By David Edward Clark and Erica M. Lee
This morning, we interviewed the last Convocation speaker of the semester. Shirin Ebadi won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 for her work as human rights lawyer in Iran.
We asked Shirin about her favorite poem, since poetry is fundamental to Persian society. She looked at us bewildered. Initially, we thought that she didn’t read poetry, but instead, she couldn’t decide which one to choose.
“Farsi is the language of poetry. And if we Iranians want to talk for an hour, it’s impossible not to recite one or two verses of a poem. So responding to the question of what poem I like most will be difficult because it depends on how you feel at that moment.”
“Right now, the fact of the poem that says, ‘Human beings are parts of the same body because they are all from the same creation. If one part of the body is in pain, no other part can stay in rest.’”
We then asked what she’s been taught about God by those that she’s respected, and what she has had to learn by herself.
Shirin responded, “I have to say human beings don’t learn anything on their own. You either read a book or watch a film or you attend a course, and this becomes the starting point of your thought process. In life, I’ve not had a model because I’ve always felt that everyone has to proceed based on what they have in their abilities in their possession.”
“But the person who affected me a lot in my life was my father. My father deeply believed in the equality of rights between men and women. We were three girls and one boy. My father looked at his daughters and gave his daughters the same level of freedom that he gave to his son, and this became the beginning of the formative seed of my faith. And I became deeply basically a believer of equality.”
Shirin then talked about her relationship with God.
“My relationship with God has never changed,” said Shirin, “I’ve always believed in Him, and this has always helped me a lot. When I went to prison, I was spending all the time in solitary confinement. Now, solitary confinement is somewhat smaller than this table. It has cement walls, and an iron door, without a window, with a light in the ceiling that always is on. Everything is taken from you in prison, even your own watch, and you never know when it’s daytime and when it’s nighttime. There is neither a paper, nor books, no radios or televisions or phones, nor permission to meet with anyone, so it’s absolute silence. It’s very difficult to withstand the oppressions there. Psychologists call solitary confinement white torture. I was able to go through solitary confinement with prayers quite easily. I tried either to exercise or pray so as to allow time to go by.”
Last night, Shirin was a big proponent for democracy in Iran as a way to improve women’s rights, so Shirin elaborated on how the fight for women’s rights changes once democracy is established.
“The nature of your fight becomes more cultural to ensure that women can better use the equal opportunities that are presented to them. In Europe and the United states, women have equal rights, but because of their family responsibilities, they have fewer opportunities to take advantage of those equal rights.”
“So what needs to be done then? One thing that can be done is that the government should actually assist women. For example, they can actually provide cheap daycare for their children, so that women can go to work. These are the kind of things that can happen in a democracy.”
In her own life, Shirin has worked tirelessly for women’s and children’s rights.
“I’ve always been an activist, but I could say that I became more active after the Revolution, because after the revolution, a lot of the discriminatory laws were passed and this really disfavored women. That was where I decided I should definitely increase my activities, and that was when my daughters had been born. I asked myself, that if my daughters wanted to ask me what I’ve done for women’s rights, I have to be able to give them an answer.”
She has two daughters, and we asked what she has taught them about the patriarchal society.
She replied, “The same thing that I teach other young people–I told them that human beings are equal. No one has a priority over another, not because of gender, not because of wealth, not because of the color of their skin.”
It followed then that her idea of the most immoral action that someone can do is negate this equality—“oppressing others.”
“Whatever harms others is immoral, whether by saying something wrong that hurts somebody, whether you steal from someone, or you steal somebody’s job from them in an unfair, immoral way of competition. Anything that brings harm to anyone else is immoral.”
Shirin’s reaction to our standard final question “explain your life as we stand on one foot,” was hands down the funniest we’ve gotten so far. The translator needed to explain the question for longer than usual, so David stood up on one foot to show her what he meant and that we were serious. We were sitting across a conference table from her, so she looked under the table.
She started to laugh, and her translator said, “Could we make sure?” Looking back at David and still laughing, she pointed to a spot beside her where she could see him clearly. Her translator caught up. “Could you stand over here?” Of course.
Now, this question is meant to elicit a short response, but Shirin decided instead to test David’s balance. Keep in mind that everything had to be translated, doubling the time of the answer.
“I wake up early in the morning. I usually wake up at 6:30 a.m. in my country. Then we have an early meeting with the lawyers. The reason we have early morning meetings is that we have to prepare in advance to go to the courts. I go to the court at 9 a.m. if I don’t have any other thing–if I have a trial. If I don’t have a trial, I take care of my NGO work. I usually return home for lunch. I eat very little lunch, but unfortunately I don’t lose weight. I try to rest for half an hour after lunch, and I go to my law office. Then I see my clients and visitors.”
Worried that David was cheating, Shirin cut into her story to remind him, “Don’t rest your foot on the wall.” Again, David obliged the Nobel Peace Prize winner’s request and stuck his foot in front of him.
“I spend till about 8, 8:30 in my law office. Then I come home, and then I cook. I disconnect the phones and I turn into a mother and a wife. After everything’s done, the house is clean, we’ve had dinner, it’s around 11 p.m., then I start writing. I go on as long as I can stay up. I usually work until 1, 1:30 at night. But I rest on the weekends.”
“When I travel, like now, it depends on the schedule I have, but as soon as I finish my program, I leave that city right away and go to another town. So, many times I just transfer myself from airport to town and town to the airport. This is the last meeting, and after our meeting, once you put your feet down, I’m going to go the airport. I’m going to Denver and then the next city.”
Laughing again, Shirin asked, “Do you want me to go on?”
“Condense it, if you will,” David suggested.
“Because I love my work, I never get tired of a lot of work. I advise young people to choose a field that they really love. Then your work becomes fun for you.”
And with that, we finally let in Scott Wargo, the Director of Media Relations, who had been waiting at the door for Shirin to finish. She kept waving him away, indicating instead to David, standing on one foot.
“You see, I helped you out so you could rest your feet sooner,” she said, as we left.