Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi Calls for Freeing Political Prisoners in Iran, Removal of U.S. Troops from Iraq
Scott Quintard / UCLA Photo

Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi Calls for Freeing Political Prisoners in Iran, Removal of U.S. Troops from Iraq

Large turnout from Iranian community in Los Angeles greets feminist human rights activist.

By Leslie Evans

Watch Streaming Video of Shirin Ebadi's Lecture
Shirin Ebadi, the first Iranian and the first Muslim woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, addresses a tumultuous meeting of some 1,400 in UCLA's Royce Hall May 14.
(56 min. | 5/14/2004)
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[Shirin Ebadi, the first Iranian and the first Muslim woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, addressed a tumultuous meeting of some 1,400 in UCLA's Royce Hall May 14. She called on the government of Iran to release political prisoners and to reform its election law. At the same time, to loud applause, she criticized governments around the world for using the war on terrorism as an excuse to limit freedoms and jail critics. And in comments on the war in Iraq, Ebadi called on the United States to withdraw its troops and hand power over to the UN and the Iraqi people, adding that such an intervention should have been done under UN auspices if it was done at all. Her appearance at UCLA was sponsored by the Ronald W. Burkle Center for International Relations. The meeting was chaired by Geoffrey Garrett, vice provost of UCLA's International Institute and director of the Burkle Center.

[A large portion of the audience were Iranian-Americans, and the proceedings were fully bilingual. Ms. Ebadi spoke in Persian (Farsi). Hundreds of wireless headsets were distributed to the English-speaking members of the audience, and a simultaneous translation was broadcast over the headsets. The question period was handled in the same manner, with all questions translated into both languages. Between Shirin Ebadi's address and the question period there was a performance of Iranian music by the Lian Ensemble. When Ebadi returned to the stage she was presented with a plaque by Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn.

[At the beginning of the question period, some thirty or forty monarchist supporters of the former shah of Iran leaped to their feet and tried to bring the meeting to a halt by shouting down the speaker. They were loudly booed by the large majority of the audience, but would not desist until police and other security personnel restored order, after about ten minutes, escorting at least one person out of the auditorium.

[Because of the wide interest in this event we are presenting below the slightly abridged English translation of Shirin Ebadi's remarks and answers to questions, based on the simultaneous translation at the May 14 meeting. We have edited the transcript to correct the grammar and make the English more idiomatic and to eliminate repetitions.]

* * *

Respectful president of the university, colleagues, university professors and students, and ladies and gentlemen. I am very happy that today I am speaking to you from this dignified venue. The university is the main home and the true abode of all those who have taken spirituality and idealism as their model; those who have dedicated themselves to humanity, whose pride is not in their bank books but in the books they have published, students they have educated, whose pride is not for the materialistic aspects of the world.

I am also fortunate to be in this beautiful and sunny Los Angeles, a city that has made a place for many nationalities from all over the world, including many of my countrymen and women. Today I am very pleased to be with so many Iranians in California.

Respectful friends, today we are living in a world where, compared to ten years ago, 54 countries are poorer. More than 1.2 billion human beings in the year 2002 were in glaring poverty with a daily income of less than $1. Many of these people were living on the continent of Asia. More than 62 million people are infected with AIDS, and if we are not thinking fast enough to find a solution their number will reach over 100 million.

Glaring poverty is the negation of human rights: the right to nutrition, the right to housing, the right to health care, and education. Education is not only one of the main rights of a human being, it entitles other rights -- freedom of speech, freedom of opinion, and being able to have a just trial. Without these things rights lose their meaning and become theoretical abstractions.

In my opinion gross poverty is something we can get rid of. If we fail, true human beings may vanish from the vast world we are living in. It is important to reform world institutions such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and United Nations Security Council. These institutions for the most part are run democratically. That alone will not diminish the present vast difference between those who have and those who have not.

We have to pay attention to economic rights and social rights, observing these rights and giving a large place to these rights in planning for world development. We have to put an end to immunity from punishment for those who are violating human rights and creating the social disasters. We must also see that multinational corporations that operate beyond borders are made responsible for their actions.

Women in Poverty and War

Women are the first victims of poverty because they are victims of discrimination and social discrimination in the man-dominated world. They have had to fight with this culture. It is not only the poor, both men and women, that are deprived of their rights in our country of Iran. In our culture even women who have higher educations are barred from high political and social status. 63% of university students in Iran are girls. Yet the unemployment level of women is reported to be three times that of men.

The discriminatory laws against women and the criminal laws say the value of a woman's life is half of a man's life. Under the law, the testimony of two women is equal to the testimony of one man. Many other inequalities are imposed on women.

Women and children are the first victims of war. According to the office of the United Nations Development Plan (UNDP) for the year 2002, more than fifty countries were victims of wars or were exposed to natural disasters. In these wars 90% of the victims were nonmilitary. In war, the principles of human rights and humanity are suspended and injustice is spread.

Terrorism and the Fight against It

I am taking this opportunity to speak of the terrorist acts which, after September 11, have claimed many victims around the world. I condemn it. I also object to the special procedures and regulations that are installed in some countries on the pretext of fighting terrorists. Fighting terrorism is necessary and has its legal legitimacy. However it has to be in the context of the legal. Unfortunately, some of the countries under the pretext of fighting terrorism have breached human rights.

In many countries, the issue of lack of security has been enlarged more than is required. For those who are fighting for human rights, it has been very difficult compared to the past. Those who are defending human rights are facing intimidation and even losing their lives.

Myself and many others [names several political prisoners] were imprisoned in the years past. Dr. Nasser Zarafshan, one of the attorneys . . . is in Evin prison. Unfortunately many of the writers, journalists, political and social activists, and also the university students who have been fighting for human rights are in prison. I am at this moment taking the opportunity to ask for their freedom.

[Names several individuals. Loud applause.]

And many others who have lost their lives for freedom.

Religion, and Violent and Undemocratic Groups that Try to Speak in Its Name

Democracy and human rights are common needs of all human cultures. Respect for human dignity, property, and life in any religion and culture is something praiseworthy. Violence and terror, humiliation, torture in any society is something indecent. Those who use the excuse of cultural relativism to refuse to support democracy and human rights are ossified oppressors who have put a straight-jacket on culture in the name of "national culture," with the intention of denying their own people their rights. They take small things that have nothing to do with Islamic religion and are in conflict with Islam and make these things an excuse to go to war.

These people say that Eastern culture and Islamic religion are in conflict with the West and this conflict is something unavoidable. These people try to take the deeds of a few people or groups of Muslims, to present that as Islam, and say this is why Western culture is in conflict with Eastern culture. This is not correct. You can be sure that if someone is killed in the name of Islam but the name of Islam was misused, the wrong deeds that were done by an individual or a group should not be recorded in the Islamic report card. It should not be counted for Islam. Just as the wrong deeds of a few people in Bosnia should not be accounted as Christianity. Jesus was a prophet and a harbinger of peace.

To disregard the numerous resolutions of the United Nations about Israel and things that have happened and are happening in that part of the world should not be counted as something that in the Jewish religion is considered something good. Moses was a harbinger of justice and right.

Separate the faults of people from religion and culture. Not only are the cultures not in conflict with one another but they have a lot of common ground. Let us talk about common things, not talk about deceit. Let us not justify war. Because if the war should happen no one will come out of it proud.

Peace, But Not Strangulation

Dear colleagues, it is only in peace and serenity that the tree of knowledge bears fruit, that artistic creations will manifest, that the vehicle of civilization will go forward. But not every tranquility and silence is lasting. That peace is lasting which is based on two pillars: democracy and justice, otherwise it is not peace and it is not tranquility, it is strangulation, silencing society.

Those who make people quiet by jails and bullets will achieve silence, but that silence is of the cemetery. Let's not forget that seventy years of the former Soviet Union was a silence, which is now also present in some of the countries of the world. Let's guard peace and have it holy and have it marked by justice and democracy.

Installing Democracy by Invasion

Democracy is not an accident that will happen in one night. Democracy is not a gift delivered on a golden tray. Democracy is a historical growth that has to go through its evolutionary process. If one country is claiming, and let us say it is truthful, that it intends to support democracy in another country that is dictatorial, the only way this can be done is by supporting freedom fighters who stand for the democratic institutions of that country. Done this way, soon the sapling of democracy will bear the flower of freedom. Military attacks, even with good intentions, do not create democracy. They will harm democracy and things will degenerate into violence.

Because violence creates violence. Violence is contagious. Let's not forget, you cannot export democracy with weapons. You cannot pour human rights on people's heads with cluster bombs. Democracy and human rights can only be achieved with the understanding of the people. Those countries that are claiming they are sympathetic to human rights and democracy should do it through the United Nations. The countries that are aggressive should be forced to respect democracy and human rights. It is only in that situation that the fight for democracy and freedom is legitimate and can be defended.

The U.S. Should Exit Iraq as Soon as Possible

I take this opportunity to wish once more that the American forces exit Iraq as soon as possible. That they place that country under the care of the United Nations and the people of Iraq. And that they pay back the damages done to that country. I wish as soon as possible that American soldiers, your children, return to their homes in good health and let the fire of war in the Middle East subside.

Inner and External Peace

On the other hand, peace has two layers, internal and external, just like the world that we are living on. But we are unaware of the secrets of its deeps. Without inner peace, external peace is impossible. Now, about internal peace. Inner peace is the tranquility which arises from living with goals. People who have not yet found goals for their lives, these are people who do not know what they are doing and they will not find tranquility any place. They will not find themselves anywhere. It is up to us teachers to help our pupils in this search.

Light a light so people can find the road in front of them. They can find themselves, and while living in happiness they can be beneficial to others, too. In other words, live happily and be beneficial to society. The society achieves this goal for its education that educates the youth that even though they are enjoying the benefits of life they will be thinking about others, too, and be working towards peace, so that peace will be from inside us. It will spread outward, to our family and school, and eventually to our society. Peace starts from the school, and it will pour into the national situation and then become international.

This is the way it is, that teachers and professors as pillars of peace act in the national and international venues. The connection between educational institutions worldwide is always something that will take peace forward: student and professor exchanges, translating books and languages, linking schools and universities over the Internet, having international courses -- these are great helps that will manifest connections between countries.

Closing Access to Technical Courses for Foreign Students after September 11

The countries that are technically advanced generously put their information in the hands of the students. After the incident of 11 September, some of the fields of study, new and higher technical fields, are no longer available to the students from countries of the South. The universities have notified the students that as soon as they finish their term they should change their field of study. One of the Western countries, even though they have not officially announced any limitations, no longer accepts students from countries of the South to study in fields of higher technology.

If we consider the world as a global village, we must all share its benefits, including sharing education. You cannot claim internationalism and separate some of the people of the world from education. Be giving like the sky. The tree of knowledge should be more fruitful, like the earth. Spread friendship like wind. Be upset and burn like fire at ignorance and prejudice. Be human, be kind, be loving.

Question Period

[We have briefly summarized the questions.]

Q: What is the best course of action to bring democracy to Iran?

Ebadi: It is a historical process. Democracy is fighting, challenging, perpetually trying for freedom. I always consider democracy as a bulb that has to be watered every day like a flower. We cannot give water just a little bit and then say, okay, we have already watered it, we don't need any more. Democracy means we take care of it all the time, taking care of the people and their rights so nobody attacks their rights. It's not talk; it has to be action. We have to see what action we have to take. The first step for democracy is that the people have to be able to freely elect their representatives. And the first step in democracy in Iran is to amend the election law so that anybody can choose and vote according to his or her wishes.

Q: Please talk about the struggle of Iranian women after the revolution.

[Counter demonstration by monarchists at this point.]

Ebadi: Isn't it better to disregard my answers because this is a prize for peace, not war?

Concerning the brave struggle of Iranian women to obtain their rights, the number of educated girls in Iran has fortunately increased; 63% of the university students are girls. At the same time a woman who goes to the university and the woman who works understand the discrimination and get annoyed and upset. For that reason the feminist movement in Iran today has depth and a vast arena. At the beginning of the revolution, for example in 1959 or 1960, Miss Mehrangiz [Kar] and myself, we were among the few people who dared to go against discriminatory regulations and fight. She was more brave that I was. I was writing some articles. However, our work did not have any feedback, because the traditional women were against what we were saying. Gradually education created an insight and informed them. They started to understand most of our words, and even the women who belonged to the traditional families were now saying the same things. In my opinion this has been very productive for us. All the women of the country, those that were a little bit modern and even those who belong to the traditional families have some type of objection against their lives. It is very pleasant to see that women line up and are fighting for the rights of women and the lines of that struggle are being broadened.

Q: In your opinion what is the appropriate role for foreign powers in political change in Iran and Iraq?

Ebadi: In my speech I mentioned this. The United Nations was established for this issue. The governments of the world should not work against the rights of their people. And big and powerful countries should not attack other countries on the excuse of bringing democracy and human rights. The United Nations was established to deal with this. You remember when Iraq attacked Kuwait. The issue was entertained in the United Nations, with the Security Council. Actions were taken to free Kuwait. However, this did not occur in the case of Iraq. In spite of the objection of the United Nations and the Security Council the United States attacked. After the fall of Saddam it was obvious nobody was sad. Still, this struggle should been carried out through the United Nations. I personally wish that Saddam had been overthrown by the Iraqi people.

Q: I am like you except that I believe religion is the source of democracy. Is it possible to change god's word according to the times and restrict religion to the heart?

Ebadi: The main place of religion is in the heart and in the mind. It is in the heart because it is the place of love, and it is in the mind because that is the place of thinking. Love and thinking, they help each other and give meaning to religion. Concerning the separation of religion from government, I have been asked that many times. Permit me to repeat my answer again: I personally believe in democracy, which means the people's desire. If a society desires to separate religion from the government of course it has to be done. This issue is not against Islam. The main point is the following: the Muslins all over the world in any country where they live should not be deceived by the claim that Islam is incompatible with democracy and we must choose between accepting democracy or the tradition our ancestors wanted. We can have both.

Q: Do you have advice for Westerners on how to think about Islam in the world?

Ebadi: Permit me, I will answer with a larger question: What is censorship? One kind of censorship is applied directly by governments. The government says that you cannot write such an article and some other article must be written. I don’t think that kind of censorship exists in the United States. However, I am forced to mention another point. The large mass media in the United States belong to one or two groups who have their own agenda. They channel and direct public opinion. I will take you back a little bit. After the incident of September 2001 all the newspapers and radio and television stationis were presenting one issue for the people: the envelopes arriving in the mail containing microbes, and everyone was frightened. We were talking to the Americans, and every channel you would turn on, you would see people with gloves and protective suits and masks, and they were talking about some sort of microbes. This story lasted and had some impact on American citizens: they were afraid to open any package that arrived. It was the anthrax microbe. This was a kind of directing of public opinion so that they could later on attack Afghanistan. [Applause.]

At the present time another channeling, I feel, god forbid, is happening. The term "Islamic terrorism" has been used many times. There is no question that there is no problem fighting against terrorism. But what is this "Islamic" term that is used so much? Look at the mistakes that people have committed, and separate that from their religious civilization. Permit me, I will repeat, my friend: Whatever has happened, even though the person was a Muslim, do not consider that it was Islam that has done it. Do not create a war between the civilizations. A war between civilizations would take the world to war. Talk about cooperation of the civilizations. Do not blacken Islam and do not show Islam as something black and bad.

Q: Concerning Iranian laws, how is it that you can participate without a chador, without Islamic cover, outside Iran?

Ebadi: Again, this question. Permit me to repeat it again. According to the Islamic criminal law of Iran, the chador, Islamic cover, is required for all the women in Iran. And I am an attorney and I work in Tehran. I respect this law when I am in Iran and Tehran; I use that chador. And since the circle of influence of a government's criminal laws is limited to the borders of a country, and the criminal regulations of the country do not have any power beyond the country's borders, when I am out of the country of Iran, I am not wearing it. [Prolonged applause.]