Iranians Demand Change, Reject War by US, Says Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi

Iranians Demand Change, Reject War by US, Says Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi

Photos by Kevin Matthews

Human rights advocate denounces Iranian laws that harm children and women, set back path to 'advanced democracy.' Protesters interrupt speech; a few are ejected.

Democracy is not merchandise to be exported to another country. Democracy cannot be brought to a nation with cluster bombs.

In the wake of reports that the U.S. military is hunting targets inside of Iran and that the Bush administration is contemplating the use of nuclear weapons against underground bunkers there, 2003 Nobel Peace laureate and Iranian human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi told a UCLA audience of about 1,100 on May 15, 2006, that her copatriots would continue to "demand advanced democracy" on their terms and would not accept a U.S. invasion of or bombing campaign against the country.

"Democracy is not merchandise to be exported to another country," she said. "Democracy cannot be brought to a nation with cluster bombs." Ebadi spoke in Persian (Farsi) and paused often—for translations into English, loud protests from several audience members, and still louder applause. The event was sponsored by the UCLA Center for Near Eastern Studies as part of its Persian Lecture Series and by the International Institute.

Persian and English speakers in the crowd supported Ebadi with standing ovations and, at one point, chants of "e-ba-DI!" that drowned out the voice of a heckler. About 15 protesters from more than one organization denounced Ebadi outside of the Ackerman Student Union before and after the speech, and UCPD officers removed a handful of hecklers from the event venue. Speaking mostly in Persian, protesters called for the immediate overthrow of the government in Tehran and attempted to undermine the credibility of Ebadi—who has withstood death threats, jail, and judicial harassment in Iran—as an opponent of the theocratic regime. In 2003, she became the first Iranian and the first female Muslim to win a Nobel Peace Prize.

Following the Iranian Revolution, Ebadi and other women judges were removed from their positions, and she became a fierce critic of the government and its human rights record. She founded the Association for Support of Children's Rights and co-founded the Center for Defense of Human Rights, which provides pro-bono legal help for imprisoned activists, journalists, and their families. Her principal message on Monday night was a critique of the country's "astonishingly discriminatory" and repressive laws. After responding to questions from the audience, Ebadi signed copies of her new book Iran Awakening: A Memoir of Revolution and Hope.

According to Ebadi, "the feminist movement is very strong" in Iran, a "land of contradictions" where more than 65 percent of university students are female and where women continue to hold seats in parliament. The movement has won incremental victories since the Revolution, including improvements to a child custody law that still strongly favors fathers.

"But this is not enough. Iranian women demand full and complete equality of rights," Ebadi said.

In post-revolutionary Iran, the road to gender equality appears long. By law, Ebadi said, one man has the value of two women: he gets double her compensation for an accident, and it takes two women to balance a man's testimony in court. Meanwhile, the state sanctions polygamy and gives fathers in all families a breathtaking degree of control. A man convicted of killing a child will be sentenced to death, unless he kills his own child. In that case, the law regards fatherhood as an "extenuating circumstance," and the maximum sentence is ten years in prison, Ebadi said.

Ebadi also denounced a legal prohibition on criticism of the Iranian constitution and the requirement that candidates for political office be approved by the powerful Guardian Council, which has disqualified reformist candidates from recent contests. During the question period, Ebadi defended her decision not to lend legitimacy to the 2005 presidential election by casting a vote. Many Iranian reformists boycotted the process that eventually made Mahmoud Ahmadinejad president in spite of weak support, she said.

Although Ebadi brought with her the message that "the people of Iran and the people of the United States have no dispute with each other," she reminded the audience that history supplies Iranians with reasons to suspect U.S. government motives. A CIA-backed coup in 1953 ejected a democratically elected government in Iran, and "the ramifications of that are still being felt," Ebadi said. She also pointed out that the United States was allied with Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War when he used poison gas against Iranians and Iraqi Kurds.

She said that U.S. military action would not settle the differences between the two governments but would cause ordinary Iranians to rally in their nation's defense. "The people of Iran love their country, and they are not going to permit it to become a second Iraq," Ebadi said.

Published: Wednesday, May 17, 2006