Iranian Nobel Laureate urges U.S. focus on human rights

BOULDER– Iranian attorney and 2003 Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi urged the United States to center its policy toward Iran on human rights in a speech Friday that kicked-off a two day symposium here at Naropa University. A fearless defender of women’s rights in Iran and a harsh critic of the patriarchal readings of Islam dominant in the Middle East, Ebadi took issue with the “clash of civilization” posture that has characterized West-Middle East relations over the past 30 years. She highlighted the value of greater cultural exchange and spoke on Iran’s pursuit of nuclear power. She also congratulated President Obama on joining the world’s club of Nobel winners. She saw the surprise award as encouragement for the U.S. to further pursue peace and dialog as part of the international community.


“I hope this award builds [Obama’s] commitment to world peace,” she said. “I urge the president to continue to engage with my country, not just on the nuclear issue but on human rights and democracy.”

Ebadi’s life history, the subject of a memoir stacked on a table at the back of the event, gave the views she expressed gravity beyond her titles.

Iran’s first female judge, Ebadi supported the Islamic Revolution in 1978 and the overthrow of the Shah. She was only 31. Her shocked colleagues demanded to know what she was thinking. “You’re supporting people who will take away your job!”

Of course they were right. Ebadi was soon demoted to clerk in the courtroom in which she once presided and found herself enraged two years later on the day the country’s Islamic penal code was issued. The new laws stripped women of rights, reducing them to chattel, she wrote, setting relations between the sexes back 1400 years.

A decade later she had climbed back to work as a human rights attorney, taking on brutal cases of paramilitary attacks and murders. She was imprisoned for her work and, at one point, digging through government documents in a double-murder case, found the official authorization for her own assassination.

Her address at Naropa keynoted a two-day “Women’s Leadership and Activism in the Muslim World” conference but she took the opportunity to speak less of women than on international relations. She took particular issue with the work of U.S. political theorist Samuel Huntington, whose article and book Clash of Civilizations, steered thinking on international affairs in the 1990s, positing that conflict among the major cultures of the world would come to define international relations in the wake of the Cold War.

Shirin Ebadi and Banafsheh Keynoush (Tomasic/TCI)
Shirin Ebadi and Banafsheh Keynoush (Tomasic/TCI)

“Huntington’s peers are the dictators in the Middle East,” Ebadi said. “They think the same, that our civilizations are incompatible. Both sides selectively interpret Islam.”

Middle Eastern leaders, she said, use Islam as a shield. “They use Islam to hide behind and violate human rights. Like Huntington, they claim Islam is not compatible with democracy. But this is their interpretation. They interpret Islam in a way that grants them power and supports their power. Any objection to them is then an objection to Islam.

“They said they could not sign on to the UN convention on torture because it was not compatible with Islam. This is a bizarre reading of the Koran.”

Ebadi mocked the idea floated by the same leaders that, instead of abiding by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, they would write their own “Islamic Declaration of Human Rights.”

“How many declarations do we need?” said Ebadi. “If Muslims are allowed to draft their own, we will have a Christian Declaration and a Hindu Declaration… We will have as many declarations as there are faiths. It would be impossible.”

In speaking to the failings of the patriarchal and provincial worldviews that pervade among the leaders of the Middle East, where internationalism is seen as weakness and women are patronized, Ebadi also seemed to be making subtle reference to similar lines of thought that persist in the West generally and in the U.S. in particular.

Colorado U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colorado Springs, this year spearheaded a so-called sovereignty caucus that seeks to untangle the U.S. from international treaties, for example. Former U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo this week decried UN laws that work to restrain the U.S. from using incendiary weapons like napalm on enemy combatants in Afghanistan. And on Wednesday Arizona women descended on the office of Republican Senator Jon Kyl, who mocked a maternity care bill as something he had no use for. The women cited increasingly outdated views held by U.S. lawmakers who oppose the kind of workplace rights and social programs that support women and foster greater equality between the genders.

Ebadi’s position on Iran’s nuclear program, however, drew the greatest reaction from the crowd here. Asked if she supported her country’s pursuit of nuclear power, she seemed again to be speaking to issues Coloradans are grappling with today.

“We are a big country,” she said. “And we receive a lot of sun.”

Cheers erupted.

“If we put one tenth of the money we have put into nuclear power into developing solar, we would have enough to power the country and to export energy as well. But we have not invested even one dollar in solar power. Sanctions hurt the people of Iran. If the government wanted what was best for the people, it would abandon nuclear power.”

Ebadi also expressed her feeling that the reform movement in Iran, which protested the election results this summer, is only gaining power and legitimacy.

“Throughout the protests, the people never once resorted to violence. Yet they wouldn’t retreat from their demands. I know the people will be victorious.”

Ebadi spoke through translator Banafsheh Keynoush, a lecturer at Tufts, the University of San Francisco and San Francisco State University. Her forthcoming book is titled Iran and Saudi Arabia: Friends or Rivals?

The Women’s Leadership and Activism in the Muslim World symposium runs through Saturday. It is sponsored by Naropa’s Peace Studies Department and the Cordoba Initiative and is being held at Naropa’s Nalanda campus in Boulder.

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