This October, Shirin Ebadi, the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize winner, filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Treasury for regulations that make it difficult for her to publish her memoirs in the United States. Ebadi is from Iran, a country subject to U.S. embargoes.
The regulations in question do not allow work to be published that has not already been published in countries subject to embargoes. Publishers can neither publish these works nor engage in any editing or marketing of the material.
However, publishers may request a special license from the Department of Treasury to publish the work despite the strict regulations.
One of the problems with this legislation is that it exports denials of publication from countries with severe freedom of speech limitations to our own country.
Ebadi would have a difficult time publishing her memoirs in Iran due to government censorship and regulations. Yet, U.S. policy will not allow her to publish here until it is published there.
Therefore, it will never be published here until changes are made in the Department of Treasury policies.
Even if it was previously published in Iran, American editors, translators and publishers would not be allowed to contribute to the work’s success.
Lawyers representing the publishers’ groups and Ebadi claim that the regulations are unconstitutional because they defy the 1989 Berman Amendment, the 1994 Free Trade in Ideas Act and First Amendment right to free speech.
According to the 1994 legislation, there should be an exemption to the embargos for work that contains “information and informational materials.”
The regulations deny foreign authors from embargoed countries from freely expressing themselves in a country that prides itself on its freedom of expression.
Embargoes are governmental attempts to economically damage the enemies of the United States, yet their effectiveness is debatable in many cases.
Even as a symbol of American dissatisfaction with foreign governments, embargoes should not deny the American public an open discourse with citizens of these foreign countries.
By suppressing the publication of literature from Cuba, Iran and the Sudan, the government subtly enforces the stereotypes that have circulated regarding the people from these countries. This is a disservice to the American people.
Rather than allowing authors from these countries to speak to us directly, we are only made aware of the state of their people from American interpretations through the media and government representatives.
Rather than letting them speak for themselves, we speak for them.
Surely, some essential notions of identity must be lost or, if you’re of a more cynical persuasion, manipulated in translation.
It is the policy of government, either consciously or otherwise, to control the identities of foreigners by speaking for them and constructing their identities in accordance with national interests. This is especially true in the case of the Middle East.
Edward Said, the late Columbia University professor of comparative literature, worked in the field of Orientalism, which he defined to be the process by which Western nations posit themselves in direct opposition to the values and cultures of the East.
The West places itself in a position of power and domination based on faulty and biased knowledge.
By disallowing the free publication of literature and art from all parts of the world, the Department of Treasury plays into this philosophy of identity creation.
Ebadi is a Muslim woman who defies the stereotypes of Middle Eastern women. She is a lawyer and she was the first female judge in Iran.
However, following the Islamic Revolution, women were no longer allowed to serve on the bench.
She has openly criticized the Iranian government and is a leader in the reform movement, for which she has been jailed multiple times.
In a moving op-ed for The New York Times, Ebadi wrote, “For many years now, I have wanted to write my memoir – a book that would help correct Western stereotypes of Islam, especially the image of Muslim women as docile, forlorn creatures. Sixty-three percent of Iran’s university students and 43 percent of its salaried workers are women. I have wanted to tell the story of how women in Islamic countries, even one run by a theocratic regime as in Iran, can be active politically and professionally.”
Ebadi has a story to tell from the perspective of a Muslim woman who has actually lived in an Islamic country. George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld cannot speak for her accurately, nor can representatives of the liberal or conservative media.
Personally, I want to hear her story in her own words. Sadly, my country will not allow me to do so. For now, I suppose that American interpretations of an Iranian woman’s voice will have to suffice.