Hounded out of Iran, Nobel Peace Prize Winner Continues Fight for Human Rights
Failure is inevitable. You can only succeed if you try.
The familiar platitudes take new shape in the hands of human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi, who soared to new heights when she became the first Muslim woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003.
The win drew the venom of hardliners in Iran, but she’s still standing.
“At age 63, I have lost everything that I had in my life, everything slipped from my hands,” Ebadi told a rapt audience in Los Angeles this week. “I lost my family, my husband, I lost all my property, I lost my career that I really liked, I lost everything I had ever worked for, and I was forced to start over in a country where I don’t know the language or the culture.”
The diminutive woman—a ringer for French chanteuse Edith Piaf, not only for her pencil-thin brows but for the indomitable reach of her voice—spoke with author Reza Aslan on Tuesday night at the Skirball Cultural Center about human rights and the struggle for democracy in Iran.
Like Piaf, Ebadi regrets nothing—though she has suffered mightily.
The publication of her third book, Until We Are Free, marks her dedication to the fight for her country’s freedom, detailing the theocratic regime’s campaign of spying, harassment of her colleagues, and attacks on her family, including the detainment of her daughter and arrest of her sister. Ebadi has described mobs sent to attack her home, her lectures getting shut down, and living under the constant threat of death. Throughout, she continued her work for human rights.
“None of these things stopped me from continuing what I was doing. I worked harder than I ever did before, I became a better activist, and I must say, I have been much more successful than I ever was,” Ebadi said.
“Therefore, I must say, I want to tell my young colleagues and the young people who are here, don’t be scared of failure. Failure happens to everyone; it doesn’t mean the world has ended. Be resilient, get up, and you will succeed.”
For every win in Ebadi’s long career, there has been a crushing setback. She was the first woman to become a judge in Iran in 1969, only to be dismissed from the role in the wake of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. She protested, along with all the other women judges in the country, but she was told women were incapable of the role based on their gender. Ebadi overcame obstacles to become a successful human rights lawyer in 1992, focusing on the defense of women and children—and eventually earning the attention of the Nobel committee.
After her 2003 win, Ebadi faced surveillance and suppression from hard-liner factions. In an opinion piece for The New York Times published on Sunday, she outlined an Orwellian drama of state interference and crushing suppression by her government.
In 2009, threats against her grew more violent in the run-up to presidential elections—a broadly contested vote that gave hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad four more years of power and resulted in protests spilling into the streets—and she fled the country. A few months later, her husband was duped into infidelity at the hands of Iranian security agents, who filmed the affair and used it to blackmail him into denouncing her.
The struggle for power in Iran showed its seams this week when Iranian President Hassan Rouhani openly defied the Supreme Leader’s ban on references to former president and reformist Mohammad Khatami in the media.
The nuclear inspections deal Iran reached this summer with the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany spurred fresh hope for better relations with the West, but the struggle for rights in Iran remains very dangerous. Ebadi noted the work of Narges Mohammadi, a women’s rights activist who has frequently faced prison time for her work and is serving a six-year sentence.
“In this instance, when this woman is under a variety of pressures, from behind the tall walls of the prison she is being held in, she still raises her voice for the rights of women, and she is campaigning for the rights of mothers in prison and is having success and being heard beyond those prison walls and around the world,” Ebadi noted.
At that moment and others, Ebadi’s succinct responses inspired spontaneous outbursts of applause from Farsi-speaking members of the audience who cheered her pro-democracy and pro–human rights stance before her words could be translated into English. Many Iranian Americans at the event openly longed for more freedoms for relatives and friends who remain in Iran, expressing hopes for restored diplomacy that would allow easier exchange of ideas and travel between Iran and the U.S.
Ebadi called on Iranian expatriates to press democratic governments to stop propping up dictatorships around the world, and for those in legal and media circles to highlight the human rights violations of the current regime.
But Ebadi believes change is best when it comes from within. She noted that women inside Iran are not alone in advocating for equal rights. More and more, men are taking up the cause of equality.
“An important thing to know about the feminist movement in Iran is that many Iranian men approve of and openly support this movement. I have had many clients myself who were young university students—men who participated in feminist demonstrations for women’s rights, and who went to prison for their activism,” Ebadi said.
The reason for that support is simple: Despite the remonstrations of fundamentalists, Ebadi said, women are revered in Iran.
As she explained, her voice a crescendo of fervor: “The reason for all this support for feminism in Iran is the people of Iran know: In the end, democracy will come to Iran with the handiwork and words of the able-bodied women of Iran.”