Iran's brave agent of change

  • Letters
  • Sunday, 21 Dec 2003


THE flurry of activity planned for Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi – impressive as it was – left her impatient to get back to basics. The Iranian just wants to work. 

“I do not have enough time now to practise law. That is my main profession. That is what I have to do. I want to finish up here and go back to my work,” she said simply. 

“My life has become busier. I have had to attend so many conferences and interviews until my work and everything else have been put on the back-burner. 

“Now, I want to go back to Teheran to attend to the backlog (of cases) and lead my normal life,” she said during a short interview at the Nobel Suite in the Grand Hotel in Oslo, Norway, recently. 

Woman of substance Shirin Ebadi speaks her mind.

Ebadi, 56, is the first Iranian Muslim woman to be awarded the coveted prize since it was first given out in 1901. Only 11 women have been bestowed the honour so far, including Aung San Suu Kyi and Mother Teresa. 

Ebadi received a diploma, gold medal and a cheque for 10mil Swedish kronor from Norwegian Nobel Committee chairman Ole Danbolt Mjos during the two-hour awards ceremony at the City Hall on Dec 10 – the death anniversary of Alfred Nobel. 

She has donated the prize money to organisations that fight for human rights and the rights of women and children. 

Norwegian royals Queen Sonja, Prince Regent Haakon Magnus and Crown Princess Mette-Marit were present at most of the functions held for Ebadi. 

After the interview with The Star (the trip was sponsored by the Norwegian Embassy in Malaysia), Ebadi gave a 30-second message to Aung San Suu Kyi through radio station Free Burma. 

She said she had the highest and utmost respect for the detained democracy advocate. 

“Women all over the world are honoured by her and they are proud of her. I hope for freedom and wish her good luck,” she added. 

A lawyer and human rights activist, Ebadi was chosen by the Norwegian Nobel Committee for promoting democracy and human rights. She is known for supporting peaceful, democratic solutions to major problems in society. 

The public in her country admire her for defending victims of those attacked for promoting freedom of speech and political freedom. 

She also lectures at the University of Teheran where she received her degree. 

Ebadi was among the first female judges in her country when she was Teheran’s city court judge from 1975 but was forced to resign from her judicial position in 1979 after the revolution. 

The citation given by the Norwegian Nobel Committee reads: “She has spoken out clearly and strongly in her country, and far beyond its borders. She has stood up as a sound professional, a courageous person, and has never heeded the threats to her own safety.” 

Through the years, the 56-year-old has focused on the struggle for the rights of women and children. Ebadi is the founder and leader of the Association for Support of Children’s Rights in Iran. 

She is also an activist for refugee rights.  

Shirin's cousin Dr Amir Ebadi (left) and her nephew Ali Moiin.

In her profession, she has been imprisoned several times when she took on controversial political cases including being the attorney for families of writers and intellectuals who were victims of serial murders between 1999 and 2000. 

She was also successful in revealing those responsible for the attack on students at Teheran University in 1999, where several students died. 

Described as representing Reformed Islam by the Norwegian Nobel Committee, Ebadi continues to argue for a “new interpretation of Islamic law, which is in harmony with vital human rights such as democracy, equality before the law, religious freedom and freedom of speech.” 

With all this, her small frame and twinkling eyes can be misleading to the work that she passionately pursues. 

Ebadi is simply not a woman to be trifled with and this was seen when she spoke her mind at the functions traditionally held for Nobel laureates. 

Her voice stood out loud and clear as she grabbed the attention of the audience. 

She drew flak from Muslim clerics when she did not wear the headscarf during her stay in Oslo. 

Asked about it by the press, she replied that she wore the headscarf in Iran because law required women, regardless of whether they were Muslim or not, to do so. 

In her acceptance speech, Ebadi dedicated her prize to the people of Iran. 

“It belongs to the people of the Islamic states, and the people of the South for establishing human rights and democracy.” 

She said the quest for new means and ideas allowing countries of the South to enjoy human rights and democracy, while maintaining their political independence and territorial integrity of their respective nations, should be given top priority by the United Nations. 

“A human being divested of all dignity, beaten by famine, war and illness, humiliated and plundered, is not in any position or state to recover the rights he or she has lost,” she said. 

Ebadi warned that if the 21st Century hoped to “free itself” from violence, terror, war and avoid a repeat of the previous century, it must have understanding and “put into practice every human right for all mankind, irrespective of race, gender, faith, nationality or social status.” 

On Islam, she said: “Its first sermon begins with the word Recite! The Quran swears by the pen and what it writes. Such a sermon and message cannot be in conflict with awareness, knowledge, wisdom, freedom of opinion and expression and cultural pluralism.” 

For Ebadi, the Nobel Peace Prize means that the world has given great value to people who are doing things for the right cause. 

“To me, it means the world has accepted that Islam is not a civilisation or religion of terror and violence. And there is no competition between the Islamic civilisations and other civilisations in the world.” 

Married to engineer Javad Tavassolian, the couple has two daughters Nargass and Negar. 

Her cousin Dr Amir Ebadi likened the awards ceremony in Oslo to a family reunion. 

“There are 36 family members here including her brother, sister, in-laws and nephews. We have come from all over the world – from Italy, UK, US and Iran,” he said when met after the Peace Prize performance of the Oslo Schools. 

Her husband and daughter Nargass were with Ebadi while Negar was in Canada for her PhD examinations. 

“She is the same Shirin to us. She is great and this is an excellent way for recognising her for what we already know,” added Dr Ebadi. 

Her nephew, IT consultant Ali Moiin said one could not help but have great admiration for her. 

“She is a warm person; kind and focused besides being optimistic towards life. And she has a sense of humour,” he added. 

Dr Ebadi admires her for her courage. 

“Her message is for freedom and human rights and not in having religious demonstrations. It is freedom and everyone is born the same way,” he added. 

Asked what her message to Muslim women was, the Nobel laureate said: “What damages the rights of women is not the religion of Islam but the male-dominated culture. 

“Women have to endeavour and develop their culture. Many women are carriers of this culture although they are victims them selves. That is what we have to change.”  

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