Interview with Shirin Ebadi “I am a defender of human rights”


Published in “Frankfurter Rundschau”, November 15 2009
Headline was changed into “A revolution against the women” on November 16

Added on November 16:
Shirin Ebadi in an interview with FR (“Frankfurter Rundschau”) talks about the current situation in Iran. The Nobel Peace Prize has so far protected her from getting arrested. Neverhteless, the regime does not fail to harass this human rights activist.


Explains the dimension of repression: Shirin Ebadi in 2006 in Tehran. (Picture: afp)

Ms Ebadi, you are one of the most important voices of the Iranian opposition, and even before the demonstrations of last summer started, there were attempts to silence you. How freely are you able to move in Tehran? How do you work?

I do not hold a political position, and I am not a political leader either. I am a defendant of human rights. From this point of view I observe what happens, not only since the presidential elections of last summer. It has been my attitude and my work for about 40 years. Unfortunately, the government puts up significant obstructions for all those who are committed to human rights. One of my clients, for example, is an Iranian Kurd who was sentenced to ten years in prison because he is accused of having founded a human rights center. He has been in detention for one year now.

But you can move freely?
The freedom is rather limited. My center for the defence of human rights in Tehran that I had established by the money from the Nobel Peace Prize, was not only closed down last December, but we were also dispossessed of the premises. This was an illegal operation, and we have filed a lawsuit. Until today, nobody has started to deal with this. All who were cooperating with us are either in prison or banned from leaving the country. Some have been released on high bails. As for me, my bank accounts have recently been blocked, and I have no access to my safes which contain several personal items, such as the Nobel Prize document. Apart from that, the bank accounts of my husband and my sister have also been blocked. Neither of them was working for my center. Now the government wants to tax my prize money as well, even though prize money in Iran is actually untaxed.

Does the Nobel Prize nevertheless protect you, or is it also a handicap?
The Nobel Prize has put me in a position to raise my voice and have it heard by the international community. I am absolutely glad about that. I have at least experienced that the government thinks very carefully about when and how to take action against me. This, however, could not prevent the confiscation of my entire private property. The government is maybe suffering from a shortage of money – who knows?

Are you prepared to leave your country if necessary?
I have no intention to leave the country. I am currently abroad because for the time being I can do more for Iran from here. Many of my friends and colleagues have urged me to address Iran’s cause everywhere.

What can those do who are not as well-known as you?
Many are imprisoned, some have done nothing else than what I did.

Iran is a very young nation. A large proportion of the population does not have personal recollections of the Islamic Revolution in 1979. What does the regime do to stabilize support within the population?
The young people do not support the government. They oppose it for various reasons. One of them is the very high unemployment rate that especially affects young people. Another reason is that young people want to be free, but they face severe restrictions. There is a widespread feeling of having no future. The government not only restricts the freedom to travel, it also prevents careers, and the development of opportunities. After the revolution of 1979, the government has tried to shape the youth on their own terms, but here they have failed miserably.

Nevertheless, Iran still has a strong educational and academical culture, which distinguishes Iran from many islamic countries. Which one is stronger: The hunger for education, or the hunger for freedom?
I believe that both are the same. Education and training have great significance in Iran. The young people do sense very clearly that they are being deprived of something. This is why they are against the government.

Recently, very brave women like you have been shaping the image of a self-assured struggle for freedom in Iran. How important are the young women for the change in the Iranian society?
Look at the pictures and videos of the demonstrations. Many, many women were in the streets. By the way, they were young women as well as older women. The main reason is that women are very unhappy. After the revolution, many discriminatory laws were passed very quickly. In court, a woman’s life, for example, is only worth half as much as that of a man. The compensation that a woman will get is half of what a man will receive for the same injury. The testimony of a woman has less weight in court than that of a man. Not to speak of the unequal rights in marriage. And all this is despite of the fact that the percentage of female students at the universities is 65 percent, compared to 35 percent of male students.

Seyran Ates, the Berlin lawyer and author, has written a book in which she states that the Islamic society needs a sexual revolution. What are the odds on that?
The women in many social issues are in the very front. A major reason for that are the multiple new civil laws from the year of the revolution. Sometimes I have the suspicion that the revolution of 1979 was explicitly directed against women.

In 1980, Iran joined the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam. What does this mean to you?
I am strictly against the Declaration on Human Rights in Islam. In my understanding, human rights only can be universal. It does not make sense to me to adopt a Jewish, Buddhist, or Christian declaration on human rights. With a correct interpretation of Islam it is quite easy to be a muslim and at the same time respect the universal human rights.

Interview: Harry Nutt;
Translated from Farsi by A. Zamanhkan.


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