Interview with Shirin Ebadi

"Nothing Can Keep Us from Our Work"

The nuclear issue, the president's anti-Israeli tirades — what we have been hearing from Iran recently has been disturbing news. At the same time and almost without provoking attention, the lawyer Shirin Ebadi continues her work in the country. Kathrin Erdmann spoke to her

Shirin Ebadi (photo: DW)
Shirin Ebadi: "We have more political freedom now than we did under the Shah. On the other hand, under the Shah we had more individual and social freedom."

​​Two years ago you were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. What did that bring you personally?

Shirin Ebadi: It increased my self-confidence.

Does the political leadership here show more respect for you as a result?

Ebadi: No, their view of my work and their attitude have not changed. Since I won the Nobel Peace Prize I have been accused of offences and brought before the courts three times.

The last time you were called before the Revolutionary Court was after you had taken part in a press conference at which prisoners reported on their experiences in solitary confinement. There were plans to hold such press conferences once a month. What has happened to that idea?

Ebadi: There is a press conference once a month. The next one is in a few weeks time, and nothing can keep us from our work. Even if they imprison me or execute me, my friends will continue on this path.

Among the people you are currently defending is the imprisoned journalist, Akbar Gandji. He was on a hunger-strike; then there was hope that he might be released, but in fact he's still in prison. What do you know about his state of health?

Ebadi (looking more serious): I'm afraid that I've been prohibited from having any contact with my client since the start of his hunger-strike. I'm not allowed to visit him and so I can't say how he is.

You've been fighting for human rights for years. Sometimes it seems as if you are tilting at windmills. Do you sometimes think of giving up?

Ebadi: I cannot give up or give up hope. If I were to give up hope I would no longer be able to be active. Do you think anyone goes into a fight unless they are confident of victory? We will win, we will be successful, even if I'm not alive to see it.

Are you frightened for your life?

Ebadi: I've been threatened many times, and twice there were even terrorist plots against me. I describe these incidents in my memoirs, which will appear shortly. Fear is like hunger. It's a feeling which comes on you; it's simply there, whether you want it or not. You can't do anything about it. Yes, I'm sometimes frightened, but I've learned over the years how to deal with this fear. And I've learned to stop this fear from getting in the way of my work.

In your work for human rights in general, the improvement of the rights of women has always taken a central role. One of your biggest successes was to win the right of women to take the custody of their children. How many women have actually gained this right?

Ebadi: Luckily the legal situation has changed so that in general women rather than men win in custody cases. One could go so far as to say that in 80% of the cases, it's the mothers who win custody. And that's right, since a child needs its mother more than it needs its father. It's better looked after with her.

Iranian hardliners want to reintroduce the chador as a uniform for all women. How do you rate their chances?

Ebadi: There are some groups which want that, but I'm sure that women will not accept it. Such ideas have been spoken about and proposals have come up a few times in the past, but they've never been brought into force.

All the same, there are continuous attempts to roll back the rights of women. The minister for culture and Muslim affairs has just issued an order under which women who work in public service have to leave their office at 6:30 pm every evening and go home to look after their children. For journalists, for example, that's as good as throwing them out of their jobs.

Every woman can decide for herself when she has to go home! And anyway: we women are already disadvantaged. Sixty-three percent of all students are women, but the unemployment among women is four times higher than among men.

Now that there's a more conservative government, does that make your fight for women's rights in Iran more important?

Ebadi: The struggle for human rights and the rights of women has never been easy, and perhaps it's the difficulty of the work which makes it so attractive. After all, if you can get something easily without a fight, then you won't really value it when you have it.

You said in Vienna a year ago: Under the Shah I would never have been sitting here with you; since the Revolution there's been more political freedom for everyone. How do you see that since the change of government?

Ebadi: I haven't changed my view on that. The fact that we can sit here and talk freely is the best proof of that. We have more political freedom now than we did under the Shah. On the other hand, under the Shah we had more individual and social freedom. Everyone could decide on their own way of life, but we couldn't express the slightest criticism of the regime. As far as the current government is concerned, I can only say: the Iranians will protect what they have, and will not allow their achievements to be torn from their grasp. They have fought far too much for them to allow that to happen.

In foreign policy, Iran is moving towards isolation as a result of its insistence on holding on to its nuclear programme, but reformist elements in Iran also believe that Iran has the right to enrich uranium. What's your view?

Ebadi: I'm no expert on nuclear energy, and I have never held a government position. So I can only speak as an individual. Humankind doesn't need any nuclear bombs, whether from the USA or Iran or Israel. More dangerous to world peace than nuclear bombs are dictatorial governments. There are several countries which own nuclear bombs. Let's take the example of France. Is anyone worried because France has a nuclear bomb? No, and why not? Because France is a democratic country and is controlled by its people. And this people will ensure that the state never misuses its nuclear bomb.

But let's imagine this bomb was in the hands of Saddam Hussein. How would we have been able to be sure that, just before his fall, he wouldn't have given the bomb to terrorists? I don't think the work of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is adequate in this connection. The North Korean example shows that.

The IAEA can't continually be in control of everything, and prevent any kind of exchange of weapons material. That's why I think it makes more sense, instead of having an external oversight authority, to have the people exercising control. And I hope there will one day be an International Agency for the Promotion of Democracy. Such an authority would have far more significance than the current organisation.

Interview conducted by Kathrin Erdmann

© 2005

Translated from the German: Michael Lawton

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