illustration of women with flowing hair superimposed on outline of Iran with "Woman Life Freedom" slogan written in English and Arabic

Iranian Activist and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Inspires at OBA’s ‘Hard Conversations Series’ Launch

  • May 31, 2023
  • Michael Speers

Complexities that lawyers, who are trained to see nuance, must deal with can sometimes make conversations hard. But, rather than let complexity stall progress our mute support, it is incumbent on lawyers to have these hard conversations. With that in mind, the OBA recently launched its “Hard Conversations Series” – a speaker series for important conversations on complicated issues.  

The first was held virtually in April, when Mohsen Seddigh moderated a discussion with Nobel Peace Prize winner and former Iranian judge Dr. Shirin Ebadi. It was a very honest discussion about the Iranian women’s movement and the complexities surrounding it, including differences between Western feminism and defending women's rights in the East and how allies here can provide support for the women of Iran that is devoid of unconscious bias and anti-Islamic tropes.

“Dr. Ebadi is a personal hero of mine,” Seddigh said as he kicked off the discussion. “I cannot say how thrilled and honoured I am to have her in this Zoom fireside chat to discuss a very important matter, also one very close to my heart.”

In 1969, Dr. Ebadi was the first woman to be appointed a judge in Iran. Following the Islamic revolution of 1979, she was removed from her post and given clerical duties, since the country’s new leaders didn’t believe women should be judges. She applied to practice law in Iran, but her application wasn’t approved until 1992.

In her practice, she defends political prisoners and their family members. She is also the founder of the Defenders of Human Rights Centre and was awarded the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize. Recently, she has played a key supportive role in the “Woman, Life, Freedom” movement in Iran.

The death of Mahsa Amini, a 26-year-old Iranian woman who was killed while in police custody in 2022 after being arrested for not wearing a hijab, sparked widespread protests across the country. Women in Iran face systemic discrimination and violence, and the protests served as a platform for women to demand accountability, equality, and justice for gender-based violence.

“When you look at [Woman, Life, Freedom], you can see both sides of this motto,” Dr. Ebadi said through a translator. “On one hand is the negative, meaning people don’t want a dictatorship, because a religious dictatorship not only attacks women, but it takes away life from people and limits their freedom to the large extent, and not only for women. Freedom of speech is very limited and political freedom does not exist.”

“The positive side of this motto is that people want a democratic and secular government because it is only in a democratic and secular government that this motto means anything.”

Dr. Ebadi’s resolve has been challenged many times over the years. During the Green Movement of 2009 that arose after the presidential election that saw protesters demanding the removal of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, she saw her law office and the Defenders of Human Rights Centre closed, client files taken, her house targeted, and colleagues arrested, imprisoned, or denied the right to practice. Family members were also arrested, and her property was confiscated. She was told that if she stopped speaking, they would give back her property and release her family from prison. She said no.

“I like justice better. I have to do what I have to do. It’s my duty,” she said. “This is part of my destiny in the Islamic Republic. But what is important is that it’s not only my destiny – many, many people have suffered the same as me. So, in reality, if someone wants to speak about human rights in Iran or defend people, they will face many issues.

“And this is why the people of Iran have all agreed to topple this regime. But, fortunately, they’re peaceful.”

The “Hard Conversations Series” is designed to provide a platform for lawyers to engage in discussions on complex and sensitive issues, such as the ones Dr. Ebadi has experienced firsthand. This inaugural event highlighted the ongoing struggle for women’s rights in Iran and the importance of defending human rights. It also demonstrated the power of conversation and the impact it can have in promoting social change.

Lawyers can engage in these hard conversations, listen with an open mind, and advocate for justice and equality. Stay tuned for information about the next “Hard Conversation”.