Shirin Ebadi, Iranian Nobel Peace Prize recipient, received a warm welcome at Stanford University on Saturday May 22. She was there to deliver a speech, as she has been doing in other cities across US and Canada for the past few weeks.
I had the opportunity to attend Ms. Ebadi's press conference and her speech. Following are my thoughts about what she said and the reaction of the audience.
I'll start by Ebadi's words at the press conference. Noting that some people expect a lot from her, she said that she is no hero; and she faulted culture of heroism in Iran for keeping people from doing their part to bring change. Later she also stated that she is not a politician and doesn't have ambitions for political posts. But she certainly made many political statements throughout her speech. This just shows she's caught in a big dilemma. She is on the one hand a people's hero and on the other hand a big factor in the political arena. But she doesn't seem to fully want that role. Or is that just her way of playing that role perhaps? I guess time will tell!
Ebadi received a big welcome when she entered a packed Stanford's Memorial Auditorium. She is a source of pride for them. They envy her and admire her for her accomplishments and her years of hard work in the field of human rights. And rightfully so too!
But it seems many Iranians may have parted with the hero-worshiping mentality. I think Ebadi will be happy to know that while many Iranians truly admire her, they do not hesitate to disagree with her or even criticize her. And this is very healthy of course (a small crowd has been orchestrating malicious attacks against her too. But we are not talking about them here). People should ask questions, as Ebadi herself stated during her speech, and they should study every answer at length and under microscope.
All the while during Ebadi's speech, the audience was reacting to her words and giving her feedback. When she condemned those countries that use the excuse of security to limit freedom and mentioned US and Iran among this group, there was a loud cheer from the audience. The same was true when she talked against the war in Iraq. There were even louder cheers when she mentioned the victims of serial murders in Iran (Mokhtari, Pouyandeh and Forouhars, ...) and when she started reciting the names of some the current political prisoners (Ganji, Eshekehvari, Pourzand, ...).
I could see in Ebadi's face that she was getting excited from all this cheering. So it seems the feedback is effective. She certainly seems to want to do more good, and she seems eager to listen to the people. This is certainly a very positive sign.
Ebadi also received big cheers whenever she talked about the greatness of Iran's culture and history. Iranians in Diaspora are still very attached to Iran, and any mention of her greatness ignites big flames in their hearts and minds.
This all doesn't of course mean that Ebadi is flawless. That wouldn't be human! Still the flaws are not enough to take away from Ebadi's positive message and the positive energy that she pours into the communities she visits.
Following are some of my other observations. As Ebadi's main message has been covered by many other sources, I decided to focus on other issues that have received less attention perhaps.
During question and answer, Ebadi was asked about her opinion about separation of religion and state. To this she said that democracy is the rule of majority and if the majority wanted a religious government, she had no problem with it. This of course raises many questions. The simplest one being if the majority doesn't agree with universal human rights, then is this still ok? As Ebadi has struggled for many years for human rights, I don't think she will agree to this. So perhaps a sensitive issue such as democracy needs to be addressed more carefully so there are absolutely no doubts created in people's minds.
Another very important issue that Ebadi talked about was that of political prisoners. In response to critics who say she hasn't done enough for this group, she said that when they gave her the Nobel Peace Prize, they didn't give her a golden key to open the doors to the prisons. She said she wished she had this key, but she doesn't. On the surface there is nothing wrong with this statement. And I'm certain she truly wishes to open the prison doors and set the political prisoners free, some of whom she knows personally. But there is a big problem with her statement. Ebadi is openly admitting that she's powerless and cannot do much for the political prisoners. And in a way she is accepting things the way they are. But she forgets that she has a mandate now. The Nobel committee certainly didn't give the prize to Ebadi for just what she's done, but also for what she's about to do. And she's aware of this herself. She's taking advantage of her new position to go around the world and to talk about human rights and peace. So why should she accept that she is powerless and she has no "golden key," while in fact she has that key in her hand. Maybe she cannot open the prison doors just yet. But at least she can get close to them. She can cry out loud against those who are holding those prisoners of consciousness, as she did during her speech; and she can keep demanding their freedom and mobilize all the forces she can until these prisoners are released.
In response to another question about the rights of the gays and lesbians in Iran, Ebadi merely stated the current laws on the books in Iran. Many must have been disappointed with this. As a person who fights for human rights of people in Iran, shouldn't Ebadi be concerned with the rights of every Iranian? Why shouldn't she comment about the rights of this group instead of the sentence that has been set aside for them?
I asked Ebadi during her press conference if she feels she doesn't belong to herself anymore. To this she responded that the slavery period has ended and she doesn't belong to anyone but herself. Wasn't it obvious that I wasn't talking about slavery? I was merely wondering if Ebadi's life has been turned upside down because of the prize and that now she may feel that she belongs, literally, to the people of Iran? Later, during question and answer after her speech, someone asked if Ebadi could be like any historical personality, whom that would be. To that she responded that she didn't want to be like a historical personality since she would be dead now! There were other similar instances here and there that provided evidence that Ebadi is not a very sophisticated person coming from the intellectual crowd we are used to pick our heroes from! This I actually see as a very good quality in her. Historically our intellectuals have best served their own small group and in many cases have been out of touch with the people if not reality! Ebadi, on the other hand, should have no problem communicating with the ordinary people. She comes across very friendly, real (that is not fake) and down to earth! This is a characteristic that can come handy connecting with the general population.
While Ebadi brings hope to many Iranians, some are wondering if she will become another Khatami (that is doing a lot of talk and not much action!). To be fair, she should have her chances, and one must not judge her too quickly. Ebadi must certainly be aware of people's reaction to Khatami. And it is certainly her choice what path to take. But certainly the path she takes will also shape her relationship with other Iranians. We'll all have to wait and see!
Dr. Abbas Milani, one of the organizers of the event, also acted as Ebadi's translator throughout the program. And he did a fine job at that. Some people were concerned about the Q&A format since the questions had to be submitted in advance. But judging from the questions presented to Ebadi, various viewpoints were allowed a chance to participate.
Finally I should say this program was very well organized. Persian Students Association of Stanford had done an outstanding job indeed. Many people of course helped make this event possible, and this was certainly a great example of Iranian-American community in action!
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