Of all the places one might encounter Shirin Ebadi, Tallahassee should not be one. I was to meet her in the state capital of what is officially known as America’s sunshine state, but is more widely regarded as America’s weirdest state. Ebadi was in Florida for , which connects laureates with youth. But I found it hard to imagine the greatest Iranian human rights icon spending Persian New Year week at a teen camp on the Florida panhandle. “I go everywhere, I live on planes,” she tells me on the phone and indeed days later I’m scheduled to meet her closer to my home in New York City.
On the phone I hold my breath every time we speak – her informal, easy Persian contrasts with mine, layered with too much cloying etiquette, the kind you prepare for some relative of your dreams. Persian is my first language – I use it to speak to my family and Iranian friends, but recently I feel anxious. I consider the prospect of translating Persian for those trapped in legalese at airports during ”, and I don’t trust my tongue.
Ebadi dismisses my apologies and sticks to our logistics. I foolishly suggest a Persian restaurant in midtown Manhattan frequented by my circle of Iranian journalists and she, with a swift correction reminds me of her security concerns. Would I instead mind coming over to New Jersey where she is staying with family? Hoboken, have I heard of it? It’s she who tells me how close it is to Manhattan. I’ve lived in New York City for over 20 years, but rarely spent much time in New Jersey. And she asks about my texting abilities, and I numbly consider my phone which confuses me more often than not. I am months shy of 40, I try to explain to someone months shy of 70. “It’ll be easy,” she insists. It’s not the first time she tells me that in our conversations.
If Tallahassee was an unlikely place to meet, Hoboken is the only slightly less unlikely rival. It’s as all-American as its many drinking establishments: the “mile-square” small town on the Hudson River known for birthing baseball and Frank Sinatra.
Just as I’m worrying about how to find her, she speedwalks my way: a beaming older woman in red lipstick, neatly cut mahogany hair, a plush black jacket with silk and velvet embossing, over sensible black slacks.
What makes all the American elements more bizarre is that we are meeting on Sizdah Be-dar, the final day of Persian New Year. It’s the first thing I can think to say with my fussy formalities and she smiles it off, eyeing me up and down – I have a cane because of a relapse of Lyme Disease. She doesn’t look the least bit out of place, but she’s perhaps not convinced of me. “Okay, can you walk a few blocks? Let’s get to work!”
We end up in a Starbucks of all places, which Ebadi says works well for meetings – anonymous, casual, yet quiet enough for our purposes. But it’s wildly crowded on this Sunday morning and most of our conversation has to happen over Elton John and Buffalo Springfield as baristas bellow the debased Italian of the American coffee lexicon. At one point, I express to Ebadi my worry about our speaking loudly in Farsi – the overheated Islamophobia recently, I try to warn. But her shrug says it all. Ebadi is someone who has done considerable time in all sorts of dangers.
The first time Ebadi came deep into my consciousness was autumn 2003, just over half a year after the US went to war in Iraq, not even two years since president George W Bush declared Iran part of the “”. Amid all this, Ebadi won the Nobel peace prize. I was in graduate school at Johns Hopkins and the last thing on mind was any sort of Iranian pride, but I’ll never forget that phone call from my father: “Best news! Shirin Ebadi won the Nobel!” We celebrated as if she were a cousin.
And she might be, my family would always try to insist, as Ebadi comes from Hamadan where my mother was from. A year after Ebadi’s birth there in 1947, her family moved to Tehran. They encouraged her to get her law degree and by 1970 she was one of the first female judges in .
“The luck I had was that I was born into a very good family. We were three daughters and one brother. All the freedoms my brother had, I had. There was no difference between us. My father loved my mother very much. He was a real feminist – I learned feminist principles from my father really. They were Muslim and they practiced very modern Islam. And we went to Zoroastrian school. Why did we? Because it was a good school near us and my father said there is no reason to go far to go to another good school. He said all religions are one. And I learned from my family to respect all religions.”
Not even 30, she became the youngest and first female chief magistrate of 26th divisional court in Tehran in 1975. By the 1979 Revolution, she was married but she was about to lose her career as female judges were dismissed by the regime. She was demoted to the role of magistrate’s clerk in the court over which she once presided, so she requested an early retirement. During this period she wrote articles and worked on books, and tended to her two young daughters. Finally, in 1992, she was able to get a license for a private practice.
She soon became the defence lawyer for the most important human rights cases in Iran, including , , , and . She also defended leaders of the Baha’i faith, the most persecuted religious minority in Iran. And she did this all without making a living from it.
“Not only did I not make money, 20 lawyers who worked with us did not make money. We had 6,000 political cases we defended without charge. We decided to take no money. I did consulting in my office, my husband had a job as an engineer, our office was our own so no rent – so with political prisoners I took no pay.” Ebadi falls into a wistful smile when recalling the mother of Kazemi insisting on paying her in limes from Shiraz.
Trouble came soon enough: in 1999 she was charged with “disturbing public opinion”, for which she spent 25 days in solitary confinement in Evin Prison, where she had visited her clients many times. More convictions quickly followed and she was threatened with more imprisonment and a bar on practicing law for five years but due to international pressure her sentence was reduced to a fine.
When the Nobel came in 2003, Ebadi was shocked. “I had no idea I was a candidate. When I found out, I was very surprised. The [prize] money helped me so I could get a good apartment, get some computers in there, and our work really progressed.” She set up an office for what would become a major human rights organisation, the (CDHR) which supported the families of political prisoners.
Trouble came again in 2009. While Ebadi was in Spain for a three-day conference, the Islamic Republic of Iran held its , giving birth to Iran’s opposition Green movement. In spite of protests with hundreds of thousands of Iranians in Tehran – and many communities around the world – it ended in house arrest for the movement favourite Mir Hossein Mousavi and all sorts of renewed crackdowns on the Iranian people. The government filed a case against Ebadi in the revolutionary court and confiscated her properties, including the office of the CDHR.
Only when Ebadi talks about this can you hear pain in her voice. There is a soft strain in her voice when she details how this led to her current exile in London. “The reason I did not return is not because I am afraid of jail,” she says. “Outside of Iran I knew I’d be more useful. I could speak, I could hear the voices of people.” Do you miss Iran? “Naturally.” Will you go back one day? “Definitely.”
This is where Ebadi achieves saint-like status for some – to look back on Iran with love would be a feat for many, given what she details in her most recent book . The book, with startling candour, reveals the story of how the government eventually succeeded in hurting her where it hurt the most: her family. After years of the authorities targeting her daughters and sister, all while harassing Ebadi herself, they resorted to one of their more sinister schemes.
Just a couple months after the election, her husband of 35 years disappeared only to finally call her with this story: . It went deeper than that: he had been set up in a sting operation involving video cameras, a mistress, and alcohol. The presence of alcohol plus the fact that in Islamic law sex outside of marriage is forbidden, gave authorities free reign to take him to prison where he was lashed, convicted of adultery and sentenced to death. He narrowly escaped execution by making a deal with authorities – publicly denouncing Ebadi in return for freedom: “Shirin Ebadi did not deserve to receive the Nobel Prize. She was awarded the prize so that she could help topple the Islamic Republic. She is a supporter of the west, particularly America. Her work is not in the service of Iranians, but serves the interests of foreign imperialists who seek to weaken Iran.” Ebadi stayed abroad in London and their marriage dissolved, though amicably – her entire family understood that they had been framed.
I’m tempted to dance around the details – even as a journalist, it’s daunting to ask an Iranian elder such intimate specifics – but Ebadi insists on telling her story. “The reason I told the story so openly was that I wanted to show what the government in Iran is capable of. They have done what they did to my husband to many others. But more so, the talk of this in Iran is taboo, and I wanted to break the taboo. A government who can whip me on streets if strands of hair are revealed, and hires a sex worker for politics in the name of Islam?” The hint of distress in her throat immediately burns into triumph. “So, yes, I have my priorities when it comes to taboo.”
Ebadi has detailed all her paths and the many obstacles in several books and counting, the most famous being , co-authored with journalist Azadeh Moaveni.
“I admire her ferocious integrity and her enduring grip on what matters most to Iranian women,” says Moaveni. “She doesn’t always say the most fashionable things, or shift her beliefs to suit the funding currents in Washington, because she is so above that, always has been. The price of that has been a smaller share of the limelight than she really deserves. She doesn’t cut deals with justice and it is because of that I find her so precious.”
It’s no wonder then that by the end of our several hours together, I find myself asking her for advice. How, I wonder, can an activist survive this world? “Back in Tehran, always before bed, I would always read literature,” she says. “Unfortunately abroad I don’t have the same access to [translated] books, so I watch films. And comic films only. Before sleeping I have to for a half hour loudly laugh and this helps me so much. It frees my mind.”
I mentally bookmark this under essential self-care, but, as the Starbucks soundtrack goes from the Bruce Springsteen of my youth to the Lauryn Hill of my early adult years, I find myself inconsolably touching down to anxieties about Islamophobia in America. “There is a system here, but in Iran there is no system,” she says, while acknowledging some situations are analogous. “The state and the citizen are very different. The government can be bad but the people are not like that. And this is why there are tensions in society. Because the culture of the people is higher than the culture of the government.” And this could be the entire Middle East and now America with its own fledgling dictatorship.
“Almost a fourth of the people on this Earth are Muslim,” she continues. “And there are so many countries of the world where the majority are Muslim. Are they like each other? Of course not. But some of the countries only show the dark Islam. In this America, we have some great professors of Islamic studies, but no one knows them. But Bin Laden everyone knows!”
And what of all the debates around feminism and Islam in this country? “Women must be free,” Ebadi says, without pause. “For example, why don’t we bother with men’s beards but we do with the woman’s hijab? Because their beards, that’s Islam too. The hijab should be a choice.”
I wander further into advice and ask her what we should tell young people, thinking about the students I teach who are extremely depressed. “It’s very important to make young people interested in issues of social justice and politics. Tell them, this is your destiny, this is your life, don’t be let it go by. It’s not enough just to vote – after that you must see if those you voted for went through with your decisions. If they did not, then you must protest! I give an example: democracy is like a flower. You must give it water and sun daily. You can’t pour enough water for a month at once. Democracy needs daily maintenance.” It’s anecdote she’s told many times, one I won’t soon forget.
At the end of our time together, I come to feel like she is my family. She is helping me download so she can send me films about recent prisoners in Iran (“you must go to the app store!” she snaps, as I fumble with my phone), all while she shows me pictures of her five-year-old grandson.
We leave the American anthems of the Starbucks behind and walk toward the waterfront, talking work and love. “I love what I do,” she tells me. “The more I progressed, my interest in my work only grew. I must do it all. I hope while I’m still alive I can do all this.”
We talk also of duty, my mind again with my students and hers at PeaceJam – how we must make the world better for the youth, how perhaps we are beyond rescue but at least we can hope for the future. She pauses at the hint of my resignation. “No, the world has to be good for them but also good for us!” I get her most spirited smile. “Why not? It’s our right too. I never give up my rights!”
This is the fourth in a series of interviews with women who changed our world.
- Indira Jaising:
- Valentina Tereshkova:
- Diane Nash:
If you’d like suggest interview candidates for the series, please email us at [email protected] with who change the world in the subject line.
Our is being held at the Guardian offices in London on Thursday 4 May. Follow the discussion at #SheMatters2017.
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