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.