A single family: Shirin Ebadi speaks

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openDemocracy: Tell us something about yourself and conditions in Iran.

Shirin Ebadi: I am a defence attorney who has spent her lifetime in the protection of human rights. I am not a career politician, nor a professor of political science. What I say is in the framework of human rights – unfortunately, thinking about human rights is relatively new in Iran. New, in the sense that in Iran the fundamental culture of civic society as it exists in Europe and the United States either does not exist or is much weaker.

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The first human rights NGO in Iran was created in the year 1355, according to our calendar – approximately 1976. Thus, organised human rights activity in Iran is only about twenty-seven years old. The few who launched it had cooperated with international organisations such as Amnesty International. This NGO performed useful activities. But with the 1978-79 revolution, the chance for human rights work ceased to exist in Iran.

After the revolution, newspapers who wished to attack me called me a “feminist” or “liberal” – pejorative words at the time. Now, the situation of human rights in Iran today compared with a generation ago is better. But we have certain laws which violate human rights in a very evident way, even though Iran has signed United Nations conventions on civil, socio-economic and children’s rights.

One example is sexism. In court, two women’s testimony is equal to one man’s. The law sanctions polygamy. A man without a valid excuse can divorce his wife, but for a woman to divorce is very difficult. There are many similar laws.

There is also censorship. For example, an amendment to the press law forbids criticism of the constitution. As a professor of law, I ask myself: if I’m expected to teach the constitution, what should I do with this law?

openDemocracy: Are such laws unpopular?

The important issue is the relationship between law and culture in a society. Iran is a nation and a civilisation whose people deeply believe in democracy. Such laws are not suitable for Iranian society. The feminist movement in Iran, where 63% of university students are female, has gathered strength from opposing them. And human rights work in general has increased.

After the revolution, some of us created the Society for the Defenders of Human Rights (SDHR). Its context was the defence of political prisoners in a situation where the government looked with suspicion at attorneys who accepted such cases. Almost all of these attorneys were imprisoned at one time or another, including me. A colleague of mine, Nasser Zarafshan, is currently in jail; he has also become my client.

The SDHR was established to defend endangered attorneys. We have three main tasks: free defence for ideological and political prisoners, assistance and support to their families, and taking a position about violations of human rights in Iran. The SDHR was the first “true” human rights NGO in Iran, in that we are independent of any government organisation, and not in receipt of financial support from the government or anyone else.

All of us have experienced imprisonment, but this has not given us any feeling of vengeance. We have maintained our independence and neutrality, and we have made advances.

openDemocracy: What – if anything – can people in the west do for the human rights, women’s rights and democracy movements in Iran?

Shirin Ebadi: Human rights are indivisible. All defenders of human rights are members of a single family. When we help one another we’re stronger. What’s important is to give aid to democratic institutions inside despotic countries. But when the United States undertakes a military invasion of another country, the situation for human rights activists can deteriorate. In Iran, for example, every time we speak of defending human rights, we are asked: “Do you want to be like Iraq?” I know very well that what they say is not right – it’s merely an excuse. But I don’t want anything to happen that might weaken our situation.

openDemocracy: Some people argue that what’s happening in Iran today is an Iranian problem – that people on the outside should keep quiet about it and let Iranians work it out for themselves .

Also in openDemocracy, Nazila Fathi’s profile, “Shirin Ebadi and Iran’s women: in the vanguard of change” (October 2003)

Shirin Ebadi: I do not agree with this. If we say that the human rights issue is an internal issue then every government will have its own version of human rights. But, you can’t conduct a military invasion on the pretext of human rights and democracy. The place for debating the issue is in the United Nations and its commissions.

openDemocracy: When activists in the west criticise the human rights record of the Islamic Republic of Iran, does it make it harder for activists such as yourself to make your case? Does the regime use the fact that outsiders are supporting your movement against you?

Shirin Ebadi: If the support comes from human rights defenders, or university professors, or international NGOs, then this will not happen. But if states express support for us, then yes, this may happen.

How do Iranians – foreign policy elite, dissident intellectuals, ordinary people – see the world? Charles Grant, just returned from a week in Tehran, presents a vivid portrait of a political system under pressure: see “Iran between worlds” (February 2004)

openDemocracy: The reform movement in Iran ran into something of a brick wall with the disqualification of large numbers of its candidates from the parliamentary elections in February 2004. What comes next? Where will the movement for democratisation go from here?

Shirin Ebadi: The reform movement may have hit a wall, but people will demolish this wall. People have not forgotten their demands. They will pursue them insistently. The government has thrown opposition members in jail. But from jail they are writing books, publishing articles and spreading the word. Every newspaper that’s banned, another takes its place. The government will either accept the reform agenda or be forced to accept it by the people.

openDemocracy: Which do you think is more likely?

Shirin Ebadi: The new parliament is not yet in session. Parliament can be a defining force. Although the reformers have been defeated, there are many unknown faces in the seventh parliament, and they’ve not had the chance to present themselves. I think it’s too early to judge the seventh parliament before it begins its session. Personally I’m hopeful that they will have the kind of rationality that requires them to listen to the people.

Shirin Ebadi’s responses were translated by Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak, Professor of Near Eastern Languages and Civilization, University of Washington, and author of Recasting Persian Poetry: scenarios of poetic modernity in Iran.