A Defender of Human Rights

By: Beth Parish Issue: Big Ideas, Smart People Section: Academics Defender of Human Rights

Iran is an enigma. It is an industrialized nation steeped in Islamist ideology, where women are educated and can legally vote, but are subject to arrests, beatings, and imprisonment. It is a country that has access to the Internet and other communications portals, like Facebook, yet free speech does not exist. In modern Iran, human rights activists are perceived as agitators and are subject to beatings, arrest, torture, and even execution.

Ms. Shirin Ebadi, the first Muslim female Nobel Peace Prize recipient (2003), has advocated for the human rights of women, children and political prisoners in her native Iran and spoke out against the current regime in her homeland, only to be exiled and stripped of her Prize. A lawyer, judge, professor, and activist, Ebadi is focused squarely on her opposition to cultures that deny equal rights to women and girls—representing almost half of the world’s populations. At her Nobel presentation speech, she was described as a "conscious Muslim" who sees no conflict between Islam and fundamental human rights and who is determined to insure that things change in her native land and around the world.

In our interview, we discussed how future leaders and young people could make a difference in the human rights movement. With great gusto, Ebadi admonishes young people to not pattern their life after anyone else. She said, "Don’t imitate anybody! Refer to your own nature and your own essence! Don’t be afraid of making mistakes! Everyone has the right to make mistakes. It is important that we make mistakes, and when we find out we made a mistake, we must try to correct it. If we’re afraid of making mistakes, we can never move forward with our programs and advance. Youth must move forward with confidence."

Ebadi, the mother of two daughters, says they face the same problems that young people all over Iran are facing today—they want more freedoms. While looking for financial stability, the young people in Iran are looking for jobs that use the skills that they have gained through their studies and education. She believes that freedom and finding work are the two most important issues for Iran’s young people, and for her daughters, these concerns are amplified because they are female.

As we have seen recently in the news, the governments of the Middle East are under increasing pressure to support more equal environments, especially for those at the bottom of the social ladder. Frankly, with the upheaval in the region, it appears that many governments have but two options—they will either listen to the will of the people or they will generate negative media and could ultimately fall.

In a recent interview with Euronews, Ebadi commented on the human rights agenda in the Middle East and its importance to people around the world, and more specifically in Iran. "The west is still preoccupied with its own security and is not stressing the principles it claims to defend," she said. When asked about the various global interpretations on human rights issues Ebadi purports that the Iranian government resorts to cultural differences. And while Iran has publically and unconditionally accepted the conventions on civil, political, and economic rights of its citizens, Ebadi argues that they have not been implemented. "This is an international code of behavior and has nothing to with East and West or Muslim and Christian. If Muslims take it upon themselves to write a Declaration of Human Rights in accordance with religion, then naturally they should allow the same religious rights of other denominations. We should witness a Jewish Declaration of Human Rights, a Buddhist Declaration of Human Rights, a Hindu Declaration of Human Rights, and thousands of others. Human rights are an international code of behavior."

Because of her outspoken nature on human rights, the Iranian government confiscated all of Ebadi’s property, using the excuse that she had failed to pay taxes on the Nobel Peace Prize she won in 2003. "It was interesting that the amount of the tax was greater than the amount of the Prize," she said. "My whole family was imprisoned and now they are not allowed to leave the country. In short, it has caused me a lot of trouble. In 2008, they illegally closed Tehran’s Human Rights Center which I established with my prize money. I complained because they had acted illegally, but to this day, no judge has dared open the file on it. When I tell you that Iran’s judiciary has lost its independence, that’s what I mean."

Growing up as a tomboy, Ebadi admits that she had great dreams. As she says, "Let me confess to you, from childhood I had big dreams. I always believed I would become a great person, but these great dreams had different interpretations at different times of my life. When I was a kid, I wanted to become a math teacher and that was the most important person for me at that time in the world. Now, I wish to help all the children in the world. As one grows up, one’s own dreams also become larger." And indeed Ms. Ebadi continues to grow her dreams, fighting for human rights, publicizing government initiated murders of dissidents, and rising above the focus of scrutiny and harassment by the Iranian government.

A fierce advocate for women, children, and the underserved, Ebadi reminds us that in most countries the budget for the military is larger than the budgets for programs addressing the needs of children. The Nobel laureate argues that children are vulnerable and cannot defend themselves; therefore they need more care and concern from leaders, governments, society, and the adults in their lives. She contends, "When setting country budgets, money must be set aside first for educating the children and then second for their health and hygiene."

And while most countries of the world have military budgets that are larger than the budget for children, we cannot ignore them. Ebadi says emphatically, "The killing of children is not from a bullet that we fire at them—but rather when we forget their rights."

Beth Parish teaches marketing and business classes at Regis University where she is committed to helping her students understand the strength of products and services that benefit the community and minimize their impact on the environment. Beth is honored to be a member of the Board of YouthBiz, an organization devoted to advancing the empowerment of youth.