Hard Conversations: Dr. Shirin Ebadi

  • August 29, 2023
  • Angela Ogang

“It’s fortunate that men and women are fighting together in this revolution, because they know that democracy passes through women’s rights, and they know that the victory of democracy in Iran is the introduction of women's rights in Iran.”

Dr. Shirin Ebadi


In March 2023, the Ontario Bar Association’s Policy and Public Affairs Committee launched its Hard Conversation Series, a complimentary speaker series and forum for educated conversations on complex issues. Hard Conversations Part I featured Nobel Peace Prize winner and former Iranian Judge turned human rights activist Dr. Shirin Ebadi, who graciously agreed to be interviewed by our Committee Chair, Mohsen Seddigh. Dr. Ebadi provided us with valuable insights into the Islamic Republic of Iran and the “Woman, Life, Freedom” revolution that emerged as a response to institutional discrimination faced by Iranian women in their day-to-day lives.

An oppressive regime

The Islamic Republic of Iran was established in 1979 following the Iranian Revolution, which resulted in the ouster of King Mohammadreza Reza Pahlavi—the last Shah of Iran—and the return of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini from exile with promises of democracy. Khomeini became the Supreme Leader of Iran in December 1979, and the fundamentalist regime that he established has been in power ever since. His anti-Western Islamist theocracy has been characterized by a relentless assault on women, curtailment of political and religious freedoms, pervasive censorship and restrictions on speech, and countless senseless killings and other human rights violations.

Antiquated forms of punishment such as stoning, flogging and mutilation are still practiced in Iran and are in fact quite common. While some may argue that such punishments are necessary for preserving social order, the reality is that they are still used in modern-day Iran for the sole purpose of instilling fear, suppressing dissent, and discouraging opposition to the regime.

Women in Iran have also faced various forms of punishment for not adhering to the compulsory hijab laws, including arrest, imprisonment, fines, and even physical abuse. According to Dr. Ebadi, things were not always this way. Prior to 1979, women could choose not to wear the hijab and there was freedom of religion. By contrast, nowadays, atheists can be executed and Muslims who convert or change their religion can be punished and even put to death. Besides Islam, only Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism have been afforded some degree of recognition under the constitution. Other religions are not recognized at all, and adherents of these marginalized faiths have been persecuted and denied their citizenship rights. This includes the Baha’is, the Yarsanis and the Yazidis.

These oppressive circumstances have served as a catalyst for a women-led movement known as the “Woman, Life, Freedom” revolution.

The “Woman, Life, Freedom” revolution

Dr. Ebadi has been at the forefront of the women’s rights movement in Iran for decades and is no stranger to the oppression that women in particular have had to endure under the Islamic Republic. Following the regime change in 1979, she was unjustly demoted from her position as the senior regional judge in Tehran and relegated to the role of a court clerk. She also faced a number of personal attacks from government authorities during the Green Movement in 2009-2010. These included raids on her private residence and the office of her NGO, the Human Rights Defence Centre, along with the arrest and imprisonment of her allies, colleagues, and even immediate family members, and confiscation of her properties. However, these adversities only strengthened her determination to speak out about human rights violations in Iran. Today, she remains steadfast in her commitment to fighting the good fight for religious and political freedom, and gender equality. She considers this pursuit to be her duty and an integral part of her destiny within the Islamic Republic.

A peaceful revolution

Surprisingly, the Woman, Life, Freedom revolution has been a peaceful movement. As in India with Mahatma Gandhi, the United States with Martin Luther King, and South Africa with Mandela, the protests have been marked by the absence of weapons from civilian protestors, who then face the brutal armed oppression of the regime. These non-violent demonstrations have not only brought attention to the inherent injustice and brutality of the regime but have also effectively garnered support for the movement, both within the country and internationally. Dr. Ebadi acknowledges that achieving victory through this approach may take time, but she remains optimistic about the eventual downfall of the regime.

Vision for the future

When asked about the future society that she envisions for Iran, Dr. Ebadi emphasized the importance of democracy. She explained that a democratic government would ensure equality among all citizens and respect for their rights.

Dr. Ebadi also envisions a secular country where people are free to practice the religion of their choice. She clarified that secularism does not mean opposition to Islam or any other faith. However, she insisted that in order to abolish theocratic dictatorship and ensure that people are treated equally regardless of their beliefs, it is essential to separate religion and government.

In response to allegations of Islamophobia against supporters of the women’s movement, Dr. Ebadi explained that the majority of people in Iran are Muslims and do not have any issues with Islam or even the hijab. Rather, their concern is the lack of religious freedom under the current dictatorship, and the fact that the government is using Islamophobia to justify oppressing the Iranian population. Dr. Ebadi briefly mentioned that many well-educated clergymen in Iran disagree with the regime’s interpretation of Islam and believe that people should have more freedom. However, they have been ignored, censored and at times punished by the government for speaking out.

Dr. Ebadi also expressed concern about Iran’s nuclear program, which has led to economic sanctions and weakened the country’s economy. She noted that Iranians do not support the idea of using nuclear energy to generate electricity. Instead, they would much rather see the government shift its focus to solar energy, which is a more economically viable option. Furthermore, Iranians are opposed to the country’s engagement in proxy wars in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and now Ukraine. They believe that the resources allocated to these conflicts should be redirected to essential social services like schools and hospitals.

Another key component in the future Iran that Dr. Ebai envisions is the establishment of a robust system of independent judges to safeguard the constitutional and democratic rights of the Iranian people. According to Dr. Ebadi, an independent judiciary is one that is composed of judges who are recruited on the basis of established principles, who are financially secure and thus less susceptible to corruption, and who cannot be removed unless they violate their duties. Sadly, this is not the case in Iran today. The head of the judiciary is appointed by the Supreme Leader and has to be a clergy member. In turn, the head of the judiciary appoints all the other judges and the prosecutors. Dr. Ebadi hopes that the constitution that is being written for a future democratic Iran will outline a transparent appointment process for judges and clearly define the qualifications that they should possess.

Unleashing the power of allyship

As the interview drew to a close, Mohsen remarked that this conversation matters a great deal to Canadians, and I concur. As a diverse nation with people from various parts of the world, we share numerous similar stories. When asked how Canadians and the Canadian government can support the people of Iran and the women’s movement, Dr. Ebadi emphasized the need to stop corrupt individuals from bringing stolen funds into our country. She called on the government not to recognize dictators and to refrain from providing assistance to the Iranian government. Additionally, she stressed that solidarity from democratic nations would greatly empower those fighting for freedom and democracy.


I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Dr. Shirin Ebadi for joining us and shedding light on the women’s movement in Iran. Her contribution has helped us gain a better understanding of the events unfolding over there and how we can support the movement. I encourage everyone to remain engaged and stay tuned for the next parts of the Hard Conversations Series. By actively participating in these discussions, we can collectively contribute to a more inclusive, equitable, and just society.

Angela Ogang is a bilingual lawyer and a member of the Ontario Bar and Kenyan Bar.