Justice for All: An Interview with Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Shirin Ebadi

Lawyer, human rights activist, teacher and author, Shirin Ebadi was awarded the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize for her significant and pioneering efforts for democracy and human rights, especially women's and children's rights. She is the first Iranian and the first Muslim woman to receive the prize.

Who were your role models growing up?

I don't believe in having a role model in life. I even tell my daughters not to take me as their role model. I say to my daughters that their situation and condition is different from any other person's situation and condition. When we choose someone as our role model, we are not exactly in their situation. Accordingly, I can say that no one has been a role model in my life. But there are some characters who have been influential in shaping my personality. One of them is my father.

Why did you choose to study and practice law?

Everybody is born with some interests. When I was a kid, I was fascinated by something that I later discovered to be justice. I remember when two kids were fighting with each other, I always went to help the victim without even knowing what was going on between them. I do remember that I was also beaten for meddling in their fight.

This feeling gave me the motivation to go to law school. My father was also a lawyer and this made us familiar with law cases at home. Later on, I became interested in being a judge because I thought I could help and support justice better through this profession.

You were the first female judge to preside in Iran. After the revolution, you were removed from the bench. Why did that happen?

When I finished my studies in law, I immediately took the entrance exam for the Ministry of Justice and I ranked first on the exam. Then, I took a training course and became a judge. Since I really loved my job, I was promoted very quickly. When the revolution took place, I was a presiding judge in one of the courts in Tehran. After the revolution, they said that, based on Islam, a woman cannot be a judge. Because of this, they removed me and other female judges from this position and assigned us to administrative positions. I went from being the presiding judge of my court to the secretary of the same court. Naturally, I could not accept this new position and asked for an early retirement. Afterwards, I went to the Bar Association to obtain a license to practice law but it took several years to get my license approved. Once approved, I opened my own practice and from the very beginning, I focused on issues related to human rights violations. For almost 14 years, I have been defending political prisoners as well as the women and children who have been the victims and targets of human rights violations in Iran. All my services have been free of charge during this period.

How did this influence your writings and your role as an activist?

I try to teach and inform people on legal issues using a very simple language. Because most of the people who are the target of injustice do not know their rights and do not recognize that they are the object of tyranny.

How did receiving a Nobel Peace Prize affect your work?

This prize made the international loudspeakers accessible to me and helped me to air my voice and reach out to other people around the world. Through this, I could overcome the very severe censorship we have in Iran. This is a very significant issue for me and other Iranian activists who work for human rights.

What is your opinion, as a Muslim woman and a citizen of an Islamic state, regarding the poor track record of human rights in many Islamic states?

The name of Islam has been abused in order to justify injustice. Abusing the religious beliefs of the people as a means is not limited to Muslims. The Middle Ages is filled with Church injustice, which claimed to enforce the orders of Christianity. The best solution is the separation of state from religion.

How do you distinguish culture from religion?

Culture is composed of some elements, one of them is religion. You cannot disintegrate any culture from religion. What I meant in the previous question was the separation of state from religion not the separation of culture from religion.

Let me use the example of France. In this country, there is a big celebration for Christmas; however, not all people necessarily go to Church. The important point here is that in France or Europe, people have the choice of celebrating or not celebrating Christmas, or attending or not attending Church. The reason is that State is separate from religion in France.

That is why I believe religion should be separate from politics. But please consider that one of the building blocks of any culture is religion as well.

What legal strategies do you use to best defend your clients, who are mostly women, children or political activists, within a legal framework that is overseen and controlled by very conservative male clerics?

I use the international commitments made by the Iranian government. The Iranian government has joined the Human Rights Convention as well as the Convention on the Rights of the Child. According to law, once the government joins a convention, the rules of that convention are considered as law and should be enforced in courts. I have always made use of this point.

When you talk about the situation in Iran, you need to consider that some of the high ranking clergymen approve what women say. I can mention Ayatollah Saanei, who's website you can visit. Ayatollah Bojnourdi, Ayatollah Shabestari, and Mr. Yousefi Ashkevari. These are the clergymen who released a fatwa (ed. note: a decree which is based on Islamic principles and Shariah law) saying that we can address the rightful claims of women through a more appropriate interpretation of Islam.

What are the daily challenges faced by Iranian women?

First of all, I would like to mention that more than 65% of the Iranian university students are female. This means that the rate of educated people among women is higher than the rate is among men. Despite this fact, women are the target of legal discrimination in Iran. I will give you some examples: a woman's life is worth half a man's life. If a man or a woman has a car accident, the compensation paid to a man will be two times more than a woman. Also, the testimony of two women in court is equal to the testimony of one man. Asking for a divorce for a woman is very difficult or even sometimes impossible. A married woman needs her husband's written consent for taking a trip abroad. These laws affect daily life and Iranian women have objections to them. Additionally, the rate of unemployment is three times higher for women than men. Despite the fact that women are more educated than men, they cannot find a job because of discrimination.

What type of activities and strategies do civil society groups and NGOs employ to be effective?

In Iran, the activities of civil society groups and NGOs are becoming more difficult day by day, yet these organizations continue their struggle. We take all legal measures. For example, one of them is education: teaching women's rights or educating an accused person on how to use his/her rights when going to the police. In addition, student's and feminist unions, as well as labour unions, try to maintain close ties with the people of Iran. There are many problems in Iran but the will to overcome them is even greater.

Can you tell me about the "One Million Signatures" campaign?

As I mentioned before, Iranian laws are discriminatory and the feminist movement in Iran is very strong. The "One Million Signatures" movement has no leader, no central administration, and no branches. It is located inside the home of every Iranian who believes in equality. The fact that this movement has no leader is its strength because if your movement's leader is arrested or executed, or flees the country, the movement can stop right there. In this case, the movement is rising from inside society. This campaign was established to collect one million signatures from women and men to protest against these discriminatory laws. I should explain that collecting one million signatures in the Iranian social situation is an easy task and it can be done within two or three months. But the first priority of the One Million Signatures campaign is to teach women's rights and explain the discriminatory nature of the current laws. The second priority is to demonstrate a collective protest against these laws. This campaign is pushing forward in Tehran and other cities and of course, this was the most peaceful method to protest. Unfortunately, the Iranian government could not even tolerate this civil and peaceful campaign and has arrested some women who volunteered to collect the signatures. Some of these sentences are finalized and are on the verge of being implemented. I can mention Delaram Ali's case that I am currently representing in court. This young woman was sentenced to 2.5 years of imprisonment and we are taking all measures not to let this sentence be executed.

In addition to women, Iranian men are also actively involved in the One Million Signatures campaign since they know very well that victory for women will pave the way for democracy in Iran.

Your profession and actions obviously put you at risk. How do you balance these risks against your role as a mother and a wife?

In general, people who are active in human rights issues are at risk throughout the world. This is because human rights issues are addressed to governments and governments don't like to be criticized. I also have some problems in my country. People often ask me if I am scared because I receive threats. My answer to them is that fear is an instinct, like hunger. It comes whether you want it or not. I have received threats quite frequently and I have escaped several assassination attempts. All my years of working under these conditions have taught me how to be active and not to let fear affect my job. I will follow my convictions despite the fact that I know my life is at risk.

What kind of future do you see for Iran?

The future of Iran depends on several factors: the situation in the neighbouring countries; the Iranian relations with other countries and the decisions taken at the United Nations. Considering all these varying factors, predicting the future is not easy at the moment.

Do you think Iran will ever see a female president, and if so, could it be you?

I have no doubt whatsoever regarding the fact that we will have a woman president in Iran one day and that day is not so far away. But that person is definitely not me. I am a human rights defender and a human rights defender should always be among the people and act as the speaker for the silent people.