Iram Ramzan recently caught up with Iranian lawyer and human rights activist Shirin Ebadi during a talk about women's rights, President Rouhani and the situation inside Iran.
Iram Ramzan recently caught up with Iranian lawyer and human rights activist Shirin Ebadi during a talk about women’s rights, President Rouhani and the situation inside Iran
“I remember when I always used to be angry. But anger on its own is not going to do anything.”
Speaking through Farsi interpreter Ali Shahabi at Bradford University’s PeaceJam event on May 3, Dr Shirin Ebadi wanted to talk to the audience about success and following one’s dreams.
“Don’t be frightened of setbacks. You will look back and regret that you didn’t do what you had to do,” she said. “Any setbacks can be a prelude to success – it depends how you view them.”
Born in Hamadan in Iran, Ebadi is a lawyer, a former judge and a human rights activist.
In 2003, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her significant and pioneering efforts for democracy and human rights, especially women’s, children’s, and refugee rights. She was the first ever Iranian to receive the prize.
It is no wonder that she is seen as a threat to the Iranian regime, who continue to harass her and her family.
Ebadi is not allowed to return to Iran so lives in exile in the United States, although she spends nine months of the year travelling extensively because, she explains, “I have to convey the voice of Iran to the rest of the world.”
On the rare occasion that she does relax, she reads. She told me that she is partial to the works of Dan Brown and Emile Zola – translated in Farsi of course.
At the end of the talk and interview that followed, I spoke to two young Asian men who were students at the University. One was unsure about Ebadi because “I still think she might be a puppet”, although when I pointed out that she was always defending Islam he relented.
Regardless of your views on Islam, one cannot accuse her of damaging her religion or being an ‘apostate’ as the Iranian regime has done. She continues to insist that religion is misused. “The Qur’an has been interpreted by men until now,” she said. “It’s time for women to interpret it.”
In March 1969, Ebadi officially became a judge and continued her studies at the University of Tehran in order to pursue a doctorate’s degree in law in 1971. In 1975 she became the first woman president of the Tehran city court, and also the first ever female judge in Iran.
After the Iranian revolution in 1979, the conservative clerics insisted that Islam prohibited women from becoming judges and Ebadi was demoted to a secretarial position at the branch where she had previously presided.
Despite all this, she insists that her belief in the legal system and the possibility of change in Iran never wavered.
But are we getting anywhere, one audience member asked, when girls in Nigeria are being kidnapped and young girls in Pakistan are being married off?
“There isn’t anywhere where women have their full rights,” she explained. “Every three days in Italy, a woman is assaulted or killed by her partner or husband. In Islamic countries, the violence is manifested in discriminatory legislation. In Iran, a man can marry four wives – is this not violence against women? You marry a man because of your love, you live with him for many years, and then he brings a younger person to the house and says this is my new wife. Is this not violence against women?
“In western countries, wages are still not equal. They use women’s bodies to sell commodities. Is this not abusing women? What about smuggling women – human trafficking from eastern Europe? It is everywhere.
“What is the root for all of this? The root is paternalistic culture. Not gender as such, but the wrong mentality that doesn’t accept equality between human beings. It shows itself in different ways in different places. This is what we should fight against.”
Ebadi went on to say that women need two things to progress in life. The first is self confidence and the second is financial independence.
“A woman that needs to ask her father or husband for money is never going to enjoy independence,” she stated. But what about those women who choose to stay at home and wish to be looked after by their men? She simply replied, “They are making a mistake.”
One woman in the audience, when Shirin discussed female genital mutilation, asked a question that is regularly asked by those on the left and one which infuriates me, as well as others I know: at what point does one decide which aspect of another culture is barbaric and will it be seen as insensitive to criticise it?
Ebadi simply replied: “Wrong traditions should change. The way to do that is awareness and knowledge. Changes in traditions don’t happen overnight. You have got to start from somewhere. If you can’t say anything because of culture then nothing is going to change. It has to happen one way or another.”
It is difficult to speak out when faced with such mentalities. The other student, with whom I had a conversation afterwards, claimed that she was trying to impose western education on those in other countries – ironic for someone who is currently taking advantage of a western education.
At the same time, however, he and the other student told me “we need more Muslim women like her to speak out”. But perhaps they would prefer her to speak on those issues that they want her to.
Rouhani and Iran
For several months, I have noted that the mainstream media coverage of Iran is limited to discussion of Iran’s nuclear ambitions and very little is mentioned about President Hassan Rouhani, who is often described as a “moderate”. Why is that?
Ebadi explained: “He is different to Ahmadinejad. He smiles better. He talks better. But no changes have taken place in the country. Since elections, the number of executions have increased.”
There are numerous examples of brutalities in which the Iranian regime engages. In April, Evin Prison, which is in northwestern Tehran, became the scene of an attack by more than 100 soldier guards – an attacked that has become known as ‘Black Thursday’ by local activists.
Furthermore on May 1 Iran’s Revolutionary Guards had begun excavation in a historically important Baha’i cemetery in Shiraz. Members of the Baha’i faith continue to be persecuted in Iran as they are deemed as apostates.
“They don’t even leave the dead alone,” Ebadi added.
Earlier this year, a low-budget film called ‘I am Rouhani’ , which tells the story of the president’s life, had been circulating around Iran. The Iranian speaker of parliament Ali Larijani denounced it as a “big lie.”
Ebadi has seen the documentary but said it was “nothing new”, explaining that people have known this information beforehand.
Rouhani’s rhetoric is indeed less inflammatory than his predecessor Ahmadinejad, but we cannot be complacent. The true test of the regime’s commitment to reformation and a ‘moderate’ Iran will be its actions rather than its rhetoric which, thus far, seems to suggest that little has changed.Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.