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First Muslim Woman To Win Nobel Peace Prize Isn’t Done Speaking Out

Credit: Penguin House

By Bridey Heing

The past few years have signaled many changes for Iran. Following the election of moderate cleric Hassan Rouhani as President, Iran quickly swerved away from the bombastic rhetoric that had been the norm under his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The change presented a country ready to engage constructively with the rest of the world.

During Rouhani’s three years in office, a landmark nuclear deal was reached that ended a longstanding, seemingly intractable international crisis. Iran has found itself a seat on the international table for discussions on the Syrian civil war; a conversation they had previously been locked out of despite their influence on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Iran’s role in the conflict. Domestically, Rouhani ran on a campaign that promised the same moderation in Iranian affairs, and spoke in favor of greater economic opportunity for women, as well as making overtures to Iran’s non-Shiite Muslim minorities. In some ways, it seems as if Iran became a new country almost overnight.

But for lawyer and human rights advocate Dr. Shirin Ebadi, it’s all smoke and mirrors.

“The situation of human rights has not changed after Rouhani,” Dr. Ebadi shared with The Establishment via email.

“Iran has continued its intervention in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq. As for internal affairs, no significant changes have happened. The main reason for this is the law, [which] gives absolute power to the Supreme Leader. He decides [on] major issues.”

In her just-released memoir, Until We Are Free, Dr. Ebadi details her final years in Iran and her exile following the contested 2009 presidential election. That election was a watershed for Iran: A transparently fraudulent election secured Ahmadinejad’s second term despite widespread support for reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, and when massive protests swept the country’s major cities, a violent crackdown followed. The protests predated the Arab Spring, which could be argued to have made enough of an impression on the Iranian leadership that when the next election came in 2013, the popular vote was respected.

Dr. Ebadi, however, was not in Iran for either election. Having remained in Iran after the 1979 revolution, following which her judgeship was revoked by the authorities, Dr. Ebadi was out of the country on the day of the 2009 election. When Ahmadinejad was announced as the winner and the crackdown on dissidents began, it was immediately clear to Dr. Ebadi that she could not return safely, forcing her into exile overnight. But her relocation did not stop the country’s intelligence agents from attempting to get to her.

“In 2009 they attacked my office and closed my NGO,” Dr. Ebadi says. “They arrested my colleagues and put them in jail. They confiscated all my assets. They arrested my husband and my sister. I understood that I can no longer work in Iran and my work would be more useful outside Iran.”

Dr. Ebadi may not seem an obvious target for the intense scrutiny and harassment detailed in her book. She was raised in the Western province of Hamadan by loving parents, who very early on instilled in her a respect for diversity and belief in her own equality.

“They respected gender equality and treated me the same as my brother,” Dr. Ebadi says of her childhood.

When the Revolution came in late 1978, which Dr. Ebadi acknowledges she initially supported along with many others hoping for a democratic future. Until it became clear that the Islamic Republic was not what the crowds had fought for.

“We had more freedom before the Revolution, but people were not happy,” Dr. Ebadi says. “Our situation became worse after the Revolution . . . Many discriminatory laws came into force against women.”

She was a judge in the final years of the Shah’s rule, and upon learning she would be allowed to continue serving under the Islamic Republic due to her gender, she became an advocate for human rights and the country’s most vulnerable citizens, including religious minorities and children. Her reports on the human rights abuses in Iran, including the execution of children and political opposition, became a key tool for international organizations and the United Nations seeking to understand the situation on the ground. In 2003, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, becoming the first Iranian and the first Muslim woman to receive the honor.

Although allowed to work, Dr. Ebadi was routinely targeted by the government. She was arrested and held in solitary confinement, denied permits, had her offices shut down and confiscated, and was called in for regular interrogation with intelligence agents. She knew what it was they wanted from her. But their demand, both spoken and unspoken, was one she refused to comply with: her silence.

Until We Are Free offers a unique window into the machinations of the Iranian government as viewed from someone they see as an enemy. The tension and sense of obsession is palpable as Dr. Ebadi discusses the ways in which they spied on her, attempted to intimidate her, and targeted those closest to her in bids to manipulate her. They interfered with her daughters’ passports, threatened people who worked with her, and allowed mobs to deface her home. Here, Iran’s concern with their international reputation is clear: Dr. Ebadi’s reports and interviews highlight the many issues still faced by everyday citizens of Iran. But rather than address the problems she raises, the powers that be have instead attempted time and again to silence her. All in the name of national security.

Despite now working from an office in London, Dr. Ebadi has not given up hope that she can make a difference in the lives of her fellow Iranians. As her book makes clear, Iran is not a monolith; it is a country that was once already ahead of the many regional countries in areas like women’s education, literacy, and political engagement. In order to capitalize on the remarkable potential Iran has, however, the government must get out of their way.

“Iran is a beautiful country with great people and ancient history,” Dr. Ebadi says. “The people of Iran love their country — they want peace, freedom, and democracy.”


Lead image: Nobel Peace Summit