In her 2006 autobiography, Iran Awakening, 2003 Nobel Peace Laureate Shirin Ebadi describes a campus protest from 1965, when she was a law student in Tehran: “Something about confrontation—perhaps the adrenalin, the spark of an idea, the fleeting sense of agency—appealed to me.” Ebadi, now 70, has made it her life’s work to confront injustice, rarely backing down. Among the first female judges in Iran, she lost this position after the 1979 revolution led to the formation of the Islamic Republic government. The latter passed several laws rolling back freedoms and rights enjoyed by Iranian women. (Ebadi points out to me that dressing the way she has when we meet—a deep blue and white pant-suit—would be a crime in Iran, for which she would be lashed.) In 1992, when women were permitted by the judiciary to practise law, Ebadi secured a licence. Her subsequent work of taking on the cases of dissident intellectuals, investigative journalists, human rights activists, whistleblowers, women and child victims of abuse, and religious minorities earned her death threats, harassment and imprisonment in solitary confinement. After being named for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003, the hostility of Iranian authorities acquired a new edge, resulting in Ebadi’s exile in 2009. She hasn’t returned to Iran since. In her latest book Until We Are Free, Ebadi narrates all that she has lost in the past years, and why she must carry on confronting power.
How did winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 impact your work, your life?
The Nobel Peace Prize acted as a loudspeaker for my work, carrying my voice across the world, helping draw attention to all the issues I had been fighting for. But it also earned me the enmity of my government, which now started fearing me more. They invaded my NGO and closed it down. They closed my office. A mob attacked the building where my family lived, shouting death threats. In 2009, after the Green Movement (popular protests arguing that the 2009 presidential election results were rigged), the government cracked down and several of my colleagues were arrested. I was in a conference in Spain then, and was unable to return to Tehran. They subsequently arrested my sister. Intelligence agents entrapped my husband, and in prison, they forced him to make a statement denouncing me and my work, which they filmed and later played on Iranian television at prime time. They seized our property, including what I had inherited from my father.
In your book, among several poignant passages, one narrates the meeting with your husband in 2012 after nearly three years, when he is finally allowed to travel out of Iran. While he had supported your work all his life, he feels fed up of the relentless harassment. He asks you, what you have achieved, given that human rights continue to be under siege in Iran, even as the family lives in misery.
Yes, when he told me that, on the one hand, I thought he was correct. And so, I gave him the right to be unhappy. On the other hand, I thought, this is the path I have chosen and I cannot abandon it now, the only way for me is to go on. Everything comes at a price, and so does the fight for democracy and freedom. And my work has achieved something. When I first began taking on controversial cases in the 1990s, the labels like ‘feminist’ or ‘human rights activist’ used to describe me, were used in a derogatory sense. Now such work in Iran is viewed differently. Through the clients I have represented, I have managed to impact some laws and bring about some reform. Of course, we are very far from where we wish to be, but our work, our experiences have been valuable.
Your book vividly narrates all your losses over the past decade, from seizure of your house and orchard with the cherry and walnut trees you planted and tended over the years, to the shutting down of the organization you founded, to the breakdown of your marriage. What has been the most difficult?
The fact that all of my colleagues have been, or are in prison, or in exile. One of my closest colleagues Narges Mohammadi is now serving the second year of a 16-year sentence. Another colleague, Abdolfateh Soltan is serving the sixth year of his 18-year-sentence. The companionship of my colleagues, and the days of us sitting around the table, working together on our cases—that is what I miss the most.
In November 2006, visiting India, you met with the Manipuri peace activist Irom Sharmila. How do you see her recent decision to end what is the world’s longest hunger strike of 16 years against an oppressive law, and float a political party?
I congratulate her, this is the right decision. Meeting her when I visited Delhi was a painful experience. In Iran, political prisoners go on hunger strikes. But maybe for months. Here is someone who carried on for years. If there are people who oppose or feel betrayed by her decision to end her fast, I would tell them to not live in fear, to not be invested in the status quo. Her life is of more use not when she is under house arrest, on a bed, slowly dying, but when she is out fighting. Support her, get her to Parliament.
The mid 20th century, when you came of age, was a period of hope across many parts of Asia and Africa, breaking free from colonial rule. But as you said, and as the struggles of people like you and Sharmila demonstrate, we are a far way off from what had been hoped. How do you look back on this era?
Democracy is not a form of government but a culture, which has to spread among people. People must feel that they need to supervise those who rule them. Our aspirations have fallen. So has our engagement with political and social issues. And in Iran, we have also had other challenges. The overthrow of our prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953, which was engineered by America, severely damaged democracy in our country. If Dr Mossadegh had been allowed to rule, the Muslim extremists within Iran would not have been able to take over the country in the way they have. Subsequently, US sanctions against Iran have greatly hurt our people. But so has the corruption and the wrong policies that exist in Iran: a lot of money has been spent on financing wars in the region, instead of on schools, hospitals and other facilities for people.
Iran has a high degree of female education—99% of women are educated, and female students outnumber male students in universities. Yet the laws severely discriminate against them in most areas of life. How does this contradiction play out?
It leads to a great degree of dissatisfaction simmering in society. Also, female unemployment is so high. It also means that the feminist movement is resisted by the state e.g. by imprisoning such activists. But unlike other parts of the world, Iranian men in general support our feminist movement. This is because they think that any victories which this movement secures will result in some weakening of the power of the state over society. For instance, I had many male clients who were booked because they participated in demonstrations against laws that were anti-women.
What would it take for you to be able to return to your life in Iran?
I do not return to Iran, not because I am afraid of being arrested, but because my life is of little use from inside prison. In exile, I try to be the voice of all those Iranians who are faceless, harassed and censored. I give public lectures, write articles and books, travelling 10 months of the year. Airplanes and airports are my home. Much of this book was written in airports. The day I know I can resume my work of being a human rights lawyer in Iran, I will go back.
Confronting so much injustice, what keeps you hopeful?
I do not permit myself to feel hopeless or depressed. I remind myself every day that as a defender of human rights, I cannot afford to feel so. On those occasions when I feel such emotions approaching me, I pray to God to give me strength.