A Nobel Cause: Shirin Ebadi Leads the Charge for Human Rights in Iran

By Massey, Jacqueline M. | Herizons, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

A Nobel Cause: Shirin Ebadi Leads the Charge for Human Rights in Iran


Massey, Jacqueline M., Herizons


When she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003, Shirin Ebadi became the first Iranian, the 11th woman and the third Muslim to receive the honour. Ebadi had been Iran's first female judge, a position she lost after the 1979 Iranian Revolution when the mullahs who assumed power deemed women too weak-minded for the job.

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Now 56, Ebadi is a civil rights activist and human rights defence attorney in a country where women's legal worth is only half that of men's. A mother of two, Ebadi has written numerous books and founded the Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child. She continues to lecture at the University of Tehran, believing that women's education is the key to overcoming a culture that has limited their rights.

While Ebadi remains fierce in her condemnation of Iranian laws that are a blow against the rights and freedoms of women, she is equally critical of other countries such as the United States. She continues despite the fact that her outspokenness has endangered her life--Ebadi has survived two assassination attempts and was imprisoned in Iran for "disturbing public opinion."

While accepting the peace prize in Oslo last year, Ebadi said, "The discriminatory plight of women in Islamic states has its roots in the patriarchal and male-dominated culture prevailing in these societies, not in Islam. This culture does not tolerate freedom and democracy, just as it does not believe in the equal rights of men and women.... The liberation of women... would threaten the historical and traditional position of the rulers and guardians of that culture."

Ebadi has taken on politically explosive cases, earning the ire of conservatives and the hatred of fundamentalists in Iran. She acted on behalf of the families of writers and intellectuals killed in the late 1990s and she continues to demand the release of political prisoners and journalists. More recently, Ebadi has taken on the case of slain photojournalist Zahra Kazemi, who died after being taken into custody in Iran in 2003. Ebadi's high-profile involvement in the case guarantees that the circumstances surrounding the Canadian woman's death will not quietly disappear into the corridors of diplomatic channels. She has vowed to take the case to "international systems and communities."

In this Herizons interview, Ebadi spoke in Farsi and her words were translated by Professor Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak.

HERIZONS: How has winning the Nobel Peace Prize affected your struggle for human rights in Iran?

SHIRIN EBADI: It has made more work for me! More meetings, more travel. More interviews. And what this means is that my voice can be heard louder and clearer and I am very happy and grateful for this.

Some of your critics, especially those living outside their Iranian homeland, have said they were disappointed that you have not taken a harder line against conservative clerics and other Muslim leaders who say they are following the Qur'an and upholding Shari'a law in espousing dictates that suppress the rights and freedoms of women. They question why you do not advocate the separation of religion and state. What would your response be to these critics, and how compatible are human rights with Islam?

SHERIN EBADI: Look, when an event occurs or a talk is given, not everyone interprets it the same way.

It's very natural that various opinions may exist about me. I have respect for the opinions that are opposite to mine. But I firmly believe that what has caused the backwardness in Iran for women is erroneous interpretations of Islam.

As an example, when we protest and say, 'Why should men be allowed to take four wives?' they say, 'Because this is the dictate of Islam.' So the answer would have to come out from the heart of Islam. And we should prove that Islam can be interpreted in another way.

So how do you challenge the hard-line elements who control Iran, who misuse and abuse their power, who interpret the Qur'an in such a way that sustains discrimination and ensures that women are disenfranchised? …

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