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The Fighter for Justice and the Polite Critic

June 30, 2016
Shirin Ebadi

Shirin Ebadi (Don LaVange, Flickr, CC licence)

Shirin Ebadi was the first female judge in Iran. After the Islamic Revolution in 1979, she was demoted to a secretarial position, as the new regime forbade women to be judges.

Ebadi told her story to a capacity crowd at the Hay Festival. Her application to open her own law practice was eventually approved, and she began defending people who had been detained for protesting against the government. She led efforts to reduce discrimination against women, and had small successes, for example, a change in custody law, but made little progress in the battle for equality. She began to be harassed, and spent time in jail.

When she won the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize for her work promoting democracy and human rights, the regime saw her as an agent of the West. They seized all her property, bank accounts and the safety deposit box which contained the Nobel medal. The human rights organisation she set up with the Nobel funds was shut down. She was under constant surveillance by the intelligence service and received ongoing death threats. Finally, an elaborate plot compromised her husband and destroyed her marriage.

Until We Are FreeShirin Ebadi lost everything – possessions, work, family – and was forced to live in a foreign country, but each setback made her even more determined. After the loss of her marriage, she was depressed for a week, then told herself, “Look, you’re still alive.” She resolved to continue her work, and wrote the story of her fight for justice in her latest memoir, Until We Are Free.

“I became more successful,” she said. “By writing this book, I wanted to give confidence to young women. Any defeat can be a prelude to a bigger victory. You young people, don’t think the world has come to an end when you have one or two setbacks in life.”

Mahmood Sariolghalam, a Professor of International Relations in Tehran, spoke to a much smaller audience at Hay. He wants the same changes as Ebadi does – a civil society, democracy – but he is proceeding in a very different way. Where Ebadi was direct, Sariolghalam is indirect.

He promotes the features of statecraft that will cause the country to prosper: the rule of law, competition, non-government media and international connections, especially with Europe. He expresses criticism through abstraction and metaphor. He points to other countries with similar problems to Iran, such as Malaysia and South Korea, and talks about how they can solve their problems, rather than directly referring to Iran. When he does criticise the thinking of politicians, he does not mention their names.

Mahmood Sariolghalam

Mahmood Sariolghalam at the World Economic Forum

Government figures have said: “Mahmood Sariolghalam is criticising us, but in a very polite way.” He talks with several politicians, and feels he has had some influence in fostering a more outward-looking approach.

“The Revolution was a necessary evolutionary step,” he says. “It had to happen to sort out the relationship between religion and politics. We’re about to decide the place of religion in our private lives.”

While Sariolghalam is hopeful, Ebadi is pessimistic. Even with the nuclear deal and the lifting of sanctions, she says Iran is still the same – the political prisoners are still in jail, and the Supreme Leader is still in charge and is not allowing any real change in policy. In contrast Sariolghalam is expecting a change in the generation of the leadership – the current leaders are aged 77 to 90. He is also optimistic that the Rouhani Presidency will lead to greater economic growth and engagement with the international community.

I was fascinated by these two perspectives on Iran, and do not believe that one approach should be judged as better than the other. Ebadi and Sariolghalam faced very different situations, and have acted in the way they see as most effective for them. Ebadi achieved some successes, and we can admire her courage and resilience while we watch Sariolghalam’s softly-softly approach, hoping it leads to changes that will benefit the people of Iran.

The Hay Festival Site

The Hay Festival Site

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