Shirin Ebadi (Interview) | The Canadian Encyclopedia

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Shirin Ebadi (Interview)

TRAFFIC on the road to Mehrabad airport had been gridlocked for hours, so people simply abandoned their cars and continued on foot.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on November 17, 2003

Ebadi, Shirin (Interview)

TRAFFIC on the road to Mehrabad airport had been gridlocked for hours, so people simply abandoned their cars and continued on foot. By the time the plane touched down, 10,000 - the majority of them women, defiantly clad in white instead of the government-favoured black head scarves - were gathered outside the terminal. They clutched bouquets of flowers, waved bedsheet banners, sang and screamed her name in sheer joy. When Shirin Ebadi returned home to Tehran on Oct. 14, the crowd that awaited her made it abundantly clear how many Iranians feel about the winner of this year's Nobel Peace Prize. It was a welcome fit for a conquering hero.

The outpouring of emotion for the 56-year-old lawyer was about more than national pride. For a populace that has seen its desire for political and social reform too often dashed or frustrated, she has become a symbol of hope and resistance. Though few in the Western world knew her name before the Norwegian Nobel Committee's Oct. 10 announcement, Ebadi has long been a fearless defender of human rights in a country where that principle is frequently tested. Named as Iran's first female judge under the Shah's regime, she was forced to step down after the 1979 Islamic revolution, when the clerics ruled that women could no longer sit on the bench. It is a decision they have undoubtedly regretted.

As an attorney who specializes in the cases of dissidents, women and children, Ebadi has emerged as a major thorn in the side of the authorities in recent years. She represented the families of the writers and intellectuals who fell victim to government-backed hit men. After the 1999 student demonstrations at Tehran University, she distributed a videotape linking hardline conservative politicians with the Islamic vigilantes who beat and murdered several students. That earned her a stint in solitary confinement at the notorious Evin prison, just the most recent of several incarcerations. Now, she has taken up the case of Zahra Kazemi, the Canadian-Iranian photojournalist who died in custody last summer after being arrested for taking pictures outside that same jail.

In the weeks since the Nobel announcement, it has been a delicate balancing act for the diminutive Ebadi. Her every move and utterance has come under scrutiny. Hard-liners have criticized her for not wearing a hijab as she celebrated her peace prize win in Paris. After she was pictured on television shaking hands with a man last week - something that is technically forbidden, but common practice - religious students demonstrated against her. Conservatives are clearly rattled by the international attention being focused on the country's human rights shortcomings, but even reformist President Mohammad Khatami has found it necessary to keep his distance. Famed in Iran for never missing an occasion to offer his congratulations ("He sends every leader in the world a birthday card," one political columnist joked), he deemed the peace prize "not very important" compared with other Nobel awards like those for literature and chemistry. "This award has been given to her totally on the basis of political considerations," he complained.

Although Ebadi has been careful to say repeatedly that she is looking to reform the system from within, not tear it down from the outside, the pressure on her is clearly increasing as the days tick by toward the official Nobel ceremony in Oslo on Dec. 10. Maclean's requests for an interview were politely stonewalled by both her office and government officials who are trying to limit her exposure to the foreign press. In the end, the only way to arrange a chat was to make an unannounced visit to her home in an upscale north Tehran neighbourhood, late one afternoon.

The basement office she runs her practice out of is simple, unadorned and, most notably for Iran, entirely staffed by women. Wearing a white hijab, and sitting behind a large, paper-covered desk, with her heavily bandaged right foot propped up to one side (Ebadi recently fell, breaking a toe and badly twisting an ankle), she spoke through a translator about her Nobel win, Zahra Kazemi, and her plans to visit Canada.

Was the Nobel committee making a political statement when it chose you as the winner of this year's peace prize?

I've never thought of the Nobel Peace Prize as having a political dimension. To be honest, I always thought that maybe one day I would win this award, perhaps when I was 80 years old. So elderly that my grandson would have to go up to the podium and collect it for me. What's astonishing to me is that I won it 30 years before I was expecting it.

But do you think the committee was trying to send a message to Muslim women?

Yes, I think they were underlining the fact that the status of women in Islamic countries is unacceptable, and praising the Muslim feminist movement. It should encourage women in Islamic countries to fight even harder for their rights.

Are you comfortable with being a symbol of feminist dissent?

I'm never thought of myself as a symbol. I'm just one of the many who have joined the movement. There are lots of people who are more active than I am. And if a movement depends on just one person, it's destined to fail. Fortunately, the push for women's rights in Iran is much broader than that - 63 per cent of our university students are now women. We need laws that reflect that reality, laws that are suitable for an educated, modern society.

There has been a lot made of the fact that you weren't wearing a head scarf in Paris last month, on the day you learned you had won the prize, or that you have been photographed shaking hands with men. Are those the real issues for women in Iran?

According to our laws, all women in Iran, Muslim or non-Muslim, must wear the hijab. I'm a lawyer, I respect the law, so when I'm here in Iran, I wear a scarf. But Iranian women have deeper concerns. There are lots of laws that discriminate against women in the country and we want to change them. For example, the death benefit for a woman is half of that for a man. Men can divorce their wives at will and they retain custody of the children. Men can have as many as four wives. Et cetera, et cetera. You tell me, do we have time to worry about hijabs and handshakes?

It has been reported that you have taken on the Zahra Kazemi case. What role are you going to play?

Zahra Kazemi's mother came to my office before I left for Paris, and asked me to represent the family's interests. But I haven't been through the case in detail yet, and I'm not ready to show my hand. At the moment, it's like a ping-pong match between the judiciary and the parliament, with bits of information leaking out at each volley. I'm standing back and watching now, but I'll be personally involved. As an Iranian, I'm deeply saddened by what happened. Zahra Kazemi came to Iran to take photos and help reveal the reality of what is happening here. But her death has exposed even more profound truths.

Is it going to be difficult to ensure that this is a transparent and just process? Are you getting access to all the evidence?

I'm going to do my best to drive the courts in that direction. That's why I'm waiting for the ping-pong to end. I hope that the resolution will satisfy everybody involved. And I hope that the truth will come out. But if, despite all of our best efforts, that doesn't happen, we will find some other way.

[Ebadi switches to halting English.] My daughter, Negar, is studying in Montreal.

At McGill University?

Yes, she received a degree in telecommunications at Sharif University in Tehran. Now she is doing her Ph.D.

Will you be coming to Canada to visit her?

I have some invitations from Canadian universities, and many in Europe. I have to arrange all of this. I hope I will go to Canada. My daughter says it will be cold. And she tells me that there is an old city near Montreal.

Quebec?

Yes, she sent me some pictures from there and she says it is wonderful. If you come here, she says, we will go. I will enjoy it.

One last question. What has the situation been like in terms of your work since you won the prize? Are you getting increased pressure from the authorities or other people?

[Ebadi switches back to Farsi.] I'm doing all of the things that I was doing before, but with even greater effort. The prize has shown me that I'm on the right path. Now, I have all these visitors and journalists coming by, and I'm waiting for this to end so I can get back to work. I was a defence attorney before this happened, and I'll continue to be a defence attorney. Forever.

Maclean's November 17, 2003