Why Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi believes Iran 'could be the next North Korea'

Ebadi was the first Muslim woman and first Iranian citizen to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, and now lives in exile in London

MADRID, SPAIN - MARCH 29: Iranian human rights lawyer and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize Shirin Ebadi (R) attends WomenNOW Summit by Santander Bank on March 29, 2019 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Carlos Alvarez/Getty Images)
Powered by automated translation

Shirin Ebadi made history breaking barriers in Iran, blazing a trail for others to come after her. She was a pioneering female force to be reckoned with; a lawyer who, at age 23, became one of the first women judges of the country, and at age 30, one of the first magistrates in Tehran.

She went on to become the first Muslim woman and first Iranian citizen to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

But despite most of her feats taking place from within her home country, she now lives in exile, and opposes much of what it now stands for.

A lot has changed since the 1970s. Now aged 72, Ebadi lives in London, but spends much of her time travelling, determined to spread the word of the injustices happening in her homeland.

I am not fearful of going to prison. I was imprisoned in the past and I know I can endure it, but if I am in prison, no one can hear my voice

"My working office is in the airports," she tells The National, through a translator. "I can say that I consider myself a world citizen and not a citizen of a specific place."

So, naturally, Ebadi is this week in the UAE to appear at the first Hay Festival Abu Dhabi.

She will speak about her work for human rights and democracy, and about her latest memoir, Until We Are Free. And that memoir holds quite the story.

Born in Hamadan, north-west Iran, Ebadi followed in her father’s footsteps when she took up law in Tehran (he was Hamadan’s chief notary public). At the time, it was a radical move: there were no female judges, and few women in the field of law.

In 1969, Ebadi became the first female judge in the country. In 1975, she became the first female president of the Tehran city court.

It was a stratospheric rise through the ranks, and even more so considering her sex, which meant she had many detractors.

After the 1979 Iranian revolution, conservative clerics insisted on demoting her to a secretarial position at Tehran city court. After protesting alongside other female judges, she sought early retirement.

After 14 years of being unable to practise as a lawyer, Ebadi returned to work in 1993 with a vengeance and became renowned as something of a defender of the people, especially women and children – and was known to take up cases in defence of the oppressed, or those who had fallen foul of the law. Those pioneering efforts for democracy and human rights – which often left her treading a fine line with the Iranian Government – earned her the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003. She was the first Iranian citizen and the first Muslim woman to receive it.

"The Nobel Prize gave me the opportunity to have more platforms and a place from which I can make my voice be heard. This obviously was very important in making my work successful. [But it did] not help to reduce the animosity of the government – it also made it more suspicious of me," Ebadi says.

While she was lauded across the world for the win – thousands greeted her at the airport upon her return from a work trip to Paris after she had learnt she'd won the response from those in power was less than favourable. The conservative media all but buried the news, and the Iranian president at the time, Mohammad Khatami, lampooned the award as a political slight against him.

But the world was impressed. In 2004, Forbes named her as one of its "100 most powerful women in the world". Yet Ebadi takes little solace from such accolades.

"If I have any influence, I have to say it is only a moral one. I have no political party and no political power. A great number of Muslim women who actually want equal rights make the same statements as I do."

Hostility between Ebadi and the government in Tehran escalated further when in 2009, she said authorities had confiscated her Nobel Prize money, along with her Nobel medal, which was in a bank safety deposit box. The only thing eventually given back to her was her Nobel medal. Iran denied the charges. "All my properties and even my father's house were confiscated because I was supporting people and had defended political prisoners and prisoners of conscience," she says.

“As a result of international protest and their follow up, the government was forced to open the deposit box and to return the medal to me.”

Ebadi was in Spain when authorities stormed her house and her law firm, closed her NGOs and jailed her colleagues.

Two – Nargess Mohammadi and Nasrin Sotudeh – are still in prison.

"My colleagues asked me to stay abroad and not return to Iran because someone had to stay and speak out about what was happening in the country.

"I realised that they were right. I am not fearful of going to prison. I was imprisoned in the past and I know I can endure it, but if I am in prison, no one can hear my voice." (Ebadi was sentenced to 15 months in prison in 2000 after she was accused of trying to bring to justice security forces in Iran who killed a university student.)

Since then, Ebadi has travelled, intent on telling the world how “people in Iran are being discriminated against and oppressed”.

In response, the Iranian government detained her sister and husband. They were later released. Ebadi had always been a writer (she has had 14 books published), but after her exile, she became more prolific. But even that has not come without its battles.

I feel the value of truth is worth more than all of this. I did not go quietly, and I will not be quiet. We have to speak about the oppression of the government under any condition and pay any price for it

Her 2006 autobiography, Iran Awakening, was her first to be published outside Iran, in the US, and became a New York Times bestseller. But because of the sanctions on Iran, Ebadi was not allowed to receive any money for book sales – until she filed a lawsuit against the ruling by the US Department of Treasury and won. "The good thing is that after winning the case, and after lifting this sanction, two other Iranian authors were also able to publish their stories in the US," she says.

Ebadi has since devoted her life to spreading the word of the injustices going on within Iran. "The Supreme Leader's role and selection is very similar to that of the Pope. The difference is that the Pope has a voice in religious matters and has no say in politics, but we see that the Iranian government interferes in people's personal lives, including the number of children they can have, when one can marry and when to divorce. This is the reason I say that the political structure in Iran has no choice and is in a dead end," she explains.

"I want to be the voice of the defenceless people of my country – most especially women in Iran."

Ebadi will no doubt put that voice to good use this week in Abu Dhabi. She says she is unfamiliar with the Emirates, having been here, briefly, only three times previously, to apply for visas.

"[In the UAE] I will address the subject of women's rights in Islam and about women's rights in the Muslim world. I would like to cover the issue of the situation of women in the Islamic countries and what true Islam says about women."

So what for the future of Iran? Ebadi says it needs to make immediate changes as the situation in government is no longer “sustainable”, and believes it could end up being another North Korea.

"Iran, currently, is like fire buried under ash – sooner or later it will flare." But she isn't advocating for a total boycott. She says it's important for western countries to oppose the dictatorship, but to support the people.

Although she is now 72, Ebadi does not intend to slow down. She says she will continue campaigning for Iranian human rights “as long as I live”.

“I feel the value of truth is worth more than all of this. I did not go quietly, and I will not be quiet. We have to speak about the oppression of the government under any condition and pay any price for it.”