The Alumni Connection

Life after UC, Examined

2 May 2017

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Women in Resistance; Democracy in Islam—a journey with Nobel Laureate Dr. Shirin Ebadi

Marina Lazëri, class of 2013 & Matthijs Maas, class of 2012

Last October, a mere three weeks before a shock election would mark a shock victory of nationalism—and would trigger renewed debate over Western democracies’ relation to Islam, to women, and to refugees—an event in the Academiegebouw in Utrecht marked an opportunity for a different voice to be expressed: a celebration of past struggles for human rights, as well as an attempt at contributing to the articulation of a more democratic and inclusive public debate.


At the invitation of the University College Alumni Association (the official representative body of University College Utrecht alumni), Dr. Shirin Ebadi, recipient of the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts for democracy and human rights, addressed a large and diverse audience of UCU alumni, members of the Iranian diaspora and many other enthusiasts, in a speech which crossed a wide range of contemporary issues, and which focused in particular on the challenges faced by women in patriarchal regimes.

Once described as one of the ‘100 most influential women of all time’, Dr. Ebadi is an important voice of our times: as a Muslim and a woman articulating what it means to be a Muslim and a woman, as well as a fierce advocate for democracy and human rights, she contributes to debates on the potential of more open and inclusive societies in the Middle East—democratic societies which have little problem reconciling Islamic faith with respect for human- and particularly women’s rights. The location for the night’s event was perhaps appropriate: the Academiegebouw of the Universiteit Utrecht signifying both the pursuit of knowledge and free thought, but also attesting to the exclusion of women academics at Utrecht University for much of its own long history. Marjan Oudeman, president of the Executive Board of Utrecht University, welcomed Dr. Ebadi, as well as recognized the key role played by University College Utrecht in fostering critical thinking within the University of Utrecht. In a lecture and audience Q&A,  interpreted by UCAA’s Somaye Dehban, Dr. Ebadi set forth an elaborate discussion on democracy and human rights, faith and femininity.


Drawing on both strong principled convictions, as well as her personal experience of activism and resistance, her lecture revolved around one critical question: how might we reconcile an Islam at times imagined to be repressive and oppressive, with values of democracy and equality. Her speech was followed by a reflection from prof. Antoine Buyse, director of the Netherlands Institute of human rights (SIM), who reflected on the capacity for action on the part of academics. Damon Golriz, fellow at the research group of International Peace, Justice and Security at the Hague University of Applied Sciences followed up with a Q&A on Dr. Ebadi’s speech, reflecting some more on her arguments for the possibility of a democratic and tolerant Islam.

In her speech, by referring to her own experiences as often-persecuted activist in Iran, Dr. Ebadi focused on several major themes: the potential for- or plausibility of internal political reform in the Middle East and the fundamental situation of women in the Middle East—both in terms of the weaponization, by patriarchy, of religion and culture to oppress women. At the same time, she also emphasized the potential for education and women’s resistance to break the vicious cycle and enable women in the Middle East to resist such oppression and take leadership positions; finally, she discussed potential pathways for shaping harmony between Islam and democracy, as an alternative to the current, ‘theocratic’ Islamic regimes.

In this context, Dr. Ebadi particularly emphasizes the role of women in the Middle East, and their potential as leaders. However, she identified one key factor in continuously setting women back in Islamic countries: a patriarchal system—by which she does not refer to the male aspect of society, but to a culture that prevents equality. Within this culture she sees as problematic not only the role of men, but also women who have internalized these perceptions of (in)equality. She sees the heritage of patriarchy mostly as a mindset unwittingly instilled by women and mothers, to their sons. Within this framework, Dr. Ebadi sees the education of women as the single most important factor in combatting a culture of patriarchy and learned inequality. In her view, it is patriarchy that has abused the role of religion, and not the other way around, and education could break this circle.


Dr. Ebadi spoke about secular reforms that could break the oppression of women, using Turkey as one instance, where Ataturk’s regime instilled a level of secular norms which managed to curb the oppression of women. She claimed that due to this long legacy of an anti-patriarchal approach to gender and social life, even with the new developments in Turkey (i.e. the rise to power of Reccep Tayip Erdogan and his increasingly Islamic reforms) women still manage to maintain the rights they had before. However, this latter remains, in our view, a debatable point in the light of Prime Minister Erdogan’s approach to women’s rights. It is often an interpretation of these rights which is of most importance, and not the nominal rights alone. Erdogan’s approach to women’s role in the home and the workplace, with an emphasis that women should lean ever more towards homemaking, is a clear signal of an increasingly patriarchal regime, which is already affecting the freedom of women in Turkey.

Nevertheless, what Dr. Ebadi wants to impress upon us, listeners, is how in the Iran of post-1979 (in the wake of the Islamic revolution which she herself calls ‘the revolution of men against women’) women did not stop fighting for their rights. Female resistance took many shapes and forms: from private seminars and articles, to celebrations of the 8th of March (International Women’s Day, which the government did not want celebrated) and most recently, by taking pictures of themselves without headscarves on and sharing them on social networks.

She sees potential social and political change in Middle Eastern countries (and especially Iran) as originating from the struggle of women against these patriarchal regimes, and that it is these women, and not Western or European leaders, politicians and activists, which should spearhead this resistance; however, she did invite Western countries to send female diplomatic representatives to the Middle Easter, as this is a move which forces these patriarchal men to treat women as their equals. Of course, these authors observe that Western female diplomats can face a challenge in negotiating the ‘politics of the headscarf’, with refusals (e.g. by the German Defense Minister in a December visit to Saudi Arabia) or acceptance (by a Swedish delegation to Iran last February) alike leading to controversy and outrage both in Western and Arab countries.

In discussing the potential role of the West, Dr. Ebadi also turned on the role which other events, such as the refugee crisis, can play in changing the Middle East. According to her, the Middle East is more difficult than ever to ignore, as the refugees are now knocking on the West’s doors. She invites citizens of European countries to be kind to refugees: they would not be knocking on the West’s doors if they could stay home, she says: the situation must have been critical. Invite them in your homes and allow them to contribute to your countries, she opens up.


The authors were particularly interested in Dr. Ebadi’s take on the possible harmony between Islam and democracy. During the interview after her lecture, Mr. Golriz brought up Dr. Ebadi’s 2006 book ‘Iran Awakening’, in which she put forth the thesis that “an interpretation of Islam that is in harmony with equality and democracy is an authentic expression of faith”. However, pointing to the case of Iran itself, Mr. Golriz wondered if speaking of ‘an Islamic democracy’ isn’t a contradiction in terms. Dr. Ebadi acknowledges that at present no Islamic democracy exists, but with the right interpretation of the Quran, Islam can respect democracy. She highlights how in Europe, one can also see different interpretations of Christianity within Europe. Certain churches and denominations are for instance less tolerant of homosexuality, or do not accept abortion, which goes down less well with democratic principles, but others are. The question these authors ask is whether there is an intrinsic link between democratic values and a right to abortion, or whether this is just a question of tolerance or in fact the very result of particular democratic deliberation over which values (‘choice’ or ‘life’) a society values more.

Dr. Ebadi describes how more tolerant, open and democratic interpretations of Islam have been formulated through the years, but the ones who made these interpretations are not in political power and thus do not have the soft power to pass on their thoughts in tightly controlled environments. Indeed, in general, she expressed skepticism over the extent or flexibility of political reforms in the current Iranian regime—or of initiatives which come from within the state elites. As such, she also dismissed the 1990 Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, (a document highlighting the Islamic perspective on human rights, based upon Sharia law, see here). She argued that adherence to a religion does not entitle a group to its own set of human rights, and that under a ‘right’ interpretation of Islam one can be a Muslim and also respect the universal human rights. Of course, through a critical lens, this begs the questions of what such a ‘right’ interpretation of Islam is. Who decides the validity and legitimacy of one interpretation over another? If it is agreed that sheer numbers do not in themselves legitimate an interpretation, one could make the argument that the most popular interpretation in countries such as Iran today is not necessary the ‘true’ one. But if popularity does not determine which is the ‘best’ interpretation of a faith, then what does?

Dr. Ebadi did not articulate what such an interpretation would be, or how it would look like. She did point out that this reformulation and this expression of a more modern Islam needs to take place within universities.

The interview concluded with personal accounts from Dr. Ebadi’s life under a repressive regime, which went to illustrate and emphasize the horrors of living under the threat of the Iranian morality police, and how relationships between women and men, and the lives of women in particular, become very difficult under such a regime. She went on to clarify how that regime has appropriated and weaponized religion and chastity, even in a hypocritical way.

Dr. Ebadi argued once more that alternatives in which Islam is compatible with democracy and women’s rights is possible, and she claimed change might come from women’s resistance, but she does not identify through which pathways this resistance will lead to change, and what alternatives might be possible.

Given the events of the months which have passed since that October evening in the Academiegebouw, some may now be more pessimistic about the prospects for women’s rights—and indeed, perhaps human rights—for the coming years. However, the story and experiences of Dr. Ebadi suggest that, even if she does not have all the answers, the passion for- and faith in human rights remains a powerful motivating force for those people—men and women; in the Middle East and in the West—seeking to resist oppression, and safeguard our collective rights.


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