Last year, while I was at the Hay Festival I attended an event with Shirin Ebadi – who I admit – I knew nothing about. I thought a talk by an Iranian human rights lawyer would be interesting – it was fascinating, and inspiring. I couldn’t help but buy her most recent book – and queued up to have it signed.
Such is the state of my tbr – and my fickleness as a reader I can buy or receive as a gift a book I long to read and have it sit there for two years – another time I buy a book and read it a week later. I don’t know why Until we are Free has sat unread for almost a year – but I recently suggested it to my very small book group and we will meet next week to discuss it.
Shirin Ebadi published two previous volumes – Iran Awakening a memoir of her life and work, and The Golden Cage, which tells stories of living under the Iranian regime. Until we are Free is another memoir – this time it tells the story of what happened to Shirin Ebadi and her family after she won the Nobel Peace prize in 2003. It is a story of extraordinary determination, and heart-breaking personal sacrifice.
“The story of Iran is the story of my life. Sometimes I wonder why I am so attached to my country, why the outline of Tehran’s Alborz mountains is as intimate and precious to me as the curve of my daughter’s face, and why I feel a duty to my nation that overwhelms everything else. I remember when so many of my friends and relatives were leaving the country in the 1980s, disheartened by the bombs raining down from the war with Iraq and by the morality police checkpoints set up by the still new Islamic government. While I did not judge anyone for wanting to leave, I could not fathom the impulse. Did one leave the city where one’s children had been born? Did one walk away from the trees in the garden one planted each year, even before they bore pomegranates and walnuts and scented apples?”
Shirin Ebadi has spent her life working for improvements in democracy and human rights, especially women’s, children’s, and refugee rights. She became a judge in 1969 but following the revolution in 1979 – clerics ruled that Islam prohibited women being judges and Ebadi was forced to step down. Until 1993 she was unable to practice law – and during those years she write extensively, publishing books and articles which frequently put her into conflict with the Iranian authorities. Throughout these years, she had the full support of her husband Javad – who she had met in the comparatively balmy days of pre-revolution Iran in the 1970s.
Shirin Ebadi had never feared speaking out, publishing articles in Iranian journals and periodicals she became a well-known figure. When she began to practise as a lawyer in the 1990s – Ebadi worked mainly pro-bono and took on many controversial cases – including fighting for abused children and people of the Baha’i faith who are treated badly by the Iranian regime.
Winning the Nobel Peace Prize increased Ebadi’s standing worldwide and brought some unwelcome attention to the regime. By the time, she received the prize – Shirin’s two daughters had left Iran to finish their education and start out on their own careers in the US and Canada. The money that Shirin received with the Nobel prize allowed her to continue the pro-bono work she was doing, it also allowed her to travel abroad, where she continued to pull no punches. This didn’t endear her any further the authorities at home, who she knew quite well were always watching, always listening. She and her husband lived in an apartment with a metal door – she received threatening phone calls, found messages pinned to her door. After the prize, the intimidation she received was stepped up, one man; an intelligence officer was completely obsessed with bringing her down. Her law centre was closed down, her phones were tapped. The intelligence officer had Shirin followed, her colleagues harassed and questioned. It led him to set up a dreadful entrapment.
In 2009 Shirin Ebadi’s Nobel medal was confiscated by the regime – while she was abroad. It was seized along with other belongings from her safety deposit box. She was advised not to try and return to Iran – and found herself thus in exile.
“…My great sorrow arose from being so far from Iran, and no medicine could alleviate this pain. Some days, when the sun was setting, I imagined I heard the sound of the call to prayer, the azaan, as we say in Persian. I thought perhaps there was a local mosque, and I would search for it. But I soon realised there was none nearby; it had been my mind producing the sounds of the familiar. Sometimes I would overhear people speaking in a shop and would think that I’d picked up a scrap of Persian; but when I listened again, I was usually wrong. So I did the only thing I knew how to: I worked harder.”
The resolve Shirin Ebadi shows in the face of the most terrifying intimidation is in itself inspiring, she knows fear, but she never allowed it to stop her. In a bid to shut her up – members of her family were targeted, arrested and questioned at length – her husband of over thirty years was led into a terrible entrapment – and still Shirin stood firm, she never forgot the people she had fought for over the years. She wouldn’t let them win. Shirin Ebadi remains in exile, living in London.
Until we are Free is a hugely compelling memoir, eye opening and unforgettable.