The two women who made
Six years into the Reform movement, only minor (one might even say cosmetic) changes had been made to laws and people were still being detained and some even killed in the Iranian prisons. In spite of election promises and a somewhat freer intellectual atmosphere, Iranians were far removed from real reforms and from the institutions of a civil society that many had hoped to achieve.
arrived at Mehrabad airport two days before Shirin Ebadi landed at the same
airport where she was met by thousands of well-wishers upon her return from
to my trip to
One early cold November
morning, I took a 2-hour
car journey to
Religion and politics
have historically commingled in this desert town, with its boulevards full of
eucalyptus trees located
After having spent a few
My stay at a female student dormitory in
My appointment with Ayatollah Montazeri
was at 2 p.m. in the afternoon, and by the time I hit the woman-free streets of
Qom from my safe 'hide-out' in the female dormitory of the University, the sun
was high in the sky, and the weather was pleasantly warm and sunny for November.
Ayatollah Montazeri who is now in poor health and in his early nineties, said in
October 2003 that
While I was rushing to his base that November afternoon in 2003, I couldn't help feel excited as I had been told by many (including the BBC) that Ayatollah Montazeri "Huquq-e Bashari-ye" i.e. a proponent of human rights. Yet, no one had ever pressed him on issues concerning women's human rights. So, I wanted to measure the metal of the Reformists' spiritual beacon when it came to human rights of women in particular. No one had ever questioned Ayatollah Khomeini in the 1970s on his views about human rights and women, and thus his victory and subsequent halts on these rights took many people by surprise. I wanted to know for myself what the Reformists' spiritual leader, namely Ayatollah Montazeri, amounted to, to see if this new wave of Reformism, at least theoretically, had become progressive enough to compete with other contending calls for liberation.
Ayatollah Montazeri's office was in the
back garden of his large house. The house was situated in a small alley in
I was politely told by one of his aids to sit about a meter from him, on his left side, on a row of three chairs with a coffee table in front of the chairs. I was struggling with my chador, which was slipping off my head as my scarf beneath the chador was made of slippery polyester, and my large bag kept getting entangled in my chador. It took me a good few minutes to get myself sorted, and my tape-recorder positioned on the Ayatollah's desk. He patiently waited for me while making small conversation with his disciples about every day matters, such as his medication and how unwell he was feeling.
I was so grateful for the opportunity to interview him, as I knew he'd just come out of house-arrest and was feeling poorly.
I started the interview by asking him my usual questions about his take on international human rights and its compatibility with Shi'i law and ethics. He seemed to agree with the international norms as far as these rights concerned the public sphere, such as political and broadly defined civil rights. He believed in human-beings being equal in terms of their dignity regardless of their religion, race or sex.
On the subject of women's human rights, he held that women should allocate their energy and talents to the sphere of home and family. The Islamic state should provide women with all of their 'God-given' Shari'ah rights (currently theoretical rights and privileges), he argued, and men should pay all their religious duties to women (which many currently do not fulfil under this regime). When I pointed out to him, that his traditional female role model no longer fitted Iranian women's reality and wishes, now constituting 60% of university students and 11% of the work force, he responded that laws and morality are based on majority values and realities. He argued that men have historically dedicated their energy to the production of knowledge and goods, and hence have more public privileges, while women enjoy more 'private' privileges (they receive maintenance, shelter, right over custody of children to some extent, pocket money etc).
He wasn't completely alien to the idea of gender equality. According to him, women can only earn their equal and public rights when they have, in a large majority, proven their potential as productive human beings, and thus renounce their 'God-given' privileges. Unfortunately, I didn't get a chance to ask Ayatollah Montazeri how he had envisaged Muslim women's renouncing their 'God-given' privileges: its juridical and spiritual dimensions and how a persistent designation of women to the realm of home, and barring and discouraging them from entering (with state support, rights and security) the realm of public life affects this 'earning and proving' of one's potential as a free and equal human. I wanted to ask him whether or not he thought that the latter would ultimately make the realisation of women's full citizenship and humanity not only wholly unfair but even more overdue. I wanted to ask him why men do not have to 'prove' their humanity and can live off the production of their active peers but women, although have countless active and remarkable representatives and have historically been in charge of the most sensitive aspect of life, still have to fight for the realisation of their full humanity.
Ayatollah Montazeri wasn't well, and I didn't get to ask him many of my questions and 'tactfully' transmit Iranian women's rightful demands. I can only hope that meeting someone like myself (a feminist student), may have reminded Ayatollah Montazeri of the current 63% (3% rise since 2003) young Iranian female university students who want their human rights, fulfilled today. They want jobs, full citizenship and an end to overt and covert discrimination under any banner.
Leaving Ayatollah Montazeri's office, I
remained convinced that despite all the hopes invested in the Reformist movement
at the time, the persistent realities of women in Iran indicated that they still
have fewer rights in family and citizenship laws than their male counterparts. I
remained convinced once again that the fundamental problem we face in
As across the world, the "woman
question' unsettles the neat paradigms of human rights discourses", a renewed
commitment to women's inalienable human rights requires a vigilance and a
constantly critical perspective beyond regime changes and shades of ideologies.
As Oriana Fallaci discovered during her interviews with the so-called liberal
and woman-friendly Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi of
Oriana Fallaci: Majesty ... you're a Muslim. Your religion allows you to take another wife without repudiating the Empress Farah Diba.
Mohammad Reza Shah: yes, of course. According to my religion, I could, so long as the Queen gave her consent. And to be honest, one must admit there are cases when...for instance, when a wife is sick, or doesn't want to fulfil her wifely duties, thereby causing her husband unhappiness ... after all! You'd have to be hypocritical or na´ve to think a husband would tolerate such a thing. In your society, when a circumstance of that kind arises, doesn't a man take a mistress, or more than one? Well, in our society, a man can take another wife. So long as the first wife consents and the court approves....
Oriana Fallaci: I am beginning to suspect that women have counted for nothing in your life ...
Mohammad Reza Shah: Here I am really afraid you've made a correct observation... women are important in a man's life only if they're beautiful and charming and keep their femininity and...this business of feminism, for instance. What do these feminists want? What do you want? You say equality. Oh! I don't want to seem rude, but...you're equal in the eyes of the law but not, excuse my saying so, in ability.
Oriana Fallaci: No, Majesty?
Mohammad Reza Shah: No. You've never produced a Michelangelo or a Bach. You've never even produced a great chef. And if you talk to me about opportunity, all I can say is 'are you joking? Have you ever lacked the opportunity to give history a great chef? You've produced nothing great, nothing! ...You're schemers, you are evil. All of you.
Yes-women (all of them categorically evil in His Majesty's eyes) have not produced a Michelangelo or a Bach, for these are all male musicians who rose to prominence in European social conditions no less patriarchal and misogynistic than the worst in the so-called "Third world". But women have against all odds and defying debilitating yokes that monarchs, sultans, vazirs, feudal war lords, very modern presidents, monks, priests, rabbis, mullahs, pundits alike have imposed on them, produced, just on the Iranian corner of their world, Forough Farrokhzad, Parvin E'tesami, Shahrnoush Parsipour, Simin Daneshvar, Shirin Neshat, Samira Makhmalbaf, Golnosh Khaleghi, Pari Zangeneh, and scores of many many other distinguished mothers, artists, scientists, physicians, university professors, athletes, journalists and yes a Great Chef as well, her name is Najmieh Batmanglij and she has gracefully globalised Iranian cuisine around the world.
Towards the end of His Imperial outburst against women, Mohammad Reza Shah asks Oriana Fallaci rhetorically, "Tell me, how many women capable of governing have you met in the course of your interviews?". Fallaci responds with such examples as Golda Meir and Indira Gandhi. Mehrangiz Kar, I would add to that list today, as well as Shirin Ebadi, Shahla Sherkat, Shahla Lahiji, Fatemeh Haqiqatjoo, Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani, Roya Tolou'i, Parvin Ardalan, Nayereh Tohidi, Valentine Moghaddam, countless other leaders of women NGOs, millions of my sisters among Iranian student activists -- to whose honourable cause I now submit this eyewitness to history.
THE TEXT OF THE INTERVIEW WITH AYATOLLAH MONTAZERI
(NOVEMBER 11th 2003-
GOLBARG BASHI: Thank you for this opportunity to interview you. My name
is Golbarg Bashi, and I am a Ph.D. student in the area of human rights and
AYATOLLAH MONTAZERI: I have written a treatise on the question of human rights, which is about to be published. I also recently had a series of discussions during my teachings in which I have argued that humans as humans, irrespective of their religion or creed, have certain rights. This point has rarely been raised by other distinguished jurists. I have based my argument on the Qur'an and the Prophetic traditions, arguing that the very essence of humans as humans is entitled to certain rights and respects. The Qur'an says [he recited in Arabic], "Verily we have honoured the children of Adam. We carry them on the land [and the sea], and have made provision of good things for them, and have preferred them above many of those whom We created with a marked preferment" [The Qur'an, XVII, The Children of Israel: 70].
If you wish, you can consult these parts of my lectures on the subject of human rights. I have given something like eight or nine lectures I believe on the subject. The diskettes and CD's of these lectures are available and you can get and listen to them if you wish. Unfortunately, I am too tired right now to discuss these in more details, or answer all your questions one by one. I really do not feel well. Please do get the diskettes of my lectures. There are eight or nine of these lectures that are all on the subject of human rights. Please do obtain and listen to them and you will know my opinions on the question of human rights.
As a rule, other distinguished jurists attribute these rights to those who believe in Islam (Mu'minun). For example, they say, "it is forbidden to berate or slander a Mu'min," which is to say a believer in Islam. It is the Mu'minun who have certain rights. I, on the other hand, have said that yes more emphasis has been put on Mu'min, but the very essence of human, human as a human (bima innahu insanu), irrespective of any religion or creed, has certain dignity and as such is entitled to respect. It is not right that one could insult or berate or injure anyone, just because that person does not believe in Islam. No. That is not right. Humans are to be respected (Insan mohtarameh). The Qur'an says, "wa laqad karramna bani Adama" ("Verily we have honoured the children of Adam"). God Almighty ordered the angels to prostrate to Adam, because humans have the capacity to grow, then by that virtue the human is to be respected. The very essence of humanity, which is capable of growth, is the cause for respecting humans, so much so that humans can be even higher than angels. And that is why God Almighty ordered the angels to prostrate to Adam, namely honour Adam's dignity. I have discussed all these in details and you can listen to them.
GOLBARG BASHI: I will listen to them.
AM: . . . but unfortunately I do not have time or energy to answer all your questions one by one.
GB: May I ask you a few short questions?
AM: All right.
GB: I wanted to ask you about the human rights of women, the way they are defined in such international documents as Women's Convention (CEDAW). I want to know if you accept these documents. What do you think of those rights?
AM: Women are humans too. Women are humans
too. When we say humans, it includes both men and women. When we say humans as
humans then that "human" includes women too. Of course there are certain
differences between men and women, which is due to their natural disposition
(moqtaza-ye tabi'i) and their existential build-up (sakhteman-e vujudi). The
existential build-up of men and women are different, and justice requires that
according to the capabilities of women they ought to be given their rights.
There are certain differences between the existential build up of men and those
of women. I was among the people who insisted that
GB: May I ask you another question? I wanted
to know if you consider those positions of Islam about women and their rights
that are for example held in a country like
AM: You see, if people around the world want to say certain things about women for example being equal to men in matters of inheritance or legal testimony, because these issues pertain to the very letter of the Qur'an, we cannot accept them. However, these positions contain certain subtle points. If we pay closer attention to these subtle points, all things considered, the rights of women are very much upheld and preserved. The global wealth (sarvat-e jahani) every thirty years or so is handed over from one generation to another. Now, consider that God Almighty has made it incumbent upon men to cover the expenses of women. When this couple have a child, despite the fact that this child belongs to both of them, God Almighty has made it mandatory for men to cover the expenses of children. Nevertheless, a third of the inheritance is allotted to women, and two-third for men. When it pertains to ownership, yes, men take twice as much as women. But so far as their expending power is considered, that one third that belongs to women, she does not have to spend it anywhere. That share is a privilege exclusive to her. Because her expenses are all to be paid by her husband, and her share of paying for the expenses of their children is also to be covered by the husband. So yes, we are giving two shares to the husband, but the net result is that women have more than men, because women's expenses and women's share of the children's expenses are both to be covered by men. The one third of inheritance that we have given to her is more as a good measure (tashrifat). Thus women in fact inherit more than men, because their expenses are all on their husband, and while the children belong to both of them their expenses too are all incumbent upon the husband. If we wanted to be fair, then the expenses of the children would have to be paid by both. But in Islam, the children's expenses, despite the fact that the children belong to both of them, is incumbent upon men. The expenses of women are also incumbent upon men. In addition, we are also paying one third of the inheritance to women, just for good measure (bara-ye tashrifat). Thus so far as expendable sum is concerned, women have inherited more than men, despite the fact that so far as actual possession is concerned, two third has been given to men. The reason that two third has been given to men is because men will have to be active and produce, and production is more the work of men. They have allocated two third of the inheritance for men, so that he can continue to produce and increase it. But so far as expenditure is concerned, whatever costs the lady (khanom) may have, the husband must pay for it; and all the expenses that their children have will also have to be covered by the husband. So in fact women have received more than men. These are the fine points that if we were to consider them carefully, we will see that in Islam the situation is not working against women. Quite to the contrary. Islam has acted to the benefit of women...I really don't feel well.
GB: May I ask you another question? I wanted
to ask you a question concerning the human rights documents that exist in
international laws. Can we really make them compatible with Iranian laws,
because some say that some of these laws are not Islamic; whereas when
AM: Of course in
GB: Can you give me a few examples of such occasions?
AM: One of them is inheritance. "Allah chargeth you concerning (the provision for) your children: to the male the equivalent of the portion of two females, [and if there be women more than two, then theirs is two-thirds of the inheritance, and if there be one (only) then the half. And to his parents a sixth of the inheritance, if he have a son; and if he have no son and his parents are his heirs, then to his mother appertaineth the third. And if he have brethren, then to his mother appertaineth the sixth, after any legacy he may have bequeathed, or debt (has been paid). Your parents or your children: Ye know not which of them is nearer unto you in usefulness. It is an injunction from Allah. Lo! Allah is Knower, Wise] [The Qur'an, IV, Women: 11].
The Qur'an says that sons inherit twice as much as daughters, for which I just gave you an explanation. As I said, so far as expending power is concerned, women are actually getting more than men. But so far as ownership is concerned, they say that two third goes to men so that he can do productive work with it and increase it.
GB: I see.
AM: But so far as expending power is concerned, the expenses of women are to be paid by men, and women's share of their children's expenses are also to be paid by men, while the children belong to both of them.
GB: I see.
AM: If we were to be fair, then half the expenses of children ought to be paid by women, whereas Islam has demanded that men pay for it. So altogether, justice is observed.
GB: May I ask you one more question? My last question is this: Today in Iran many women are the bread-winner for their family, whereas so far as the question of "blood-money" (diyeh) is concerned, when a mother has several children and is the bread-winner of the family, if she were to be killed in an accident, then her blood-price (khun baha) is half of a man's; whereas a man who might be for example a drug addict, and who is a liability for the society at large, his blood-price is much higher.
AM: You see, you should not take the example of an addicted man as the measure. Men in general (no'-e mard ha), all things considered, are productively more active -- both intellectual activities and practical activities. If one man is a drug addict, that does not change the situation. Law must follow the practice of the majority of people. All things considered, the intellectual and practical activities of men are more than women. You should not take the example of one drug-addict as measure. Yes, it is also possible that a woman might become a professor, and might be much more capable of many men, but in general, we have to consider the overall situation.
GB: But right now in Iranian universities, some 60% of students are women.
GB: So in future generations, when the number of professors, physicians, high-ranking experts, etc, will be more women, will Islam be able to have an ijtihad and modify these unjust laws because they no longer correspond with reality?
AM: Those aspects of the Islamic law that are based on the very letter of the Qur'an, the answer is no. But certain other things yes, you can, and they can be subject to changing times. But those that are from the very letter of the Qur'an, no they cannot, and those have certain wisdom and subtleties in them...I am really getting tired...Now as it pertains to human rights, you may want to listen to my lectures...
GB: I will listen to them.
AM: . . . and as I said, I have just written a treatise on human rights that it is about to be published. Towards the end of my Resaleh-ye Amaliyyeh (Collection of Juridical Edicts) I have also written a few pages concerning rights. Do take a look at our Resaleh-ye Amaliyyeh as well...but right now I am really tired and do not feel well...
GB: Thank you very much, at any rate, for giving me time for this interview.
AM: I wish you success in what you are doing.
GB: You too.
AM: "May God reward your struggles!" It is very admirable that you are active in this field.
GB: Thank you very much.
AM: May God Protect you!
GB: You too!
 Golbarg Bashi is a
Ph.D. student in Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University
of Bristol, UK and a Visiting Scholar at
 Parvin Paidar, Gender of Democracy: The Encounter between Feminism
and Reformism in Contemporary
 'Ali al-Reza (765-818 CE) is the Eighth Imam of the Shi'i Muslims.
 BBC News about Montazeri, please see: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/2699541.stm
 Hilsdon et al, Human Rights and Gender Politics: Asia
 See Oriana Fallaci,
Interview with History.
 The English
translation is from Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall's The Meaning of the Glorious Koran,
 Ayatollah Montazeri recited this verse indexically and mentioned only the first few words of it. The English translation of the complete verse is from Pickthall's The Meaning of the Glorious Koran, op cit.
 My trip to
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