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the Complete Review
the complete review - memoir / law

Iran Awakening

Shirin Ebadi

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Iran Awakening

Title: Iran Awakening
Author: Shirin Ebadi
Genre: Memoir
Written: 2006
Length: 218 pages
Availability: Iran Awakening - US
Iran Awakening - UK
Iran Awakening - Canada
Mein Iran - Deutschland
  • with Azadeh Moaveni
  • A Memoir of Revolution and Hope

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Our Assessment:

B+ : interesting life, breezily related

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Christian Science Monitor . 9/5/2006 Chuck Leddy
The Nation . 29/5/2006 Reza Aslan
The New Republic . 5-12/6/2006 Vali Nasr
New Statesman . 19/7/2007 Omid Nikfarjam
The NY Times Book Rev. A- 16/7/2006 Laura Secor
Sunday Times . 14/5/2006 Hala Jaber
The Times . 13/5/2006 Nasrin Alavi

  From the Reviews:
  • "Ebadi's well-crafted memoir is notable for such frustrating moments of justice thwarted. (...) Iran Awakening offers the chance to understand Iran's tumultuous recent history, seen through the eyes of a supremely courageous Islamic woman." - Chuck Leddy, Christian Science Monitor

  • "(A)n inspiring account of her herculean struggle to hold Iran's clerical regime accountable for its gross human rights violations. As a testament to how a single, inspired voice can rise above the cacophony of bigotry and fanaticism, the book should be required reading for any American trying to see through the fog of misinformation about how to bring freedom to Iran." - Reza Aslan, The Nation

  • "The book is a powerful condemnation of the dictatorship of the ayatollahs, at its best when it recounts the suffering of those whom Ebadi represented. (...) But the narrative loses its poignancy when it shifts to the writer herself." - Vali Nasr, The New Republic

  • "Marked by its honesty and sobriety, Iran Awakening is a must-read not only for a western audience, but also for Iranians as a contemplative treatment of their recent history: to remember what they have gone through and why." - Omid Nikfarjam, New Statesman

  • "(A) memoir that is both a deft history of post-revolutionary Iran and a genuinely intimate recollection. It is fast-paced, suspenseful and spare, its details memorable and well-chosen. (...) One wishes there were more about the cases themselves, the strategies she has used to represent her clients and the intricacies of the trials." - Laura Secor, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Iran Awakening is a riveting memoir" - Hala Jaber, Sunday Times

  • "Ebadiís inspiring memoir Iran Awakening offers a first-hand look at her remarkable life and Iranís human rights struggle." - Nasrin Alavi, The Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       It is the Nobel Peace Prize that she received in 2003 that made Iranian lawyer Shirin Ebadi an internationally recognised figure. Iran Awakening (written "with Azadeh Moaveni", whatever that means) is a fairly simple and short memoir, recounting her life, lingering over a number of the more significant cases she was involved in as well as other significant events, and with occasional commentary on what she sees as the situation in Iran and the injustices of the Islamic Republic system.
       In her Epilogue Ebadi notes:

The censorship that prevails in the Islamic Republic has made it impossible to publish an honest account of my life here.
       What's noteworthy, here and throughout the book, is the perspective she writes from: her 'here' is and always was Iran. And while her memoir can not be published there, she at least is in a position to publish it elsewhere (though, as it turned out, American law almost prevented its publication there, too ...). Ebadi writes about Iran from Iran. She always worked within the system, whatever that system was (and despite sometimes being marginalised far, far on the periphery), and never abandoned her homeland, feeling an obligation towards it. She understands the many who left the country, but the resulting brain-drain obviously deeply troubles her; one of the hardest decisions for her is her own daughter having to make the choice of whether to pursue higher education in Canada.
       Born in 1947, she entered law school in 1965 and was appointed a judge in 1970. It was a career move that dimmed her marriage prospects -- in Iran women had opportunities such as this, but the patriarchal society still had expectations of a more domestic role for women, and prospective grooms obviously worried about her independence; tellingly, even though she married a fairly open-minded man, it was Ebadi who was always responsible for the household (and everything involved in keeping it up).
       Ebadi does not spend a great deal of time on her early career -- the Shah has been deposed and Ayatollah Khomeini is back in Tehran by page 35 -- and it is her life and work under the Islamic Republic that is the focus of the memoir. As she notes, there was widespread opposition to the decadent and dreadful Shah and in the desire simply for change Khomeini became a convenient figure to rally around -- but few realised what the implications were of letting a fanatic like him become the dominant figure in the nation. It did not take long for his antiquated interpretation of Islam to start creeping into everyday life: first there was pressure on Ebadi to wear the veil, and by the end of 1980 she was stripped of her judgeship, simply for being a woman (the new government choosing to interpret Islamic law as barring women from being judges). As she notes, as the most distinguished female judge in the Tehran court and a supporter of the revolution:
If they came for me, it meant it was all over for women in the justice system, and perhaps in government altogether.
       Officially, she was transferred to the legal office, but it was a position in no way commensurate with her qualifications and experience. But the worst was yet to come: the imposition of an Islamic penal code. When she first read the draft: "I was convinced I was hallucinating. How could this be ?"
       Ebadi reminds readers that circumstances also shaped the success the Islamic Republic had in its hold over its citizens, specifically the attack on Iran by Iraq, as in wartime citizens are much more willing to give up even the most fundamental rights. Almost as a matter of course, Ebadi describes burning her library of politically objectionable books, the possession of which would get her in trouble with the authorities. She wonders about how she will explain these times to her daughter, putting it nicely:
I had started keeping a file of clippings from the newspapers to present to her later, when she would be old enough to demand explanations and my own memories, hopefully, would have faded.
       Eventually, there were changes, including some that afforded women greater educational opportunities (as, ironically, the strictly segregated classes and pervasive Islamic presence in the classroom made sending girls to university acceptable even for traditional fathers). There was also some actual liberalisation, and in 1992 women were again permitted to practise law. Ebadi got her license, but found out soon enough that: "this was a justice system in name only". She decided that the best thing she could do was restrict her practise to pro bono cases, so she could: "at least showcase the injustice of the Islamic Republic's laws."
       It was specifically the laws that made women second-class citizens she found so objectionable and tried to fight. She recounts a variety of hair-raising cases; equally hair-raising is what passes for legal procedure in the Islamic Republic, as there is also rarely any sort of clear resolution. As she notes in her Epilogue, the cases deserve fuller treatment, but even the brief descriptions suffice to show what gross inequities there are, and how screwed up the legal system in Iran is.
       Ebadi understood from the beginning that:
a personal story is more powerful than any dry summary of why a given law should be changed. To attract people's attention, to solicit their sympathies and convince them that these laws were not simply unfair but actively pathological, I had to tell stories.
       And she does that well -- though it must be noted that she is helped by a media that is not entirely under the thumb of the state, and thus permits the stories to reach the wider public. (The press-freedom situation varies from time to time as well, but generally seems quite liberal -- at least compared to the misguided repression found everywhere else in the Islamic Republic.)
       Ebadi herself believes in the secular separation of religion and government (because religion is subject to interpretation, with almost invariably terrible results), but she also understands that the system she finds herself in is one where the two are completely intertwined. A world based on Islamic law is tough to deal with, since there will always be ambiguity:
there will never be a definitive resolution, as that is the nature and spirit of Islamic interpretation, a debate that will grown and evolve with the ages but never be resolved.
       Still, the only way to fight the system is on its own terms, and so that's what she does:
If I'm forced to ferret through musty books of Islamic jurisprudence and rely on sources that stress the egalitarian ethics of Islam, so be it. Is it harder this way ? Of course it is. But is there an alternative battlefield ? Desperate wishing aside, I cannot see one.
       Ebadi describes the hope that came with the election of Mohammed Khatami -- "an unequivocal popular mandate for change" -- in 1997, but notes that expectations were far too high in a country where the president only had limited powers. (Unfortunately, the book does not mention her thoughts on Khatami's screwball successor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, or the direction she believes the country might be going in now.)
       Ebadi focusses on a few episodes, including her own imprisonment, as well as her return home after learning she won the Nobel Prize, but a lot is left unsaid. The book ends with her arrival at Tehran airport in 2003 (save for the Epilogue, dealing with her American publishing problems), and there's little sense of the consequences of her winning the prize, especially in Iran itself.
       Still, overall, there's a good mix of the personal (her marriage and family), the political (and specifically the changing situations in Iran), and the legal (specifically some of the horrible cases she is involved in).
       As she notes:
so much of what you experience under the Islamic Republic leaves you at a loss, unable to apply objective measures. It is as though you are constantly viewing reality through shattered fun-house mirrors, and what looks tall or wide becomes so relative that you abandon objective categories altogether: tall or wide ? fortunate or unfortunate ? Who knows.
       On the one hand this is a country where Ebadi found herself on a hitlist of intellectuals to be assassinated by members of the regime, on the other hand the government itself played a role in uncovering and stopping these rogue elements. A semi-free media does offer a platform for Ebadi and many others, and compared to other states in which Islam is influential, Iranian women have surprising opportunities, and yet much is still absolutely outrageous.
       Ebadi's memoir is a useful quick introduction to the conundrum that is contemporary Iran. In passing, many of the West's (and specifically the United States') mistakes that have contributed (and continue to contribute) to the current situation are mentioned, and Ebadi's local perspective -- she is Iranian (but anything but an apologist for the regime) -- is a useful one to have. The tone is occasionally almost too casual, and certainly one wishes for much more detail, but as a short, very readable introduction to woman, country, and legal system it serves its purpose. And her tale of what one woman can accomplish even under trying circumstances is certainly inspirational.

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Iran Awakening: Reviews: Shirin Ebadi: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Shirin Ebadi (شیرین عبادی) was born in 1947. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003.

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© 2006-2010 the complete review

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