One of the phrases President Obama used in his inauguration speech I have heard repeated below are many many open hands reaching out in hopes that they will find US hands open as well.
I have just finished reading Iran Awakening, the memoir of Shirin Ebadi, the winner of the 2003 Nobel Peace prize for her work as a human rights lawyer in Iran. She has worked there tirelessly on behalf especially of women and children. Custody rights, divorce, and morality laws have been heavily repressive under the Islamic Republic.
In order to publish her memoir in the US, Ebadi had to file a lawsuit against the US Treasury, because of the trade embargo against Iran. Her publishers in the US otherwise would have faced the possibility of prison time.
This book, along with two others I have read over the last few years (Persepolis--a graphic novel that is now a film and Reading Lolita in Tehran) have given me a great appreciation for the strength, wisdom and resilience of women in the Islamic Republic. They give me hope for the possibilities of change, yet I worry that if the US puts too much pressure on Iran, they will be unable to secure the change they work so hard for. A nation on the defensive has the tendency to increase, rather than decrease, repression.
Women were a major force in bringing the Ayatollah Khomeini into power in the first place. Angered and weary of the Shah's repressive regime, his lavish lifestyle while poverty gripped the lives of many, and his unyielding secularism, women took to the streets in millions to chant revolutionary slogans and demand the toppling of the Shah's regime. They claimed a public voice, organized tirelessly and paved the way for Khomeini's return from exile in France to become the supreme leader of Iran.
The ironic tragedy is that as soon as Khomeini gained the reins of power, he began to systematically dismantle, silence and punish women's voices and participation in public life. Women lost their jobs. Ebadi, who served as judge under the Shah, was relegated to a clerk position. Morality police began combing the streets for women whose headscarves were askew or who were seen in the company of an unrelated male. You've heard the storiess...torture, executions, imprisonment for minor offenses. Many women felt completely betrayed. In the fervor preceding the revolution they had been treated as equals.
Despite the repressiveness of the Islamic Republic (or maybe because of it), Iran (and Iranians living outside Iran) has become a crucible for Islamic feminism. Regardless if their preference would be for a secular society with freedom of religion, people like Shirin Ebadi, in order to advocate for their clients within the framework in which they live, have had to become Islamic scholars themselves. Ebadi and others like her, have delved deeply into Islamic jurisprudence, Qur'anic scholarship and the sayings (or "hadith") of the Prophet in order to argue for more fair and just treatment of women, children, and other vulnerable people in society. They have found within Islam itself the tools for their own liberation. They have taken on the narrow and restrictive policies of their theocracy using the same tradition. And in many cases they have made significant progress.
Hundreds of thousands of Iranians met Ebadi in Tehran when she returned from receiving the Nobel Prize. These are the people with open hands. I hope Obama can tread lightly enough that they stay that way.