Iran: An evening with 2003 Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr Shirin Ebadi

Denise Scotto via WUNRN
Thousands of people crowded the airport and waited along the highway to welcome home Dr. Shirin Ebadi when she returned to Iran upon receiving the Nobel Peace Prize.
Dr. Ebadi recalled this moment recently one evening as she presented her memoirs to a packed hall at Columbia University in New York City. Who is this attractive woman barely taller than the podium wearing western clothes and speaking through an interpreter ?
At first glance, Dr. Ebadi says, she appears to be a contradiction. She is a traditional woman living in Iran with her husband and two daughters. She cooks, cleans and looks after her family. She is a Muslim who dresses according to the strict code that requires her and all women to cover herself with a headscarf or a hijab. She is a lawyer, a writer, a university professor, an activist. She is one of the first female judges in Iran though no longer on the bench since 1979. She is a dissident and like many human rights defenders she has been imprisoned.

Dr. Ebadi is a reflection of Iran, itself, a land of contradictions where there are many discriminatory laws that badly impact upon women. Polygamy is legal and a man is able to divorce a woman without cause while it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, for a woman to divorce a man. The testimony of a man is considered credible and accepted in court as is. When it comes to the testimony of a woman, it is two women who provide the testimony which equals the weight of the man’s. If there is a street accident and a man and a woman are injured, the woman will receive half of the amount of damages which will be awarded to a man.

At the same time, 65% of students in Iranian university are girls, resulting in women being more educated than men. There are 13 women members of Parliament with women serving in Parliament for over 40 years when women acquired the right to vote—earlier than many of the developed countries. Iranian women are able to drive unlike Saudi Arabia and other Islamic societies. Iranian society looks strange to an outsider, Dr. Ebadi concedes, but she stressed how she wrote the story of her life to show that there is not much difference among the lives of women who live in Iran, Europe or America. She repeated that there are many, many women and people like her who are open-minded and fighting.

Dr. Ebadi believes that the judiciary is one of the most coercive arms of the Islamic machinery. The interpretation of Sharia or Islamic law in most cases is erroneous and is based on a political agenda which has paved the way for human rights abuses particularly against women and those that disagree with Sharia’s ‘misinterpretation.’ She recalled case after case where she appeared in court representing those whose human rights have been violated—a deceased student who demonstrated the closing of a newspaper, the parents of a deceased journalist who died while she was tortured and in custody, two brothers who were imprisoned because the participated in a student protest. Her attempts to secure and present evidence in court were summarily denied. Her attempts to provide clients with a fair trial were frustrated. Her attempts to search for the truth and for justice to prevail were fruitless.

Elections in Iran are not free and air because Iranians are not free to vote for candidates of their choice. It is only after the Guardian Council pronounces the eligibility of candidates that Iranians can vote (strictly for those who are put forth by the GC). More than 90% of those people who would like to be candidates are deemed ‘not eligible’ by the GC therefore the national political machinery does not support legitimate elections.

Describing her deep belief in the rule of law and the democratic process, Dr. Ebadi, believes that societal reform in Iran can only be brought about through a democratic system where people have the power to supervise the government. She acknowledges that Iran has a long road ahead to get to that place but she knows well that the democratic movement is alive and vibrant. Iranians are not satisfied with their situation and they are also sick and tired of the violence and bloodshed during these past 27 years. She feels that the Iranian people are not ready for a revolution, rather, they are willing to endure the length of time it will take for the process of reform to take hold. She cautioned, however, that should the US attack Iran to take democracy there, the Iranian people would not accept the attack on their country and that they would rally behind the government in their defense with every drop of their blood.

In turning to the present state of world affairs and discussing the pressing question of nuclear weapons, Dr. Ebadi said that Iran has the right to nuclear information, power, technology and weapons. All nations ought to have this right which she qualifies ‘for peaceful purposes.’ In answering a question from a member of the audience, she expressed a sincere hope that all governments realize that no country needs nuclear weaponry be it Iran, the US, Pakistan, India, Korea, or Israel. Rather Dr. Ebadi expressed the challenge that world leaders allocate the resources used to produce nuclear bombs for the betterment of the human condition. With these ideals having been uttered, wild applause echoed in the hall for Dr. Shirin Ebadi, an extra-ordinary woman.

May 2, 2006