An extraordinary person. And this is in the American context, where we can debate such issues to the drone of Fourth of July fireworks and not precision drone strikes; where disappearances and arbitrary detentions are so 2002. What does resistance now look like under an extremely suppressive and violent regime? How much easier would it be to pressure activists to abdicate their struggles? Looking at the life of Shirin Ebadi, the answer is: Not easy at all. Ebadi is a lawyer, human rights activist, and former Irani judge, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 for her human rights work in Iran. Her latest autobiographical work, Until We Are Free, describes her struggle to erect the rule of human rights law in Iran after winning the Nobel Peace Prize.
Ebadi quickly debunks the notion that the life of a Nobel laureate is one in which the doors of progress open widely and tyranny abates under the world’s watchful eye with the prestige of the Nobel Prize serving as unassailable armor. Instead, as the Ahmadinejad reign devolves into further paranoiac policies and human rights violations abound — arbitrary detentions, the brutal suppression of political protests, the denial of access to attorneys, sham criminal charges like “conspiracy against national security” and the “dissemination of lies” — Ebadi and her colleagues are only further persecuted, putting their life and liberty on the line to salvage the remnants of Irani freedom.
It is not easy to divine the truth of human rights struggles in the context of culture wars between “East” and “West.” I have become fatigued with self-made and self-congratulatory stories of struggle, in which to acquire aspects of Western privilege, the writer has to discard her culture, heritage, and religion — effectively reinforcing false cultural binaries and the exclusivity of first-world liberalism.
In contrast, I felt with Ebadi’s writing something I so often fail to have — trust. She describes from the outset how she used the tenets of Islam to argue the case for human and women’s rights in Iran’s judicial system. Her writing is rife with simple depictions of Irani life — I felt like I was walking the streets of Iran with her, sharing her food, comforting her clients as she offers them tea. She sets the stage of the movement firmly in Irani soil so that the reader knows that freedom, human decency, liberation, and honor, are concepts intrinsic to Iran. Like breathing the smog-filled air over Tehran that she describes, the reader cannot help but be saturated with how natural and vital to the Irani people the struggle for freedom is.
At the same time, Ebadi expertly encourages the reader to generalize from the lessons of her struggle, and to relate it to the global struggle for human rights. The clearest way she does this is with the Nobel Women’s Initiative, which she created with other Nobel laureates to advance global peace with justice and equality. But, interestingly, the way that I most connected with Ebadi’s writing was not as a Muslim or a woman, but as an attorney committed to the rule of law. This commitment is repeated throughout Ebadi’s narrative, even when she is wary of any actual legal recourse; she is indefatigable in pursuing justice for her clients. In describing her defense of Haleh Esfandiari, an Irani-American Middle East scholar arbitrarily arrested and prohibited from returning to DC’s Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Ebadi writes:
Often I felt as though I were rushing about in the darkness, banging on doors, searching for the elusive person who mattered, the individual who could reveal what was actually going on. […] There wasn’t much I could do, but as I certainly needed to do something, I gave interviews about the case to the press, often hourly.
Ebadi also avoids glamorizing the lives and choices of those resisting the degradation of Iran’s legal system. I particularly appreciated her candor in describing difficult choices she faced throughout the years — including telling her secretary to “stand-down” during an office raid, deciding whether to board a plane that likely meant facing death or imprisonment, and learning to understand and cope with personal betrayal. People like to believe that the life of a revolutionary is black and white — that one either fights or capitulates. By genuinely reconstructing the nuances underlying her decisions, she helps empower other agents of change to embrace their own humanity in unpredictable and uphill struggles for justice.
At several points throughout the book, when Ebadi describes the ways her contemporaries suffer because of her activities, I felt like yelling at the pages, “It’s not about you!” And it was not until nearly the end of the book that I realized that this was my own glamorization of a human rights lawyer’s life. I had been assuming that support for what she does swells from the people surrounding her — first and foremost from the people she loves. But Ebadi’s reality was starkly different: the persecution of her colleagues and family members was unambiguously due to the state’s vendetta against her.
This illuminates the beautiful crux of Ebadi’s book. Until We Are Free is a story as much about the voices of her clients as it is about her. After being removed from the bench after the 1979 revolution and becoming a human rights lawyer, Ebadi used whatever tools she had available to advance the causes of her clients. True to form, she is using her international prestige and amazing tale to call the world’s attention to her contemporaries and amplify the voices of those who have been silenced — like Akbar Ganji, a reformist journalist who had lain forgotten and emaciated by a hunger strike in Evin Prison; or Mohammad Seifzadeh, Ebadi’s co-counsel on a case representing Baha’is (a religious minority), injured under state sanctioned violence, and who has spent six years in prison for his activities; or Mehrangiz Kar and her husband Siamak Pourzand, both of whom spent time in prison for Kar’s activities as a human rights lawyer, the latter of whom resolved his depression and illness (both contracted while in jail) by taking his life from the top of an apartment building.
It takes an extraordinary person to withstand state-sponsored brutality and personal setbacks, but it takes supernatural strength to maintain hope and faith when faced with these hurdles.
Ebadi shares with the reader — with deep humanity and earnest love for her homeland, faith, and rule of law — how she has achieved this supernatural feat, while crossing worlds of misunderstanding to show that the struggle for freedom shall never perish, and that in believing so, we too, can be extraordinary.