The Magazine

Iran's First Lady

From the November 3, 2003 issue: Meet Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi, a voice for human rights in the Muslim world.

Nov 3, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 08 • By AMIR TAHERI
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Editor's Note: The Nobel Committee's decision to name Iranian human-rights lawyer and activist Shirin Ebadi the 2003 peace laureate has turned her into a household name throughout Iran and the Muslim world.

Moreover, the 56-year-old Ebadi has become an alternative source of moral authority in Iran--and a rare figure of consensus in that fractious society. With the exception of the hardline Khomeinists who have branded her "an enemy of Islam," Ebadi has won praise from virtually all Iranians--from left to right. She now possesses a capital of goodwill that few others seem to have in Iran.

What will she do with it? Will she, as some opposition leaders clearly hope, lead a list of pro-democracy candidates in next March's general elections? Will she go further and become a candidate for the presidency in 2005?

These and many other questions were posed in a recent telephone interview conducted by Amir Taheri, editor of the French quarterly Politique Internationale, who also translated the interview from Persian. It is excerpted here.

A few weeks ago you left Tehran for Paris as just another traveler. Now you have returned to a hero's welcome, although some had believed you might decide to stay in Europe. What are your feelings?

There was never any question of not returning. Without my attachment to Iran, my life would have no meaning. I was not prepared for what happened. I did not even know that my name had been put forward for a Nobel. But, as I said right from the beginning, I see the prize as a message from the international community to the people of Iran, especially to women, and, beyond them, to the Muslim world. The message is that human rights belong to all mankind and that peace is possible only if they are respected.

Will your Nobel prize mean a new start for the democracy movement which seems to have lost some steam in recent weeks?

I hope so. The message is that fighting for human rights in Iran is not a lonely pursuit. It will also strengthen civil society, without which no democratization is possible. A society changes when large numbers of its members change within themselves. This is happening in our country.

Can the present regime be reformed without violence?

Yes. I think nothing of lasting value can come out of violence. I think we can work within the law and seek the changes that are needed through constitutional processes. I have never done anything illegal and support peaceful means. The number of people who want reform is rising all the time.

Some say your selection is a political move by Europe to show that regime change can come through "soft power" as against the American use of "hard power" in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I don't share that analysis. The situation in Iran is different from Iraq and Afghanistan. There were no mechanisms for internal change in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Iran, there are. Europe has understood that to stop wars it is necessary to ensure respect for human rights throughout the world. This is both a principled and a pragmatic position.

You supported the election of President Khatami. Do you still regard him as a leader for reform?

I was one of millions who voted for Khatami because had we not done so, the conservatives would have won. We had no other choice. Unfortunately, however, I must admit that President Khatami has missed the historic opportunities he had. The reform and democracy movement has passed him by.

President Khatami has said that your prize is not worth "all that fuss." What is your reaction?

I respect the president's view. People are free to have their own opinions on all subjects.

Some Khomeinist figures have issued thinly disguised threats against you. Will you feel safe?

I have learned to control my fears and am not put off by threats. As for the comments made against me, people are free to express their views. Those who fight for human rights in places like Iran, and many other developing countries, should always be prepared for the worst. But those who make threats would be wise to stop for a moment to ponder the undercurrents of history. They will see that the age of rule by fear is coming to a close throughout the world. Why should Iran be an exception?

Some say that, with time, you might become a half-forgotten icon like Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese leader who also won the Nobel peace prize.

I don't know about Burma. But I know about Iran. What is at stake is beyond me or any other individual. We have a deep-rooted and growing movement for democracy and human rights that has support in all sections of society.

And yet the situation in Iran seems blocked. In all elections, there are overwhelming majorities for reform. And yet there is no reform. Some people believe a new revolution is necessary.

I think the era of revolutions has ended. Also, there is no guarantee that another revolution would provide something better than the one we had 24 years ago. After years of reflection I have come to the conclusion that revolutions never deliver what they promise. What I am working for is a reform movement in all walks of life, political, social, cultural, and, of course, individual rights. Like me, the people of Iran are deeply disappointed with the Islamic Revolution. In the Islamic Revolution and the war with Iraq that followed, countless families lost their children and/or parents. The nation lost the flower of its youth. Also, millions of Iranians were forced into exile. The cost of this revolution will take generations to absorb. The only way out is through peaceful reform. Khatami is not the only proponent of reform. The failure of his administration is not the failure of the reform movement. In any case Khatami's second and final term will come to an end. But that will not mean the end of our people's aspirations.

In practical terms, how do you think change could come in Iran?

History is never written in advance. It is always full of surprises. Change could come through elections. What we need is an amended electoral law that allows citizens to vote for any candidate they wish. If the present system continues and the Council of the Guardians of the Constitution retains its power to fix the elections, the Iranian people are certain to massively boycott the next general election in March 2004, just as they did in the recent municipal elections.

Should the Islamic Republic be replaced with a secular regime?

There is some confusion here. What we have in Iran is not a religious regime, but a regime in which those in power use religion as a means of staying in power. If the present regime does not reform and evolve into one that reflects the will of the people, it is going to fail, even if it adopts a secularist posture. I support the separation of state and religion because the political space is open to countless views and interests. This position is actually supported by the grand ayatollahs. So it is in conformity with the Shiite tradition.

What would you say to those who say Islam is incompatible with human rights?

That they are wrong. It is true that human rights are violated in most Muslim countries. But this is a political, not a religious, reality. We have had all sorts of regimes in Muslim countries, including secularists, Marxists, and nationalists. They, too, violated human rights. If corrupt and brutal regimes oppress their people, in what way is this a sign of Islam's incompatibility with human rights? The Baathist regime in Iraq was supposedly secular. And in North Korea we do not have an Islamic regime.

So you believe that we should leave religion out of political discussions.

As individuals we are all affected by our religious beliefs or lack of them. That is a fact of life. What I am saying is that we should not allow anyone to impose his interpretation of religion on others by force, intimidation, or peer pressure. People should stop putting the adjective Islamic before or after every word so that they can interpret everything in the interest of their corruption and brutality. They talk of "Islamic" psychology so that they can claim that women are weak, unstable, and unfit to have a role in decision-making. They talk of "Islamic" economics so that they can justify the abuse of the nation's wealth. They talk of "Islamic" education so that they can justify their policy of brainwashing children and youths. They talk of "Islamic" philology so that they can twist language to suit their aims.

Some feminist circles have hailed you as one of their own. What is your reaction?

The problem that women face in Muslim societies is not because of religion. It is a result of the patriarchal culture.

What we need is a gender-neutral reading of Islamic texts. The humiliation inflicted on women is the result of a diseased gene that is passed to every generation of men, not only by society as a whole but also by their mothers. It is mothers who raise boys who become men. It is up to mothers not to pass on that diseased cultural gene. I am not against men. I am against a patriarchal culture that denies equal rights for half of humankind.

There is some talk that you might lead a list of pro-democracy candidates in the next parliamentary election or even become a presidential candidate in 2005.

I am a human rights militant and a lawyer and have no other agenda. I can tell you that I have no plans to stand for election. The prize given to me shows that the method I have used in the past two decades has been the right one. I am the friend of the powerless, the voice of the voiceless. I must prove that I am worthy of the honor bestowed upon me.

Some opposition figures, including a grandson of Khomeini, have called for American military intervention in Iran. What is your view?

I am opposed to any foreign intervention in our affairs, whether political or military or in any other form. The people of Iran know their problems and know how to seek the solutions. All they need is moral and political support from the international community.

What are the projects you now have in mind?

The authorities have decided to definitely close two major cases on which I was working: the case of the thugs that attacked the university dormitory in Tehran, and the case of the murder of [dissident leader] Dariush Foruhar and his wife Parvaneh. The decision to close those cases is political. It means that justice will not be done. There is nothing more that I can do. But I have many other cases to pursue. I also have my nongovernmental organization for children plus programs to help women. One other project is to help with mine-clearance in provinces that were affected by the Iran-Iraq war.

Outside Iran, you do not wear the hijab. Why?

I wear it in Iran because it is imposed by law. If I don't wear it, I will be violating the law. I want that law changed, because I think the state has no business telling women whether or not they should cover their heads. I don't wear the hijab outside Iran because there is no such law. This is the case with many Iranian women. Instead of telling girls to cover their hair, we should teach them to use their heads. I am also against states that pass laws to prevent women from wearing the hijab.

Tell us a little bit about your family life.

I was born in Hamadan, but my family moved to Tehran when I was six months old. My father, the late Muhammad-Ali Ebadi, was a prominent lawyer. He was the author of a classic book on commercial law, which is still taught at universities and reissued in new editions every few years. My mother, Minoo Amidi, is alive and a great source of support for me. My husband is Javad Tavassolian, who is five years older than I and an electrical engineer. We have two daughters. The elder one, Negar, aged 22, is a graduate in communications-engineering from the Sharif University in Tehran. She is currently attending a postgraduate course at McGill University in Canada. Our younger daughter, Narguess, aged 21, is following in my footsteps by studying law at Beheshti University in Tehran.

Do you take time to look after your domestic responsibilities?

Yes. I am a mother and a housewife. My social activities may not leave me much time. But I always make sure that our home is properly organized and run.

Does your husband help you with housework?

Certainly, whenever I enlist his support. But he, too, is quite busy with his work.

Do you cook for your family, and, if yes, do they like your cooking?

I do cook the family meals. As for whether they like it or not, you have to ask my husband and my daughters.

Any message for Muslim women?

Yes. Keep fighting. Don't believe that you are decreed to have an inferior position. Study the Koran carefully, so that oppressors cannot impress you with citations and interpretations. Don't let individuals masquerading as theologians claim they have a monopoly on understanding Islam. Educate yourselves. Do your best and compete in all walks of life. God created us all equals. In fighting for equality we are doing what God wants us to do.