How I came to know Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi
I first learned about Shirin Ebadi in 1997. My colleague Jacki Lyden was in Tehran working on a story about the upcoming Presidential elections. This was the election that brought in Mohammad Khatami and six years before Ebadi would be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Jacki interviewed Shirin Ebadi in her law offices. I want to share parts of this interview that never aired on NPR.
The atmosphere in Iran in 1997 was one of hope that with the election of a new President reforms would take place within the government and there would be more openness and freedom of speech. This was a particularly sensitive time for writers and intellectuals. Some had died under mysterious conditions, others had received death threats - even Shirin Ebadi had received a death threat in the form of a letter. But when pressed on these threats Ebadi was emphatic:
“It is not clear who wrote this letter, who posted it.” Ebadi said in 1997. “I cannot condemn anyone because of it. I received this letter and several other people received the same letter.”
Are you frightened Jacki asked. “No” Ebadi answered.
Jacki then asked her to share her work as a human rights activist:
Ebadi said she reviews the laws concerning human rights, “For example, in relation to the Declaration of Human Rights and the Declaration for Children’s Rights, both of which we (Iran) have signed, it is not possible to execute a child under the age of 18. Now, in Iran, the age of maturity of a girl is 9 years. This means that we can execute a 9 year old girl,” Ebadi said.
She continued, “The situation in the prisons is much worse for girls than it is for boys. For instance, in several large cities in Iran, like Mashhad and Tabriz, we have a law that young boys who are condemned to prison who are under 18, are sent to a corrections center that differs from the adult prison. But unfortunately young girls do not have this situation. Throughout our prisons, if a girl under the age of 18, or a 9 year old girl are condemned to prison, they are put in prison with 45 or 60 year old women.”
“All of my work and interest” Ebadi continued, “has been in the social issues of the law. I am extremely sensitive to any injustice that the law might have. The highest form of oppression is the oppression of an oppressive law. Therefore, as an attorney, I feel I have the responsibility to object to these laws.”
“Let me give you another example,” she said. “Say that there are 15 women sitting in a house, all educated women, and a thief comes with a gun. Not only does he steal things from the house, but also he rapes one of the women. We 15 women go to the court and bear witness that this man raped that woman. The court will not take our witnessing into consideration because the witnessing by women alone is not proof. Not only do they not punish the rapist, but because of we 15 women going against the law, each one of us has to receive 80 whip lashes.”
Shirin Ebadi is part of a larger peaceful movement in the Islamic World for more moderation. At the heart of her battle for human rights and women’s and children’s rights in Iran is her call to reinterpret Islamic law. She has said, “We need an interpretation of Islam which complies with human rights.”
I came to know Shirin Ebadi myself personally in December of 2003 when I traveled to Oslo to cover the Nobel Peace Prize and gather material for my documentary. While in Oslo, I met some of Mrs. Ebadi’s colleagues who had helped her with her foundation for children. In 1996, Ebadi helped create an NGO for children’s rights. I met one of her collegues in Oslo. He told me that each day some 40 therapists work on children’s issues and monitor a hotline where children of all ages call in with their concerns. According to the foundation, child abuse in up in Iran. Many of those calling are teenagers talking about physical, sexual and mental abuse. One of the goals of the foundation is to gather data and statistics on children’s conditions and take those directly to the parliament to demand for more protection for children.
On December 10th, the day Ebadi received the Nobel Peace Prize, I arrived at the press-filing center at Oslo’s City Hall. As the international sound system was being tested for broadcast and the orchestra got in one last practice, the Hall started filling up one by one. Looking down from the press center I saw some familiar faces walking in to honor Shirin Ebadi. One of them was Parastou Forouhar. Her parents Dariush and Parvaneh Forouhar were well-known intellectuals and dissidents in Iran. The two had been brutally murdered by agents of the Islamic Republic in 1998 and Shirin Ebadi was the family attorney. I then saw human rights lawyer Karim Lahiji proudly walking down the aisle to take his seat. Until that day, Karim Lahiji was considered one of Iran’s most well-known human rights activists. He had been one of several scholars who were asked by the Ayatollah Khomeini to draft Iran’s new constitution after the revolution. But when the new revolutionaries felt he was too secular they marginalized him and eventually he fled Iran and lives in Paris.
On that day Shirin Ebadi took her seat next to the Royal Family of Norway. The walls of Oslo’s City Hall were adorned with paintings featuring themes of wartime occupation, resistance and liberation. Azaleas, Ivy, and white roses adorned the main hall. And after some graceful piano music, the Nobel Laureate was serenaded with music from Kurdistan. Needless to say the hall was transfixed!
When it came time for Ebadi to take the stand for her acceptance speech, in a dramatic gesture at the Nobel Ceremony she raised her right arm and said
“I am an Iranian - A descendant of Cyrus the Great…. the emperor who at the height of his power said he would not rule over the people if they didn’t want him to.”
Ebadi is one who knows the power of the past. While in Oslo I asked Shirin Ebadi if she would autograph a book I had - the book was called “Davar va Adlieh” - Davar and the Justice System. It was a biography of my great grandfather Ali Akbar Davar, Iran’s former Justice Minister. In the late 1920’s, he helped draw up a progressive legal code for Iran that combined Western legal precepts and the Islamic legal code known as Shariah. Eighty years later, the same tensions to reconcile modernity and traditional Islam are alive today in Iran and Ebadi is at the forefront of Iran’s current legal reform movement. Ebadi graciously autographed her name and added, “Iran is proud of Davar”.
(1) Comments •
I really enjoy reading your journal and I hope you continue to add new information about you and about Iran. I hope to see Iran free one day soon.
Posted by Kimberly Zadaki on 02/05 at 02:27 AM
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