Shirin Ebadi: a lesson on human rights*

DSCF2632In 2003 she won the Nobel Peace Prize for her tireless work in defending human rights, a choice that resulted in her leading a complicated life and being separated from some members of her family. Ten years after winning this important international award, and four years after the controversial Iranian presidential elections, Shirin Ebadi lives in forced exile in London without seeing her husband and her sister who live in Tehran but are free on bail. Her two daughters are studying in Europe, although all her assets have been seized and sold at auction. “They tried to intimidate me. I told them I loved my family, but I love justice more.”


The Iranian lawyer, who is playing an important role in the history of her country, has recently held a lectio magistralis on “Rights and Civil Society in the Islamic World” at the Luiss Guido Carli University in Rome, Italy. Her life is entirely devoted to justice, initially as a judge and as the president of the courts in Tehran, and after 1979 (since the role played by women in the country’s institutional life change significantly with the Islamic revolution) as a lawyer, in particular dedicated to the status of children and women, the weaker member of Islamic society. However, she does reiterate that “there is no equation in Islam concerning the violation of rights. Problems concerning the respect of human rights also exist in non-Islamic countries, while there are other Muslim countries in which women’s rights and those of democratic institutions are better.” There is instead manipulation in the manner in which Islam is used and Shari’a Law is applied.

The political solution is separation between the state and religion, she says, explaining that “secularism is the first step towards democracy.” One fully understand why her positions clash totally with those of the Islamic Republic, which Shirin Ebadi is not afraid of portraying as a ‘religious dictatorship’. What is harder to understand is how she manages to be so determined in spite of the pressure she and her family are under.

“In 2009, on the eve of the elections,” she explains, “I left Iran for three days to attend a conference in Spain. On the fourth day, when I had planned to return home, my country had changed. Many people had been arrested, others had been killed and those who were still free advised me not to return. They told me to instead go to the United Nations and explain what was happening. Unable to do anything to me, the regime arrested my sister and my husband to prevent me from speaking out. Since then I regularly report to the U.N. on the situation in Iran.”

“They still continue to intimidate me through my husband. I am threatened continuously. But I answer,” she said, “saying that death is something guaranteed to happen to everyone, so why should I worry? I will defend human rights or as long as I live.”

Shirin Ebadi’s presence in Italy is also linked to her appearance at the Festival of Europe in Florence, and is even more significant since the entire world is watching her country where presidential elections will be held next month. After what happened in 2009, and above all following uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East, the events of June 14 are awaited with anxiety. When asked whether the young will take to the streets again, the Nobel Prize winner answered, “the government has been extremely harsh and very violently oppressed those who have protested in the streets. People are afraid now. Furthermore, the regime has already enacted very strict checks also on-line. In the coming days we should be able to understand whether the authorities have managed to prevent rallies and street protests.”

What do you think the result of these elections will be?

Elections in Iran have never been free. The Council of Guardians (consisting of twelve members, six appointed directly by the Supreme Guide and six indirectly Editor’s Note) is called-upon to decide on the legitimacy of the candidates. This means that it is not the people who decide. In any case it is too soon to tell. The registration of candidates only started yesterday and will last five days. After five days the Council of Guardians will begin to assess the candidates. Until the Council announces the names of those approved it is hard to know what is happening. We do not even know whether Hashemi Rafsanjani, who now represents the reformist front, has registered or not.

What about the turnout?

In 2009 three hundred people had registered and only four were considered eligible. Of these four, one was the president and the other three (Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mohammad Karroubi, Mohsen Rezaee, Editor’s Note) were already members of the establishment. In spite of that the people chose to vote for the lesser evil, and the results were falsified.

On June 14 Iranians will vote again, while Mousavi and Karroubi are still in prison without having stood trial and without being sentenced; that is why many Iranians will not cast their votes.

Personally, without presuming to advise anyone, I state that I will not vote because I do not want to be a puppet in the government’s fake-democratic show.

Don’t you think that over time, government impositions aside, the power of numbers will win with a population that for 70% was born after 1979 and thus does not have the Islamic Revolution’s DNA?

I know that discontent increases every day, because in addition to human rights violations there is also a very serious economic crisis due to sanctions. I know that people do not even have access to medicines. And I know that in the end the people will win, but I cannot tell you when or how.

From ResetDOC

Translated by Francesca Simmons

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