One Signature at a Time

The New York Times

Tuesday 20 February 2007

Published: February 7, 2007

“Well-behaved women rarely make history,” my favorite bumper sticker says. It surely applies to Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian lawyer and 2003 Nobel Peace Prize winner whose relentless campaign against discrimination has enraged the mullahs for more than 25 years.

In a country where the law values a woman’s life at only half the price of a man’s, Ms. Ebadi will not be quiet, and she is urging other women to find their voices. Her newest effort is to help collect the signatures of one million Iranian women on a petition protesting their lack of legal rights.

The concept is simple and revolutionary, melding education, consciousness-raising and peaceful protest. Starting last year, women armed with petitions began to go to wherever other women gathered: schools, hair salons, doctors’ offices and private homes.

Every woman is asked to sign. But whatever a woman decides, she receives a leaflet explaining how Iran’s interpretation of Islamic law denies women full rights.

The material explains how Iran’s divorce law makes it easy for men, and incredibly difficult for women, to leave a marriage, and how custody laws give divorced fathers sole rights to children above the age of 7.

Ms. Ebadi says the petition drive has already trained “400 young women to educate others” about these injustices. The movement, made up of a network of women’s organizations and publications, has no formal leadership, in part to lessen the chances of retaliation. That didn’t help three female journalists who were arrested late last month after they wrote articles for feminist publications backing the drive. They have since been released but will face a hearing in two months. Ms. Ebadi will defend them.

It’s only natural to wonder how many more women will be arrested as they rebel, one signature at a time. And only natural to marvel about the courage of the 30,000 women who have already signed.

The movement is doing on a grand scale what Ms. Ebadi has done for her entire adult life. When I last spoke with her, eight years ago in her Tehran home, she had emerged as a tenacious human rights campaigner after being forced to step down as a judge by the Islamic revolution. She was blunt about the lack of freedom in Iran and well aware of the price for such outspokenness.

She’s been arrested and imprisoned and the target of death threats. In New York in January for meetings at the United Nations, she was just as defiant and just as unafraid as I remembered. Winning the Nobel Prize has not given her immunity.

There’s a lot to speak out about. When Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is not propagating lies about the Holocaust or cheering on Iran’s nuclear program, he’s having independent journalists arrested. But he is not the only problem. Above him is the hard-line Council of Guardians and above it the supreme religious leader. The Council of Guardians vetoed legislation increasing civil liberties and banned most moderates from running for Parliament in 2004.

Given the breadth of the institutional opposition arrayed against them, the Change for Equality Petition Drive is especially clever. Rather than directly confronting the system, it goes around it. Even women who don’t sign the petition will be better informed about their second-class status. The hope is that they will then be less likely to accept injustice indefinitely. And if Iran’s women start questioning their lack of rights, perhaps Iran’s men will have the courage to speak out, too.

The government certainly understands the implications. Just a few weeks ago, it blocked access to the campaign’s Web site. But within hours the women had another Web site up and running.

Ms. Ebadi, the lifelong agitator, does not mask her pride or her belief that women’s voices will someday make all the difference. “By getting one million signatures, the world will know we object to these conditions,” she said. And I can’t help but think that instead of one courageous woman for the government to contend with, it will have reaped a million.

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