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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Juggling Career and Family

In looking back at this evolution of the law, and the really hard work that you had to do, how did you do all that you had to do? Because you were still a mother, raising a family, the family was very important to you, but you were also confronting these very difficult cases that put you in the public eye.

Since a young age, I got used to working twelve to thirteen hours a day, and in fact, when you get used to working that kind of schedule you realize that twenty-four hours is, in fact, a lot of time. I compare my situation to a person on board a ship. When there is a shipwreck the passenger then falls in the ocean and has no choice but to keep swimming. What happened in our society was that the laws overturned every right that women had. I had no choice. I could not get tired, I could not lose hope. I cannot afford to do that.

And it's really women and children, in addition to the political prisoners, who are the most vulnerable.

Yes. We say that the strength of the chain lies in the smallest and weakest part of the chain, so you must always protect that so that the chain does not fall apart. Yes, women and children and political prisoners are the weakest members of our society and need our protection.

It must be very hard to raise children in this context. When I read your book I was reminded of another guest, Natan Sharansky, talking about his growing up in the then Soviet Union, where on the one hand is dogma that children have to understand, but at the same time you're giving them knowledge that transcends the conventional wisdom of the state.

Yes, it is difficult but in order to succeed you have to speak honestly with the children. I give you one example of how I went about doing it. One day, my younger daughter came home from school and asked me, "Mom, was Dr. Mohammad Mossadeq a good person or a bad person?" And I said, "Well, how come?" She said, "Well, in our last year's textbook they said that he was a good person because he had nationalized Iranian oil, but in this year's text they're saying that he was a bad person because he disagreed to make the coalition with the clergy. I don't understand." I told her the story of Dr. Mohammad Mossadeq and the CIA coup. I said, "You really have to [pass] this class and this grade and move up to a grade higher. Tell your teacher [what he wants to hear]. Just remember, when something doesn't make logic to you, just read it enough to pass that course, and then once you've passed it, forget about it."

Courage seems to be a theme that is implicit in your book, the courage of raising your children, the courage of being involved in so many sensitive cases. What are the roots of your courage? Do you get it from your family or from your knowledge of the law, or what?

When you believe in the rightfulness of your path you take stronger steps. At the same time, I'm a Muslim and I believe in God, and that gives me additional strength. When I choose the path that I'm sure is the right path to take, I make my best effort to succeed, and when I carry out my best effort, then I leave it to God and let Him turn the rest of the events forward for me.

And courage is important. I would like for you to recount your discovery that you were on an assassination list that had been prepared by agents of the intelligence service. What was your reaction to that?

I was, more than anything, surprised. I was surprised because I was a person who was not involved in any political agenda that sought to undermine the government, that I had served the people on a pro bono free basis, and yet I would be so hated that the ministry of intelligence would order my murder. And then I became very sorrowful when realizing that our government isn't capable of making the distinction between friends and foes.

You write in your book, "I knew only too well the permanent limitations of trying to enshrine inalienable rights in sources that lack fixed terms and definitions. But I am also a citizen of the Islamic republic."

[Translator]: Could you please ask the question again?

Well, the question really is, your courage is embedded in living with two distinct realities, one that the law requires, a law that allows justice, but on the other hand, you are a citizen of Islamic republic where the tendency for abuse of power exists.

I am a lawyer and when I go to court I have to resort to the same laws to defend the case of my clients in the best possible way I can. At the same time, I'm a university professor and a writer, so through my research I can show when the laws are wrong and when there are other laws that can serve justice and our rights better.

I wanted to say something about courage.

Yes, please.

Courage comes from confidence. When you are confident that your decision is correct, then you will make all your efforts to make it happen. Those who lack courage are often those who are not confident enough on whether their decisions are right or not.

And confidence comes from the family?

It comes from the family, it comes from education, from awareness, it comes from experience, and it comes from the inherent characteristics of each individual.

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