UW School of Law
Guest Lecturer Shirin Ebadi
Everyone welcome. We will just go ahead and just introduce our speaker
so that we have the full benefit of the hour. This is really a
wonderful privilege. Shirin Ebadi is with us today, and I will have
more to say about her.
But just to say a special word of thank you. She is under the auspices
of the Seattle Arts Lecturers Series. And to have traveled so far and
to make time in a very crowded schedule to come here to the law school
and to be available to us is a very generous thing. We are most
Those of you who know the law school know how much we are committed to a true
global approach to thinking about issues of law, social injustice, and
human flourishing. And to have a speaker as compelling as Ms. Ebadi is,
and whose work is so splendid, is just doubly meaningful to us.
Shirin Ebadi won the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize for her work promoting the rights
of women and children in Iran, her home country. She had won her law
degree in 1971 and was named Iran's first ever female judge in 1975.
the coming of clerical rule to the country, women judges were ousted
from their positions. But then some years later she set up her own law
practice, this is in the early 1990's, and from that point became an
exceptionally engaged advocate for the cause of children, of
journalists, and of the powerless within Iranian society.
She co-founded the Association for the Support of Children's Rights and the
Human Rights Defense Center, both in Iran, and began a trajectory of
very creative opposition to things that really should be opposed in any
government and advancing the causes of those who most needed the
protection of the law.
The 2003 announcement from the Nobel
Committee praised her for, "Her efforts for democracy and human
rights." And it went on to say, "She has stood up as a sound
professional, a courageous person, and has never heeded the threats to
her own safety."
She was the first Iranian woman, the first
Muslim woman, to win the Nobel Peace Prize. The hope for this moment
here that we have is that this would be a very open, free ranging
interchange to have questions and answers, and not so much to deliver a
set piece speech.
So Shirin Ebadi wants to invite you all to pose
your questions and inquires so that we can have a true conversation
here among colleagues within the law. And just a final thought, to
welcome those of you who are from other parts of the university, from
other parts of the Seattle community. We are very, very glad to have
you here. We want the law school to increasingly become where we are
having consequential conversations. And it is very meaningful when
those from outside our normal community come and join us, so thank you
for your presence as well.
So without more, let me turn over the podium to Shirin Ebadi. Please join me in a warm welcome.
I would like to say hello to all my future colleagues. Whenever I am at
a law school I feel I am in my own house. So I am glad to be with my
As you know, I am attorney and I live in Iran, and I have been working
in this field for about 35 years. Thank you for coming here today. And
I want to thank the sponsors of this program today. I am glad to answer
any questions you have.
I want to say thank you very much for coming here to be with us today.
I wanted to ask you about the requirements [inaudible 00:05:38]
Women started entering the field of law around 60 years ago in Iran.
And it still goes on, and we have a large number of women lawyers. But
being a judge was a different story. Women became judges for the first
time in 1970. They remained judges until the revolution in 1979. When
the revolution happened, I think we had around 100 judges that were
female. I was a head of a court myself.
After the revolution, the government said that Islam bans women from
being judges. So we were all demoted to being clerks in the same courts
we presided over as judges. So I was forced to become the secretary of
the court that I presided over once.
Obviously I couldn't stand the repression, so I asked for early retirement. A
number of women decided to stay on and continue with their work. In the
end, we all came together, whether it was those who left or stayed or
university professors, and everyone who worked in the field of law, to
sort of get rid of this bad.
We held a lot of seminars, wrote a
lot of books and articles, and had gatherings and meetings just to try
to make the point that there is no working in Islam itself that bans
women from being judges.
And luckily, we succeeded a few years
ago and women were given judge positions again. This is only one
example of the women's activities inside Iran. The feminist movement in
Iran is quite strong and the reason for that is that we have a large
number of educated women. In fact, over 65% of our university students
are women. And you will find a percent even higher in some fields, like
law. Last year, 70% of the students at law school were women. And this
empowers the feminist movement.
Would you consider coming out of retirement to be a judge again?
No, I am not willing to be a judge again, because after the revolution
a series of laws were passed that were very favorable, and I do not
want to hold up that law. After the revolution the penal code became
much harsher, and we have really terrible punishment for certain
crimes. For example, the penal codes allowed for stoning, the cutting
off of a hand or feet, lashing, or juvenile capitol punishment.
So as an individual who is opposed to these laws, I cannot uphold them
as a judge. You have to know that most our lawyers and our people are
also opposed to these harsh punishments. And the biggest effort that
people are making now in Iran is trying to reform this legal system. We
have managed to have a couple of achievements in the last couple of
years. For example, in the last four years we managed to change the
custody law in favor of Iranian mothers.
However, we understand that these reforms are still small and we need to take bigger steps.
Thank you for coming today to speak to us law students. I am wondering
if you could tell us about the work you have done on behalf of the
As an introduction, I have to say that the Iranian government has
joined and is bound by the provisions of the International Convention
on Civil and Political Rights. But regrettably, the domestic laws that
have been passed since the revolution negate the spirit of the
So for example, Iran's law allows discrimination based on religion.
According to the constitution, the official religion of Iran is Shi'a
Islam. And other religions, other divine religions, such as Judaism,
Christianity, and Zoroastrianism are also recognized. But the other
religions are not recognized and their followers have no rights. You
know that 300, 000 Iranians are Baha'i out of 17 million and they have
no rights according to the law.
For example, since the revolution, which has been 30 years now, Baha'is
have not been allowed to enter universities. They cannot be employed.
They cannot follow the rights and ceremonies according to their own
faith, or to propagate their faith. And last year the revolutionary
courts arrested seven Baha'i leaders. I represent those people. But in
the past year I haven't been allowed to meet with my clients or to read
And this actually negates the very laws that even
the government itself, the Islamic government, has passed. We have
actually petitioned objections with the prosecutor and the head of the
judiciary, as well as to international groups and other organizations,
including the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Now these international institutions have objected to the Iranian leaders several
times for disallowing the Baha'i leaders to go through a fair trial or
even have access to a lawyer. And so as you can tell, so far there case
is still pending and there is no progress on it but we will continue
fighting the challenges that lie ahead with them.
I know you have advocated for the rights of women journalists in Iran
and elsewhere. Do you have any insights as to what the Iranian
government [inaudible 00:18:06]?
Roxana was arrested and then she was convicted of spying for aliens or
foreigners in the primary court that sentenced her to eight years in
prison for the charge. After the verdict was issued, her father called
me up and asked me and my colleagues to represent her case. Seven years
ago my colleagues and I set up a non governmental organization called
The Center for Human Rights Advocates.
In this NGO, we actually provide pro bono legal service to political
prisoners and financial assistance to their families if necessary. I
head this NGO and I have 20 lawyers who work with me.
So when Roxana's father called us, I said I will agree to take her case,
and I brought in two of my colleagues as well. My colleagues went to
the court, or basically to the prison, to try and meet with Roxana six
times, and each time they were denied. The prosecutor told Roxana's
father that they would never allow us and the group of my team to
basically either meet with Roxana or to represent her case. So they
were putting pressure on to take one of the lawyers suggested to them
by the prosecutor himself.
So the father was forced to pick one.
And then the court of appeals process began with this new lawyer. But
luckily, at that phase, because of international pressures, Roxana was
freed. Of course she was still convicted of a two year suspended prison
term against her.
But what is really fascinating is the interview
given by her lawyer after her release. So in the interview he thanks
the Iranian government for releasing Roxana Saberi, and she was
arrested in the first place because a confidential document belonging
to the government was found in her house.
So immediately, we held
our own press conferences at our center and said that no lawyer has the
right to disclose information about their client. Why would he even do
that? If she is innocent, they did not have the right to arrest her in
the first place. And if she is guilty, then she doesn't need a
suspended term. She should stay in prison. Basically, the ethics of law
prevent any lawyer from speaking about their client, and that should
not have been done either.
Now from this story you can just see
one example of the kind of problems we face in Iran doing our work. For
example, our courts, unfortunately, are not independent, especially
when they deal with political cases. Decisions are made elsewhere and
simply announced by a judge somewhere else.
Because this is a law
school, I think it might not be a bad idea to tell you about the story
of my own trial. You know that I spent some time in prison. The reason
I ended up in prison was that the police had attacked the dormitories
at Tehran University, hitting the students. And as a result of the
attacks, one student was killed.
And in that midst, the blame was
being placed on different people. I represented the case of the student
that was killed in the attacks. I had a witness who was willing to
stand and give his testimony and to point the finger at who had
committed the crime.
I asked him if he was willing to go to
court, and he said convincingly that he was. So we actually went to
court and he gave him testimony. But it was interesting. Rather than
listening to his testimony, the court decided that he was lying and
that I, Ebadi, had basically instigated him to give the lies. We were
both arrested. The murderer was not identified in the end.
Now at 11am on the day of my arrest, the radio announced my arrest. And the
radio is controlled by the government. So everywhere on the news it was
broadcast that I was arrested at 11am.
Now at 11am I happened to
be in another court defending another case. When I returned to my
office at two am, I noticed that everyone was sort of bewildered and
wondered where I had been, and I received a lot of voice messages,
people asking about my whereabouts. So when they told me the story of
the news, I said, "Well it must have been a mistake. Nothing happens. I
was just standing in the court and now I am sitting in my office behind
At seven pm two revolutionary guards appeared at my
office with a letter, basically saying that I should be arrested. So
they gave me the warrant, forced me to sign it, and then arrested me.
So I made a show. I basically pretended that I was nervous and I had
forgotten the day and time and just couldn't remember what to put down
on that arrest warrant as the time of the arrest.
So they said, "Well write down seven pm. And this is the date. Write it down." I
said, "Sure." So in front of them I wrote down the date and the time of
arrest. They had to put down their own signatures to endorse mine, as
Then they said, "All right. Let's go to court." So in the
court I said, "Look at this sheet of paper. I was arrested at seven pm.
But you announced that I was arrested at 11am. But I am here at seven
pm to basically answer back to whatever questions you have. So after
your investigations, if you are convinced of my answers, I have to be
released. You issued an arrest warrant against me several hours before
you even had a chance to ask questions from me. Is that what you call
But basically, I gave you this story so you would
know how politicized the process is in the judicial system. But as for
your main question, why Roxana was arrested, and why she was freed, you
have to ask this question to the judges who arrested her. All I can say
is that what they did was illegal.
I believe that when people unite, they can do a lot. You just have to
know how to unite the people. The custody law that changed after the
revolution disfavored women and mothers. It said that the girl has to
stay with the mother until the age of seven, and then the son until the
age of two, after which they were taken forcefully away from the mother
and given to the father. A lot of women objected to the law, and so the
struggle had already begun.
One day I was reading the newspaper and read a story about a nine year
old girl who was tortured in the house of her father and step mom and
died. The father had been arrested. So we held a meeting at our NGO
that basically advocates for the right of children, and we decided to
set up a memorial service for this child. So we also talked with the
cleric at the mosque to tell the sad story of the life of this girl.
And we also placed a lot of big white flower bouquets around the mosque.
Although I wasn't allowed to, at the end of the memorial service I
grabbed the microphone and basically said, "You all heard the sad
story. And if you sympathize with this girl, take one flower with you
and throw the petals off on the street."
It was a sad afternoon in the fall. The flower petals covered the entire street. And any
passerby cried. Well the press got involved and they started covering
the story, and also talked about the dangers facing a child when the
child is taken to another parent that is not suitable.
Then representing the mother of this child, I attended court. And this is
how I started the defense. The murderer of this child is the law. I am
putting on trial the law. I started talking about the problems with the
custody law. We made so much noise out of this court trial that
Christine [inaudible 00:38:05] from CNN - that is actually right in
Tehran - covered it for 60 Minutes. So this trial became the beginning
of a movement that shook our society. That was the start, and then we
changed the law.
So as lawyers, we always plan on how to shake our society.
Islam is as compatible with human rights as Judaism or Christianity is.
Have you ever asked yourself how come in recent years they are just
constantly talking about Islam versus human rights? And have you done
your research to find out when this question was first posed? What is
I guess you could say after 9/11.
Way before 9/11, when the Soviet Union collapsed and the United States
and the West lost an enemy. Then they gave them to Bernard Luis. And he
and his colleagues wrote an article. First Bernard Luis wrote an
article about the fact that, "Well, civilizations clash." And then
Huntington decided to elaborate on the clash.
The theory that was developed basically said that because human rights
and democracy are Western concepts in modernity, they all came up as a
result of the modernity of the Western World. Other civilizations,
including the Islamic civilization, have no capacity for human rights
And that it is inevitable that the Western civilization will clash with the
Islamic Eastern civilization. And so they created a nice compact enemy
for the West and especially for the United States again, to justify
more wars, to justify your high military expenditures.
As law students, do you know how much higher your military budget is compared
to your education budget? At least, I propose that you investigate
that. Should your natural wealth be devoted to education or to arms?
How can you justify these high military expenditures unless you have a
So that is when it all started. They started to
believe that Islam and democracy are incompatible, mindlessly
forgetting to ask if Christianity and Judaism are compatible with human
rights or not.
So when you find the root cause of this question,
you will find an easy answer, too. There are two sides to a coin. You
saw the one side that we talked about. And the other side is placed in
the Islamic countries where you find a lot of non-democratic
governments who use Islam as a tool to oppress their people.
And when they are told that they are oppressive, and they are tyrants, and
they are non-democratic, well of course they are not going to say,
"Yes, of course you are right. We are all of those. No, you are wrong.
It is Islam that doesn't allow us to open up." And they give ground to
people like Bernard Luis or Samuel Huntington to prove their theories.
But they are wrong.
Like any other religion or faith, Islam is
also prone to various interpretations. I believe that as a first step,
the state and religion must be separate, so that the state can not take
advantage of the religious sentiments of the people and use it in its
favor. I think we all agree on this.
But I have a question. If through a process of free elections people in one part of the world
decide to vote for an Islamic party, do we sitting in the West have the
right to question that decision? That is what happened in Turkey. Well
obviously we don't have that right.
But then it is our task and theirs to define Islam in a manner that is compatible with human rights
and democracy. And Islam has that potential, inherent potential, for
It is regrettable that our time is short.
Otherwise I would have demonstrated how much potential Islam has in
this regard. But a lot has obviously been written in this field. You
can look at the writing of Professor Al Nyamed at Emory University. He
has done a fair amount of work on this. A lot of work has been done
within the world of Islam on this, but I mention Al Nyamed because his
books have been translated in English and are available in English.
I still have another question. Is it only Islamic countries that oppress the rights of women?
Do you think that all the dictators are Muslims? Too bad, we have a
large spectrum of dictatorships. So I am asking you as law students to
analyze whatever information you get first through the independent
minds that you have. And don't just take for granted whatever
information you get.
Remember that the real students of this time and age are the true
children of Descartes. The doubting allows me to be I am because I
think. But remember, just doubt whatever you hear. And then gauge it
according to your own intellect. Use your own logic.
I think we are about to lose our room. Thank you.