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Interview with Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi

[Iran] Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi.

Shirin Ebadi arrived back in Iran a week ago to a rapturous welcome after winning the Nobel Peace Prize, and immediately called for the release of all political prisoners. The country's first female judge, she has campaigned for women's and children's rights for over 20 years and has been responsible for reform in family laws. In an interview with IRIN in Tehran, Ebadi said the prize belonged to all those working for peaceful change and that there is no contradiction between Islam and human rights.

QUESTION: Having won this award, what impact is this going to have on your work now?

ANSWER: Winning the Nobel Prize hasn't changed my way of life or my commitment to my work. I'm going to carry on working as before. But it has given me renewed energy and enthusiasm. [In] honouring me, the prize also proves that I'm going in the right direction and that I've made the right choices. It has made me even more determined to continue my work. Anyway, this prize doesn't belong to me: it belongs to everyone who works towards human rights.

In my opinion, winning this prize won't affect Iranian society in the short term, but I'm sure it'll have an effect in the long term. That's because it'll give encouragement to the people who believe in progressive change in Iran, and the international recognition that comes with the prize will also attract more supporters. When more and more people want something, it becomes easier to achieve that goal. What the public want will become reality. Although you can't put a time limit on social and political change, the prize will create progressive change, and the best way towards reform is via the parliamentary route.

Q: You have worked for years on the issue of women's and children's rights. What has been your most significant achievement?

A: All the cases that I have worked on and all the work I have done are of equal importance. It's as though you're asking a mother to choose a favourite among her children - it's impossible, as she loves all her children equally. The answer is the same for my work.

Q: How compatible are human rights with Islam?

A: Human rights are compatible with Islam. I've spent 20 years researching this and studying the theory of this. The problem is that if some Islamic countries don't implement human rights law, it's because of their misinterpretation of Islam; you see, you can be a good Muslim and follow the human rights charter. It's all about the right interpretation. For instance, before the [1979] revolution I was a judge. When the revolution happened, they said that women could not be judges because Islam forbids it, and so they dismissed me from my post, and the rest of the female judges.

Because of this, we all spent a lot of time investigating whether this was really true. We read, researched, and wrote articles about it. Finally, after 15 years, I'm happy to say that they have accepted that women can be judges. At the moment, we have two female judges in the Appeal Courts. So you see, when they said women couldn't be judges, they said it was because Islam had said so. But now they say Islam allows female judges, so my point is that with time, interpretations differ.

Q: Upon your arrival there has been speculation you might run for office. Have you ever considered that?

A: I have never considered entering any sort of political career, running for parliament, or entering presidential elections. Never. A human rights activist must always work among the people, and must campaign and defend people who cannot defend themselves, because it is governments and rulers that abuse human rights. How is it possible to be a government member and be effectively critical of the system you're in? They are totally at odds with each other, so a human rights activist must never enter the world of politics or the government.

Q: The government's reaction to you has been puzzling - what is your take on this?

A: It's very natural that people have their own individual opinion on issues. Any social or political subject divides people's opinions. I accept this, that people have opposing points of view, and I respect everybody's opinions. I do have to say that the government representative, Mr Ramazanpur, and the vice-president, Mr [Mohammad Ali] Abtahi, came to the airport to welcome me home and congratulate me on my win. I'm very grateful for the kindness they showed towards me.

Q: How do you see the role of women in Iran evolving in the near future?

A: Compared to 20 years ago, women's rights have improved tremendously. In fact, we're witnessing a gradual shift and improvement in women's rights in Iran. But this doesn't mean that we don't face difficulties: laws still need improving and changing in the field of both women's and children's rights.

Q: To achieve human rights in Iran, what needs to change?

A: In order for human rights to improve in Iran, there are three main points that we have to work on. The first is educational change. We need to educate Iranians about human rights, so they are more familiar with it. For change to happen, it's necessary that the majority should want that change, so it's necessary to teach people from an early age - starting from primary school right up to high school and beyond. Education is the key to success.

Secondly, we have to be constantly evaluating our laws and improving on them and changing them. All our laws must be compatible with international human rights law. The Iranian government has accepted the International Convention on Human Rights, including political, social and economic change and has promised to implement it. Therefore our laws must be compatible with these international laws.

Thirdly, we need the tools and mechanisms necessary for implementing these laws. In some fields we have a good infrastructure for dealing with the law, but we don't have the tools and mechanisms to deliver. For example, the law says that if a woman is beaten up by her husband, she can get a divorce from the courts, but, while there is no welfare system for divorcees, and as long as we don't have secure homes for battered wives, what's the use of having permission to divorce your husband in the first place? Who's going to take responsibility for a woman who doesn't work and has no income, once she leaves her husband's house? So the right mechanisms should be in place in order for these laws to be effective.

Q: What is the most important issue that needs addressing?

A: First and foremost, women's rights. And within this, the top priority is a change in family law. The age of criminal responsibly in Iran is very low: for a girl it is nine and for a boy it's 15. This means that if a nine-year-old girl commits the same crime as me - an adult - she'll receive the same punishment that I would, so it's comparing the actions of a nine-year old to the actions of a adult.

Q: Are the government going to help you to implement these changes?

A: A change in law really depends on the support of the people. If enough people want change, it will happen. I am very hopeful for the future.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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