Iranian Human Rights Activist and Nobel Prize Laureate Shirin Ebadi: 'We Want an Interpretation [of Islam] That Respects Women's Rights...; An Extremist Group Which Comes into Power and Violates Human Rights and Freedoms Loses Its Legitimacy'
On September 24, 2006, the London daily Al-Hayat published an interview with Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian lawyer and human rights activist. Ebadi served as a judge in Iran but had to give up her post after the Islamic Revolution due to the prohibition on women judges. In the interview, she talks of the battle for human and women's rights in Iran.

The following are excerpts: [1]
After Receiving the Nobel Prize, I Was Summoned to Court Three Times; My Memoirs Have Been Translated Into 60 Languages but Have Not Been Approved for Publication in Iran
Al-Hayat: "How did the Nobel Peace Prize affect your life? Did it help you in your legal battle to promote human rights in your country, Iran?"
Shirin Ebadi: "...So far, [receiving] the prize has not helped me in my activities inside Iran. On the contrary, it has brought me a lot of problems. After receiving it, I was summoned to the court three times for opposing the government. But on the global level, [outside Iran], the prize has extended my outreach."
Al-Hayat: "So the women in Iran cannot hear what you are saying, and everything you say is [actually] addressed to the West..."
Ebadi: "The Iranian [media] channels are government institutions. They do not [bring] my statements or [any] reports about me. Fortunately, there are a number of independent Iranian papers that do publish some of my statements. [But] it is fair to say that I am better known outside Iran than inside it, owing to the [state's] tight supervision. My memoirs, for example, which have been translated into 60 languages, have not yet been approved for publication in Iran."
Al-Hayat: "Your memoirs are titled Iranian and Free: My Struggle for Justice. [2] Why did you decide to publish them now?"
Ebadi: "I am a woman of the middle class. I told myself that by writing my memoirs, I can show the whole world how the Iranian middle class lives. Many people in the West know nothing of Iran beyond what they read about the discrimination [that exists] there, and think that all Iranian women are oppressed and uneducated, and belong in the kitchen. That is not true..."
Al-Hayat: "Your book sheds light on the middle-class women in Iran, but we know that the problem is more prevalent among the lower classes, where ignorance, poverty, and discrimination are rampant. This is true not only in Iran but also in all the Arab countries. How can this reality be changed? And when will our [Muslim] societies take the crucial steps towards equality?"
Ebadi: "Education for women guarantees that society will advance towards full equality. [Another means is] passing laws that do not discriminate against women. Dr. [Hassan] Al-Turabi, [for example], explained that Islam [regards] men and women as equal. He said that a woman's testimony in court carries more weight than a man's. In addition, most Iranian intellectuals agree that it is possible to reach a better interpretation of Islam [in order to establish equality between men and women]
"[Undertaking] This Struggle is My Own Personal Choice, and I Will Follow the Road to Its End"
Al-Hayat: "In previous interviews, you spoke of... girls who are married off at the age of 13. Is this [practice still] common [in Iran] today?"
Ebadi: "Legally, it is still possible for girls to marry at a very early age, but these marriages have become rare, mostly thanks to increasing awareness. But this does not negate the necessity of revoking the law that allows [these marriages]. It is also necessary to change the numerous discriminatory laws pertaining to blood-price [compensation paid to the victim's family in cases of murder]. The blood-price [paid] for a woman is half the blood-price [paid] for a man. If there is an accident [involving] two vehicles, one [driven by] a man and the other by a woman, the woman will receive half the sum [received by the man] in damages."
Al-Hayat: "In light of this legal situation, do you really want your daughters (Nighar, aged 27, and Narjis, aged 24) to live in Iran, or would you like them to live in some other country, where women's rights are more respected?"
Ebadi: "My daughters are Iranian. They must grow up in their homeland and go to the university in Iran. Later they can continue their studies in Canada, providing they promise me to return to Iran after completing their studies, so they can live in their homeland."
Al-Hayat: "But if their rights are better preserved in some other country..."
Ebadi: "Let me explain. I see Iran as my mother. If your mother was old and ill, would you abandon her in the middle of the road and happily go home to relax? Or would you do your utmost to care for her and cure her? Iran is my motherland, and I must make every effort to care for it and heal it."
Al-Hayat: "Even at the cost of your life?"
Ebadi: "We are all destined to die, and we do not know when our day will come... [Undertaking] this struggle is my own personal choice, and I will follow the road to its end."
Al-Hayat: "Aren't you afraid?"
Ebadi: "Fear is an instinct, like hunger. You feel hunger whether you want to or not, because this instinct is beyond your conscious control. When we encounter hardship... we are instinctively afraid. I'll be frank with you. I am threatened, but I have learned over the years, in the course of my work, to keep the fear from determining my actions or my beliefs, and [fear] will not sway me."
Al-Hayat: "Does this mean that you do not think, as you leave [home] every morning, 'today might be the day?'"
Ebadi: "I try to start each day with positive thoughts, not negative ones... Fear [only] paralyzes you."
Al-Hayat: "In 30 years of ongoing struggle, haven't you ever lost heart?"
Ebadi: "I am like a ship in mid-ocean. If it doesn't go forward, it will sink. We are headed in the right direction... towards a safe haven... and this is what I am doing: I am rowing with all my might."
"Islam is a Religion like Any Other, and Has Different Interpretations"
Al-Hayat: "The West has a distorted image of Islam. How do you explain this lack of understanding?"
Ebadi: "The non-democratic Islamic governments use Islam... to justify their violation of human rights in general, and of women's [rights] in particular. They ascribe their oppressive laws to Islam. Islam is a religion like any other, and has different interpretations... The [fact that] women's status differs from one Islamic country to another indicates that Islam has various [possible] interpretations. In Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Pakistan, women have been holding senior posts, such as prime minister, for years, while in other [countries] women are [still] fighting for their right to live... and not die in childbirth.
"Countries like Tunisia and Jordan have equal blood-price for a man and for a woman. The question we face today, at the beginning of the 21st century, is which interpretation and what [kind of] Islam we want. We want an interpretation that respects women's rights. Enough of this discrimination."
"Women's Rights Are Part and Parcel of Human Rights; When Human Freedom is Achieved, Women Will Undoubtedly Receive Their Rights as Well"
Al-Hayat: "After your long struggle for human and women's rights, what would you like to achieve in Iran?"
Ebadi: "I would like Iran to be a country where I can talk on the phone without [anyone] listening in on my conversations, [a country] in which I can elect [any candidate] I choose, and not only candidates approved by the Expediency Council [this probably refers to the Guardian Council], [a country] in which I can voice my opinions freely without being punished for my views, [a country] in which wealth is more fairly distributed among the citizens, because the social gaps are currently very wide."
Al-Hayat: "I thought you would mention things related to women's rights..."
Ebadi: "Women's rights are part and parcel of human rights. When human freedom is achieved, women will undoubtedly receive their rights as well... What I mentioned regarding Iran is the minimal [level] of human rights."
Al-Hayat: "Where do you rank Iran on a scale of democracy and respect for human rights?"
Ebadi: "Iran has much more democracy than many Arab countries. But we still fall short of European[-style] democracy. What matters is democracy. In other words, what [degree] of democracy the various peoples demand of their governments. In Iran, there is a very high level of political and social awareness. The Iranians demand a very high [degree] of democracy from their government, while some Arab peoples do not demand any [degree of] democracy [at all]. In spite of this, we find that the West focuses on human rights in Iran, [while ignoring human rights violations] in other countries of the region. We must not forget that Iran is not an ally of the U.S., and this explains why [the West] attacks it and demands that it give up [its quest for] nuclear energy."
"I Am Against Nuclear Weapons and Against Obtaining [Such Weapons] in Principle"
Al-Hayat: "What is your position regarding Iranian nuclear weapons?"
Ebadi: "I am against nuclear weapons and against obtaining [such weapons] in principle. I believe that no country needs nuclear weapons in order to protect itself - not Iran, not Israel, not Pakistan, and not America. I hope the day will come when all the nuclear weapons in the world will be destroyed.
"As for Iran's nuclear weapons, America says that if Iran obtains nuclear weapons, it will threaten the peace and security of the Middle East, because the Iranian people are extremists, and their government is a non-democratic [government] that supports extremists. But America seems to have forgotten that Pakistan is not a democracy [either], and that the Taliban and Al-Qaeda have bases in Pakistan. In spite of this, America does not object to Pakistan having nuclear weapons. The only difference between Iran and Pakistan is that the latter is an ally of America, and Iran is not. The Iranians do not understand and do not accept the double standards applied by America."
Al-Hayat: "Are you opposed to Western organizations interfering in Iran's human rights dossier?"
Ebadi: "The human rights dossier is different from the nuclear dossier. The human rights dossier is a global [issue]: The state of human rights in every part of the world is the concern of the entire world. As an Iranian, I am concerned about violence against Palestinian children, just as the West is concerned about women's rights in Iran. When one talks of human rights in some country, it is out of desire to improve the human rights [situation] there. This does not constitute foreign intervention in [that country's] affairs."
The Majority Does Not Have the Right to Deprive the Minority of Its Rights
Al-Hayat: "The democracies in the region are stuck in another era... Do you agree with this statement?"
Ebadi: "Things are starting to move in the right direction. We must do more, and not lose our faith in the possibility of change. I want to add something about democracy itself. [Even] when the majority comes into power through elections, it is not entitled to do whatever it pleases, but must respect the rights of the minority that is not in power. We must remember that all dictators, including Hitler and Mussolini, came into power through a decisive electoral victory.
"When a majority [group] comes into power, it must preserve the general democratic frameworks and [respect] human rights. It does not have the right to oppress women or pass discriminatory laws in the name of the majority. It does not have the right to deprive others of their rights or to impose its particular ideology [upon them]. Governments do not obtain legitimacy through elections alone. Their legitimacy depends on elections [but also] on the degree to which they respect human rights. Therefore, an extremist group that comes into power and violates human rights and freedoms loses its legitimacy."
Al-Hayat: "Do you believe that the women in the centers of power are addressing the women's problems justly?"
Ebadi: "When a man is in power, I do not judge him by his gender but by his views. Many women in the government are more violent that the men themselves, just as there are men who demand rights for women more [vociferously] than the women themselves. A person's gender, color and identity do not matter... What matters is his plan of action. Unfortunately, some women do not believe in equality. And fortunately, some men believe in women and in [their right to] a prominent role in society."
"You Must Be Ready to Pay the Price Necessary to Achieve Your Goals"
Al-Hayat: "As a great fighter for women's rights, you give many women the strength to carry on. What are characteristics of a good, effective fighter?"
Ebadi: "In order to be a formidable fighter, you must believe in the cause for which you are fighting, and not [let] doubt take hold of you even for an instant. You must not lose heart when you encounter difficulties, not matter what they are. You must be ready to pay the price necessary to achieve your goals...
"It is also important to choose a peaceful way of achieving our aims, a non-violent way that will appeal to the greatest number of people... We must be personally convinced of the justness of our cause before we try to convince others... Many thinkers and human rights activists in the Islamic world do not use appealing terms, but rather attack Islam in a destructive manner. This undermines their cause and puts people off. We must respect the beliefs of others, and show the religious people that they can improve their day to day lives and their human, social and professional circumstances..."
[1] Al-Hayat (London), September 24, 2006.
[2] This is the Persian title of the book. The English translation is titled Iran Awakening: A Memoir of Revolution and Hope.