Iran Awakening

How have free speech restrictions in both the United States and Iran prevented a true dialogue between the two countries?

October 10, 2006

How have free speech restrictions in both the United States and Iran prevented a true dialogue between the two countries?

Propped up on my desk in Tehran is a clipping of a political cartoon I like to keep in sight while I work. The sketch is of a woman wearing a space-age battle helmet, bent over a blank page with a pen in her hand.

It reminds me of a truth that I have learned in my lifetime, one that is echoed in the history of Iranian women across the ages: that the written word is the most powerful tool we have to protect ourselves, both from the tyrants of the day and from our own traditions.

Whether it is the storyteller of legend Scheherazade, staving off beheading by spinning a thousand and one tales, feminist poets of the last century who challenged the culture's perception of women through verse, or lawyers like me, who defend the powerless in courts, Iranian women have for centuries relied on words to transform reality.

Though words are peaceful weapons, over the past fifteen years I have been harassed, threatened and jailed in the course of defending human rights and victims of violence in Iran.

I have long wanted to write a memoir of these years, told from the perspective of a woman who was sidelined by the Islamic Revolution but stayed in Iran and carved out a professional and political role in the forbidding theocracy that emerged.

Along with my own journey, I wanted to illustrate how Iran was changing, for change comes to the Islamic Republic in slow and subtle ways that are easy to miss.

Standing at a crowded intersection in the capital or listening to the sermon at Friday prayers, you would not immediately know that 65% of Iran's university students and 43% of its salaried workers are women.

I wanted to write a book that would help correct Western stereotypes of Islam, especially the image of Muslim women as docile, forlorn creatures. The censorship that prevails in the Islamic Republic has made it impossible to publish an honest account of my life here.

My work places me in opposition to our system, and I suspect I may never be able to write anything in Iran without taking off the helmet. When I received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003, I believed that at least in the West — in open societies that protected freedom of expression — I could publish a memoir that would help correct stereotypes about Muslim women.

I felt my experience could make a contribution to the accelerated debate about Islam and the West, and reach a wide audience. Beyond helping shade the debate about Islamic civilization and its encounter with modern America, I felt that the cold antagonism between the United States and Iran made communication between the two societies more urgent than ever.

I imagined that the voices of Iranians who do not feel their government and its diplomats represent them would be especially welcome in America. I shared my intention to write a book with a university professor in the United States, my close friend Dr. Muhammad Sahimi, and asked for his help.

Dr. Sahimi, after speaking with a number of literary agents, introduced me to a woman named Wendy Strothman. She had attended two of my talks at U.S. universities and felt strongly that my story would find an eager audience among the American people.

The only obstacle, I was shocked to learn when we met in May 2004, would be the American government. Sanctions regulations in the United States, it turned out, made it virtually impossible for me to publish a memoir in America.

Despite federal laws that say U.S. trade embargoes may not restrict the free flow of information, the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) regulated the import of books from Iran and other embargoed countries.

Though the ban did not purport outright to obstruct the flow of information between nations, it effectively did so by prohibiting the publication of "materials not fully created and in existence."

This meant that I could publish my memoir in the United States, but it would be illegal for an American literary agent, publisher or editor to help me — and likely illegal for a publisher to advertise the work.

Neither of us realized at first what serious penalties the regulations could carry. We soon learned that if Wendy had defied them, she could have been fined severely and possibly faced jail time.

In Iran, the Islamic system censors books, casts up Internet firewalls and bans satellite television in an effort to prevent Iranians from accessing information from the outside world.

It seemed incomprehensible to me that the U.S. government, the self-proclaimed protector of a free way of life, would seek to regulate what Americans could or could not read, a practice that is called censorship when enacted by authoritarian regimes.

What was the difference between the censorship in Iran and this censorship in the United States? American officials, when pressed by publishers about the regulations, linked them to national security and insisted that it was possible to petition for a special approval.

But if defending victims in the courts of the Islamic Republic has taught me anything, it is that a single case is rarely the real battle. A case is a symptom of an injustice embedded in the law itself.

As a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, I stood a firm chance of receiving a special license, because I had been imprisoned in Iran for my defense of human rights and a ban on my memoir would have been difficult to defend.

But such an exemption would do nothing for the hundreds of writers and scholars in Iran and other embargoed countries turned away by journals and publishers out of fear of their Treasury Department's regulations.

The regulations were stymieing intellectual exchange in the humanities and the sciences, preventing scholars from sharing lessons learned from such tragedies as the 2003 earthquake in Bam, in which nearly 30,000 Iranians died. As a lifetime defender of free expression, I could not countenance the thought of applying for a government license to publish my book.

I wished for no special treatment because of my unique celebrity, and for me the case swiftly turned into one of broader principles: the right to freedom of speech, and the right and responsibility of the American public to hear from voices around the world. Wendy agreed to do everything possible to help me fight the regulations, and we began seeking legal counsel to aid us in our effort.

After a worrisome few months, we found Philip Lacovara, a distinguished lawyer who had argued the Watergate tapes case before the Supreme Court and a partner in the firm of Mayer, Brown, Rowe & Maw, which offered us pro bono counsel in taking on the U.S. government.

On October 26, 2004, Wendy and I filed a lawsuit against the Treasury Department in a federal court in New York, joining one filed in September by several American organizations representing publishers, editors and translators.

Our lawsuit challenged the standing regulations against import of "information materials" from embargoed countries and argued that they violated the rights of American readers under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

In my declaration, I called the ban a critical missed opportunity both for Americans to learn more about my country and its people from a variety of Iranian voices and for a better understanding to be achieved between our two nations.

To my mind, the regulations also reflected how tangled and dysfunctional the relationship between the United States and Iran remains to this day. The lack of honest exchange remains a dangerous habit for both countries.

It has led both to sustain traumas singular in their modern history: the 1953 CIA overthrow of a democratic government in Iran, and its delayed response — the 1979 hostage siege of the U.S. embassy in Tehran. It worries me that despite this fraught record, the two countries persist in behaving as though their fates are not intertwined, as though they can muffle each other out and feel no ramifications.

For better or for worse, the United States is the sole superpower in the world today, and Iran is the most strategic country in a restive region vital to U.S. interests.

The ensuing entanglements are not few: Iran's sphere of influence extends far into Iraq, where America presides over chaos — and the Iraqi government's new leaders are intimate friends of the Islamic Republic.

And despite their government's official stance, Iran’s young people remain cheerfully pro-American, the last pocket of such sentiment in an angry Middle East.

The two nations know they share strategic interests. This recognition enabled them to join forces to sort out Afghanistan's future after the fall of the Taliban. But ideology and mutual suspicion play as much a role in their ongoing rift as realpolitik, which makes the exchange of ideas — essentially, access to each other's culture and attitudes beyond official rhetoric — so imperative.

On December 16, 2004, the Treasury Department revised its regulations on publications of works by citizens of embargoed nations. Had it not, it would have faced the prospect of a federal court striking down its policy as unconstitutional.

Two months later, in his State of the Union speech, President Bush told the Iranian people, "As you stand for your own liberty, America stands with you." It is hard to imagine the president making this statement while Iranians' right to publish accounts of such stands in America was yet in peril.

Excerpted from IRAN AWAKENING by Shirin Ebadi. Copyright