Iran Awakening: A Memoir of Revolution and Hope

May 1, 2006

Nobel Prize winner Shirin Ebadi discusses Iran's human rights situation, including gender and religious discrimination, and restrictions on freedom of expression. While democracy is incomplete, she says, it cannot be imposed from without, but must develop from within.


JOANNE MYERS: Good morning. I’m Joanne Myers, Director of Public Affairs Programs. On behalf of the Carnegie Council, I want to thank you all for joining us this morning as we welcome Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi to our breakfast program. She will be discussing her book, Iran Awakening: A Memoir of Revolution and Hope.

In a country where voices are too often muted and silenced by brutal force, there is one woman who is a powerful voice for change. For ordinary Iranians, she is also their symbol of hope. At great personal risk, Dr. Shirin Ebadi, the 2003 recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, has become a passionate campaigner for human rights, democracy, and freedom of speech, especially those of women and children.

Over the past decades, she has been harassed, threatened, arrested, imprisoned, and even listed as a target for assassination. Yet through it all, as a lawyer defending individuals and groups who have fallen victim to a powerful political and legal system that has been legitimized through an inhumane interpretation of Islam, she has remained resolute, speaking with quiet bravery on behalf of the victims of injustice and discrimination. In so doing, she has personified professionalism and courage, while always vigilant of the dangers living as Muslim woman in a theocracy.

Dr. Ebadi rose quickly to become the first female judge in Iran. But when the religious authorities declared women unfit to serve as judges, she was demoted to the rank of clerk in the very courtroom in which she once had presided. She eventually fought her way back as a human rights lawyer, often taking on politically charged cases that most in her profession would have been too timid to touch. A recent example, and one which some of you may be familiar with, is the case of Zahra Kazemi, the Iranian-Canadian photojournalist who died while in Iranian custody.

In her book, Iran Awakening, she writes about Iran from within Iran and speaks eloquently about the ideals of the 1979 Islamic Revolution and of her deep disillusionment with the direction that Iran has taken under the guidance of the mullahs. Yet she believes that in spite of the repressiveness of this regime, it is up to the Iranian people, who in their own way must transition to a democratic government that is representative of their needs.

She writes that the threat of regime change by military force, while reserved as an option by some in the Western world, endangers nearly all of the efforts democracy-minded Iranians have made in these recent years. Furthermore, she warns us that it is this very threat of military force which gives the system a pretext to crack down on its legitimate opponents and undermines the nascent civil society that is slowly taking shape there.

Scholars may endlessly analyze political upheavals like the fall of the Shah of Iran and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, but eyewitness accounts such as that of Dr. Ebadi help us to understand what it was like to experience such a revolution firsthand. Her story is haunting.

Please join me in giving a very warm welcome to our very special guest.

Dr. Ebadi, it’s a privilege to have you here today.

(We have a little different setup today. Dr. Ebadi’s English is not fluent, and so there is an interpreter.)


SHIRIN EBADI: [Through an interpreter] Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.

I am very honored and very glad to have this opportunity to meet you this morning and to have this conversation with you about Iran.

When you consider and talk about a country, you can do it from very different angles. You can study the situation of the country from the point of view of the economy, the politics, human rights, and many other aspects as well. What I will talk about is the human rights situation in Iran.

As you know, the government of Iran has adhered to most conventions in the field of human rights. But, unfortunately, our laws do not reflect these commitments taken by the government, by the country, and there are many, many cases of violations of human rights. For example, there is discrimination on the basis of gender. I can give you several examples of our laws in this field.

One example is the value that the laws give to the life of a woman and to the life of a man. For example, if there is an accident in the street and a man is injured or a woman is injured, the value of the life, the price that you would attribute to the life of a woman is not the same as the value that you would give to a man. The value of the life of a woman is half that of a man. In matters of testimony, when people go and give testimony in courts, the testimony of one man is equal to the testimony of two women.

The age for contracting marriage is also different and very low in Iran. For girls it’s thirteen and for boys it’s fifteen. We are talking about laws that were adopted after the revolution in Iran.

What you should know is that the women in Iran acquired the right to vote well before many women in the world — for example, well before women in Switzerland. And they could sit in parliament.

Another feature which is characteristic of Iran is that women are, on the whole, more educated than men, and this is reflected by the number of women who are in university. Sixty-five percent of the students are girls. That is probably one of the main reasons why women in Iran talk against the government, because they cannot accept the discriminatory laws against them.

In my book I have tried to express all of this through three pictures. One is the picture of my mother. Then there is a picture of myself when I was a student. The third picture is that of my daughters while they study. I think that by looking at these pictures, you will realize that the new generation is sort of regressing in comparison to the old generation.

We also have in our laws discrimination on religious grounds. There is, of course, discrimination between Muslims and people who have other religions. It also goes as far as creating discrimination between Sunnis and Shias, who are both Muslims, as you know. The example in this field is that in Tehran, which is a huge city, with 14 million inhabitants, the Sunnis have not had the right yet to open a mosque. It is only in some cities that are close to the borders of Iran, where the concentration of the Sunni population is very high, that they have had the possibility to open Sunni mosques.

Not only do we see discrimination between Sunnis and Shias, we can also see discrimination amongst Muslims who are, I would say, pro-government and those who are not with the government. About two months ago, the Sufis, which are a religious group, were having a ceremony, a celebration in the city of Qum, which is a very sacred city in Iran, as you probably know. But the Sufis, although being Shias, are people who do not sympathize with the government. That is why they were attacked by the forces of police and by some pressure groups. I must stress that these, what I call pressure groups, usually come and disrupt congregations and assemblies. Very often, when the government wants to disrupt a group, it does it through these pressure groups, because it’s very easy afterwards to dissociate oneself from them, saying, “We don’t know who these people are.”

In my book, I have written about the role that these pressure groups played during the events that happened in the university when the dormitories of the students were attacked by these groups. When this happened, they attacked these dorms in the university compound, and some of the students were thrown from the windows of the third floor during this event. One of the students was actually killed. I was representing that student.

The reason why this unrest started in the university was that a group of students protested against the closure of a popular newspaper. The freedom of expression is one of the freedoms that have been attacked in Iran. A number of writers and translators are in prison.

One of the people that I represent, one of my clients, is probably well known to you. His name is Akbar Ganji. He is a journalist who, because of the articles that he wrote, has been condemned to six years in prison. But when he was put in jail, he said, “The walls that surround me in the prison will not prevent me from saying what I have to say.” While he was in prison, he wrote a book called The Republican Manifesto. This is a book that was taken outside the country, and you can actually read it on certain websites. This was, of course, one of the reasons why he was very badly treated in prison. He got asthma in prison. Although I protested many times, and he did so as well, we did not get anywhere. The courts even prevented me, as the lawyer, to go and see my client, which I had all rights to do.

He also went on a hunger strike. He continued with his strike for about forty days. He was really approaching death. When the international circles got to know about this, there was a lot of noise around it and he got a lot of support from without Iran. Fortunately, now he is out of prison.

The government also filters a lot of internet sites. For example, any site that deals with the rights of women is being filtered. But, fortunately, our young generation is smarter than the government. They always find a way to break through the filters and consult the sites. Obviously, the government comes back and puts up new filters and new obstacles, which are broken through again.

Democracy is not complete in Iran. Why? Because people cannot vote for the person of their choice. As you know, once any person becomes a candidate for the post of president or to become a member of parliament, his candidacy must be vetted and okayed by what we call the Guardian Council. This Guardian Council is composed of twelve people. Out of these twelve persons, six are religious clerics who are directly chosen by the leader of the revolution. The other six are lawyers who are actually proposed by the chief of the judiciary to the parliament, and the parliament should vote its confidence towards these six people. The chief of the judiciary himself is a cleric, who is chosen by the leader of the revolution, by the leader of the country. In other words, the other six who are not clerics are also chosen indirectly by the leader.

Actually, how it works is that, although the Guardian Council should approve the lawyers that are introduced to it, in reality it is something that has already been prearranged.

Democracy stays within a circle. People from without, people who are not part of the circle, simply cannot penetrate the circle. If, let’s say, the entire population of a town votes and chooses one person, that one person will not be their representative unless it has been approved previously by all those within the circle. You can be sure that any person who has had the guts to pronounce any kind of criticism against the government will not be considered as competent to be chosen.

During our last presidential elections, quite a number of people who were candidates were considered not competent because of that. That is why the people simply did not vote, did not take part in the elections.

The population of Iran is 70 million. Forty-nine million out of the 70 million could vote. Mr. Khatami won the election with 22 million votes, while Mr. Ahmadinejad, during the second round of voting, won the position with only 14 million votes. That is because democracy is not full democracy, as I told you before. Precisely because democracy is not a full democracy, as we understand it, the international opinion is very scared of Iran getting hold of nuclear capabilities.

The government of Iran claims that it wants to use nuclear energy only for peaceful ends and peaceful purposes. But international opinion, obviously, does not accept that claim. I think that the only way for this claim of the government of Iran to become credible is that the government should show that it is ready to advance the cause of democracy, because in a real democracy, the people can have a power of civilians over what is happening, over the acts of the government, and there will be checks and balances introduced over the acts of the government.

For example, France has nuclear capabilities. It also has the nuclear bomb. Is that a reason, for example, for the world to be worried about France? Obviously not, because France is a democracy, where people can control what the government does. That is why I consider that the only way to come out of this stalemate which we are in with Iran is for the government to prove that it wants democracy. That is the only way to win the trust of the outside world.

Obviously, when I talk about democracy, I don’t mean a democracy that is accompanied by bombs that are launched on the people. I don’t talk about democracy that can be bargained and bought with several million dollars.

Democracy is not an event that can happen overnight. It’s not merchandise that you can export anywhere. Democracy is a culture, and it’s the democratic people that can build democracy. Fortunately, this is a culture that we do have in Iran, within the people. The only problem is that the government does not respect this will of the people. Rather than worrying and putting pressure on the government of Iran on the question of nuclear energy, I think the world should work on the ideas of democracy with the people.

We, the people of Iran, although we do criticize a lot and we have a lot of criticism against the government, are against any kind of military attack on Iran. You can be assured that the young generation of Iran will not accept the presence of a single foreign soldier on the soil of Iran.

I must say that any military attack, and even the threat of a military attack, will not allow the democracy to go on the right path in Iran, because any kind of attack will give the excuse and the possibility to the government under the pretext of the protection of the Iranian security, of the national security, to put people with democratic ideas in jail.

For me, democracy is like a flower. This is a flower that can flourish and bloom only in favorable circumstances, where you have calm, you have peace, where you can give plenty of water and nourishment and sunlight to this flower. Obviously, if you have torrents pouring down on the flower from the sky, that flower cannot bloom. This is precisely the reason why we are opposed to any kind of military attack.

I thank you very much for your attention. If you do have any questions, I am at your disposal.

JOANNE MYERS: We would like to invite questions.

Questions and Answers

QUESTION: Could you speak to whether you believe that Condoleezza Rice’s request for $75 million to support democracy groups in Iran is a useful proposal or counterproductive?

SHIRIN EBADI: I told you, democracy is not merchandise that you can buy. But on a more serious note, this question actually gives the government another excuse to oppress those who are fighting for freedom. I will give you an example.

I talked about Akbar Ganji already. The prosecutor of the republic told me when I was defending him that, actually, I had received money from the United States to incite him, to encourage him to go on a hunger strike. That allegation was made. That is why I have an open file right now at the Ministry of Justice. Actually, they have seized my house as collateral, because I have this case with them.

That’s one of the consequences of the $75 million. So please, please—this is a plea to you—use the $75 million, but for the improvement of the conditions of life of the American Indians. [Laughter and Applause]

QUESTION: Thank you, Dr. Ebadi, for being here. I wonder if you could describe a little bit the attitudes of the younger people in Iran—the students you talked about, the women in the universities—being opposed to the government because of the absence of human rights. But what about the large numbers of other people? Do they generally support the government? Is the government working hard to try to earn the support of the younger people? We hear statements that 50 percent of Iran’s population is under twenty-five years old, and this represents a very volatile combination for the government.

SHIRIN EBADI: I think that if you want to have an idea of the support that the people give to the government, you should look again at the statistics that I gave you on the participation of the people in the elections. That is a good indicator of the support of the people for the government. Mr. Khatami got 22 million votes, and Mr. Ahmadinejad, as I told you, during the second round of the election, when all the other competitors were out, got only 14 million votes.

Actually, I think what was typical of these elections was the fact that people were absent from the elections, did not participate in the elections.

The right wing in Iran, on the whole, gets 15 percent of the vote. So you can be sure that they will always get that 15 percent. That 15 percent is there. But when the people actually want to participate in the vote, they always lose it. There is absolutely no guarantee of their winning it. On the election of Mr. Khatami and on the renewal of the previous parliament, we had a very blatant case of failure—a blatant case of failure—for the people.

The other thing is that people also have lost hope with what we call the reformists in Iran. Because of the very low rates of participation, the fundamentalists could win easily.

Why did the reformists lose the vote? There are several reasons for that. One of the reasons is our constitution. All the powers are concentrated in the hands of a very few.

The world also did not help, really, our reformists—just as it did not help Yasser Arafat. And the result is that Hamashas the power now.

I think it’s in the interest of America and in the interest of all the countries in the world to give their protection and support to those representing democracy.

I have always said that giving support and protection to nondemocratic countries is like shooting at yourself. The same thing stands true if you do not support those who represent democratic ideas. I would not like to refer to the tragedy of 9/11 and make you all sad, but when the United States was helping the Taliban, it should have thought about 9/11. The closest allies of America in the region are countries that are not democratic countries, like Saudi Arabia.

Please—this is my plea to you—don’t give any help or assistance to countries that are not democratic.

QUESTION: You gave a fairly clear answer on the American money. What do you think about the human rights dialogue policy promoted by the European Union? Do you think it is helpful at all to the Iranian people, or do you think it’s harmful? If it is so, what do you expect the international community to do? What policy would you like—a totally hands-off policy?

SHIRIN EBADI: On the whole, I am for the dialogue. But dialogue should be targeted and should be limited in time. It should not be a tool in the hands of the government of Iran to temporize, to have time on its hands. The European Union has had this dialogue for over three years with Iran, and I don’t think we can really talk about any progress in the field of human rights during this period in Iran. On the contrary, during this same period, we had the Seventh Parliament which was elected, and also the election of Mr. Ahmadinejad—both cases where we see a victory for fundamentalists.

So we can perhaps say that the dialogue did not produce the results we needed. Every time there was a meeting in the framework of the dialogue, I requested to be present and to take part in it, and the government of Iran did not even answer any of my requests. Of course, in a way, they were right. Obviously, had I been there, I would have talked in a way that they would have not liked.

QUESTION: My question is, if democracy doesn’t take root in time and Iran gets nuclear weapons, what is your greatest fear about what might transpire?

SHIRIN EBADI: If a country is not a democratic country and it does have the nuclear bomb, it can represent a serious threat to the world, but perhaps not to the extent that you think. Is Pakistan, for example, a very democratic country? What about Korea?

I wish that no country would have the atom bomb, and I wish that the monies that are spent in order to acquire that sort of capability would have been spent for the betterment of the lives of people. But, obviously, if a country has that capability, it, perhaps, can use it against somebody else. Had it not had that capability, it could be the subject of an attack ten times worse, perhaps.

The thing is that there is a kind of dissuasive effect here. That is to say, for example, if a country knows that it can use its nuclear bomb, it knows that there will be retaliation, and it could be subject to an attack which would be ten times worse.

In any case, my wish is that all the nuclear bombs in the world would be destroyed.

QUESTION: I’m an American citizen. My country of origin is Iran.

Would you please comment—and I will repeat the question, if Dr. Ebadi wishes, in Persian—on how the interference of other countries is going to delay democracy in Iran, in the country where all young people are against this government.

SHIRIN EBADI: It occurs in a very natural way that the people create movements, pro-democracy movements, in a country. For example, we have a feminist movement in Iran which is very strong. We also have student movements that are also very strong. We also have a number of journalists and writers who are also against the government and who are talking about improving democracy.

If an attack is done against Iran, then nationalist feelings will be awakened amongst the population, and the people will defend Iran. They will forget about democracy and human rights. This is precisely what happened in the war between Iran and Iraq. People were very critical of the government then as well. But then, when Saddam Hussein attacked Iran, people just put aside all those opposition ideas. They took the guns and they went to fight for their country.

Now that I mentioned Saddam Hussein, maybe I should add one more thing. You remember that when Saddam was waging war against Iran, Saddam was a friend of America. We have seen the pictures of the meeting between Mr. Rumsfeld and Saddam Hussein several times.

When we talk about protecting democracy, we have to be really honest.

QUESTION: What are your views on the Iranian overture to have discussions with Ambassador Khalilzad in Iraq and Iranian representatives concerning the future of Iraq?

SHIRIN EBADI: I’m for direct negotiations between America and Iran. I think that this negotiation should encompass many, many subjects. One of those subjects can be Iraq. I think that this should be an open and transparent negotiation. It should not happen behind closed doors.

Why do I say that I don’t want things to occur in hiding behind closed doors, in confidentiality? Because the people of Iran have very painful memories of negotiations behind closed doors occurring between Iran and America. I am, of course, referring to secret negotiations that occurred between the government of the shah and the United States that resulted in the downfall of Dr. Mossadegh, who was a national hero in Iran. Had that coup not occurred, then Iran would have found itself in a very different situation.

I think that when we talk about negotiations between Iran and America, this is a negotiation that has to occur on three levels. It should occur at the level of the heads of the states, at the level of the parliaments of the two countries, and at the level of the NGOs. Mrs. Jody Williams, who also won a Nobel Peace Prize in America, and I have made the arrangements so that several NGOs, nongovernmental organizations, from Iran and NGOs from America could meet together in order to see how to prevent a military attack. I think that it’s only if there are all-encompassing negotiations that we can really solve our problems.

I do agree that the policy pursued by my government was wrong during the past years. I do condemn any hostage-taking, and I’m sorry about the hostage-taking. I am very sorry to see when the American flag is put to fire. But then the Americans also should accept that their policy during the past fifty years vis-à-vis Iran has not been totally without blame.

But at a certain point, we should be able to put aside our differences, and we should accept that the past is the past and it is a closed chapter. We should look at the future. That is possible only through direct negotiations.

JOANNE MYERS: Dr. Ebadi, I want to thank you very much for being with us today.

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