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Shirin Ebadi
Judge and first female chief magistrate of Tehran's divisional court until the Islamic revolution, then lawyer for human rights. Shirin Ebadi received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 and has been living in exile since 2009.

Which values played a central role in your family?

Shirin Ebadi: I grew up in a modern and religious family. Although Islam was important to my parents, they were open minded at the same time, for example my sister and I visited a school run by a religious minority of followers of Zarathustra. This school was very good and it was close to our apartment and our father said that we didn't necessarily have to attend an Islamic school. In school, I also learned to respect other religions and I had many followers of Zarathustra as friends.
And for this reason, it was natural for me, working as a lawyer, to take on the defense of Bahai supporters when they got into problems after the Islamic Revolution and couldn't find any other lawyer who had the courage to defend them.
I learned about equal rights in my parents' house, especially on the part of my father, there were no differences between girls and boys at home. My parents behaved in the same way towards my brother as well as my sister and me. Hence I already learned in my parents' house how to treat people equally regardless of their gender. My family home taught me who I am today and what I represent.

At the age of 14 – according to your autobiography¹ – you experienced your religious awakening in the attic of your parental home when you prayed there for your sick mother. Could you describe this awakening with words?

S.E.: As a child one feels particularly close to ones parents. My mother was sick and I was very afraid that she could die at any moment. Religion was a help and gave me the hope that God would aid the healing process and restore my mother's health. I went to the attic as a child when I wanted to be alone, think or learn something.
And when my mother got sick and I prayed for her in the attic, I felt at that moment that there was something else. Later on one can not describe this feeling through words.
I didn't see or hear anything at the moment, but it was only a feeling that came deep from my heart. And that moment was the reason for my strong faith in religion.

What influence does Persian poetry have on your faith?

S.E.: The impact of Persian poetry on my faith is very important!
Persian poetry has played a great part throughout my life; for example, Persian literature was the subject of my high school examination. Or to motivate me as a child, my father doubled my pocket money when I memorized Hafiz's poems. That's why I was very familiar with Hafiz's poems before I graduated from high school and that's what awakend my interest in Persian literature. Hence Persian literature plays an important role in my faith, although because of the religious views of things found in the work of many Persian poets. For example, one finds religious thoughts in Rumi's poems.

Has your relationship with religion changed as a result of the Islamic revolution in Iran?

S.E.: The Islamic Revolution in Iran has taken a lot of my life away: my family, my existence, my work, my home – I can not go back. The Islamic Revolution owes me a lot. But despite of all of this, the Islamic Revolution could not take away my faith and my religion. I believe just as much as before the Islamic revolution, that means my faith has not changed as a result of the Islamic revolution.

Is there any difference in your understanding of Islam between Sunnis and Shiites?

S.E.: One should really never make a difference between Sunnis and Shiites and just as one shouldn't make a difference between Islam and non-Muslim faith. Of course, the result of the Islamic Revolution does not correspond to our expectations which we had before the revolution.
People in Iran had connected the revolution to the hope that they could live better and what happened then was very different than their originally expectation.

Should religion have any influence on the legal system or the government of a country?

S.E.: Religion or ideology should be totally separated from politics so that politicians don't misuse or exploit people's faith.

Is there anything positive about the Iranian revolution of 1979?

S.E.: The positive thing is, that after the Islamic revolution, people gained more self-confidence and a stronger public spirit developed in society. Before the revolution, people were also dissatisfied but at the same time they had the feeling that nothing could be changed. After the Islamic revolution, this has changed, the people have recognized their own strengths and that one can also change something.

Are human rights compatible with the Iranian Islamic legislation which is based on the Shari'ah?

S.E.: Under no circumstances some Iranian laws are compatible with human rights. Due to this the Islamic Republic of Iran has been repeatedly warned by the United Nations. Positive changes in the Iranian society have only been made by the people themselves and not by any laws, but the general situation of people has not improved and for example family law has deteriorated significantly. Furthermore personal and social freedoms have been severely restricted.

You call yourself a lawyer for human rights. But instead of »beautiful words« or profound speeches, you are dealing in your work with the abysses of human existence. What is the most important lesson for you, you have learned over the course of your long-term work?

S.E.: The first thing I learned is that you have to separate politics and religion and as long as that does not happen, there will be no positive changes.

Over 60 percent of Iranian university graduates are women. Do you think that these women will question the patriarchal family image of Iran in the future?

S.E.: This will certainly have an impact on the patriarchal family image within Iran. In this respect, Iran is in a more advanced position than its neighboring Arab countries. The patriarchal family image of Iran has become less important over the recent years.

You said regarding Islam: »As a Muslim, I'm firmly convinced that Islam must be interpreted in such a way that human rights as well as democracy are accepted. And that is possible! I have repeatedly shown this to the Iranian government. And that is precisely why they have imposed the death sentence on me.«²
The Iranian government also invokes Islam in its actions. How do you want to convince someone who does not tolerate critical questions and skepticism?

S.E.: Islam would be compatible with human rights, if there were a new interpretation or revision. Unfortunately, the Islamic Republic of Iran abuses faith and violates human rights and ignores democracy. Fortunately, however, changes have already taken place in the Iranian society. We must not forget that 90 percent of the population voted for the Islamic constitution in a referendum in 1980.
But I promise and I'm firmly convinced that over 90 per cent of the population would oppose the Islamic constitution if the referendum would be repeated today, for the simple reason that by now people have understood the consequences of a religious state.

Each person is faced with love and death in his life. All monotheistic religions try to interpret this debate in their sense. How should a religion be taught so that it does not trigger guilt complexes or anxiety feelings when dealing with love and death?

S.E.: That's exactly the point. People should be able to decide independently how to deal with it and it should not be prescribed to them. Therefore I also say that religion and politics should be separated so that there are no state regulation for private life. In this respect people should be be given freedom and they should be free to decide for themselves.

Iran is a multi-ethnic state with various religions. How tolerant is the Islamic Republic of Iran in regard to these tribes and religions and how tolerant was the Iran before the Islamic Revolution in 1979?

S.E.: The people of Iran have never really had great problems with other religions and ethnic groups; Unfortunately, these restrictions regarding minorities and ethnic groups came from our governments. Currently, the situation of the Iranian Kurds has become very problematic. But even before the Islamic Revolution, there already were these problems. Some groups in society felt that they were being disregarded, a feeling which has increased even further after the revolution.

What is the meaning of the elections in Iran when the last word is always with the religious leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran?

S.E.: What is taking place in Iran under the term election is not a choice, because people can't live in freedom and can't freely decide which persons they really want.
The Guardian Council controls the approval of each possible candidates and defines their suitability. The Guardian Council consists of 12 members: six clergy, selected directly by the Supreme Spiritual Leader of Iran, and six legal professionals, selected by the directorate of the judiciary. The directorate of the judiciary is again determined by the Supreme Leader of Iran. This means for the population in Iran that one part of the Guardian Council is directly and the other indirectly appointed by the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran. And for each election procedure, the potential candidates must apply to the Guardian Council for the admission to stand for election. Only after this selection of candidates by the Guardian Council are the people allowed to vote in the parliamentary and presidential elections.
For me this way of voting is not an election, but a theater of democracy.

Although, according to the Iranian leadership, the United States is still regarded as the great Satan, many people in Iran went to the streets with candles after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 to show their solidarity with the victims. Hence the people of Iran differentiate clearly between the image which is held up by their leadership and the people of the United States. However, the reapproach between United States and Iran as a result of the nuclear deal has quickly come to an end with the new American president Donald Trump. How do you see this latest development between the United States and Iran, and what do you think about people in western countries when they speak about Iran?

S.E.: One should always differentiate between the population and the government. It may be that a part of the Iranian population does not like the American President Trump and there can be also a part of the American population who does not like the Iranian government. But this has nothing to do with the relations between the people of Iran and the United States. We always had a good relationship with each other in the past, especially on an academic level.
Human rights are a global issue for me and for this reason Western human rights activists are also credible when they point to grievances in Iran.

The Iranian Revolution of 1979 promised people more social justice. Looking at the huge gap between the poor and the rich in Iran today, what has remained from this promise?

S.E.: Unfortunately I must say that the gap between rich and poor has become much larger after the Islamic Revolution. And this is mainly due to corruption, which is systematically spread at government level.

While many people in Iran are living a double life because of the strict moral and ethic laws, you have openly and honestly expressed your opinion and payed a high price for that. What kind of personality evolves from this double life of the people?

S.E.: This double life does not have a positive effect, on the contrary it has a very negative impact on society. Lies and affectation can become a habit because of the double life. Which then again can be the basis for corruption.

On the one hand, Islam was abused and discredited by the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran for political purposes. On the other hand, what is the value of human rights when those values are used by governments of Western countries as a justification for military intervention, which leaves only chaos, devastation and human suffering in the end, for example in Iraq or Libya? Or referring to Iran, how credible in terms of human rights or trustworthy are Western governments, when they launched the overthrow of a popular Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh with their secret services (England / US) or supported the construction of the Iraqi chemical weapons program, that was used in the Iraq-Iran war and survivors in Iran are still suffering from the consequences today?

S.E.: The Iranian leadership increases the country's dissatisfaction with the repression and if this dissatisfaction continues to rise it could lead to an explosion. However, I deeply hope that such changes as they took place in Iraq and Libya do not happen in Iran. Despite the states repression, there has been a deeper strengthening of civil society in Iran than in Iraq or Libya. And in case if there were a power vacuum, for example due to an end to the government, the Iranian civil society could manage and organize the situation. As I mentioned before, one must always distinguish between the people and the government. The Iranian people do not send a cry for help to a foreign state, but the people of Iran have expectations of the international civil societies, for example lawyers' chambers or NGO's. People in Iran know that each foreign state follows its own interests. However, Iranians still hope that they can rely on the human rights conventions and the United Nations and not for example on the governments of Germany or the United States. We rather have faith in the help of the people of the US and not in its government.

Almost 40 years have passed since the Islamic revolution in Iran, but as much as you and your colleagues have fought for a legal equal treatment of men and women, there are serious disadvantages for women in family law, laws governing marriage or divorce and witness law till this day. Do you think that under the current form of government and constitution, there will ever be a legal equality between men and women in Iran?

S.E.: In a very small scope, we can move and make corrections. In 2004, for example, education law as a part of the family law was improved to the benefit of mothers.
But a fundamental correction is impossible with this constitution and government.

The often one-sided image, that Western media show from Iran, is based last but not least on the rigorous press and media censorship of Iran, which makes it impossible for journalists to report freely and independently there. Do you think the representation of Iran in Western media is realistic?

S.E.: I hope that foreign journalists travel to Iran and see how strongly they are controlled by the Iranian state and how they are limited in their work. My hope is that foreign journalists will also report on it so that people abroad understand how the censorship works and what strict controls exist in Iran. The Western media are not all the same, some write very realisticly as it is and some media cover up. It's very divers.

Are there certain images or scenes from Iran that are reappearing in your dreams?

S.E.: When I see a group of friends or families abroad, sitting together, then I remember my family, friends and relatives in Iran. This memory always comes up very strongly, because affection and trust has a special meaning in the Iranian family. Because in contrast to the West, where people often spend their time alone, the people in Iran tend to share beautiful moments or amusements together.
This common celebration, laughing and spending your time together, that actually is Iran for me.

Do you have a yearning which is linked with Iran?

S.E.: It is quite natural that you are missing your home when you live abroad. And I also miss my former colleague, who are in prison in Iran and the important work that we have done every day. I especially miss my colleague, Ms Narges Mohammadi, who is in prison and my colleague Mr Abdolfattah Soltani, who has been in captivity for seven years now.

05 / 2017


¹ Shirin Ebadi: Iran Awakening. A memoir of Revolution and Hope, 2006
² From: An Appeal by Shirin Ebadi to the world: That's not what the Prophet meant, 2016
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