The Relationship of Shirin Ebadi to British Feminism

I was reading this week about the work of the Iranian civil rights activist Shirin Ebadi. In 1975 she became the first ever woman judge in Iran. Following the revolution in Iran in 1979 the new authorities decided that women judges were not permitted and she was demoted to a secretarial position. She fought the decision, requesting early retirement so that she could at least practice law, but that was denied her until 1993. She spent some of that time in prison, and the rest of it forging a career as a writer on issues relating to civil rights, particularly for the rights of women, children and immigrants; the disenfranchised and the dispossessed. In her legal practice she fought many civil rights cases on a pro bono basis.

Following the victory, with 70% of the vote, of Mohammad Khatami in the 1997 elections on a platform of liberalisation and social reform, elements of the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence conducted an illicit campaign of over eighty murders of Iranian intellectuals and dissidents. The connection between the murders was not spotted until 1998 when a politician, his wife, and three dissident writers were murdered in the space of two months. During the investigation of these murders Shirin Ebadi was shown a transcript of a conversation between a government minister and a member of the death squad in which she was described as being the next person to be killed.

Despite this, she continued her pioneering work, setting up the Defenders of Human Rights Centre in 2001, and in 2003 she became the first Iranian to win the Nobel Peace Prize, awarded to her for a significant body of work on democracy and human rights, especially women’s, children’s, and refugee rights. Also in 2003 she represented the family of Zahra Kazemi, an Iranian-Canadian freelance photographer who was arrested for photographing Evin prison outside Tehran and who died in custody there nineteen days later amid much controversy over her detention, torture, rape, and death. Ebadi was also highly critical of the trial of the man accused of Kazemi’s murder.

In 2008, just as guests were arriving at her human rights centre to celebrate the 60th anniversary of UN Human Rights Day, Iranian police and security forces raided the centre and shut it down. In 2009, just before the election that saw Mahmoud Ahmadinejad elected to a second term as President, she left Iran to go to Madrid for a conference. While away she received what she described as a “death threat”, and her husband, who was at home in Tehran and is not an activist or dissident, was severely beaten and barred from travelling abroad. Shirin Ebadi has not returned to her home country since, but continues to campaign for improvements to human rights in Iran, particularly for women and children. Of the role that Islam might play in the human rights of women in Iran, she has said many times, “It is not religion that binds women, but the selective dictates of those who wish them cloistered. That belief, along with the conviction that change in Iran must come peacefully and from within, has underpinned my work.”

In many respects it is possible to see this as the same battle the suffragettes fought in Britain in the nineteenth century, and that should be an inspiring thought because British women have achieved so much and come a long way from the position in, say, 1800 when women had no legal status, were not allowed to sign contracts in their own name, could not run their own business, had no rights to vote or to be voted for and were, even at the highest rungs of society, considered secondary to men in virtually all respects. Even the idea that a woman might need or want or could possibly benefit from an education was mocked and literacy levels were consequently lower for women than for men. Although she did not think of herself as a feminist, we can perhaps mention here Jane Austen (1775 – 1817), who published four novels that are still immensely popular today, but none of them were published in her lifetime with her name on the title page; the author was given simply as, A Lady, and that tells us much more eloquently than any of her books could do what we need to know about Georgian attitudes to women.

The idea that only certain persons in England can vote dates back to at least as far as 1429 when the forty shilling franchise was instituted. When it was perceived that elections had been affected by people of “low estate” it was decreed that only freemen who owned freehold land worth 40 shillings or more could vote. This was not altered for over four hundred years, until the Representation of the People Act (1832), generally referred to as the First Reform Act, which, as its name suggests, reformed the electorate and parliamentary authority but still excluded women from the franchise. Women were again excluded from the vote in the Municipal Corporations Act (1835). Some form of suffrage movement existed more or less from that time until women eventually won the franchise, but it did not become a major topic of political discussion until about the 1870s and the fight continued in a more or less civilised fashion until World War I intervened. Just before the war ended the Representation of the People Act (1918) was passed, enfranchising women over the age of 30, but the centuries old idea of minimum property qualifications persisted. The Representation of the People Act (1928) finally extended the voting franchise to all women over the age of 21.

It is important to remember, however, that not all men could vote either. Before the first of a series of suffrage reforms in 1832, only about 3% of the adult male population were qualified to vote. For the most part, the right to vote depended on the value of any property holdings. For this reason, the majority of people who were able to vote were both wealthy and male. Throughout the 1800s, campaigns were fought to extend the franchise and some concessions were made. In 1867 the Second Reform Act extended the franchise to about 2.5 million men (around 8.3% of the population) by permitting working class men with lower income levels to vote but they still had to be property owners so people renting their house could not vote whatever their income. In 1884 the Third Reform Act doubled the electorate to about 5.5 million men by granting rural populations equality with their urban cousins. The population was about 34 million in 1884, therefore, despite these reforms we can calculate that less than 20% of the population could vote and only two thirds of adult men were enfranchised. It was not until the Representation of the People Act (1918) was passed that all men over the age of 21 could vote, which means that English men over the age of 18 had joined the army and gone to France to die in the trenches in their millions to defend a country that would not even allow them to vote. For these reasons I think it wrong for us to think of feminism, suffrage, and enfranchisement, as being issues that were solely about women and women’s rights.

Some of the social and political issues brought to prominence by the suffragette movement were not necessarily about voting per se, but about the disparity between the way different classes were treated, about the disproportionate sense of entitlement the wealthy elite garnered for themselves and about making England a more democratic and fairer country on many different levels including such seemingly unrelated topics as education and prison reform. England was a very different country then, for example, in 1832, the same year the Great Reform Act came into effect there was a cholera epidemic in London and the following year the Slavery Abolition Act banned slavery throughout the British Empire and amendments to the Poor Law meant that paupers requesting assistance had to go to the workhouse, creating the conditions that fuelled much of the writing of Charles Dickens. Throughout the period when the sun never set on the British Empire and England ruled the waves those who benefited from those conditions were a tiny minority of the elite and women campaigned in the main to level that whole playing field, health, education, clean water, social welfare, a whole range of issues and that women benefited was a consequence of their actions rather than the primary causative factor.

In the 19th century some of my ancestors lived in Douglas Street in Deptford, south London. Douglas Street no longer exists. In its place is a street called Douglas Way, a pedestrian-only street that is in two halves, either side of Margaret McMillan Park, named after Margaret McMillan (1860 – 1931), the American born Christian Socialist who worked extensively in deprived areas to improve the health care and education of children and who pioneered a method of play-centred nursery education that has only recently been widely accepted. Margaret McMillan is emblematic, I think, of the work that many women did to improve society as a whole, not just for themselves but for everyone, in the way that Shirin Ebadi is trying to do in modern Iran and it is often easy for us in a more modern Britain with our interconnected lives and pockets full of electronic gadgets, with our National Health Service, our local GP and Citizens Advice Bureau to forget what these women achieved and what a debt we owe to them for the opportunities they created.

It is, therefore, disappointing in many ways to see modern British feminists campaigning to improve such trivial issues as the number of women MP’s or the numbers of women who sit in the boardrooms of our FTSE 100 companies, as though these things should actually be determined along lines of sex. When the day comes that constituents vote for their MP on the basis of her sex I shall know that democracy is in a far worse state than it was when women couldn’t vote at all.

Women have achieved so much, and much of that was by campaigning for equality across the whole of society, not just for women’s rights, and by comparison their more modern counterparts seem to have become a single issue party, fixating on perceptions of equality of outcome rather than of opportunity. Whilst there are still legitimate areas of concern such as domestic violence and crimes against women, much of modern feminism comes across as cherry picking preferred outcomes such as the number of women who win journalism prizes, rather than identifying areas where it is genuinely worth fighting for equality of opportunity. When they were standing in a cherry orchard knee deep in cherries it was obvious that cherry picking was the right thing to do, but now they are standing in a supermarket stuffed full of an endless variety of opportunities and their deconstructive approach to plucking microscopic motes from the eyes of others trivialises their movement and demeans the efforts of those who went before them as well as of those who, like Shirin Ebadi, are still fighting important battles on their troubled streets and are literally putting their lives on the line to make this a better world for everyone.

1. In 1841 about 70% of bridegrooms could sign their own name while around 55% of brides could do the same. By 1900 the ratios were more equal and much higher with over 95% of both sexes signing their names. literacy in Victorian Britain

1.   The Independent 30-May-2013 – profile of Shirin Ebadi
2.   Defenders of Human Rights Centre
3.   Awarded Nobel Peace Prize
4.   Reporters without Borders – Remember Zahra Kazemi’s death
5.   BBC Profile of Shirin Ebadi
6.   University of Leeds – Building the Literate Nation
7.   19th Century Women Writers by Abby Wolf –
8.   UK Parliament – 40 shilling franchise
9.   UK Parliament – Reform Act (1832)
10. National Archives – Representation of the People Act (1918)
11. Internet Archive – Representation of the People Act (1918)
12. Vela – Written By Women

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