It seems to be the perpetual dilemma for activists: stay and risk untold dangers by the regime or flee their repressive governments and leave their constituents behind. Few get the chance to choose. Such was the case with Dr. Shirin Ebadi, the Nobel peace laureate forced out of Iran in 2009. Since then, she has maintained her steadfast faith in civil society and its power to compel governments into action. She has chosen to remain in civil society to promote human rights, democracy, and the rule of law through her continuous public speaking engagements. She discussed this in conversation with Dr. Alejandro Fuentes of the Raoul Wallenberg Institute during an event organized by Studentafton on October 1.
The conversation began with Dr. Ebadi recounting her experience of winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003.The prize is often a source of tension for activists still subject to the whims of the governments they are challenging. When Liu Xiaobo, the jailed Chinese dissident, won the Peace Prize in 2010, the Chinese government denounced the decision by calling Liu a “criminal” whose conduct runs counter to the principles of the prize. The Iranian government gave a similar response to Dr. Ebadi’s win and dismissed the importance of the prize in an effort to downplay the impact of her work with Iranian women and children.
Dr. Ebadi worked for decades to reform the legal and institutional sexism practiced by the Iranian government. Their claim to authority rests upon what Dr. Ebadi called an inaccurate and patriarchal interpretation of Sharia law. She advocated for changes to family law in Iran so that women could have a greater sense of agency in asking for divorce or gaining custody of children but her opinions were dismissed for not being in line with Sharia law. Dr. Ebadi stated, multiple times, her belief in the separation of state and religion and accordingly, that the role of law in a society is to incrementally change the culture through the passing and enforcement of progressive laws. Law should therefore be above culture and religion and protect the rights of the most vulnerable in society.
Since she’s been in exile, Dr. Ebadi has used her platform to promote human rights and democracy internationally. Dr. Ebadi spends most of her time engaging in public lectures to speak out against human rights violations conducted by the Iranian government and other world powers. While Dr. Ebadi herself admits that her work would have a greater impact if she were still living in Iran, it is important to not discount the power of influence in international politics. In one instance, Dr. Ebadi was able to publicize and politicize the sale of surveillance software by Nokia-Siemens to the Iranian government in 2009, which was then used to track protesters leading to many of their arrests. Following harsh public criticism, Nokia-Siemens met with Dr. Ebadi and cancelled their contract with the Iranian government to prevent further human rights violations from being committed with this technology. From this conversation, it is apparent that she is placing all her bets on the currency of influence wielded by civil society.
At one point during the questions and answers period with the audience, a member of the Iranian student media in Lund accused her of not having done enough for the student movement in Iran. She defended herself by listing the times where she was personally persecuted for defending women, children, and religious minorities in Iran, which culminated in the confiscation of her property as well as the detainment of her husband and sister in 2009. After this response, it would be difficult to question her level of commitment and personal sacrifice for advancing her cause.
However, this criticism from the audience brings up some interesting questions about the role of the activist while in exile. How can the activist in exile best represent the people of a country where they are no longer welcomed? Who is the activist in exile accountable to? While not addressing these questions directly, Dr. Ebadi emphasized that in conducting her work on the international stage, she maintains a close connection to colleagues in Iran and follows Iranian news daily from a variety of sources in her efforts to amplify these important issues on the international stage Despite increased media scrutiny of Iran over the recently reached nuclear deal, she reminds the audience to keep paying attention to the arrest and detainment of journalists in Iran, especially that of Washington Post’s Tehran bureau chief Jason Rezaian.
To end the evening, Dr. Ebadi was asked to give some advice to the younger generation. She considered the question for a moment and then said, “Never listen to the advice of the older generation”.