Nobel Peace Prize winner and human rights activist Shirin Ebadi is returning to the University of Toronto to deliver a lecture on the women’s uprising in Iran.
Ebadi, who received an honorary degree from U of T in 2004, is known worldwide for staunchly supporting the rights of women, children and refugees in Iran.
She will deliver her lecture, “Women, Life, Liberty: Human Rights and the Women’s Uprising in Iran,” on Sept. 22 in Convocation Hall. Ebadi’s visit coincides with the one-year anniversary of the start of the Iranian women’s uprising that began in response to the death of Mahsa Amini in police custody.
The lecture is a partnership with U of T’s Elahé Omidyar Mir-Djalali Institute of Iranian Studies in the Faculty of Arts & Science, a world leader in the study of Iranian history and culture. The institute runs regular symposiums, including in the weeks leading up to Ebadi’s lecture.
“Shirin Ebadi is the first in-person Elahé Omidyar Mir-Djalali distinguished lecturer,” says Professor Mohamad Tavakoli-Targhi, director of the institute. “This is particularly significant since the Institute of Iranian Studies is a public-facing unit seeking to enhance dialogue and interaction with communities beyond campus.”
Ebadi was one of Iran’s first female judges before being dismissed after the Iranian Revolution in 1979. In 2000, Ebadi was briefly imprisoned for her legal work exposing human rights violations in Iran. Undeterred, Ebadi continued to fight for women, children, refugees and government dissidents. Subjected to intense government scrutiny, threats and seizure of assets, Ebadi eventually went into exile. She now lives in London, England and continues to fight for Iranian democracy in her writing and speaking engagements.
“With a distinguished career as a judge in pre-revolutionary Iran, Dr. Ebadi has been the most significant voice for Iranian women’s rights and equality in the past four decades,” Tavakoli-Targhi says.
Ebadi answered the following questions in Persian. Her answers have been translated into English for this article.
What is the personal significance of returning to the University of Toronto to deliver this lecture?
The University of Toronto is one of the most important universities in Canada and is notable for its commitment to Iranian and Asian studies. It is an honour for me to be able to give a lecture at this distinguished university. Additionally, the substantial presence of Iranian students and professors in the institution adds a layer of personal significance to this occasion. The prospect is all the more appealing as it enables me to effectively connect with a larger audience of my fellow compatriots through this university's platform.
A lot has changed at U of T since you were last here. What is the importance of the Elahé Omidyar Mir-Djalali Institute of Iranian Studies and its efforts to lead the dialogue on Iran?
Iran has managed to endure through its distinct culture and language, when observing the fate of nations like Egypt — a once-great ancient civilization that regrettably lost its language over time. Despite repeated invasions and foreign occupations throughout history, Iran retained its language and cultural heritage. The Elahé Omidyar Institute of Iranian Studies stands as a commendable entity dedicated to saving the Persian language and culture. Culture plays a pivotal role in the resilience of a nation, a significance heightened by the fact that nearly seven million Iranians reside outside Iran. Institutions such as this play an important role in preserving Iran's language and culture, thus contributing significantly to the nation's survival.
As we approach one year since the death of Mahsa Amini, who died in police custody under suspicious circumstances after being arrested for “improperly” wearing a hijab, how has the landscape of the protests changed?
In Iran, protests often emerge as a means for citizens to voice their long-standing demands. Despite years of attempting to communicate these demands to the government, they had no answer except bullets and prison. The strict censorship within the country's local media prevents the open discussion of these problems, necessitating the involvement of international media to amplify the voices of the people. It has become a collective responsibility for Iranians to disseminate information about the situation of Iran through various channels, ensuring the global community remains informed about the ongoing events. Collaborating with civil society organizations in democratic nations can provide valuable support. Politicians who prioritize universal human rights over economy or personal agendas can play a pivotal role in influencing positive change and raising awareness about the struggles faced by the Iranian people.
Civil unrest, such as that in Iran, often quickly leaves the news cycle. What is the importance of keeping the conversation alive and at the forefront of people’s minds?
Iran's long-term prospects are promising, because of its potential for transformative change. With a substantial population and a vast country with resources and reputable universities, the country possesses a solid foundation for growth. Notably, Iranians who have left Iran are often successful in their respective fields and retain a deep affinity for their homeland. This sentiment positions them to potentially return to Iran and contribute to Iran's rebuilding upon the advent of democracy.
While the ultimate vision holds tremendous potential, it's crucial to recognize that achieving this positive outcome may not be immediate. The road to that auspicious day could be in the not near future, and there might even be phases where circumstances worsen than the present year. However, such challenges are transient, and the collective resilience of the Iranian people will carry the nation through these stages. Ultimately, Iran will gain its glory.
What can non-Iranians and the Iranian diaspora community do to continue the support of women in Iran as they fight for their liberty?
My duty and the duty of every Iranian abroad who has a heart for the homeland is to convey the words and voices of the people inside Iran. Universities are a place for disseminating knowledge and inspiring the youth. By addressing these issues through lectures, we will not only create a dialogue around the challenges faced by the people but also encourage discussions that can drive positive change. The words that come out of the microphone are the voice of the Iranian people and it is what they expect us to do.
You have lectured and spoken at numerous universities and institutions about women’s liberty in Iran. How do universities play a role in spreading this message worldwide?
Students are usually young, and it is very important for them to be familiar with the situation of women around the world because they will enter society with a more correct attitude toward women's rights, and this will be very effective in improving the situation of women around the world. It is very important to address these subjects in universities.
It has been 20 years since you received a Nobel Peace Prize. Can you briefly reflect back on receiving that award and everything you have done since?
[The year] 2009, the start of the Green Movement, marked a turning point for Iran's political climate, leading to increased restrictions and crackdowns on civil society organizations, such as the Defenders of Human Rights Center. The centre's activities drew intense government scrutiny, resulting in severe repressions. The office was attacked, leading to its closure, the arrest of the management team, and their subsequent imprisonment, including the ongoing detention of Narges Mohammadi.
As a founding member and head of the association, I was also targeted, but I was outside of the country. My husband and sister were arrested to pressure me into silence. Additionally, my assets, including the apartment that I purchased with the Nobel Prize fund allocated to the centre, were confiscated. The government also seized my bank accounts, including the portion of the Nobel Peace Prize funds intended for covering the centre's expenses.
Indeed, the pursuit of freedom often comes with significant sacrifices, and I am happy that none of us backed down and the activities are still going on. Recently, the Shirin Ebadi Foundation has started preparing and translating legal education pamphlets and books, and translating them into Kurdish, Balochi, Turkish and Arabic languages.
The significance of human rights in Iran gained substantial attention after 2003, when I received the Nobel Peace Prize. While initially we may have been among the few human rights institutes, it's great to see that the landscape has evolved. Awareness and commitment to protecting human rights have become widespread, leading to the establishment of numerous human rights organizations.
Unfortunately, despite these advancements, the human rights situation in Iran remains challenging. Government repression and strong censorship persist, alongside the existence of discriminatory laws.
Nonetheless, there's hope for a more positive future. Over time, and through persistent efforts, it's conceivable that these discriminatory laws will be abolished, paving the way for improved human rights situation in Iran.
When & Where
Friday, September 22, 2023
Doors Open: 5 pm | Lecture: 6 - 8 pm
Convocation Hall, University of Toronto