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In my first interview of the year, I’m excited to present a discussion with author Sahar Maranlou. Last November, Sahar published the book “Access to Justice in Iran: Women, Perceptions, and Reality.” She has worked as a consultant and trainer for Iranian NGOs, UNICEF, UNDP and governmental organizations in Iran. She has also initiated several national projects to strengthen the law school’s capacity to provide CLE. Moreover, she is the co-founder to the first Iranian CLE program in Mofid. In Sahar’s new book, she discusses Islamic concepts of access to justice, recommendations to improve legal aid for women, and the first survey of its kind on women’s perceptions of access to justice in Iran.
In your book you talked about the differences and similarities between Islamic and Western legal concepts as they relate to access to justice. Can you talk about some of the similarities that readers may find surprising?
The main similarity between Islamic and Western conceptions of access to justice is related to the definition of justice. Islamic definitions of justice mainly derive from the Quran (the holy book) and the Hadith which refers to the reports of the Prophet Muhammad’s statements and actions. The Quranic term for justice is adl that means to be fair and to be neutral. The Quran says: ‘‘be just even if it should be to near kinsman” (the Quran, verse 6:152).
Understanding justice as fairness or giving every man what is his due has been articulated in ancient Western literature: ‘‘justice is the set and constant purpose to give every man his due’’ in Plato’s work for example. Aristotle also has supported the same definition: ‘‘what is Justice? To give every man his due’’, and developed his theory of distributive justice based on proportionality.
It is very interesting to see how these definitions and interpretations of the concept of justice are similar in both discourses.
You also mention that the West defines access to justice in terms of how the state should provide access to citizens, but in Islam, the concept revolves around how justice is defined and how it can be realized for individuals. Can you expand on these differences?
The Western welfare state is primarily state-centred, placing greater emphasis on strengthening the structure and function of judicial institutions to increase citizen’s access to justice. In fact, emphasis on the significance of access to justice was initiated during the 1960s, in the age of the Welfare State, to emphasise better social services. Studies identified three ‘waves’ of development in access to justice, particularly with reference to the United States experience. The first wave, which began in 1965, included institutional reform to provide legal aid for the poor. The second wave in 1970 advocated greater representative actions (public interest law) and the third focused on dispute resolution mechanisms, mostly non–judicial alternatives and the effectiveness of court procedural reforms. These waves have been discussed in detail in the work of Cappelletti & Garth.
In Islamic discourses, however, the argument is mainly about how justice as a right (haqq) can be established. Another aspect is associated with how a right-holder can possess justice as a right (access). This can refer to the procedural justice and the fair trial principles similar to the Western legal debates. One more interesting notion is about compromising between the rights of conflicting parties which, in many modern legal systems are referred to as, alternative dispute resolutions (ADRs). All these three dimensions are more about how to realise justice for individuals.
You’ve also provided readers with an evaluation of the historical development of access to justice in Iran on issues such as judicial independence, performance of the justice sector, efficiency and accountability, etc. Can you talk about what you found?
I studied historical development in two phases: the pre-Islamic period and the Islamic one. The early development of Iranian ‘access to justice’ can be found in connection with ‘access to court’ where the claims of an individual could be heard. The ancient Iranian justice system was part of the Persian Empire, with the courts controlled by the king, thereby making him the country’s senior judge.
During the Islamic period, control of the clergy in the judicial system was profound. The structure of the Iranian justice system underwent key changes after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Also, historical examination of how the Iranian justice system developed signifies the major role of economic growth and also political development.
One important issue is the lack of judicial independence so judges were often vulnerable to free external interference both during and after any form of political transition in Iran. Another matter is the operational efficiency. Issues such as limited access to updated judicial tools and text books, limited training opportunities for judges and administrative staff, an inadequate number of qualified competent judges or lawyers, the inadequate assessment of the needs of the judiciary and a limited understanding of international human rights norms all affect access to justice.
Your book also publishes the first survey of its kind on women’s perceptions of access to justice in Iran. Can you talk about what you found?
I did a survey study on women’s perceptions of access to justice in Tehran. This study was designed to focus on Iranian women’s basic legal knowledge, their knowledge of Islamic rights, knowledge of legal action, familiarity with the role of the courts, police, and other formal institutions, familiarity with the legal procedure, perceptions of cultural barriers, issues that influence their preference for mechanisms of formal or alternative forms of dispute resolution and their level of satisfaction with the chosen course of action.
One original finding was that most of the women respondents in their interviews were able to identify the legal rights to which they are entitled under the codified law and also Islamic jurisprudence. However, most women knew little about the legal institutions, procedures and responsibilities to which they can refer for resolving their legal problems. Therefore, their knowledge of their rights could not be transformed into legal action because women did not know how the legal system works. And of course the absence of sufficient legal aid makes it extremely difficult for women to enforce their rights by taking legal action.
What legal reform strategies would you recommend, based on your survey, to empower women in Iran?
I think in Iran legal aid clinics, clinical legal education, street law programs and any other similar strategies that can enhance the use of the law or legal empowerment helps women to have more control over their lives through legal knowledge and the courage to take legal action.
For this to happen, women should be educated about the types of legal problems, legal procedures and the role of the different legal institutions that they commonly face. It is important that this advantageous information translates into their day-to-day life experience.
Can you talk about how legal empowerment programs in Iran are successfully embodying Islamic conceptions of access to justice for women? And why these programs can be a good model?
In my book, I have not advocated the Islamic conceptions of access to justice. I have discussed the Islamic perspectives because the nature of study could benefit from comparative research. Iran is a Muslim country and any discussion of access to justice should be able to address cultural differences and various contexts. Any access to justice programme also should be able to take into account religious concepts to enhance legal empowerment in a plural setting such as Iran.
To read more of Sahar’s fascinating findings on access to justice in Iran, you can purchase her book here.