To fight for human rights is not a passing gesture. It’s a lifetime commitment. In other words, it’s a lifestyle that one consciously chooses, regardless of the bitterness it may bring to one's life. Iranian activist Shirin Ebadi is one of those people.
When talking about Ebadi, what mostly comes to mind is the Nobel Peace Prize, the award she received in 2003 for her efforts in support of democracy and human rights in Iran. What remains obscure is the long path that led her there. In her new memoir, Ebadi offers us an in-depth look into her efforts, for which she experienced ongoing harassment from within Iran’s ruling circles.
In Until We Are Free: My Fights for Human Rights in Iran, Ebadi narrates her life story. She explains what working in the human rights field means by sharing with us what she has gained and lost throughout her journey.
After losing her post as a judge in 1980, Ebadi stopped working in the mid-1980s. It was in the early 1990s that she started taking mostly pro-bono cases as an attorney, defending children’s and women’s rights, a move which led to the beginning, she says, of ongoing pressure and intimidation applied to her.
In 2000 Ebadi was detained in Iran’s notorious Evin prison for three weeks after a court charged her with “spreading evidence of the state’s complicity in an attack on students the previous years.” The trauma of prison brought back Ebadi’s childhood stutter, which she finally manages to overcome after speech therapy.
But all the harassment only made her more determined, she tells readers. She continued defending political dissidents while spreading the news about them. When Akbar Ganji, a prominent reformist investigative journalist went on a hunger strike in prison, Tehran’s prosecutor Saeed Mortazavi called his act illegal. Afterwards, talking to reporters, Ebadi referred to the Islamic Republic honoring the hunger strike of the IRA figure Bobby Sands by naming one of the streets in Iran after him, saying: “How come outside the country a hunger strike is heroic and brave but it is forbidden inside Iran?”
As Ebadi pursued her activities, the cat-and-mouse game with those in power also continued. When hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became the president, the Ministry of Intelligence got bolder. It was during that time that Mahmudi, a man in his mid-30s from the ministry, took over Ebadi’s “file” and began to keep a close watch on her activities.
Ebadi left Iran on June 11, 2009, on the eve of the presidential election, to attend a conference in Mallorca, without knowing this trip would begin her exile.
As Ahmadinejad took office for his second term, things got more intense for human rights activists in Iran, including Ebadi who was physically out of reach. Mahmudi’s grudge against Ebadi’s activities was so intense that now that he couldn’t get his hands on her, he turned his anger to whoever was within reach and did whatever he could to crush her: detaining Ebadi’s husband and forcing him to give false confession on TV against her, harassing her relatives and friends, and confiscating her belongings, including her Nobel medal and diploma. The pressure was pouring in from everywhere, even from the state tax organization which declared that the monetary award which Ebadi received along with her Nobel prize, was taxable. As a result the state put her properties on sale.
But all these efforts made Ebadi more determined to pursue her activities from exile, she tells readers. She writes: “As I have experienced so often myself, being crushed simply gives you greater exercise in collecting the shards of yourself, putting them back together, and figuring out what to do next.” And this time her audience is not only Iran but the world.
“Until We Are Free” is not just a political memoir, it’s also the life story of a woman, wife, and mother. The book reminds us that tireless human rights activists are also human beings, with their own concerns, fears, attachments, and interests. Through her book Ebadi opens the window to her unseen personal life by sharing with us bits and pieces of her past. With her particular obsession in describing every detail, Ebadi does not just narrate a story but paints a scene.
“Until We Are Free” is not a story of a superhuman woman. It is the honest narrative of a normal human being, with all her ups and downs in life – a one-time judge who set her sights on a goal a long time ago and is determined to pursue it no matter what, until justice is served.