said to be a revolution of men against women. Before the revolution, women’s rights were recognized to some extent. But the revolution led to the enactment of numerous discriminatory laws against women.

After the revolution—even before drafting a new constitution or establishing parliament—the revolutionary councils changed the laws. When I first read the Islamic Penal Code instituted after the revolution, I couldn’t believe my eyes. The drafters of this document had effectively taken us back 1,400 years.

Before the revolution, I was a presiding judge. When the revolution broke out, I was initially on the side of the revolutionaries and I believed in their cause. I was shocked when the revolutionaries decided that women could no longer hold my position. I was demoted to secretary—while many of my male colleagues who were not as professionally qualified were appointed judges.

In the “green movement” protests after June 2009’s disputed presidential elections, the world witnessed how many Iranian women were on the streets, and how strong our feminist movement is. More than 65% of university students are women, many university professors are women, and women are present in all important and sensitive social positions.

However, the law that is being enforced in Iran today does not consider women to be full human beings. Instead, it ascribes to women a value half that of a man. The testimony of two women in court equals the testimony of one man, for example. A man can marry four wives and can divorce his wife at will, but initiating divorce can be very difficult for a woman. A married woman even needs her husband’s written consent to travel.

These discriminatory and misogynistic laws are not Islamic and cannot be found in the Quran. Iranian women from all walks of life oppose these laws—which is one reason why women are in the front lines of every protest.

Many Iranian religious authorities are against these laws. Yet the fundamentalists in power, because they belong to a patriarchal culture, insist on enforcing them. Iranian women are doubly oppressed, both by discriminatory laws and by unjust traditions.

The world was horrified by the case of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, an Iranian woman who was sentenced to death by stoning for allegedly committing adultery. Sadly, there are many similar cases that people outside Iran do not even know about. For 25 years, I have lent my voice to campaigns by women’s rights advocates, lawyers and other activists seeking to ban corporal punishments such as stoning, flogging or cutting off hands.

Education is one key to the future of women around the world. They must become aware of their rights. Education was a centerpiece of the “One Million Signatures” campaign, which we began in 2006 with the aim of ending gender discrimination in Iran. The campaign was like a small stone thrown in a still pond—it created many waves.

Another key to ending discrimination against women in Iran is using all the legal tools at our disposal, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Iran is a signatory. The international community can play an important role in urging Iran to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Iran is one of only six countries that have not yet ratified this crucial convention.

I have paid a high personal price for my involvement in the struggle for human rights in Iran and women’s rights in particular. I have been living in forced exile since June 2009. My husband is still in Iran, where he has been imprisoned and tortured to force him to speak out against me. My sister has also been imprisoned, and other family members are regularly harassed and threatened.

Just this month, my longtime colleague, the courageous lawyer Abdolfattah Soltani, was unjustly sentenced to 18 years in prison.

I hope that in the Arab countries where people have risen against dictatorships and overthrown them, they will reflect and learn from what happened to us in Iran. My recommendation to Arab women is to focus on strengthening civil-society institutions and to familiarize themselves with religious discourse, so they can demonstrate that leaders who rely on religious dogma that sets women’s rights back are doing so to consolidate power.

The true “Arab Spring” will dawn only when democracy takes root in countries that have ousted their dictatorships, and when women in those countries are allowed to take part in civic life.


*Ms. Ebadi, one of Iran’s leading lawyers and human rights activists, won the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize. This essay is adapted from her chapter in the new Human Rights Watch book, “The Unfinished Revolution: Voices From the Global Fight for Women’s Rights” (edited by Minky Worden, Seven Stories Press, 2012).

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