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The NS Interview: Shirin Ebadi

“I’m not going to give in and do as the government wants me to” - Shirin Ebadi, human rights lawyer

Do you, or did you, vote?
Elections in Iran are not free. And as long as that is the case, voting is futile. My wish is that we'll soon have free elections, and then I will vote.

Are you optimistic about the prospects of democracy in Iran?
I am confident that the people will win, but I cannot predict when this victory is to arrive. When a large part of the population of any country seeks democracy, they will achieve it.

What impact has Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's government had?
Unfortunately, Mr Ahmadinejad is not willing to listen to the people, which is why the protests are continuing in strength.

And with regard to women's rights in particular?
The main thing is the discriminatory laws that were introduced after the revolution, which remain in force. Before Ahmadinejad, we did not have any female ministers; after the unrest of the last election, Ahmadinejad decided to give women a present to gain their support. But the woman he's chosen as the health minister is a fundamentalist. She is pro-polygamy. She believes that Iranian women have no problems as far as rights are concerned. It's no concession to Iranian women to have a minister like her.

How do you see the influence of the United States and Europe?
What is happening in Iran now has no connection whatsoever to foreign countries. The Iranian government is trying very hard to prove that foreign countries have been provoking the people, but that is wrong. The people are fundamentally critical of the government.

You are facing government intimidation. Is it a personal warning, or something broader?
My situation is not important. What is important is that defenders of human rights are not able to work in Iran, and I am one of them. Practically everyone who worked for a human rights NGO in Iran has been imprisoned, or banned from leaving the country. All my bank accounts have been closed, and my husband has been banned from leaving the country. They have also sent messages to me saying, "Wherever you are in the world we will find you and punish you."

Are you keen to return to Iran?
I have to return. My home is in Iran, like my husband's. But I cannot give you a precise date.

Does being a woman make it particularly hard to stand up to the authorities?
Yes, as it is hard in Britain if you're a woman. Of course, the situation is more difficult in Iran, but women throughout the world have problems.

Do you fear for your life?
It's a miracle that I've managed to stay alive. I've been threatened with death several times. As I said, the intelligence ministry has passed on messages saying it'll track me down.

Do you feel the responsibility of being a leader?
I'm not a leader of any sort. Nor am I the head of any political movement. But I shall continue with my work. The government wants to inti­midate me so that I do not carry on. I'm not going to give in and do as it wants me to.

How do you respond to those who feel Islamic government is a barrier to women's rights?
I don't accept that. But non-democratic countries do exploit the name of Islam to justify their actions. The reason for discrimination against women is patriarchal culture. By patriarchal, I don't necessarily refer to men; it is a culture that doesn't recognise equality of man. It oppresses men and women. It doesn't believe in democracy, either. If you look at various countries, you will notice that wherever women's rights are respected, there's more democracy.

Patriarchal culture resembles haemophilia: if you have one little injury, it could start a haemorrhage. Haemophilia is a genetic disease, which women carriers can transmit to their children. A patriarchal culture is the same: women are the victims of it, but they also promote it. So what is important is that women become aware of how to fight against it.

How would you like to see women in Iran move forward?
Awareness. Fortunately, Iranian women are very aware - that is why the feminist movement there is so strong.

Does winning awards matter to you?
Yes, naturally. And it gives me self-confidence.

Is there, or was there, a plan?
A general plan? Of course. I always knew that I wanted to go to law school.

What would you like to forget?
Nothing! Forgetting does not resolve any problems.

Are we all doomed?
There is so much hope in this world, and I don't see any deadlock anywhere. I just don't think we're doomed. If we started thinking like that, we'd be reluctant to get up in the morning.

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This article first appeared in the 14 December 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The Muslim Jesus