Iranian author Shirin Ebadi talks about writing a personal history

The Nobel Peace Prize-winner Shirin Ebadi talks about her new book and the optimism she still has for Iran's future.

Iranian lawyer, human rights activist and 2003 Nobel Peace Prize-winner Shirin Ebadi.
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Shirin Ebadi was at a conference in Spain when, in June 2009, Tehran erupted. Since then, she has not been back home, nor has she seen her husband. Those frenetic, troubled days had consequences for Iran that will continue to unwind for years to come; they also made Ebadi - the only Iranian to win a Nobel Prize - an exile.

"The life of an immigrant is not an easy one," says Ebadi - speaking through an interpreter - when the conversation turns to her personal circumstances. "But whenever I come across hardship, I think of my colleagues back in Iran who are in prison.

"I say to myself: 'You have no right to become tired or despondent. You must continue working if you want their release.' And then I start my day."

The demonstrations that occurred in the wake of the 2009 presidential election - they were easily the largest since the 1979 revolution that installed Ayatollah Khomeini - saw millions protest against what they said was electoral fraud, and gave birth to Iran's pro-democracy Green Movement. The world knows what happened next: a brutal assault that saw an estimated 150 killed and thousands arrested.

As the situation on the streets intensified, Ebadi's colleagues told her that she should remain outside Iran; to return would be to risk almost certain arrest herself. The advice can hardly have come as a surprise; after all, Ebadi is Iran's most prominent human rights activist - known internationally, thanks to the Nobel Peace Prize, which was awarded to her in 2003 - and a tireless critic of the regime.

Her legal practice in Tehran has seen her involved in high-profile work lauded abroad, but despised by the Iranian regime: from helping to expose the "chain murder" killings of Iranian intellectuals during the 1990s, to defending the dissident journalist Akbar Ganji.

Indeed, Ebadi already knows well enough the inside of an Iranian prison cell: she spent 23 days in jail in 2000, accused of "disturbing public opinion".

Since June 2009 Ebadi has been based in London but has travelled frequently in order to spread her message: do not betray the democratic aspirations of the Iranian people. Today, though, she has stepped off that treadmill briefly to talk about her new book The Golden Cage: Three Brothers, Three Choices, One Destiny. It tells the true story of three brothers - Abbas, Javad, and Ali - known to Ebadi through her childhood friend, Pari, and of how each attached himself to a different political cause in the Shah's Iran.

It's a wonderfully readable book; but also an acute and subtle examination of the nature of ideology, and the consequences that ideological thinking had for Iran in the latter part of the 20th century.

At this moment in Iran's history we might have expected Ebadi to write something more straightforward: a history, or a polemic. Why did she decide, instead, on this unusual memoir of a family?

"Reading history books can be tiresome, and many people don't enjoy it," smiles Ebadi. "So I decided to relate part of the history of Iran through the story of this one family I have known for a long time.

"Each of these brothers follows a different ideology, and many Iranian families were split in this way. And as you see when you read the book, each brother finds a different fate. Of course, this isn't just the story of one family. In a microcosm, it's the story of the whole country."

Indeed, though The Golden Cage is not straight history, it's hard to think of a more considered, more artful narration of Iran across the past five decades. The three brothers represent the three strands of political thought that shaped Iran before the revolution. The eldest brother, Abbas, is a fierce monarchist who becomes a general in the Shah's army. His younger brother, Javad, is a member of Iran's communist party, the Tudeh. Meanwhile the youngest, Ali, devotes himself to Islam and becomes a devoted follower of the ayatollah, cleric-in-exile. When Javad and Ali join the broad alliance that came together to force the Shah from his throne, an irreparable fissure spreads through the family.

In this way, then, we are presented afresh with the circumstances that led up to the events of 1979; events that Ebadi participated in herself when, along with hundreds of others, she stormed the justice ministry. There is a common misconception these days, she says, that the 1979 revolution was always an "Islamic Revolution". In fact, the truth is more complex.

"The primary slogans of the revolution were freedom and independence," she says. "I believed in those slogans. I still do. We came to believe that in an Islamic Republic, they would be fulfilled.

"Khomeini promised that in an Islamic Republic everyone would be free - even the communists. He even said that the clergy would not be involved in politics after the revolution, and that he would go and live quietly in Qom. He didn't keep those promises. But by the time we'd realised that he wouldn't keep them, it was too late."

Ebadi was a 31-year-old judge in Tehran back then. A year later, she was told she must step aside because of her gender. This was the setback that prompted her to begin the private practice that earned her the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003. Hers has been a 30-year career dedicated to the cause of human rights and pluralism, and the primary importance of these dual poles for Iran is, surely, the central message of The Golden Cage.

As per the title of her book, the ideologies adhered to by Abbas, Javad and Ali each become, in time, a cage that keeps them from each other, from friends and family, and ultimately from the reality in which they find themselves. Such is the nature, says Ebadi, of uncompromising ideological thinking

"My book shows that we must not allow ideology to become a prison that stops us from accepting anyone outside," says Ebadi. "Alongside ideology, you must also have liberal thinking. People must be free to choose a practical path.

"Fortunately, the Iranian people have reached political maturity. They now realise this."

Here, Ebadi makes reference to the 2009 protests. The assault against political opposition that those protests engendered continues; it prevents Ebadi from returning to Tehran and means her husband has been forbidden to leave the country. Indeed, it might seem to the observer that the stricter measures have been so effective as to end the aspirations of the Greens. Is there any hope left for the Iranian pro-democracy movement?

"I'm sure you remember the level of violence that the regime perpetrated in the days after the election," Ebadi says. "If the huge protests had continued, Iran would have become another Libya. The regime may have been toppled eventually, but the country would have been ruined.

"As I said earlier, the Iranian people have a new political maturity now. They don't want to damage their country in this way. In 32 years they have experienced a revolution and a bloody war," - the Iran-Iraq war of 1980 to 1988 - "and that is too much for one generation. So they have chosen another, peaceful path.

"We know that peaceful protests are still going on inside Iran because people are still being arrested. And owing to these protests, divisions are opening up among the ruling elite."

Although Ebadi cannot return to Iran, she is determined that this will not stop her work. The Golden Cage is prefaced by a quote by the great Iranian political thinker Ali Shariati: "If you can't eliminate injustice, at least tell everyone about it." It is a fitting mission statement for Ebadi in exile. And she remains optimistic that the dream of an authentic Iranian democracy will be realised.

"We diaspora Iranians can often do more than those inside Iran," she says. "Inside the country, anyone who makes even the slightest criticism of the regime is arrested.

"Change will come to Iran. It's hard to predict when because it depends on a wide range of factors - from the market price of oil to the situation in Syria - but the regime will eventually fall. I promise you: the people will be victorious."