Bound But Gagged
When I received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003, Iranians and Muslims around the world hoped that the prevailing and unfair image of Muslims as terrorists would be discarded. We believed that the prize would encourage a positive, forward-looking understanding of Islam. We hoped that our belief in an interpretation of Islam that is in harmony with democracy, equality, religious freedom and freedom of speech would reach a wider audience, particularly in the West.
For many years now, I have wanted to write my memoir—a book that would help correct Western stereotypes of Islam, especially the image of Muslim women as docile, forlorn creatures. Sixty-three percent of Iran’s university students and 43 percent of its salaried workers are women. I have wanted to tell the story of how women in Islamic countries, even one run by a theocratic regime as in Iran, can be active politically and professionally. It is my impression, based on the conversations I have had during my travels in the United States and Europe, that such a book would be a welcome addition to the debate about Islam and the West.
So I was surprised and angered when I learned that regulations in the United States make it nearly impossible for me to write a book for Americans. Despite federal laws that say that American trade embargoes may not restrict the free flow of information, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control continues to regulate the import of books from Iran, Cuba and other countries. In order to skirt the laws protecting the flow of information, the government prohibits publishing “materials not fully created and in existence.” Therefore, I could publish my memoir in the United States, but it would be illegal for an American literary agent, publisher, editor or translator to help me.
Iranians and other Muslims have long placed great value on the power of the written word. My parents taught my siblings and me that ideas on the page can be put into action. My husband and I have passed these values to our daughters. Iran is bursting with young, educated and dynamic people who are eager to communicate with the American public. Many of our university students and scholars have tried to publish their papers in leading American journals, but they have been turned away out of fear of the Treasury Department’s regulations. An American scientific journal, for instance, recently declined to run a paper on the human and economic consequences of the catastrophic earthquake last year in Bam, Iran, because Iranian scientists helped write it and therefore the journal would have to obtain a license to publish it. (Newspapers are exempt from some of these requirements.)
Since 1979, when I was removed from the judiciary after clerics ruled that women were too “emotional” to be judges, I have been defending women, children and human rights advocates as an independent lawyer. I learned, sometimes in the face of tragedy, that the written word is often the most powerful—and only—tool that we have to protect those who are powerless. Many of my cases have placed me in opposition to hard-liners in our government. I have been harassed, threatened and jailed for defending human rights and pursuing justice for victims of violence: most recently when I led the legal team representing the family of Zahra Kazemi, an Iranian-Canadian photojournalist who was killed in July 2003 while in detention in Tehran. (She had been arrested for taking photographs of the families of political prisoners outside the notorious Evin prison.)
I cannot publish my memoir in Iran. The book would either be banned altogether or censored to such an extent that it would be rendered useless. Publishing my book in the United States would involve risk and repercussions for me back in Iran. I believe, however, that the message of the book is so important that I will happily accept the risk and its possible consequences.
If even people like me—those who advocate peace and dialogue—are denied the right to publish their books in the United States with the assistance of Americans, then people will seriously question the view of the United States as a country that advocates democracy and freedom everywhere. What is the difference between the censorship in Iran and this censorship in the United States? Is it not better to encourage a dialogue between Iranians and the American public?
This is why I filed a lawsuit against the Treasury Department on Oct. 26, joining one filed in September by several American organizations representing publishers, editors and translators. We seek to overturn the regulations on what Americans can and cannot read in the United States.
Human rights, including the freedom to read whatever one wishes, are universal values that transcend national boundaries. Therefore, just as I take on court cases in Tehran to defend others’ rights, so must I follow my conscience and take on a lawsuit in the United States to defend my own rights and the rights of Americans.
Shirin Ebadi is a law professor at the University of Tehran.
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