A Legal Comeback, Mangled and Disfigured
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In its quest for a pristine Islamic state, the government reached into all aspects of peoples' lives. As a teenager in the 1970s, I used to watch TV shows like the Six Million Dollar Man, along with thousands of other Iranians, but right after the 1979 revolution, Western programs were replaced with religious ones. One popular program is a Quranic request line where people call in to ask for their favorite chanters to read verses from the Quran.
The state mandates all kinds of things related to daily life — even the names of children. There is a government-approved list of acceptable Islamic names. But the most dramatic changes after the Islamic Revolution of 1979 came within the courts. Every law and system that had been in place for the previous 70 years was dismantled. In the new Islamic model, the court system was streamlined as well. No more lawyers or juries. Clerics qualified in Islamic jurisprudence would render all verdicts. No evidence was needed.
"My parents were prominent dissidents in Iran. On November 22, 1998 they were brutally murdered by agents of the Islamic Republic of Iran," says Parastou Forouhar, an outspoken critic of Iran's judicial system. A tall elegant woman in her early 40's, she wears a locket with photos of her mother and father - Parvaneh and Dariush Forouhar.
Dariush Forouhar, Parastou's father
Parvaneh Forouhar, Parastou's mother
Forouhar continues, "They both were stabbed to death. My mother 24 times and my father 15 times in their chests. And how do I know these were agents from the Iranian government? Because a month and a half later the intelligence service of Iran announced it themselves, that agents of this organization were responsible."
Parastou's parents were long-time pro-democracy activists in Iran. Her father was imprisoned several times by the Shah. Her mother was an outspoken critic of Iran's clerical regime, especially its treatment of women. Parastou is convinced their murders were ordered at the highest levels of government. She has spent the past five years trying to obtain justice in Iran's criminal courts. In January 2001, three former intelligence ministry agents were condemned to death for the killings, but that raised another problem for Parastou. She is against the death penalty and against a law that would require her to come up with thousands of dollars to "avenge" her mother's death.
Parastou explains, "According to the law of the Islamic Republic, a woman's life is worth only half that of the man and therefore we had to pay the family of the killer of my mother blood money if we wanted to ask for the death penalty for him. This is precisely the kind of law my parents were against."
Because Parastou refused to demand the death penalty as Islamic law decrees, the judges instead, gave the three light jail sentences. Iranian dissidents point to this case and others as examples of how arbitrary and capricious the Islamic courts are, and they say the courts are used to punish journalists and political activists who speak out against the system.
I would like to go back to Iran to see for myself the changes that are taking place, but for personal reasons, I will not go back.
My co-producer Rasool Nafisi is writing a book on Iranian legal reforms and goes back and forth frequently. So he went to do interviews and research for this project.
"I have to say I was a bit concerned this time," says Rasool. "The judiciary is the heart and backbone of the rule of the fundamentalist clergy. Intimidating intellectuals and parliamentary members, putting in prison lawyers and overall giving some kind of air of terror in to the country. That is why I was concerned."
I asked Rasool to tell me who he met there.
"The first person I met was Ayatollah Damad. He is known as an advocate of a liberal Islam and for thirty years he has been on the side of a moderate interpretation of Shariah Law."
Rasool plays me a recording he made in Tehran.
"Today, December 15, I'm here at the Academy of Sciences attending one of the classes of Dr. Damad. The area I'm entering is more like a house - carpeted, you take your shoes off when you enter - plains walls - one of the walls decorated with the citation of Quran - tea is getting ready and some of the students are superior judges."
The class is on the law of retribution, a core principle of Shariah law. Basically, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. It gives victims of serious crimes or their relatives, the right to demand punishment or restitution in the form of blood money. The punishments are often fixed, but can vary regarding the status or gender of the victim and perpetrator.
Rasool's recording continues.
"The Ayatollah is talking about the case of a father killing his son. Under one interpretation of the law, the father is immune from the death penalty because he has killed his own flesh and blood. The Ayatollah then poses the very unconventional question as to whether or not the government should play a role in bringing justice by treating the father like any other criminal in this case."
In the law of retribution, the decision to punish is left to the victim, rather than a court which represents society as a whole. Ayatollah Damad says this ancient idea of vengence and harsh physical punishments don't belong in a modern state.
"But unfortunately in Iran, the clergymen, the great clergymen in the government, don't think like me," says Damad, "they believe we should apply the pure Shariah by the order of Islam, but my point of view is that the applying of Shariah cannot prevent the criminal. It is necessary for us - a new system."
Rasool said that what he found astonishing about Damad was that he wasn't shy about mentioning my great grandfather Ali Abkar Davar.
"During the Pahlavi dynasty, he ordered to constitute a new judicial system and Dr. Davar came and constituted a very nice judicial system very modern very important...like the system of France."
It's really interesting to hear a cleric talk about the past in this way.
Rasool says that what matters about the teachings of people like Ayatollah Damad is that he teaches to a number of law scholars and judges. They are all his graduate students. He's a part of a general tendency among the Ayatollahs and grand Ayatollahs who are coming to the conclusion based on 25 years of experience that the mixture of politics and religion has not worked for Islam or society so they are coming to this conclusion maybe not together but independently.
Moderate clerics are only one of the forces speaking out against the hard-line establishment. The second is lawyers.
Ahmad Bashiri is a lawyer in Tehran. He was a judge at the time of the revolution. Bashiri says the clerics who took over had no legal training and what's more, they were suspicious of anything that had to do with the previous era when they began to 'Islamicize' the courts.
"For example on the law of retribution, a large number of judges, including myself, voiced our opposition to this, and wrote letters to various newspapers on the subject. Unfortunately our letters, which were meant to help and adjust Islamic laws to the requirements of our modern society were met with hostility from the government. The clerics regarded our behavior as opposition to the State, rather than an action meant to serve the legal system of the country, and create a legal system adjustable to modern times."
Bashiri says in recent years the regime has backed away from enforcing the harshest manifestations of the law like stoning and lashing.
"All the laws the clergy threw out of the window now have made a come back, albeit mangled and disfigured. And let me tell you they didn't change these laws because they thought they were bad. They changed them because of all the international pressure from judiciary systems around the world."
Right after 1979, lawyers were literally pushed out of the judicial system. Their desks, chairs and files were thrown out in front of the ministry of justice. They were brought back after several years but remained under the control of the clergy.
Rasool plays more of his tapes.
"Today I am coming back to visit my old friend and classmate Bahman Keshavarz, the head of Iran's Bar Association. I'm entering his room after passing by the secretary.
"I'm returning to my friend after 30-some odd years. I find him in good health with his famous pointed mustache and his very keen eyes."
Recently, under pressure from lawyers, activists and lawmakers the judiciary has raised the
age of marriage from nine to 13 years for girls and passed new laws giving divorced women better custody rights. But Bahman Keshavarz, the head of Iran's Bar Association, explains to Rasool that the Bar Association is under attack again. The judiciary has licensed 4,500 lawyers who haven't taken bar exams from the association. Their explanation - the country needs more lawyers and the association is too elitist.
"According to the Declaration of Human Rights and the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, lawyers can not get their license to practice from the same body that licenses judges. If this is allowed to continue it will damage not only our profession, but also the judiciary itself. I don't think there is anywhere in the world left where they respect lawyers hired by the government."
The hard-line clerics also have control over the media. In the mid-1980s I was a newscaster for Iran's State Television. It was a real bastion of Islamic Orthodoxy. Everyday at 2:30 an official yellow jeep from the television station would pick me up. I was only 19, I'd show up, read what was handed to me in English, and be on my way. Once a supervisor came up to me and asked if I wore mascara. He said there were complaints that my features were too attractive on the air. Later, all women newscasters were told to wear "maghnaes" - short black hoods covering our head and shoulders with a cutout for the face. I remember standing on a street corner in Tehran with my black sunglasses on, waiting for a taxi when some wise guy came by and asked me if I was related to Zorro.
Davar on Iranian television
These days, women on TV can wear a simple scarf, and unlike Afghanistan under the Taliban, women and girls in Iran are encouraged to get an education. In fact, 63 percent of University students in Iran are female. Iranian feminists, both secular and observant, are working hard within the system to get more rights for women. They are giving out little brochures saying what you should know about marriage and what you should know about dowry.
Nadjma Yassari is an expert on Islamic Law from the Max-Planck Institute in Hamburg,
Germany. Yassari lives in Germany but she spent several months this past year sitting in Iran's family court and observing the women.
"So I've seen how judges are giving the dowry to women and how women are trying to negotiate their situation in court knowing now more about their rights, and that is a fascinating thing because it's having Islamic arguments to reform an Islamic system which is really really interesting."
In Iran today, there are hundreds of female journalists, publishers and female members of parliament. There are actually more female members of Parliament in Iran than there are women in the U.S. Senate. The feminists were also instrumental in bringing back family court that was disbanded after the revolution.
Women at a Cafe in Tehran
But these activists - lawyers, progressive clerics, students and women are still only making incremental changes. The majority of Iranians are under the age of 30 and they often want to just get away from all the turmoil inside the country. They get together in cafes for discreet dates. Those who can afford it are also on the internet writing weblogs. There's a name for this.
Rasool explains, "The term is internal exile. It means that society has separated itself from the government and a great number of people take refuge, from hard drugs to satellite dishes; private life away from edicts of government and what it is trying to do in society. I found young people who are so interested in life abroad that they emulate a foreign accent without being outside the country. People who are in their own country - foreigners - and the term 'internal exiles' fits very well with those people."
Away from Iran, I don't know if I consider myself an exile. Even though I don't use it, my name is still Iran, and I felt all the pride of an Iranian in October 2003 when I heard that an Iranian human rights lawyer had just received the Nobel Peace Prize.
Next: The Pride of Iran