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'Iran will be democratic one day': Shirin Ebadi

October 23, 2022

DW spoke to Iranian Nobel Peace Prize laureate and human rights activist Shirin Ebadi, as she received an award at the Human Rights Film Festival Berlin.

Shirin Ebadi, Friedensnobelpreisträgerin
Shirin Ebadi became the first Muslim woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003Image: Oliver Hoslet/picture-alliance/dpa

"We stand in solidarity with the courageous women of Iran," said Anna Ramskogler-Witt, director of the Human Rights Film Festival Berlin, at the festival's awards ceremony on Friday. "Our thoughts are also with the families of the protesters who have lost their lives, who are in prison."

To show solidarity with Iranian protesters, the Human Rights Film Festival has bestowed its Honorary Award for Freedom and Democracy to 2003 Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Iranian human rights activist, Shirin Ebadi.

In a video address, Ebadi said she wanted to donate the award to the family of Jina Mahsa Amini, the 22-year-old Kurdish student whose death triggered the wave of protests that have been ongoing for the past five weeks.

Jina Mahsa Amini (right) posing in a selfie with a friend.
The death Jina Mahsa Amini (right) after being arrested by Iran's so-called morality police sparked the protestsImage: Social Networks/Zuma/IMAGO

Shirin Ebadi: Inspiring Iranians to fight for their rights

As the first Muslim woman and only Iranian to date to have received the Nobel Peace Prize, Shirin Ebadi has inspired generations of activists through her work as a human rights lawyer.

By defending intellectual dissidents, minorities, women and children, Shirin Ebadi "has given a voice to the oppressed," said Germany's Green party deputy federal chairwoman Pegah Edalatian, who also has Iranian roots, in her tribute to the award winner at the ceremony. Her work has allowed "the principle of human rights in Iran to remain in the consciousness of the people," she added.

That fundamental principle is driving young Iranians to protest for their freedom and justice today: "I am often asked these days if the women have a chance. That is the wrong question — they have the right!" said Edalatian.

 Pegah Edalatian beim Human Rights Film Festival Berlin
German-Iranian politician Pegah Edalatian paid tribute to Shirin Ebadi at the Human Rights Film Festival BerlinImage: Dovile Sermokas/HRFFB

Growing number of deaths and detainees amid protests

But those who protest for those rights nevertheless face enormous risks. "The authorities will never officially state how many have been killed or imprisoned, which means we'll never know exactly how many people have disappeared and what has happened to them," Shirin Ebadi told DW through a translator, shortly before the awards ceremony.

According to the latest numbers published by Iran's Human Rights Activists News Agency on Saturday, at least 244 people, including 32 children, have been killed by the country's security forces. The human rights advocacy group also estimates that at least 12,500 people have been detained since the beginning of the protests.

Knowing the risks they face, why are young women and girls nevertheless taking to the streets and publicly removing their headscarves?

"For one, the young generation is way better informed than the previous one, and they know that they do not have a future if the Islamic Republic keeps going," said Ebadi. "We now have a great number of well-educated young people; but among them, 40% are not finding work, and those who find work are not earning enough to leave the family home and make a living for themselves." So for the human rights activist, it is "clear that in such a situation, these young people are taking to the streets to protest."

Anti Hijab Protests for Mahsa Amini - Iran
Iranians protesting in Saghez, in Iran's Kurdistan Province on October 17Image: SalamPix/abaca/picture alliance

Government 'only lies'

Ebadi also commented on the deadly Evin Prison fire from last week. She explained that the state's claims that the prisoners set themselves on fire in the tailoring workshop can be easily challenged through the working schedules of the prisoners. "Everything that the government has said until now has only been lies," she said.

The Tehran prison is infamous for having detained generations of dissidents, politicians, writers, activists, journalists and artists. Award-winning filmmakers Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof are among Evin's most prominent inmates. Panahi's wife, Tahira Saeedi, confirmed in a interview with Radio Farda, the Iranian branch of Radio Free Europe, that they were both alive but reported that her husband described the events as "the worst hours of his life."

"Whoever talks about the problems of the people, about the problems of society, is seen as a threat by the regime," said Ebadi, pointing out that Panahi and Rasoulof have always tackled social problems in their work, which is why the authorities banned them from filmmaking and recently imprisoned them.

Documentary on Ebadi's fight premieres in Berlin

Ebadi's own life is now portrayed in film. "Shirin Ebadi: Until We Are Free," a new documentary based on the Nobel Prize laureate's 2016 memoirs, also celebrated its German premiere at the Human Rights Film Festival.

Ebadi, born in 1947, became one of the first female judges in Iran, but was dismissed from her position after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. After spending a few years working as a clerk, she applied for early retirement. But she later realized that she needed to do more to counter the injustices of the Islamic Republic's regime.

She therefore returned to law practice, taking on pro bono cases to fight for the rights of children and women. She also defended intellectual dissidents who were tortured for criticizing the system of the Islamic Republic. More than 80 writers, translators, poets and political activists were killed between 1988 and 1998 in the so-called chain murders of Iran, and many more disappeared.

Ebadi pursued her advocacy work even after discovering that her own name was on the government's kill list.

Having gained international prominence through her Nobel Prize in 2003, death threats intensified and her family also became a target. Among different repressive measures, Iranian authorities shut down her human rights group office and seized her Nobel medal.

Prominent Iranian activist hopes for revolution

She has been living in exile in London since 2009, knowing that she can achieve more for her people from abroad.

Ebadi now calls for a UN-supervised referendum, which would allow a peaceful transition from the Islamic Republic to a "secular parliamentary democracy."

Despite all the repression in Iran, she remains very optimistic for the future: "I know Iran will be democratic, but I can't give a date for that now. Maybe in six months, maybe in a few years. You can't really foresee and predict social changes. But I know it will happen."

Portrait of a young woman with red hair and glasses
Elizabeth Grenier Editor and reporter for DW Culture