Nobel Peace Prize winner talks about her work, faith


Iranian human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi, who spoke to a sold-out audience at Menlo-Atherton High School on International Women's Day, gave an interview to the Almanac, which was translated by Shirin Ershadi, a colleague of Ms. Ebadi.

In her new book, "Until we are Free: My Fight for Human Rights in Iran," Ms. Ebadi details how the government of Iran treated her and her family after she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 and Mahjoud Ahmadinejad rose to power in 2005.

Her phones were wiretapped and her law firm bugged. Spies followed her, detained her daughter, arrested her sister, and harassed her colleagues. Her home was attacked by mobs, her office was seized, her lectures were shut down, a death threat was nailed to her door, and her husband was blackmailed into speaking publicly against her. Following is a Q&A from the Almanac interview.

Q: In your new book, you write about how you always had a desire to convince people that human rights matter. Where do you think that conviction comes from?

A: There are numerous elements that impact one's personality. The most important is family, and I was born in a modern religious family. This means although I was born in a Muslim family and we were Muslims, I went to a Zoroastrian school (because) it was a good school and it was close to our house.

Also we were three girls and one boy, and my parents never discriminated against the girls, meaning that all of the liberties my brother enjoyed, we enjoyed as well.

All of these impacted the forming of my personality. On top of that is the fact that I am a law graduate. And when I came across all the injustices that happened after the revolution, I decided to dedicate myself to the defense of human rights.

Q: You say in the book, "In my belief system, human rights work is an act of worship." What did you mean by that?

A: That's true. You don't look at human rights as a business or a job.

The same (way) some people work for a bank or some people work for the post office, some other people go and work for a human rights organization. That in reality is a job.

But for me that was not the case. I earned my income through legal advice I provided to other organizations, and I just worked on human rights pro bono. It's the same as going to church. You don't charge anyone to worship. I think that human rights should be the same.

This is the only way that you can be a real activist in human rights, because you are working for a higher goal, not for money.

Q: Throughout so much of your story, when it seems that things can't get worse, your response is to not let enemies see you as weak and to just to keep working harder. Are there other things you do to not lose hope?

A: If you get stuck in the middle of the sea on a boat, and the boat breaks down, what is it that you should do? There's no other way but to continue swimming.

If you lose hope or if you start thinking about how far land could be, then you cannot swim any longer. Some people are like me. It's like we're stuck in the middle of the sea. We cannot lose hope. We don't have the right to lose hope.

Every morning when I wake up, I tell myself: "You don't have the right to lose hope. You don't have the right to get tired."

Q: What do you see as the purpose of this book?

A: This is a great question. There were two reasons behind writing this book.

First, I wanted to show how the government of Iran treated me. I was neither the leader of a political party, nor a political rival of anyone in the government. I was not running for office. I'm a human rights attorney and I have won the Nobel Peace prize. This is the way the government treated me. Just imagine how they would treat an ordinary student or a young journalist who is caught. In reality, by reading this book, you will feel what people are undergoing in Iran.

My second purpose was to give hope to the young people, specifically to young women. At age 63, which is usually the age when people retire, in a single month I lost everything that I had built. I lost my property, all of my bank accounts were closed down. I lost my husband, I lost my family, I lost my career that I had built for all these years. And I went into exile in a country (where) I didn't speak the language and was not familiar with the culture.

But none of these resulted in me stopping my work. I started working more than before, and I have to say that I succeeded.

What I'm telling young people is this: Don't think that if you fail the world has come to an end. Start again. There's only one way where if you work, you will not succeed, and that is when one dies. Of course, if one dies, then there is nothing else to do because everything has come to an end.

Therefore, (while) you live, under whatever condition, you can start again and succeed.

Q: How were you able to maintain a personal faith when the government around you was carrying out injustice in the name of your religion?

A: I totally kept my faith, and the reason for it was I knew that they are abusing the name of Islam. Many people abuse religion. Of course you remember what happened in the medieval ages with the Christian faith. Also, how the USSR abused socialism.

Therefore abuse of an ideology is different from the ideology itself.

Q: Is there anything that people can do to prevent or deal with a government that is repressive?

A: People (can) continue their resistance and stay unified.

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