Thank you to all of you who wrote in to me earlier this year with your suggestions for Iranian of the year. To those of you who feared that the majority may chose someone from the Iranian football team, let me assure you that the majority of you had no interest in the Iranian Football team.
Before turning my attention to the winner I would like to address the authors of the dozens of emails I received who, surprisingly and quite comically, voted for National Geographic on the grounds that by calling the Persian Gulf, the Arabian Gulf, they are in fact leading to unity amongst Iranians who can not stand to be told that their beloved Gulf in fact belongs to Arabia — the history of this confusion may be the subject of another essay — but I should point out that the National Geographic is not a person and is not Iranian, and therefore can not really be considered for the title of “Iranian of the year”!
So now I want to turn my attention to Shirin Ebadi, the person that almost ninety percent of you voted for. What was interesting about your letters was that most of you knew you wanted Shirin Ebadi as “Iranian of the year” because she had become the Noble Peace Prize winner but some of you were not sure why she had been awarded the prize and almost nobody mentioned that she had already been honored by the Human Rights Watch, “for her courageous dedication to the preservation of fundamental freedoms through her service as a human rights monitor.”
I hope, in the short essay that follows, I am able to shed some light on the toughest lady in Tehran.
Shirin Ebadi: The Toughest woman in Tehran
She is a 56-year-old lawyer and human rights activist, 1996 Human Rights Watch honoree, and is also Iran's first Nobel Peace Prize winner (2003) who represents a reformist attitude to Islam and argues that Islamic law should be practiced within the framework of international human rights standards.
Born in the city of Hamedan in 1947 Shirin Ebadi moved to Tehran when she was a year old. She began her education at Firuzkuhi primary school and went on to Anoshiravn Dadgar and Reza Shah Kabir secondary schools for her higher education, and then sat the Tehran University entrance exams to gain her place at the Faculty of Law in 1965.
In 1968 she received her law degree and immediately sat the entrance exams for the Department of Justice and after a six-month apprenticeship in adjudication she began to serve officially as a judge in March of 1969, while, at the same time, studying for and obtaining a doctorate with honors in private law from Tehran University in 1971.
In 1975, she became the President of Bench 24 of the City Court in Tehran, and thus became the first woman in the history of Iranian justice to have served as a judge. Unfortunately, the 1979 Islamic Revolution led to the Islamic belief that women cannot serve as judges because of their irrational and emotional state, and subsequently Shirin Ebadi was dismissed from her post. Eventually, after much protest she was promoted to the position of “expert” in the Justice Department. It was not until 1992 that the Bar association granted her a lawyer's license and allowed her to set up her own practice.
Today, officially, she both practices law and teaches law at Tehran University, and takes on cases other lawyers in Iran would not such as representing the family of Dariush Farouhar, the dissident intellectual who was found stabbed to death at his home late last year. It turned out to be the work of “rogue elements” in the Intelligence Ministry. She is also a campaigner for women's rights, children's rights (successfully created Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child), refugees, and victims of government repression (she is co-founder of the Center for the Defense of Human Rights).
Ebadi's influence on the women of Iran, gave her a key role in the landslide election of the reformist Mohammad Khatami in May 1997. Further, the government has blamed her as the voice behind the five day demonstrations of Tehran University students, to which she responds by saying, “We still don't know who the rioters really were. They are trying to say the whole thing was the responsibility of a few people.
What we do know is the police broke into the dormitories, and this was against the law. They beat up students, and this was against the law. All the officials of the country agreed this was wrong.”However, perhaps, it is her unofficial role as spokeswoman for Iranian women for which hard-line ayatollahs have come to accuse her of undermining Iran's Islamic revolution. In the area of Family Law, for example, where rights are generally slanted towards men in the Islamic court, Ebadi has managed to make sure a husband can no longer automatically obtain a divorce without paying alimony.
In the year 2000, accused of distributing the videotaped confession of hardliner claiming that prominent conservative leaders had instigated physical attacks on reformists, Ebadi herself landed a suspended jail sentence and a professional ban. Yet, in the words of the Nobel committee she “never heeded the threat to her own safety”. It is a shame, and ironic, that while she is fighting to hold responsible those who violate human rights, her own safety is constantly feared for.
The thing about Ebadi is that it is not that she is unaware of the danger she faces in her line of work but that she stands up for what is passionate about in spite of the fear she faces. In a 1999 interview she admitted, “Any person who pursues human rights in Iran must live with fear from birth to death, but I have learned to overcome my fear.”
Her theories about Human Rights are simple, and certainly not un-Islamic. She believes in the universality of human rights no matter what their country of origin, religion, and descent. In her words,
“Extreme poverty is a violation of human rights since people are deprived from the rights to healthcare, education, food or housing. It also results in further human rights violations since, without resources, many rights become pure theory – rights to a fair trial, freedom of expression and opinion, right to free and fair election. I believe that this situation is not ineluctable : remedy lies in a greater respect for human rights.”
Speaking, only for myself, I have to admit, that comparing her life and the risks she has taken to bring freedom to lives of others, I feel a certain shame at who I am. Not long ago I write a small essay for Iranian.com about the abuse of children as soldiers in Iran and almost immediately friends and family began warning me that if word ever got back to Iran that I had spoken out against the government I would be putting the lives of anyone I know in Iran quite at risk.
As I said, I now feel ashamed, not because I believed what was being told may be true, but because for a moment I cared. In the words of Shirin Ebadi, “Have confidence, have courage, and know that if we work hard, our struggle will be victorious.”