"Democracy comes to Iran through the gates of women’s rights": Hundreds gather at Convocation Hall for Shirin Ebadi's lecture on women’s uprising in Iran

September 26, 2023 by Coby Zucker - A&S News

On the first anniversary of the women’s uprising in Iran, Shirin Ebadi spoke to an enthralled audience at U of T’s Convocation Hall about the ongoing revolution.

As images of the protests and faces of women killed in Iran, some as young as 15, scrolled on screens behind her, Ebadi delivered her moving speech in Persian, with an English translation. By the end of the night, Ebadi had received three standing ovations.

“Up to five years ago, either in Canada or in other countries, not much was said about Iran or the situation in Iran after the revolution,” Ebadi said in her lecture, Women, Life, Liberty: Human Rights and the Women’s Uprising in Iran. “Now, we all know what is going on in Iran, and how people are being killed in Iran.”

Ebadi is an esteemed lawyer who received a Nobel Peace Prize 20 years ago for her work defending the human rights of women, children and refugees in Iran. She was one of the first female judges in Iran and is a fearless critic of the clerical establishment that holds power in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Ebadi is also an honorary doctorate holder at U of T.

Ebadi opened her talk with a thorough breakdown of the legality of the uprising and the right to self-defence. Referencing Iran’s own constitution, Ebadi explained that women maintain the right to defend themselves against the police so long as they are not breaking any laws and are responding with equal retaliation of force.

The women of Iran defend themselves very well. You saw the example of that during Mahsa’s revolution. And they will succeed. You can rest assured that democracy comes to Iran through the gates of women’s rights.

In the follow-up Q&A, many asked how they could support the uprising from Canada.

“Due to severe censorship in Iran, the voice of the Iranian people cannot be heard,” Ebadi said. “So, what can we do either in Canada or anywhere else in the world? We can be the voice of the people whose voice cannot be heard.”

Ebadi’s message was one of unity in the face of a regime intent on sowing discord and silencing the women’s uprising.

“If we want freedom, if we want democracy, if we want to be able to go back to our country without being taken as hostages, we need to unite and close these gaps that exist,” Ebadi said. “And remember, it is only the Islamic Republic that is interested in widening gaps instead of closing them.”

Ebadi’s talk was the third in the Distinguished Lecturer Series from the Elahé Omidyar Mir-Djalali Institute of Iranian Studies at the Faculty of Arts & Science. The lecture was funded through the generosity of Dr. Elahé Omidyar Mir-Djalali and the Roshan Cultural Heritage Institute, whose mission is to support the preservation, transmission and instruction of Persian language and culture.

Ebadi and her translator, Shirin Ershadi, on stage at Convocation Hall.

“Dr. Mir-Djalali is a great source of inspiration and the energy she puts into supporting academic institutions, chairs, centres, fellowships and student scholarships is just world class,” said Professor Mohamad Tavakoli-Targhi, the director of the Elahé Omidyar Mir-Djalali Institute of Iranian Studies.

“Events like this always leave me with a renewed sense of optimism for the open exchange of ideas,” said Professor Melanie Woodin, dean of Arts & Science, during her introduction. “These exchanges are fundamental for the university, but also for society and democracy.”

The free, public talk offered an opportunity for the U of T community and the Torontonian Persian community to gather and voice their support for the women’s uprising back in Iran.

“I was looking forward to this event today and all the questions, the presentation was fantastic,” said Susan Salek, an Iranian-Canadian attendee. “It's important for us as Iranians, and also for people who are not Iranian, to understand what's happening in Iran and try to learn the culture.”