Emissary of the Iranian people

Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi on human rights in her country and around the world

Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi brought a Laxson Auditorium audience to its feet multiple times during her lecture.

Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi brought a Laxson Auditorium audience to its feet multiple times during her lecture.

photo courtesy of foreign and commonwealth office, london

Last Monday night, on the eve of an election in a troubled nation, a woman from an even more troubled nation came to Chico to talk to some 600 people who gathered to hear her views on the struggle for human rights in her country and throughout the world.

That woman was Shirin Ebadi, the only Iranian to win the Nobel Peace Prize, and the only person ever to have that prize confiscated by the country of her birth.

She was invited by Chico Performances as part of the annual President’s Lecture Series, a program that has brought Desmond Tutu, Mikhail Gorbachev, Lech Walesa, Richard Leakey, Salman Rushdie and a long list of international notables to speak at Laxson Auditorium.

Ebadi had a full day before she took the stage. She spoke with students in a couple of classes, met with members of the faculty, and held a brief press conference, answering questions from about a dozen people who turned up a couple of hours before her lecture. It surely made for an exhausting day, but she’s known much worse things than exhaustion in the years since the Shah of Iran was overthrown in 1979, replaced by an even more ruthless and oppressive leadership.

Though she received her law degree from the University of Tehran and rose to become one of the first female judges in Iran, her career was cut short when the Ayatollah Khomeini came to power, dismissed her and other female judges from their positions and relegated them to lesser roles as clerks in the court. All of her property in Iran has been expropriated and auctioned off, and she now lives in exile in London.

In answer to one of the questions at the press event, she said: “My husband was tortured and imprisoned, forced to testify against me and against himself. He’s now free, but the government is angry at me because I continue to speak out for human rights everywhere. … Of course they know I will not go silent. Why should I be scared of death? It will happen in my life, certainly.”

Ebadi’s record of outspoken courage prompted the Chico State audience to rise to its feet en masse when the diminutive woman took the stage later that evening, accompanied by her translator, who rendered her observations into unadorned English made eloquent by its directness and simplicity.

Ebadi’s legal training showed up in the way she formulated her thoughts. Whether discussing the need for women everywhere to rise up to continue the fight for their rights, or lamenting the ill treatment of followers of the Baha’i faith in her home country, she would first state a premise, then arrive at a conclusion preceded by the word “therefore.”

“Dear Friends,” she began, “I’m sure you hear every day in the news that Iran is a danger to the international community. I’m here as a representative of the Iranian people, and I’m here to tell you that the people of Iran do not agree with their government. The people of Iran do not support the government’s nuclear program, even if it is, as the leaders say, an energy program.”

She drew laughter and applause when she noted, dryly, that there is a lot of sun in Iran, that the hottest place on earth is in her country, and that the opportunities for solar and wind power are abundant, obviating any need for nuclear-power plants and undermining the pretense that Iran’s interest in nuclear technology has anything to do with energy production.

“The people of Iran oppose nuclear energy. But the nuclear policy of Iran has prompted sanctions, resulting in an 80 percent devaluation of the currency, causing much poverty among the people.”

She spoke at length about the plight of the 300,000 Baha’i followers in Iran who, she said, are deprived of all rights. And she talked about the corruption of the spirit of Islam that has taken place since the revolution of 1979. If an unmarried man and an unmarried woman have sexual relations, they are both punished by flogging, 100 lashes each. If the woman is a Muslim and the man is a non-Muslim, the woman will receive 100 lashes, but the non-Muslim man will be executed.

Since the overthrow of the Shah, she told her audience, “the life of a woman is worth half that of a man. If a man and a woman get in a car accident, damages to the man are twice those paid to the woman. In a court, the testimony of two women is equivalent to the testimony of one man.”

It has not always been this way. “Women in Iran,” she said, “got the vote before women got the vote in Switzerland. The feminist movement in Iran is the strongest in the Middle East.”

Ebadi expressed fears that should the United States pursue an even more bellicose course of action in its relations with Iran, that would result in even greater oppression there.

She paused, and when she spoke again, her emotional appeal could not have been more direct. “I want to ask you, my dear American friends, to oppose a military attack on Iran. The government of Iran will take advantage of it. Long live the friendship of our two nations.”

Those words prompted a spontaneous standing ovation, her second of the evening. There would be a third as she concluded her remarks.

In the Q&A that followed, the lines were long on both sides of the auditorium. The questioners mostly were women.

One wanted to know why moderate Muslim religious leaders didn’t speak out more forcefully. That prompted Ebadi to lament the fact that “Iran and Saudi Arabia are the only two countries that still practice stoning.” She also expressed chagrin at the hypocritical double standard the U.S. government displays toward places like Saudi Arabia, never criticized for its human-rights record, but where women can’t even drive cars.

“Not enough attention is paid in the West to moderate Islam,” she continued. “The media inspire Islamophobia, but one-fourth of the world’s population is Muslim. In order to have a peaceful world, we have to know each other. Do you think all Muslims think like the Taliban?” she asked. “The moderate imams have to become more active, and they have to teach the militant youth that violence only brings more violence.”

A high-school student of Turkish descent asked what message Ebadi would have for a roomful of high-school girls.

“Self-confidence is important,” Ebadi answered. “Young women must go after their dreams. Don’t be scared of losing. A loss is an introduction to a victory, the way a high jumper has to step back in order to jump higher.”