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A fight for rights

In MIT talk, exiled Nobel Prize-winning activist Shirin Ebadi promises a continued ‘fight for full and complete equality’ for Iran’s women.
Iranian rights activist and Nobel Prize winner Shirin Ebadi speaks during an event at MIT on Wednesday.
Iranian rights activist and Nobel Prize winner Shirin Ebadi speaks during an event at MIT on Wednesday.
Photo: Justin Knight

The celebrated Iranian rights activist Shirin Ebadi renewed her message of defiance and optimism in a talk at MIT on Wednesday afternoon, vowing that Iran’s women will continue to “fight for full and complete equality” despite a harsh crackdown on the reform movement by the country’s dictatorship.

Ebadi, forced into exile in London in 2009, maintained a confident tone in her remarks while acknowledging the grim reality in her homeland, where many reformers and activists are serving long jail sentences for participating in protests against the regime.

“The women of Iran are going to fight for full and complete equality,” Ebadi told an audience of hundreds in Tang Auditorium, “and we are not going to stop until we achieve our purpose.”

Under Iran’s fundamentalist regime, she noted, a woman’s life legally holds half the value of a man’s life; polygamy is legal, allowing a man to have up to four wives; and men can file for divorce far more easily than women can. And yet, Ebadi added, those laws are in tension with a culture in which a majority of university students are women and in which many professional jobs are held by women.

“These laws are not compatible with the society of Iran,” said Ebadi, whose remarks were translated into English by an interpreter. The “higher culture” Iranian women have established, she said, is why “the women and society of Iran oppose these laws.” It is a “mistake,” she added, when “the government and religion become one.”

Ebadi won the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize for her reform efforts. She was the first Iranian, and the first Muslim woman, to win the prize.

In the 1970s, Ebadi became Iran’s first female judge, but lost her position after the 1979 Islamic revolution. She managed to become a prominent lawyer in Iran, defending many clients accused by the regime and landing in jail herself multiple times for those efforts.

During her remarks, Ebadi allowed that it will take a protracted struggle to make civil equality for women in Iran a reality. With regard to the popular “Arab Spring” uprisings that started last year in North Africa and the Middle East, Ebadi commented: “It is too early to use the word ‘spring.’” After all, she added, “Ousting a dictator is not enough. … In 1979, the people of Iran arose, ousted a dictator [the shah], only a worse dictator [the ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini] replaced him.”

Ebadi has opposed both the shah and the fundamentalist regime. In 2009, she was forced into exile following the government’s crackdown after popular protests that year.

Warns an attack on Iran ‘will strengthen the government’

In wide-ranging comments, Ebadi criticized Iran’s nuclear program — a great source of international controversy at the moment — while leaving open the possibility that the country is pursuing a program designed at generating nuclear power, but not nuclear weapons.

Iran’s drive to build a reactor is a “mistake,” Ebadi contended, given the recent lessons of the Japanese nuclear plant at Fukushima, and because the country could pursue other energy alternatives. “Even for peaceful purposes, nuclear energy is wrong,” she said.

However, Ebadi elaborated during a spirited question-and-answer session after her talk, “I never said the government of Iran was making a bomb.”

The extent and aims of Iran’s highly secret nuclear program have been the subject of dispute for years. Last November, the International Atomic Energy Agency released a report saying there was “credible” evidence that Iran had undertaken “activities relevant to the development of a nuclear device,” but concurred with the United States’ 2007 assessment that Iran had dismantled a weapons program in 2003. Last month, a half-dozen leading countries announced they had accepted an Iranian offer of direct negotiations on the subject.

Whatever Iran’s goals, Ebadi suggested, a military strike by any other country would be counterproductive. “We oppose a military attack on Iran, or sanctions against Iran,” she said, adding that the use of force “would strengthen the government, because the government will use the nationalistic emotion of people” to its own benefit.

‘Democracy is a culture’

Throughout her remarks, though, Ebadi emphasized that under normal circumstances, the Iranian regime does not have the full support of its people.

When asked by one audience member how Iranian-Americans could help the reform effort, she said they should “try to show to your society that the people of Iran are different from the government of Iran.”

At the same time, Ebadi said, reform must ultimately be generated by the Iranians themselves. “Democracy is a culture,” Ebadi said, and will become possible when more of Iran’s people acquire the expectation that society should include rights for all.

She also called for additional schooling for women. “The best way to eliminate discrimination against women is by educating women,” Ebadi said.  

Wednesday’s event was sponsored by the Office of the Dean of Graduate Education, and co-sponsored by several groups: the Addir Fellows Interfaith Dialogue; the Center for Bilingual and Bicultural Studies; the Committee on Race and Diversity; the Council on Staff Diversity and Inclusion; MIT Chaplains; the Muslim Students Association; the Department of Physics; and the Program in Women’s and Gender Studies.

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