It is easy to admire great courage; it is far from easy to achieve. Perhaps that is one reason why, at the end of her address to Earth Dialogues in Brisbane, 1,500 people rose to their feet to applaud Iranian Dr Shirin Ebadi, lawyer, human rights activist and Nobel Peace Laureate, who is recognised widely as a courageous person who has never heeded threats to her own safety. That and because, having survived so much discrimination, including time in jail and threat of assassination, she can still exemplify hope.
Born at Hamedan in 1947 into a Muslim and academic family, she studied at Tehran University. In 1969 she became Iran’s first female judge and was appointed president of the Tehran city court in 1975. The 1979 Islamic revolution changed Iran from a constitutional monarchy to an Islamic theocratic state, and because she was a woman she was forced to resign.
Seeking herself a reformed Islam and new interpretations of its laws, she has been particularly involved in the defence of the rights of refugees and women and children. She is known also for her defence of victims in politically sensitive cases concerning freedom of speech and political freedom. In her book, Iran Awakening, she writes of her “dream of a peaceful and just Iran”: for her stand she has faced imprisonment, threat of assassination and family humiliation.
One of four Nobel Peace Laureates - including Ireland’s Betty Williams, and Argentina’s Aldolfo Perze Esquivel - she was in Australia to attend the Earth Dialogues at Brisbane recently, presided over by another laureate, international Green Cross chairman and former USSR president, Mikhail Gorbachev.
The conference, also attended by leading environmentalists, business and political leaders, scientists and academics from 11 countries, was organised by Green Cross, the Queensland Government and Brisbane City Council. Its main themes were sustainable development, resource management, climate change, energy security and peace. Green Cross is planning to establish its Australian headquarters in Brisbane.
Dr Ebadi, currently a lecturer at Tehran University, continues her work as a lawyer. An extract from her book sets out the Iranian political situation:
In Iran, overriding authority rests with the supreme religious leader, under the doctrine of divine clerical right to rule, “velayat-e faqih”, invented and established by Ayatollah Khomeini. It is his successor, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who holds the real power in Iran. He heads the armed forces and appoints officials to influential state bodies, from the judiciary to the state media and, most important, the Guardian Council, a body that vets both new laws and elections. Under this system, branches of government such as the parliament and the executive function as accessories.
In an interview before her conference address, Dr Ebadi commented that democracy in Iran “was not complete”. Freedom of speech was also “incomplete” for under the law for journalists any criticism of the constitution in newspapers was against the law, which she saw as “one of the strangest things that can be reflected in the laws of journalism”. In the past two years she said more than 100 newspapers and magazines had been closed down and “a number of journalists and reporters imprisoned”.
The first consideration of democracy was for people to be free to vote for anybody they chose for the parliament or the presidency: but she explained Iranian “people are not free to vote for anybody they want to vote for”, because, prior to the election, the suitability of candidates had first to be confirmed by the Council of Guardians. The effect of this, for example, was that a whole city could vote for one person but those votes would still not be valid.
Human rights were also violated in regard to women because the value of a woman’s life was seen as half the worth of a man’s life. For instance, in the event of a road accident, the family of a woman would get half the amount given to a man’s family. In court, a woman’s testimony was valued at half that of a man’s.
Although 65 per cent of university students were women and they could pursue any field of study they wished, she said many women were subsequently unemployed because of a lack of job opportunities. About three times the number of women, compared to males, remained unemployed. Asked whether such situations resulted from a patriarchal system rather than religious training, she replied carefully that the employment of men was always prioritised, based on a patriarchal system to which I had alluded.
She said about 350 non-government environment organisations were mostly operated by women and had no problems for the Iranian Government; however, for NGOs in the area of human rights there were always difficulties.