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Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi talks human rights at Concordia

Shirin Ebadi, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 for her efforts to promote human rights in Iran, spoke about the Iranian women’s movement at Concordia last Wednesday as part of International Women’s Week.

The Concordia Student Union and the Concordia Women’s Caucus organized the event, which was part of the CSU’s Speaker Series.

Ebadi studied law at the University of Tehran and graduated in 1965. She became a judge five years later, and in 1975, she was appointed the president of the Tehran city court – the first woman ever to hold the position.

After the Iranian Revolution, however, she and many other Iranian women were forced to resign under to the new laws. Ebadi was unable to practice law until 1992. In the meantime, she became a strong advocate for women’s and children’s rights in the country.

In one of the opening speeches, McGill law professor Payam Akhavan, a friend and colleague of Ebadi’s, reflected upon the hope and opportunity for a democratic and free Iran that exists thanks to the sacrifices made by Ebadi and other women like her.

“Mrs. Ebadi is an exponent of the power of women who struggle for justice in the face of seemingly impossible odds and who have prevailed and I’m sure will, in the end, triumph,” he said.

In her talk, Ebadi noted the historically high status of women in Iran.

“We have many women serving as engineers, physicians, lawyers, and holding senior managerial positions,” she said. “Women in Iran gained the right to vote over 50 years ago – in fact, before women in Switzerland had the right to vote – and since then Iranian women have been members of the parliament.”

In her speech, Ebadi described certain laws established by the Islamic republic that claim the value of a woman to be half that of a man, as well as legislation that enables a man to take up to four wives.

“These laws go against the very grains of the Iranian woman, given their high social and cultural status in society,” she said.

Ebadi explained that while women hold high managerial positions and serve as members of parliament, they need their husbands’ permission to leave the house. She discussed how women and men in Iran are opposed to the laws.

“That is precisely why the educated men and enlightened Iranian women are absolutely opposed to the discriminatory laws against them and why the women’s movement in Iran is the strongest in the Middle East today,” Ebadi said.

Ebadi described the structure of the women’s movement – which started alongside the more general movement for freedom, known today at the Green Movement – as a horizontal network.

“The women’s movement does not have a leader, nor a central office,” she said. “Rather, it is the movement that rests in the hearts and minds of every Iranian family that believes in gender equality. It is a movement that has expanded as a horizontal network.”

She stated that both the women’s movement and the Green Movement are not based on an ideology, but instead on pragmatism.

“[Iran’s freedom movement] is based on the need to promote democracy and human rights and this need has brought together people who hold different ideologies,” she said.

Ebadi explained that both men and women support the women’s movement in Iran, which she argued will eventually lead to democracy.

“Men fully understand and appreciate that women’s rights and democracy represent two sides of the same scale and it is through the advancement of women’s rights that Iran will achieve democracy,” Ebadi said.

Many students who attended the presentation were supportive of Ebadi’s arguments.

“She did a very good job outlining some of the problems of the Islamic republic,” said Khalil Jessa, U2 political science and Middle East studies. “She made a good case for human rights and for women’s rights in Iran.”

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