Iranian Nobel Peace Laureate Shirin Ebadi Speaks Out on Human Rights

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Shirin Ebadi at San Francisco's Jewish Community Center Thursday, March 10, 2016. (Ida Mojadad/KQED)

In her new book, "Until We Are Free," Shirin Ebadi chronicles her fight for human rights in Iran against a government that worked to destroy her career,  her marriage and take away her freedom. In 2003, she became the first Iranian and Muslim woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize.

Last week, she visited the Bay Area and spoke with KQED Forum host Michael Krasny at San Francisco's Jewish Community Center.

"We the people of Iran are stuck in the middle of the sea, and I know that we will get to land soon," Ebadi told the audience Thursday through a translator. "We don't have the right to stop swimming or think about how far the land is."

During her visit, Ebadi also spoke with KQED about Iran's lack of real change to date, her hopes for the future and her life in exile in the United Kingdom.

The sanctions are starting to lift, the Reformists made some gains in the recent election and centrist Hassan Rouhani has become president. How do you think this will affect the human rights situation in Iran?


Elections in Iran are not free. The competence of the candidates has to be approved by the Guardian Council. During the last election, 40 percent of the candidates did not pass the vetting process.

However, a small minority of the Reformists was able to get into the Parliament in the recent election. But they cannot bring any change in Iran.

Let’s not forget that [Mohammad] Khatami, who was the leader of the Reformists, was the president of Iran for eight years. That time, during a four-year period, the Parliament also had a majority of the Reformists in it. This means that both the legislature and the executive were in the hands of the Reformists. However, no change was brought.

You’ve said many times that any change has to go through the Ayatollah. How could we have any real change in Iran with the Ayatollah being the one who makes the decisions?

The number of the people who are unhappy with the government rises every day.. However, these people do not want to resort to violence.

The people are resisting but it is sort of a negative resistance, and they will continue their negative resistance until the government takes steps back. I know that it may take a long time, but it is better than Iran becoming a second Syria.

With the recent nuclear agreement, which didn’t make human rights a condition, some critics said the West lost its main leverage to pressure Iran over human rights. Do you agree?

The betterment of the situation of human rights in Iran is the responsibility of the people of Iran who are fighting for it.

Let us not forget that with sanctions, we cannot topple a government. The most serious sanctions have been placed against North Korea for years, but the government has not been toppled. The only difference is that people have become poorer and hungrier.

The U.S. recently made changes to its visa waiver program, which has affected the ability of dual citizens in Europe and in the U.S. to travel. Has this affected you personally?

It did not personally affect me because I have a green card in the United States. But I have to say that, in general, I am against this law. If this is to punish the government of Iran, the government of Iran is not going to be punished. It’s only people who are being punished.

And if it is for security matters, do you think that if terrorists want to come to America, they’re going to respond truthfully to the questions that they are asked when obtaining a visa? No, they’ll find a way to get in. It’s not going to bring safety and security to America.

In your book, you recounted being wiretapped by the government, being threatened, your husband’s arrest and much more. What is it like to be targeted by your own government in these ways?

It is true that working on human rights is very difficult in a non-democratic country. This is why in Iran, many of my colleagues and friends are in prison now.

In your book, you also make the point that it doesn’t matter how hard it is, that you have to keep going. Even in the darkest of days, how do you get through without giving up?

There is a price for everything. For example, if you’re working on your Ph.D. and want to go to graduate school, you have to spend years in universities to do that. The same thing is true about democracy. When a nation wants democracy, they have to pay the price for that, too.

Of course, the greater question is “so, why me?” and many people ask this question. But if you believe in the path that you take and your goal, then you will face the difficulties and you’re not going to ask that.

Also, I want to add that I am a Muslim and I believe in God. That, of course, keeps me going.

Iran keeps arresting its dual citizens and detaining them for a while once they return to the country. Do you think that the Iranian government is threatened by the idea of its dual citizens, who maybe grew up in another country or in the West, returning  at this time of improved relations?

These people are innocent and they usually have not committed any wrong when they get arrested. I think that the government of Iran holds them hostage and uses them when swapping prisoners. For example, your colleague Jason Rezaian, that’s what they did as well.

Also, I want to add that [Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei], who has all the power, has stated numerous times that there will be no change either in the foreign policy or the domestic policy of Iran.

Do you dream of going back one day, and if so, under what circumstances?

If I go back, I will certainly get arrested, because the prosecutor has already opened a criminal case against me. However, I’m not scared of going to prison — I’ve been in prison before as well.

The reason that I don’t go back to Iran is that I don’t think I can be active in Iran. I don’t think that I can continue to do my work in Iran. I will go back to Iran on a day where I can work as an attorney and I can continue my work.

You’ve taken up pro bono cases for people in Iran who needed representation, who have had their rights threatened. Which clients or stories have stuck with you the most and make you proud to have worked on?

All of them were important cases for me because they were all unjust cases. But if I were to name one case, it would be the case of  Zahra Kazemi, a photojournalist from Canada who had original Iranian nationality and died under torture. That has always stayed with me.

Can any representation in the government help women’s situation in Iran, such as being veiled?

None of the discriminatory laws are going to change and the reason for it is that all of the laws that are passed by the Parliament have also to be approved by the Guardian Council.

The members of the Guardian Council are all appointed by the leader — they’re not elected by the people. So you know that nothing is going to change.

Lastly, there’s been plenty of political talk of Iran that just seems to dominate headlines, but now it’s starting to open up more about the culture. How do we continue to bring culture to the forefront and humanize the people of Iran?

Iran has an old civilization and a very rich culture. You know, we have good music, very good writers, we have poets and we have a very rich cinema. You can depict the films that are made in Iran, translate the books that Iranians have written, translate the poetry and bring the Iranian culture to this community.

Another good thing about Iran — the food is great, so go to Iranian restaurants.

Dr. Ebadi is president of Iran's Defenders of Human Rights Center and author of "Until We Are Free: My Fight for Human Rights in Iran."


This interview was conducted through a translator and has been edited for length and clarity.