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Shirin Ebadi: 'A Certain Commitment to Justice'

Nobel Peace Prize winner, Iranian feminist, lawyer, and patriot Shirin Ebadi. (wickenden/Flickr)

Nobel Peace Prize winner, Iranian feminist, lawyer, and patriot Shirin Ebadi. (wickenden/Flickr)

NEW YORK, June 10, 2004 - Shirin Ebadi, Iranian lawyer and human rights activist, was awarded the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize for her work promoting democracy and human rights. Ebadi has led efforts to change Iran's discriminatory laws against women, to provide more protection for street children, and to free those detained for expressing their opposition to the government. She has continued her advocacy despite detention, suspension from legal practice, and repeated threats to her security.

Ebadi was born in 1947. She received a law degree from the University of Tehran. In the years 1975-79 she served as President of the City Court of Tehran, one of the first female judges in Iran. After the 1979 Revolution she was forced to resign, and now works as a lawyer and also teaches at the University of Tehran.

Ebadi spoke to the Asia Society while she was in New York for the Citigroup Series on Asian Women Leaders at Asia Society on Islam and Human Rights. is grateful to Banafsheh Keynoush for her work as interpreter during this interview.


How did you become interested in the field of human rights?

Everyone is born with certain characteristics. I always had a feeling during childhood, almost like a calling, which I could not name then but I later found that it was about seeking justice, a certain commitment to justice. When I was a child, whenever I would see children fighting, I would naturally try to defend the underdog, the weakest. I even got beaten up myself a couple of times doing that!

This natural tendency led me to choose law as my field of study. In addition, my own father was a professor of law. And it was this natural tendency to seek justice that also led me to choose to become a judge after getting my law degree. I thought that by being a judge I could practice justice even better.

After the Revolution, we were told that women, according to Islam, could not be magistrates or judges. So as soon as it became possible for me to do so, I decided to retire prematurely. Following which I requested a license from the Iranian Bar Association to practice law. I was turned down for seven years, although in that same time period others were given the same license. The reason was that I have always had a sharp tongue! Once I did get the license to practice, I knew exactly where I was headed, and that was towards the defense of human rights as a means to getting justice.

What kind of human rights work have you principally been involved in?

I have been active in both the theory and practice of human rights. I have published 11 books mostly focused on human rights: the rights of women, the rights of the child, comparative law on the rights of the child, underage laborers, history and documentation of human rights in Iran, the rights of refugees, and rights within the framework of arts and literature insofar as they pertain to freedom of speech.

In practice too I have been active. Along with a couple of others, I set up an association for the defense of the rights of the child aimed at disseminating and promoting the International Convention on the Rights of the Child in Iran. Fortunately, this NGO has been quite successful. I was also able to set up another NGO with the help of a number of lawyers. In this NGO, we offer pro bono legal services to political defendants and those who are sent to prison for ideological reasons. We also provide support to the relatives of political prisoners. We raise awareness or at times publish declarations in areas where human rights have been violated.

Following the Nobel, I have also set up another NGO for de-mining.

Why do you think that in contemporary debates, Islam is frequently viewed as incompatible with human rights?

Unfortunately the human rights situation is not very good in most Islamic countries. When people object to cases of human rights violations, they are told that Islam and human rights are, in essence, incompatible. It is claimed that governments are observing Islamic rules and regulations. By doing so, that is, by invoking religion, these governments are clearly attempting to silence those who object. But this is absolutely incorrect. Islamic studies show us that Islam has no incompatibility with human rights.

On the other hand, the advocates of the so-called "clash of civilizations" thesis are also interested in making the case that Islam and human rights are incompatible. In making this argument, they are suggesting that Islam and democracy are incompatible and that the clash between Western and Eastern civilizations is inevitable. To make their task easier, they resort to phrases such as "Islamic" terrorism. A single, terrible deed carried out by a Muslim, according to them, is a result of the fact that they are Muslim. Whereas, obviously, anyone can engage in wrongful acts. To take one example: in Bosnia there were those who did terrible things, but we did not say that those acts were committed in the name of Christianity, or that Christianity was responsible. Or in Palestine for that matter: the Israeli government has not implemented any UN resolution that has been issued so far, but we do not blame Judaism for this inaction. So it is not clear to us why when one Islamic group is responsible for an act of violence, everyone in the world starts talking about it as Islamic terrorism.

So those who believe that democracy and Islam are incompatible fall in the following categories: first, Westerners who are advocates of war; and second, some Islamic governments that are also dictatorial regimes that violate the rights of their people (and seek legitimacy for doing so).

Next: "Human rights are indivisible."