Until We Are Free: The Shirin Ebadi Story

The tale of a single woman who took on the Islamic Republic, paid a heavy price for it, and survived.

Until We Are Free: My Personal Fight for Human Rights in Iran is a biographical account of Shirin Ebadi, a 2003 recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.  A native Iranian Muslim and proud of it, Mrs. Shirin Ebadi documented the cruelty of the Islamic Republic of Iran.  In her book, Ebadi provides moving descriptions and clear evidence of the repressive nature of the Iranian regime.  What emerges is a clear picture of a Stalinist-like regime absent the Soviet Gulags. The regime’s Intelligence Ministry shuts down all criticism of the regime, by arrests, torture and murder. There is no free press in the Islamic Republic of Iran, no free speech, and every facet of free life is controlled and repressed by the Ayatollahs, through their praetorian guards – the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), and the Basij Resistance Force, a voluntary paramilitary organization operating under the IRGC.  It is an auxiliary force with multiple duties, including internal security, law enforcement, special religious and political events, and morals policing.  

Removed from her judgeship by the Islamic Republic, Ebadi became a civil rights lawyer but soon found her attempts to defend the innocent and voiceless people being blocked by the regime’s extensive apparatus and corrupt officials.  Ebadi writes: “On several occasions I had trouble simply trying to review a file at the court-house.  The clerk, upon realizing that I wasn’t going to ‘tip’ him for retrieving the file, would say ‘Sorry the file is missing.  Come back tomorrow.’  I would go back the next day, and he would say, ‘Sorry, I haven’t had a chance to reach for your file…” Justice in the Ayatollahs Iran, Ebadi concluded, is “bought, not fought for or deliberated.”

Ebadi pointed out that criminal law under the Islamic Republic was based on a 7th Century reading of Sharia Islamic law.  She related a case of an 11-year-old girl named Leila.  While picking wildflowers outside her village, three men snuck up and raped her, beating her repeatedly on the head, then threw her to her death over a cliff.  The local police arrested the men, and they were found guilty.  But, because Islamic law values the life of a man convicted of murder and rape more than a girl raped and murdered, Leila’s family was held responsible for paying for their executions.  Fighting against the regime’s discriminatory policies toward women, Ebadi wrote an article that described how the criminal code around blood money holds that “if a man suffers an injury to his testicles, he receives compensation equal to a woman’s life.”

The Islamic Republic’s intolerance for any opposition to its fascistic methods knows no bounds, and it includes religious intolerance.  To harass and intimidate Ebadi for her reports on violations of human rights by the regime, they stopped at nothing.  Shirin Ebadi’s assistant is a Baha’i, a faith which is systematically persecuted as a matter of government policy in Iran. Upon the discovery of her faith by the authorities, she was dragged out of the office and imprisoned for years without due process.  Similarly, the Ayatollahs of Qom, upon noticing the popularity of the Sufi order in town, arranged a violent attack on them and demolished their mosque. 

Ebadi pointed out that the onset of Ahmadinejad’s presidency in 2005 witnessed heightened persecution of minorities and ordinary Iranians.  Sunni-Muslim Arabs of Khuzestan province, Kurds and Baluch Sunnis endured, and are still enduring severe persecution.  The small Jewish community is held hostage, while Christians are likewise persecuted and discriminated against.

To silence Ebadi, the Islamic Republic of Iran and its Intelligence Ministry trampled over the most basic elements of decency and respect for human rights.  They confiscated her daughter’s passport upon returning from school abroad, they shut down her office and arrested her clients. Finally, they humiliated her husband Javad, by staging a liaison with a woman in an intimate setting, and forced him to denounce his wife.  They ultimately led him to divorce her.  Shirin Ebadi was forced to flee Iran in 2009, never to return.  Should she step foot in Iran, she would be thrown into the notorious Evin prison, where young teens are regularly being hanged, female students raped and sometimes murdered, and their male counterpart treated likewise. 

In chapter 19 of her book, titled ‘Bloodbath as Lesson,’ she writes: “For Iran, Lebanon, Hezbollah, and the gateway through which it funnels all its money, arms, and military support – the neighboring state of Syria – are no small investment.  These alliances are central to Iran’s projection of influence in the region, and they also provide a convenient theater through which Iran can teach its own citizens a lesson about what happens when a people rise up.  By now, we are used to images of the Syrian civil war, one of the greatest humanitarian tragedies of our young century.”  

Ebadi continued,

Before Syria’s conflict became a civil war, it was a broad-based uprising against the tyranny of Assad.  It was Assad, with the support of his Iranian backers, who turned an essentially democratic revolt into a sectarian war.  The Iranian leadership backed him in this effort, with a close eye trained on the Iranian homeland, a thousand miles away.  Through the bloodbath that unfolded in Syria, the Islamic Republic conveyed a clear message to Iranians, both those inside the country and the opposition movement abroad.  The message was: If you rise up, we will crush you.  We will not retreat a single step.  We will not be Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, who stepped down.  We will be Assad, who would rather torch his country to the ground than relinquish power. The fate of Iran will be the fate of Syria.

Following the stolen presidential elections of 2009, ordinary Iranians became discouraged about the future and reconciled themselves to the existing oppression of the Ayatollahs.  Hoping not to repeat the chaos the 2009 elections caused, the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei approved only candidates that were vetted and considered unconditionally obedient to him.  The economic sanctions imposed by the U.S. and the West however, bit hard into the Iranian economy, and isolated the Islamic Republic politically from the rest of the world, due in large part to Ahmadinejad’s economic mismanagement and political ineptness.  The 2013 “change” candidate for president, Hassan Rouhani, was not exactly the reformist and moderate Iranians wished for, but he was cleared by Khamenei.  The young and the moderates backed him since he appeared to be more of a pragmatist during the election campaign.  Yet, Rouhani was very much part of the Islamic Republic elite, and has held numerous security positions within the “system” over the years.

In her epilogue, Shirin Ebadi remarks that, “those of us with long experience of this government know it too intimately to imagine that everything brutal and illiberal about the Islamic Republic will transform overnight.” This assertion is reaffirmed by the increased belligerence of the Supreme Leader and the IRGC.

Until We Are Free is an honest and moving tale about Iran under the rule of the Islamic Republic. Shirin Ebadi’s story is a testament to the courage of a single woman who took on the Islamic Republic, paid a heavy price for it, and survived.