For modern Muslims, faith and democracy are compatible, says Iranian Nobel laureate

“Governments should be separate from ideologies, and elected representatives of the people should determine the laws that govern them,” said Nobel laureate and Iranian human rights activist Shirin Ebadi during a recent talk at Yale.

More than 400 people gathered at the Yale Law School’s Levinson Auditorium March 3 to hear Ebadi deliver the second Gruber Distinguished Lecture in Global Justice. Her talk, “Human Rights in the Muslim World,” addressed whether or not Islam is compatible with a democratic system of government that supports human rights.  

Ebadi became the first woman judge in Iran at age 23, but was dismissed from the bench along with other women judges following Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979. She was demoted to a clerk in her own courtroom before resigning.

“After that, she was forced to choose her own commitments, and she chose to give voice to the voiceless, defense to the defenseless, and provide justice,” said Robert Post, dean of the Yale Law School in his introduction of Ebadi. “She remains fearless.”

In 2003 Ebadi became the first Muslim woman and first Iranian awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. She was recognized for her work on behalf of Iranian children, women, and political prisoners.

Speaking through a translator, Ebadi discussed the differences between fundamental and modern Muslim approaches to government; discriminatory laws against women and religious minorities in Iran; censorship of political dissidents; and relations between Iran and the United States.

While Ebadi does not see a smooth path to democracy in Iran — noting that only tough economic and political sanctions have brought leaders to the negotiating table — she is hopeful for her country’s future. According to Ebadi, modern Muslims strongly believe that democracy and human rights are compatible with their faith. She argued against fundamental interpretations of the Koran in doling out harsh justice, saying modern Muslims recognize that laws need to be compatible with their time and place.

“Two hundred years ago slavery was legal in the U.S., but now it is considered intolerable,” she said. “Maybe 50 years from now, putting people in prison will be intolerable. Modern Muslims understand this need for flexible laws.”

Since the revolution in 1979, Iran’s fundamentalist government has passed numerous laws that discriminate on the basis of gender, said Ebadi. Iran has an elected parliament and president, Hassan Rouhani, but power rests primarily with the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, the head of state and the highest-ranking political and religious authority in the country. In Iran today, she said, the life of a woman is worth half of that of a man; the testimony of two women in court equals that of one man; a woman needs her husband’s permission to travel or work; and divorce is almost impossible for women. At the same time, more than 65% of Iran’s university students are female.

“This is why women in Iran are in the front row of opposition,” said Ebadi, adding that the government has imprisoned approximately 100 feminist women for speaking out. In a similar vein, members of certain religious minorities in Iran have few or no civil or political rights. She noted in particular the Bahai, who cannot vote, teach, or attend universities.

“After China, Iran has the largest number of executions in the world,” said Ebadi. “On average two people are executed every day, five in the last month alone.”

One political dissident recently put to death, Hashem Shaabani, was a poet and human rights activist.

“From the point of view of the Iranian government, the pen is very a dangerous thing,” said Ebadi, who has herself received numerous death threats. In 2009 she went into exile with her family in the United Kingdom, where she continues her advocacy through writing, representing political dissidents, and working with human rights organizations, many of which she founded.

During a question and answer session, Ebadi said that while she advocated for political sanctions against Iran’s government, she objected to economic sanctions that harmed its people. “There are ways to weaken the government and not hurt the people,” she said, noting that the U.S. government could create a blacklist of Iranian officials who violate human rights.

“The U.S. could provide that list to banks all over the world and let them know that if the banks accept their money they will not be able to do business in America,” she said.

In conclusion, Ebadi noted that the only positive outcome of 35 years of a religious government in Iran was that it dissuaded other Islamic countries from pursuing a similar course.

“This is why they protested in Tunisia and came up with a more democratic system,” she said. “And when Muhammed Morsi in Egypt wanted to imitate the government in Iran, the people went to the streets and toppled him. The Muslim people have seen what a religious government can do, and they don’t want that.”

While at Yale, Ebadi has visited with students in the Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Law Clinic and Professor Harold Koh’s “Introduction to Transnational Law” course. She will also participate in an interdisciplinary roundtable, “The Future of Iran,” on Tuesday, March 4, from noon to 1:30 p.m. Chaired by Oona A. Hathaway ’97, the Gerard C. and Bernice Latrobe Smith Professor of International Law, the discussion will also include Abbas Amanat, professor of history and international studies; Narges Erami, the William K. Lanman Jr. Assistant Professor of Anthropology; and Andrew March, associate professor of political science. The panel will build on Monday’s Gruber Lecture and will engage Ebadi on topics such as women's rights, Islamic political theory, and international relations.

The Gruber Program for Global Justice and Women's Rights was established in 2011 by philanthropists Peter and Patricia Gruber. In addition to the lecture series, the program includes a constitutionalism seminar and fellowships. Past Gruber Distinguished Lecturers include Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States; Luis Moreno-Ocampo, first chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court; and Zainab Salbi, founder of Women for Women International. While at Yale, speakers are invited to teach, participate in a Master’s tea, or partake in workshops or conferences.

Ebadi’s Gruber Lecture is available online at the Law School’s website