Fifteen hundred people rose to applaud a small, rotund woman in her 50s, and still on stage, she smiled happily in response, waving both her arms above her head.
Shirin Ebadi, 59, was one of the keynote speakers at Brisbane Earth Dialogues conference in July where she talked about her work as a pro bono human rights lawyer in Iran and the situation of women, children and dissidents under a theocratic Islamic government.
In 2003, after it was announced that she had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, thousands of Iranians, including several government ministers, crowded the airport and surrounding streets to welcome her home.
It was a long way from the time she sat in jail in someone else’s dirty chador, or when she searched papers in a government office and discovered her own name as the next victim on a death list.
Of fear, she told her friend Amir Taheri (the London Sunday Times, October 19, 2003) afterwards, “Anyone who fights for human rights in Iran lives in fear. But I have learnt to overcome my fear. In Iran anything could happen to anyone. My fight is to make sure that only good things happen to my people.”
The Brisbane conference was from July, 22-24. Three weeks later the clapping had ceased and fear was ready to return. The Iranian Government announced that her Centre for the Defence of Human Rights (CDHR) was an illegal organisation because it had not obtained a proper permit.
Dr Ebadi founded the centre four years ago, together with lawyer Abdolfattah Soltani, who was recently jailed for five years on charges that he had disclosed confidential information. He is to appeal. According to Human Rights Watch in New York, Dr Ebadi has replied to the government that, ‘Under Iran’s constitution, NGOs that obey the law and do not disrupt public order do not need a permit”.
Sarah Leah Whitson, director of the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch, commented that, "The attempt to silence Shirin Ebadi's centre is a huge setback for protecting human rights in Iran. If Ebadi is threatened for defending human rights, then no one who works for human rights can feel safe from government prosecution."
In addition to her public addresses overseas, Dr Ebadi recently published a book, Iran Awakening, in which she tells her own story and discusses candidly some of the problems faced particularly by Iranian women and children, and by dissidents. See On Line Opinion article here.
I interviewed Dr Ebadi when she came to Australian in July. During our interview, a colleague or assistant, who unlike Dr Ebadi wore Muslim dress, took down details of our interview. I imagine her notes were a record of the detail and nature of our conversation.
When I asked a question about women’s education, through an interpreter, Dr Ebadi bridled noticeably at my question and told me firmly my information was “wrong”. Her eyes flashed in irritation. The incident reflected how much she was, first and foremost, a loyal Iranian. She made it clear she was also a loyal Muslim who found her religion compatible with democracy.
In her book, she wrote, “In the last twenty-three years, from the day I was stripped of my judgeship (she had to resign when the theocracy took over) to the years doing battle in the revolutionary courts of Tehran, I had repeated one refrain: an interpretation of Islam that is in harmony with equality and democracy is an authentic expression of faith. It is not religion that binds women, but the selective dictates of those who wish them cloistered.” Put another way, she was not talking about religion but about patriarchism.
Her centre has provided pro-bono legal counsel to hundreds of dissidents, journalists and students facing prosecution because of peaceful protest or criticising government policies. Human Rights Watch also reports that CDHR lawyers have represented many high-profile victims of human rights abuses, including the family of Iranian-Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi, who died in June 2003 in Tehran’s Evin prison. Last year, CDHR also defended Iran’s most prominent dissident, Akbar Ganji, who was imprisoned for six years.
In January 2005, the Revolutionary Court issued a summons for Dr Ebadi without specifying charges. The authorities withdrew the summons after extensive protests both inside and outside of Iran. She has received frequent anonymous death threats and although she has repeatedly informed the authorities, no arrests or measures to enhance her security have resulted.
I hope she is able to visit Australia again.