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Nobel Peace Laureate Shirin Ebadi Sees Democratic Future in Iran

By Karl Fritz, Washington File Special Correspondent
Ebadi travels throughout U.S. promoting her memoir

Washington -- Iranian Nobel Peace Laureate Shirin Ebadi offers a cautious voice of hope for the prospects of a better and more democratic future in Iran.  The human rights lawyer told a Washington audience, “I am an optimist on democracy in Iran because I am optimistic regarding the people of Iran and confident that they will push for change.”

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Ebadi has been an outspoken advocate for human rights in Iran, particularly on behalf of women and children.  Formerly a judge, she and other women judges were removed from the bench when, following the 1979 revolution, government officials deemed women to be too emotional to administer justice fairly.

Choosing to remain in Iran, Ebadi has worked as a defense attorney and advocate on behalf of those whose fundamental human rights have been threatened or suppressed by the Iranian government.  She has represented victims of government terrorism in a number of cases that have received international attention.  She represented the family of Zahra Kazemi, an Iranian-Canadian photojournalist, who died in prison in Iran after photographing family members of missing students protesting outside a prison.  She has represented Akbar Ganji, a leading investigative journalist, who, until recently, was imprisoned for a series of articles unfavorable to former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 in recognition of her work on behalf of democracy and human rights, and her special focus on the problems facing women and children in Iran.


Ebadi is conducting a 10-city tour in the United States to promote publication of her memoir Iran Awakening - A Memoir of Revolution and Hope, co-authored with Azadeh Moaveni.

In her memoir, Ebadi asserts, “the written word is the most powerful tool we have to protect ourselves, from the tyrants of the day.”  Her work is being translated for publication in 16 language but not Farsi.

“The censorship that prevails in the Islamic Republic has made it impossible to publish an honest account of my life here,” Ebadi notes.  Her work provides the perspective of a jurist who has fought to avoid being marginalized by a regime intent on silencing her and other professional women.  In opting to remain in Iran and pursue her career, she has been harassed, threatened and jailed for her defense of victims of violence and human rights abuse.

She told an interviewer on U.S. National Public Radio that she wants the victimization of women and children in Iran to be understood in simple terms.

“We have an expression in Persian that the strength of the chain is in the smallest link.  We should always take care of the smallest links in society and must always look after children’s and women’s rights,” she said.


According to Ebadi, Iran is a land of contradictions.  On the one hand, the 2000 parliamentary election brought into government a number of reform-minded individuals, including 14 women.  One of Iran’s vice presidents is a woman; 63 percent of Iran’s university students and 43 percent of salaried workers are women.

On the other hand, she noted that the unemployment rate for women is three times the rate for men, and the Iranian parliament has enacted a number of laws and adopted practices that undermine democracy and discriminate against women.  The Iranian Guardian Council sits in judgment of the appropriateness of candidates seeking election, despite the fact that the constitution provides for the conduct of free elections, she said.  She noted that a separate law entitles women seeking to recover damages for an injury to only one-half the compensation that a man could obtain under the same circumstances.  She said that the government censors books, puts up Internet firewalls, and bans satellite television in an effort to prevent Iranians from accessing information from the outside world.  Ebadi said that human rights have deteriorated since former President Mohammad Khatami left office in 2005.

Ebadi learned of her award of the Nobel Peace Prize while traveling in France.  Upon her return to Iran, she was met in the middle of the night at the Teheran airport by hundreds of thousands of supporters, many of whom arrived on foot at the airport when the crush of traffic made it impossible to travel by private car or bus.  Most of the crowd was female -- women offering support and appreciation for Ebadi’s work on their behalf in obtaining more equitable treatment under the law.

She resolved then to use her enhanced visibility to provide to readers her perspective on Iran and said she places her hope in people, not governments.

“We need the help of the people of the United States and of the rest of the world.  We count on public opinion in the rest of the world and we know that public opinion is in support of human rights and democracies.  My hope is in the people, not in foreign governments,” Ebadi wrote in her memoir.

“[D]espite their government’s official stance, Iranian young people remain cheerfully pro-American, the last pocket of such sentiment in an angry Middle East,” she added.  Despite the obstacles, she encourages U.S. nongovernmental organizations supportive of civil society to seek out like-minded elements in Iran.


Asked about Iranian nuclear capabilities and the risk that Iran will continue to pursue nuclear weapons, she observed that the government of Iran claims to have peaceful purposes for its nuclear energy, but that the world is not accepting that.  She said that the solution to this impasse must come from what she calls an “enhanced democracy” in Iran that could begin to inspire trust abroad.  Ebadi noted that the world has no fear of France with its atomic bomb because the French people exercise control over their democracy.

“Iran, for its part, must peacefully transition to a democratic government that represents the will of the majority of Iranians.  Between our still-too-recent revolution and the [war with Iraq] that followed, Iranians are tired of bloodletting and violence.  Many are ready to go to prison or risk their lives for their dissent, but I don’t see Iran today as a country where people are ready to pick up weapons against their government," she wrote.  "[I]n the end, the Iranian revolution has produced its own opposition, not least a nation of educated, conscious women who are agitating for their rights.  They must be given the chance to fight their own fights, to transform their country uninterrupted.”

Regarding the reference to “revolution and hope” in the subtitle of her memoir, Ebadi says that “change comes to the Islamic Republic in slow and subtle ways that are easy to miss.”  She told an interviewer that while nondemocratic countries tend to abuse the teaching of Islam, the culture of democracy exists in Islam.

“The problem is people’s expectations are greater than what Islamic governments are delivering and if the majority wishes for change, it will work toward that end.  We need an interpretation of Islam which fits the 21st century,” she said.

Ebadi dismissed the thought of retirement any time soon with so much work still to be done.  Asked why, amidst the danger, she elects to remain in Iran rather than leave the country as so many others have done, she responds in her book by saying, “What good am I abroad?  The nature of my work, the role that I play in Iran, could it be conducted from across continents?  Of course not.”

In deciding to stay in Iran, she likens her situation to one whose mother becomes sick.

“Would you leave your mother sick on the street corner or try and get her treatment?” she responded.

Pressed on how one can justify supporting a mother who abuses her other children, Ebadi said, “A mother abusing others is facing problems and we need to treat that problem. Iran needs treatment at this time.”

(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site:


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