Nobel peace laureate promotes Iranian democracy

Shirin Ebadi is a role model for liberal opponents of Iran’s conservative regime today: She is fearless, outspoken, and unabashedly reformist.

By Ardevan Yaghoubi

[img id=”76872″ align=”alignleft”] Toward the end of her talk on Wednesday, Shirin Ebadi, prominent Iranian dissident and 2003 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, was asked about the risks of voicing her opinions in public. “Aren’t you in personal danger?” an audience member asked. “Aren’t you scared?”

Ebadi, a longtime advocate of children’s and women’s rights in Iran, offered a bemused reply through her Farsi translator.

“Well, I’ve been to prison and have escaped two assassination attempts [so] I can say I did not need anyone’s permission to speak here today. It’s only natural that they will say you can’t,” she said at the International House lecture, which was hosted by the Aon Global Leadership Series and the Harris School of Public Policy.

Ebadi is a role model for liberal opponents of Iran’s conservative regime today: She is fearless, outspoken, and unabashedly reformist. Her rise to prominence in the West was largely prompted by her selection for the Nobel Prize, but to international and Middle Eastern human rights activists and groups, she was already something of a star.

After graduating from Iran’s top law school, Tehran University, she became one of the country’s youngest judges at the age of 23. In 1975, she became the first woman to preside over a higher court. After the 1979 revolution, in which the secular Shah’s regime was popularly overthrown by an Islamic state, Ebadi was removed from the position of court judge and made court clerk because of her gender. She resigned and began her campaign for equality in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Since then, she has been involved with several domestic organizations, worked with international groups and the United Nations, and provided legal counsel for rights-deprived citizens in Iran.

At the beginning of her speech, entitled “Democracy in Iran,” Ebadi outlined the theoretical foundations of a democratic state.

“It’s not just rule of the majority,” she said. “Plenty of dictators have been voted into office, too.”

Ebadi explained that freedom of speech, in conjunction with equality between sexes and among ethnicities, is the true basis for democracy. She said that the current Iranian government has systematically violated those tenets by oppressing women and ethnic and religious minorities, like Sunni Muslims, and censoring criticism of the state.

“In the penal code, women are counted as half of men. That means two female witnesses are the equivalent of one male witness. If there is a car accident, the female life is worth half that of a man’s,” she said.

However, not all of Ebadi’s criticism was reserved for the Iranian state. She alluded to the Foreign Intelligence Service Act, which allows for “checking emails and telephone calls” by the American government. She argued that American hypocrisy was at the heart of the Iraq War, pointing out that Donald Rumsfeld shook hands with Saddam Hussein during Iraq’s eight-year war with Iran in the 1980s.

Ebadi also dissuaded those who believe that the oppressive Iranian state should be overthrown, whether by American or other military action.

“Democracy is not a gift you can give. It is a maturing process, [and] only Iranians themselves can do it…. It has nothing to do with foreign troops,” she said. “Iranians are tired of violence.”

But it was perhaps Ebadi’s pithiest comment that most accurately condensed her political and moral philosophy.

When one audience member asked for her opinion on the recent laws in Germany and France banning the head scarf in schools, Ebadi’s weariness was not masked despite her use of Farsi, not English.

“In Iran you cannot go without it, in Germany and France you cannot wear it at all,” she said. “I want to ask these people, why don’t you just leave women alone and let them live their lives?”