Iranian Female Lawyers

Is It More Effective to Change the System from Within or from Without?

The law profession in Iran is still very much a man's world. Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi advocates reforms, but not all female colleagues are convinced of this strategy. Roxana Saberi reports from Tehran

photo: AP
Although Shirin Ebadi is generally seen as a "moderate reformer", she openly criticises the democracy deficit of Iran's judicial system

​​When society tells you you're not fit to do something, whether it's true or not, you may start to believe it. Or, if you're like Faride Gheirat, you may fight against the prevailing stereotypes and start to believe in yourself.

"I have not become tired yet, despite a lot of time having gone by," says Gheirat. "I think there's still a lot of work left that I must do because of the interest that I have in society, in the progress of women, and their rights."

The 62-year-old lawyer holds a position that in Iran is largely still regarded as essentially masculine.

Only 500 women lawyers registered

In Iran, women have been serving in Parliament and are outnumbering men in universities, but they have not been flocking to the law profession.

"Now, after the Islamic Revolution, the number of women in Iran is greater than before, and there are only 500 women who are practicing law."

Women lawyers now constitute only around 12 percent of all lawyers in Iran. In many ways, the low number is a reflection of changes in Iran's laws.

"In general, after the victory of the Islamic Revolution, a series of limitations were created, especially concerning barring women from being judges. This caused fewer women go to universities to study law," Behnaz Ashtari explains.

The Iranian lawyer says a recent study she conducted about Iranian women lawyers found several reasons for their low numbers. Before the Revolution, women educated in law found jobs as judges, consultants, lawyers and social workers.

After the Revolution, when women could no longer be judges, some women judges became lawyers, while others left the profession, and some young women who may have entered it, decided not to.

Stereotypes keep women from demanding equality

Since 1995 women have been allowed to be advisors to judges, but they are not permitted to hand down rulings.

Some women also shy away from the profession because of the duties they feel they have at home, as a mother and wife.

Ashtari says another main reason for the relatively low number of women lawyers is that many women allow certain stereotypes in Iran's society to deter them from the profession…

"Based on the clichés that exist in society, there's the belief that the law profession is for men, that it's not seen as very appropriate for women."

Without the confidence of society, many women have lost confidence in themselves: They don't think that they would be able to make good lawyers. Still, those women who succeed at legal practice in Iran are making their presence known. Some, like lawyer Shirin Ebadi, have gained recognition across the world.

Shirin Ebadi: "Being a woman doesn't change anything"

Ebadi won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 for her work defending human rights and the rights of women and children. But the former judge doesn't think that her achievements have anything to do with the fact that she's a woman.

"I don't believe in gender in the work of the lawyer's profession," Ebadi asserts. "I mean, I don't think that being a woman changes anything. As a woman in Iran I haven't had any problems, either while judging or in the legal field. My problems were problems that all my co-workers have… I mean inappropriate laws; I mean disrespect of the law. These are my problems."

Many observers see Ebadi as someone who insists on the compatibility of Islam and human rights, as someone who believes that legal reform, supported by an enlightened approach to Islam, can help solve Iran's problems.

"Democracy is incomplete"

"We see how much discrimination there is in our laws between men and women," Ebadi says. "On the subject of the family, women and men are not equal. The man can have four wives. Without an excuse, a man can divorce his wife. We also have discrimination based on religion. Freedom of expression is incomplete. Democracy is incomplete."

Supporters point to relative successes, they say the latter method has helped accomplish for women – in the areas of marriage, divorce, and inheritance. But critics of Ebadi's method say the whole legal superstructure should be recreated instead of "working within the system."

Other Iranian women who have succeeded at the profession are also helping to make an impression on their society. They've shown women can be strong and financially independent. And they've often earned reputations for being honest and empathetic.

Often women submit to negative stereotypes

They've gained the confidence of many men and women clients. 25-year-old Sulmaz says she prefers women lawyers to men in certain cases.

"In my opinion, a person has a much better relationship with a woman lawyer. She can open her heart up to her and speak to her more easily because she's a woman. She's much more comfortable with her than with a man."

Still, Sulmaz says, she would have more confidence in a man to represent her in cases that don't have to do with family issues.

"If it has to do with work or employment, for example, I prefer to be represented by a man. But in relation to the family or emotions, I prefer a woman lawyer."

It's views like this women lawyers like Gheirat, Ebadi, and Ashtari hope to alter. They want women to engage in jobs long forbidden to them, and to try to improve the condition of women as a whole by defending their rights.

Roxana Saberi

© DEUTSCHE WELLE/DW-WORLD.DE 2005

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