Shirin Ebadi’s Until We Are Free: My Fight for Human Rights in Iran landed on my stack thanks to Ali’s description of hearing her speak and reading the book.
Ebadi’s tone is resolved and declarative. This, her third book, chronicles her experiences in the years surrounding Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s leadership in Iran.
Doing human rights work in Iran had not been easy before Ahmadinejad came to power. Intelligence officials were posted near her home to observe her, they questioned her directly on a regular basis, and her efforts to affect change were often thwarted.
She became an expert on Sharia law (religious laws in the Islamic tradition) but her attempts to defend political prisoners were often frustrated. Work and studies undertaken by her husband and her daughters were disrupted and/or halted, as a means of pressuring her into complicity so that political prisoners would be denied her assistance.
And, then, things became even more difficult.
Ebadi describes her experiences in matter-of-fact terms. Even when a client is killed or a family member’s passport is seized, the details are outlined clearly, in simplest terms.
“It was becoming clear that Ahmadinejad’s rise to power was inalterably changing everything. The political establishment was growing angrier and more intolerant, and the middlemen and loyalists Ahmadinejad had installed across the regime’s many institutions were busy clanging shut any of the small, progressive openings Iran had experienced under President Khatami.”
Frequently she revisits her position, despite having deliberately adopted a particular stance. As she observes the stakes rising, she reconsiders. And, yet, also in plain terms, she sees no alternative. This is work which needs doing. She needs to do this work.
“The vibrancy of Iran’s political atmosphere, the very thing that made Iran so distinct in the region, was fading. In its place were arrests of journalists and harassment of dissidents, and this put me in a more fraught relationship with the state. Nevertheless, I had no choice but to raise my voice and criticize the government more publicly.”
When she observes conflict, she analyses and reflects. Overhearing a security guard’s criticisms of another woman’s make-up and hair, during an inspection which women are subject to before entering a court room, she is upset by the guard’s disparaging tone. And, yet, Ebadi does not face the same criticism. Instead, the guard whispers encouragement to Ebadi, delcares that her own daughter is in need of protection by someone like Ebadi who is propelled towards fairness.
Her personal conviction is remarkable. It’s difficult to imagine facing constant condemnation and even outright attacks and persisting against powerful forces.
It’s even more difficult to imagine that one’s outrage would remain as deliberately focussed not upon one’s own personal struggles and injustices, but on the broader issues of importance.
Ebadi’s anger upon learning, after having been evicted from her place of business , that the offices next door had been occupied by Intelligence officials, is instructive. Her anger could easily have been directed towards a sense of personal attack or the travails required to relocate and work elsewhere, but she remains focussed on the underlying injustice.
“Realizing that just on the other side of the wall, all these months, had been a Ministry of Intelligence listening post made me angrier than I could have imagined. Not because they were eavesdropping, for I expected that. But because they had been right up against us, hearing and knowing exactly what we did. They knew that we were doing human rights work and not plotting the regime’s overthrow. And they had still shut us down anyway.”
She longs for integrity and personal commitment to a greater cause even from those who oppose her ideologically.
As this book nears its end, Ebadi leaves Iran and is not free to return. Her husband remains in Tehran and endures considerable suffering while he is present to be persecuted and she is not. The toll on their marriage is devastating.
There are many positive experiences for Ebadi in England, but she has been fundamentally changed by her experience of living in exile.
In small and everyday ways: “Part of being an exile, a nomad, is that the most significant moments in your life pass by in places where you have no memories and no past.”
And in large, all-encompassing ways that alter one’s being: “But these small kindnesses did not fill the long hours that stretched around me. After each long day at work, I spent most of my evenings alone at home. I wasn’t in the mood to accept the invitations of the large group of acquaintances I’d made. I wanted my old friends, but they weren’t here. I had become deeply lonely.”
This remarkable and inspiring work deserves a place on your bookshelves. Thanks for the nudge, Ali.