Judge of Progress

Shirin Ebadi has defended political prisoners, dissident intellectuals, and student activists in Iran. She's famously been on a government hit list, and served as her country's first female judge. In 2000, she served time in Tehran's Evin Prison for representing the families of young demonstrators in the most significant student protests Iran has known in years. Since winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003, she increasingly has been called on to serve as an ambassador of sorts -- particularly given her country's more than occasional clashes, both real and imagined, with the international community.

And she's controversial. Iranians, both at home and abroad, have criticized her for working within a system that may be broken, for not being tough enough on the government back home, and for resisting calls for regime change care of the United States. She lends nuance to a country that has long been a target for reductionism, cliché, and black-and-white judgments. I met her on May 23 in Boston, just at the tail end of a U.S. tour for her recently-published book, Iran Awakening: A Memoir of Revolution and Hope. A woman of small stature, Ebadi cuts an incongruously formidable figure. She is exacting and has a fierceness about her that struck me repeatedly. We talked about the battles she faced in getting her memoir published in the United States, her country's curious new president, and Iran's prospects for becoming a home to what is vaguely referred to as “democracy.”

Can we talk about your feud with the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control? You were initially told that you wouldn't be allowed to publish your memoirs in this country because of U.S. sanctions regulating the import of books from Iran, Cuba, and other countries. I understand you and your literary agent challenged the law. What happened in the end?

Yes. Since I have complained and threatened a lawsuit, the Treasury Department law has changed. Not only for Iranians, but for Cubans, Sudanese. They can print their work in the United States when previously they could not.

So it was because of you?

Because of my case, the law changed -- though we only threatened a lawsuit, and that was enough.

Were you surprised that the Americans had such a law in the first place?

Yes I was surprised because the law was contrary to the U.S. Constitution!

This period during which you've been on book tour in the States has been an interesting one, especially given all of this talk about President Ahmadinejad's personal letter to President Bush, written in May. What do you make of the American response, or the non-response, to his letter?

Ahmadinejad's letter was not a political letter. It was a lecture.

Some say that this letter has to be contextualized, that in fact it was an extraordinary gesture on his part -- a gesture that happened to be denied when President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice seemed to dismiss it, while others simply mocked it.

It did not leave room for action, it was a lecture. But yes, it was better than saying nothing at all.

Do you think the Americans want to talk to the Iranians? Are they serious about diplomacy, and why didn't they take the letter seriously?

Why are you asking me? You should ask Mr. Bush.

All of this talk about the United States being the friend of democracy, doling out money for democracy promotion and so on, what do you make of it? Clearly they don't seem to realize that they delegitimize anyone who touches that cash. So how do the Americans help democracy in Iran, if at all?

Americans can help democracy around the world -- but not through the use of force, or war or in this case, funds. They must become a part of the ICC [International Criminal Court, based in the Hague], for starters. It's only though the ICC that we can address the fate of dictators, and the fight for democracy without bloodshed. Democracy cannot enter a country with a tank, and never will.

You're a human-rights activist. We're also in a bizarre period in which the terms “human rights” and “democracy” have been associated with militarism, war, double standards -- especially because of the invasion of Iraq. In a lot of corners of the Middle East, it's come to be associated with an imperial ideology. How has this affected your work as a human-rights activist?

In the same way that Islamic countries should not abuse the use of “Islam,” Western countries should not abuse the terms “democracy” and “human rights.” Here is my question with regard to Iraq: Was Saddam Hussein the only dictator in the world? No. There are many dictators in the world. The only difference between his country and the others is that his country happens to have oil.

What do you make of the claim, often thrown about by various pundits, that there is no room for democracy at all in the Middle East -- that the region is somehow inhospitable to democracy?

There is democracy in Iran, but it does not have a single route. If you want to compare Iran to Saudi Arabia, which is America's best friend and has no parliament, Iran is democratic. If you compare Iran to Norway, for example, no, Iran is not so democratic. Democracy comes in shades. We can say with regard to Iran that our democracy is not developed. We cannot say that there is no democracy in Iran -- we do have elections. But these elections are not free and fair.

What has changed in Iran since the 2005 election of President Ahmadinejad, if anything?

Censorship has grown more severe. Books that were previously given permission to be printed are now being revoked. Some Internet sites have been filtered, especially those related to women.

But for the most part …

For the most part, people go on with their lives, though life may have become harder for intellectuals.

What about youth, are they depoliticized? Some would offer that Iranians are tired after the Iran-Iraq War, the student uprisings of 1999 and so on -- that they simply seek some sort of stability. What do you make of that claim?

No, I do not feel like they are tired. We hear of activism every day. Look at the women's day protests in a park in downtown Tehran last March. The women were beaten up by the police, and a number of the women decided to complain. And they will continue to organize. This shows that young people are not tired. And compare them to youth in [the United States]; they are far more active.

You've said that any change in Iran has to come from within the country.

It does. I am neither a leader of a party or a member of an opposition. I am simply a human-rights worker, but that much I do know. It must come from within.

You've also been attacked as an apologist for the regime, even heckled recently during a talk at UCLA.

There are some Iranians who think that having won the Nobel, I must ask the Americans to come and bring the Iranians their freedom. That is not my work, or my interest.

With all of this talk of regime change, what would happen if the U.S. attacked Iran?

The people of Iran have problems with their government. However, if Iran is going to get bombed, the Iranian people will defend their country -- in the same way that Americans who may not like their government would defend their country to the death if it were attacked.

What are you working on at the moment?

Too many things, but I can mention my two most recent cases. One is the attack on a dervish in the city of Qom, and the other is the crackdown I just mentioned -- on female demonstrators at a public park on international women's day.

With regard to cases, has the judicial system changed at all since President Ahmadinejad's election?

No, the judicial system has not changed. It's still very much a system with problems, however.

What about the state of women? Has it changed at all? People sitting in the West tend to think that Iranian women are suffering en masse, what do you make of that perception?

We've been able to change a few laws since the Revolution to the benefit of women. If you compare the state of women today to 26 years ago, just as the Revolution was starting, it's gotten better. Child custody laws, for example, have improved. The age of marriage has been changed from 9 to 13 -- still very young, but a lot better than before. Women in the beginning of the Revolution could not be judges -- for example, I lost my own job -- but now they may serve as judges again. However, Iranian women do still have many problems, and do need more freedoms. We have a long way to go.

Why did you become a judge?

I went to law school, I was very concerned with justice, and this seemed the best way to work in that vein.

What is the hardest part of your day?

Going to the court house. They don't listen to us.

Who? You mean they don't listen to women?

This is not a discussion about men and women, it's about the law. We speak for hours and they do not hear our complaints, whether male or female.

Where does Iran stand today, 27 years after the Revolution?

The Revolution was simply about two things: freedom and independence. And these are still beautiful slogans. I dare anyone to say that freedom is a bad thing. We must continue in our quest for freedom -- in the area of choosing ones religion, in thought, writing. These are values that we must pursue.

Is Iran free? The country is no longer under U.S. control, de facto or official.

During the Shah, the CIA removed our prime minister. The Shah was an American lackey. He came along and with the money born of oil, he bought arms from America. He became very attached to the U.S. -- to the point that the Iranian people would call him “the gendarme of the Middle East.” For that reason, the slogans of the Revolution had such a strong effect on us; we wanted to see our country free of that kind of control. Now, our country is not linked to the U.S., fine, but all the same, we do have many problems.

Are you optimistic about the future?

I am optimistic. I have to be. The day I lose my hope, I will have to stop working.

Negar Azimi is a graduate student at Harvard and an editor of Bidoun, an arts and culture magazine based in New York.