Shirin Ebadi Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Struggle for Human Rights in Iran: Conversation with Shirin Ebadi, 2003 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate; May 10, 2006, by Harry Kreisler

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Seeking Justice under Fundamentalism

One of the turning points in your life after the revolution was the killing of your brother-in-law. Correct? That sensitized you to a need for a new sense of justice in the system.

Naturally the execution of my brother-in-law made me very sad, but what was even sadder was that in a period of probably just a week, about three thousand young people were executed only for being active in political life.

In making this adjustment to this new regime, to this new set of problems, how did your tasks as a lawyer change?

I realized that justice was at stake, greatly, and that my political defendants were at the core of my attention, that they were the most oppressed people in our society, because they were not only arrested innocently, they were also treated worse than any common criminal in prison.

There is a sense in your book that the law is really in your soul, and I am reminded of the story you tell after the revolution where you and your husband, whom you love very much, signed a post-nuptial agreement about your rights. Tell us about that, because it gives us a good sense of what the law means to you and what a society without law cannot give.

I always believed that law must serve justice and when it fails to do so I try to find ways to make sure that the law brings us closer to justice. Before the revolution, my husband and I married under very fair and equal conditions according to the law. However, after the revolution I lost all my rights. I was turned practically into a slave, whereas I was an equal partner before the revolution. The injustice that I felt was affecting my behavior at home. One day I spoke with my husband and told him that I suffered from this legal injustice and I proposed that we sign a new agreement by which he would restore my equal rights. He agreed. It's interesting that when we actually went to sign the contract, the clerk there who was sitting in the office turned my husband and said, "Are you crazy to do this?" And he said, "Well, in order to save my family life, I need to do this." I felt that justice was created afterwards. And fortunately to this day our marriage life has stayed together.

Help us understand how justice moves forward in Iran. On the one hand, you have to navigate between Islamic law, the traditional text, the interpretation; on the other hand, you have a sense of international law, for example, in the case of women's rights. Tell us a little about moving justice forward. Is it particular cases that make that possible?

The government claims that the unsatisfactory laws that prevail in the country are, in fact, Islamic laws, and that's how they justify it, but I studied Islamic text and law very carefully and my efforts are geared towards proving to the government that they are, in fact, basing the law on a wrongful interpretation of Islamic law and that indeed that there are other interpretations. The cases that I generally work on are those that I try to focus on the practical results of, to show the people what the practical results of law are, to show that to society. Oftentimes when I take a case to trial I invite reporters to come and write about the case beforehand and to raise public awareness of the results. By creating that awareness people put pressure on the government and demand the change in laws. By carrying out this technique I've, in fact, succeeded in changing a number of laws.

In your book you talk about the time you advised the women's caucus in the parliament on some new legislation. Tell us about that, because your arguments were showing that Islamic law had many interpretations and that was what the debate was about.

Yes. On the suggestion of some reformist members of parliament I drafted a family law that was compatible with Islamic law and at the same time served justice. In a meeting that I had with members of parliament there were a group of the members of clergy present, most of whom were fundamentalist. They strongly opposed the draft law. I walked into that meeting with a number of religious texts and whenever I made an argument I would show the people the text that I was referring to, to prove to them that, in fact, these are religious texts that defend my case and this draft law. But eventually, one of the clergy who was sitting there, who was very fundamentalist, decided that he no longer wanted to hear the case and I noticed that he whispered something in the ears of the tea server, [who] left the room and then came back to me and said, "There is a phone waiting for you, someone's calling you." When I left the room I realized that, in fact, there was no one calling for me and when I tried to re-enter the room he informed me that I was no longer welcome in that room. So, because what I was saying was based on the truth and justice, they couldn't accept it any longer and they couldn't justify another argument, so they chose not to have me in the room. In fact, our problem with Islamic fundamentalists is this very issue. They simply don't want to hear what others have to say.

A theme that runs throughout your book and your career is a fight against the abuse of power, unchecked power, power that is not balanced by law that's fair and just.

Yes. I have always tried to prevent abuse of power, whether to get political gains, or to play with religion or the religious sentiments and feelings of the populous, or to use power to add to wealth.

Next page: Juggling Career and Family

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