Nobel Peace Prize winner speaks at MIT

Shirin Ebadi discusses women’s rights in Iran and the Islamic World

4781 ebadi
2003 Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi spoke at MIT on Wednesday, April 4. Wong Auditorium was filled to capacity with nearly 300 students, faculty, and visitors listening to her speech on “Women’s Rights in Iran and the Islamic World.”
photo courtesy of Sriiam Krishnan

CORRECTION TO THIS ARTICLE: This article incorrectly refers to a nuclear accident in Hiroshima. Ebadi actually said, correctly, Fukushima.

With all eyes fixated on her kind but piercing gaze, the overflowing room quieted as 2003 Nobel Peace Prize Winner Shirin Ebadi stepped to the podium and addressed the audience.

“Today I want to talk to you about the legal status of women, wherever they face discrimination, be it in the East or in the West.”

As an accomplished lawyer and former judge born in Iran, Ebadi was most notably awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 for her efforts on democracy and human rights, focusing especially on the rights of women and children. She is the first Iranian and first Muslim woman to receive this award.

On Wednesday, April 4, Ebadi addressed a crowd of MIT students, faculty, and visitors on “Women’s Rights in Iran and the Islamic World,” followed by a reception and book signing in Wong Auditorium in E51. Her once restricted memoir Iran Awakening was published in the United States in 2004 after a prolonged legal battle with the United States Treasury, and her most recent 2011 publication includes the narrative The Golden Cage.

Setting her expressive hands into flight, Ebadi addressed the MIT audience in her native tongue of Persian. “The form of oppression on women, differs depending on culture and the country they live in,” she began.

Ebadi was dressed in all black — mirroring the solemnity of the talk’s topic — but a single gold and diamond lily brooch sparkled on her left collar, perhaps indicating the hope she wished to inspire in the crowd.

A translator stood nearby and interpreted every few paragraphs, for non-Persian speakers in the crowd.

“[In the United States], law does protect women, but relatively, America has not been the opportunity for all women,” she said. “But when we go to the East, especially Islamic countries, laws oppress women as well.”

Among the most discriminatory laws, Ebadi described, were those that legally assigned the value of a woman’s life to half of a man’s in court, denied women certain rights to education, allowed polygamy while heavily restricting the female right to request a divorce, required women to have husband’s permission for travel, and required women judges to resign their service after the 1979 Iranian revolution. Ebadi herself was forced to resign as a judge.

“These laws are not compatible with higher cultures of Iranian women, and that’s why Iranian women oppose them,” she said.

After an in-depth discussion of these numerous women-oppressive laws in Iran, Ebadi addressed other topics, including clean nuclear production in Iran, separation of religion and government, portrayal of Iran by international media, and the benefits of nonviolent resistance.

After the completion of the talk, Ebadi received a standing ovation, and then answered questions from the crowd. The speech was videotaped, and will be available online in the following weeks.

Condemning discriminatory laws against women in Iran

Ebadi began her discussion of women’s rights in Iran with perhaps the most fundamental right of all: recognition of full human identity and life.

“Pertaining to law, the life of a woman is worth half that of a man. In courts, the testimony of two women equals that of one man,” she said.

Pointing out the inequality experience in marital relations, Ebadi also noted that “a man can marry four wives and divorce a woman at any time without excuse. But divorce is very difficult, sometimes impossible, for women.”

She also pointed out that a married woman in Iran needs the permission of her husband in order to travel, which is especially problematic for women occupying government and administration positions.

“In Iran, the Secretary of Health is a woman. Now just imagine this woman, who is the Secretary of Health, serving 75 million people, has to beg her husband,” she said. “One would wonder what would happen if there was ever a fight between the man and the woman.”

Ebadi also spoke of the gains that Iran has made towards women’s rights, both historically and recently.

Historically, the women of Iran have made certain steps towards equality. “The women in Iran gained the right to vote in 1963. That is even prior to the women in Switzerland,” she said. “At the present time, over 65 percent of university students in Iran are female, and many university professors are women. We have numerous women as doctors, physicians, attorneys, engineers, and even those who occupy higher government positions.”

She also pointed to more recent gains towards equality, noting the revision of custody laws favoring Iranian mothers in 2004, and the current One Million Signatures petition opposing discriminatory laws in Iran.

“The society of Iran and the women of Iran oppose these laws, and that’s why the feminist movement is strong in Iran, “ she said. “These small successes are not enough. They are not going to stop until they achieve their purpose.”

But Ebadi noted that the Iranian government actively opposes these measures. “The government of Iran is very unhappy with women of Iran who fight and treat them badly. They accuse women of taking measures against matters of national security.”

“Some of the women who have been in prison for equal rights are young students in prison, very young girls. Since we are a university here, I would like to point out that 50 university students are in prison for demanding democracy, and over 1000 university students have been expelled because of political or religious views,” she said.

Ebadi also reminded the audience that oppression of women is a common problem shared with the world, even within the United States.

“For example, the United States is the land of the opportunity, but frankly speaking, there have been less opportunities for women than men,” she said. “The number of women in administration in the United States is less than the men. The more important political and economic positions are taken by men.”

Opposing nuclear

Although the primary focus of her speech was the rights of women in Iran, Ebadi also spoke briefly on other topics, including clean nuclear production in Iran.

In light of other countries like Germany shutting down their nuclear plants, Ebadi urges Iran to seek environmental friendly alternatives for clean energy sources, such as solar energy.

“Iran has a lot of sun, and we could have used solar energy. However, we have not invested even a cent in this regard,” she said.

She also stressed larger health-risk concerns, saying “Iran is located on earthquake faults, and [an accident] in a nuclear plant may result in a disaster like Hiroshima.”

Embracing nonviolent resistance

In her speech, Ebadi endorsed the use of nonviolent resistance of the people as the best method of reform, after decades of war.

“People are tired of violence. This is why the resistance of people in Iran is nonviolent,” she said. “Nonviolent resistance takes time in order to reach results, but it has a better result.”

As to how people can best contribute to the cause, Ebadi stated, “There is no unique method I can talk about. People should do whatever they can based on their abilities. If their abilities are technical, they can transfer knowledge. … If they are artists, they can transfer film and paper.”

Even people abroad can help end acts of oppression, she said. After her speech, Ebadi was asked what students at MIT could do to help end instances of global oppression. She responded saying:

“You have to object to these laws. The world is a small village, and whatever happens anywhere, pertains everywhere. Your silence results in the situation in Iran and Saudi Arabia, and the help you can provide is to write and disagree with these laws.”

Voices of MIT and Iranian Students

Ebadi was invited to speak at MIT by physics Professor and Department Head Ed Bertschinger, who studies theoretical astrophysics, gravitation, and cosmology.

“The invitation to Dr. Ebadi came when one of her relatives, who is a friend of mine, informed me about her visit to Boston for family reasons. I knew this would be a great opportunity for MIT and the greater Boston community to hear about Dr. Ebadi’s pioneering work on women’s rights in Iran,” Bertschinger said.

“It was an honor to meet her and hear her perspectives on the role of democracy and nonviolence as keys to human rights and justice for women in Iran and around the world,” he said.

Among the crowd of students, faculty, and visitors present at Ebadi’s talk were also many students involved in the MIT Persian Student Association (PSA), which has co-hosted over 15 social and cultural events since May 2011. Iranian native, PSA president, and fourth-year electrical engineering PhD student Hossein Fariborzi G briefly spoke about his opinions of the April 4 speech and the current state of Iran with The Tech.

“I think the nuclear mission of Iran and the fact that we don’t even need the clean nuclear energy … she was right.” he said. “Regarding women’s rights, she’s right. Women and female attorneys have many obstacles in their way. The women are not allowed to judge in courts. Women in family and in the society have many problems which originate from patriarchal culture and biased law.”

Also regarding the situation of women’s rights in Iran, Fariborzi noted the oppression his own sister has faced as an Iranian student. “My sister is a very good student. She just finished her bachelor’s in industrial design in Iran and was one of the top students in her class,” he said.

“All of a sudden, the university decided they would not accept any girls into their master’s programs. This is the case for many girls who want to pursue their studies in industrial design, and a handful of other majors, at top universities in Iran.” Fariborzi said. “In her class, out of 42, 29 of them were girls. They had a small demonstration inside the university, but the Harasat [university ideological police] dispersed them.”

“[Ebadi] is also right about revolution,” Fariborzi continued. “Reform is better than revolution, and both are better than a war. If you put it into a mathematical formula, revolution is better than war. War is worst.”

“The pressure is on the people, maybe hoping to cause revolution from the inside. But that just weakens and weakens the people. And weak people cannot do reform,” explained Fariborzi.

As a student of MIT and an Iranian native, Fariborzi hopes to put his MIT education to good use. “Now that I have this education, first of all, I can have a higher impact on the people who know me. [People of Iran] will know that I have graduated from one of the best schools in America, and I am active in both countries,” he said. “I hope through me, they will not believe the propaganda of the Iranian government. On the reverse side, I hope that my American friends will come to realize that Iran is not what you see on Fox News.”

“My field is technical, but I would definitely like to contribute to my country, because I have most of what I have from my country. I have lived there 22 years, but with the current situation, I can’t imagine that happening any time soon. I hope I can have some impact on industry and education in Iran.”

Regarding how other students could help the greater community, “I think MIT students need to have a broader focus, not just focusing in studies,” Fariborzi said. “They need to be more enthusiastic about world issues. They need to also be educated in these areas, so they can spread their knowledge and feel necessary to distribute that knowledge to people they know.”

Nona over 12 years ago

I was there at her talk and I read your article. I found a mistake in your article when you mentioned "Hiroshima".

She didn't say Hiroshima!! She said Fukushima. And Fukushima is the city that had the nuclear disaster due to earthquake and Tsunami in March 2011 in Japan. I do appreciate if you correct your article. Thanks!

Arafat over 12 years ago

The orgins of misogyny in Islam comes from the life Mohammed led and the way he treated women. This example is codified in the Qur'an, Hadiths and Sunna for all times. Until Islam ceases to exist or is radically changed misogyny and Islam will go hand -in-hand.

Anonymous over 12 years ago

Thank you #1 for your comment. I also recorded the talk, and I will certainly triple check.