Shirin Ebadi on Iran, Human Rights, and ‘The Golden Cage’
On the inside cover of Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Shirin Ebadi’s new book, she describes its conception: “Questions about the revolution shape the events of The Golden Cage…. History is best described through life stories that are told in simple ways by appealing to what human beings hold in common, the love of life and country.” The story of The Golden Cage focuses on one family: the father, Hossein, runs a carpet business; the mother, Simin, is a famed cook and hostess; the daughter, Pari, grows up to pursue a career in medicine; and, in Ebadi’s description, each of the three sons — Abbas, Javad, and Ali — “subscribes to a different political ideology that tears Iran and their lives apart.”
The Golden Cage will be published on April 30. In New York this week, Ebadi sat down with Tehran Bureau to discuss both the book and various issues involving Iranian politics and human rights.
A few questions about current events before turning to the book. On Monday you wrote to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights about the situation in Khuzestan. What started as peaceful demonstrations by members of the Sunni Arab-speaking population there, protesting state discrimination, lead to the killing of at least 12 civilians by security forces. In your letter, you wrote that “the Arab-speaking Iranians of this region have suffered extensive discrimination and lived under inappropriate conditions,” a description confirmed by Amnesty International and other human rights groups. I want to ask you about what you believe is the motivation for, the purpose of this discrimination. If it is not entirely irrational, who does it benefit and how?
No one benefits from discrimination. Discrimination arises out of prejudice. And unfortunately the government of Iran is prejudiced. In Iran there are different ethnic groups, like the Kurds, the Baluchs, the Azeris, and the Arab-speaking minorities. In the Constitution, it is provided that they can teach their mother tongue to their children and live under their own cultural traditions. However, this law has never been enforced.
Ethnic groups in Iran prefer to have their governors or authorities in their province from among their own, but unfortunately [the government] always sends them people of different origin. Also, the Imams for the Friday Prayers are appointed from Tehran. These are some of the problems of the ethnic groups in Iran.
In addition to the fact that people are poor, all of our oil is in the province of Khuzestan. And people ask the question, where there’s all this wealth in our province, why should we be the poorer? A few years ago, people had also protested, but they were repressed as well. And the reason that I wrote this letter to the High Commissioner of Human Rights was that if it continues, it can become a crisis. And we have to stop social crises.
In recent weeks, there have been many signs of a growing rapprochement between Egypt and the Islamic Republic. Whatever the precise outcome of the forthcoming elections in Egypt, it appears that the two countries are in the process of moving toward normalizing diplomatic relations after a 30-year break. Should those who supported the Egyptian Revolution as part of the struggle for democracy and greater respect for human rights in the Middle East be dismayed at this development, as some have suggested, or should it be accepted as realpolitik?
Governments should have relations with each other. But what matters is that one does not become the puppet of another. This means that governments should have their independent opinions, but at the same time should have relations with each other. I don’t think that Egypt will become a puppet of Iran, because they are Sunnis, whereas the government of Iran is Shia. And unfortunately, racism exists in the governments of both countries. And they don’t have a common interest. Also, Egypt has always considered itself the big brother of Islamic and African countries, and Iran claims that it is the leader of the Islamic world. Therefore, there will be diplomatic relations, but Egypt is not going to become a puppet of Iran.
Following the lead of the United States, which imposed sanctions on individual Iranian human rights violators last September and added to that list in February, the European Union recently froze the assets and imposed a travel ban on 32 Iranian officials, again for human rights violations. Do you believe such moves are effective, or should the West be looking at different sorts of steps?
It can be very effective, because it brings to the attention of the government of Iran that the world can become smaller for it and raises the expense of cooperation with dictatorships.
But names have to be added to this list. And on top of the United States and the European Union, Canada has to come up with their list as well, because many of them have invested in Canada. And, most importantly, the list doesn’t cover Ahmadinejad and the Leader.
Next week, you will be accepting the PEN Freedom to Write Prize on behalf of Nasrin Sotoudeh. I was struck by the fact that in both her case and yours — the latter of which you touch on in the book — you were both denied licenses to practice law for many years: I believe, in each case, approximately eight years, though over a decade apart. Of course, despite the obvious reluctance to grant you licenses on the part of the authorities, who could presumably have denied you forever, you were ultimately allowed to practice law — for a time. Would you attribute these shifts to changes in who holds the reins of power or do they perhaps reflect a more fundamental perversity in the existing system?
From the beginning, the system started with violations of human rights. Sometimes violations of human rights were less, and sometimes more. During Khatami’s reign they were less. I’m not saying things were very good during Khatami’s reign. [She points sharply at herself.] I was imprisoned during Khatami’s reign. But in general, that era was better.
The book begins, and just about ends, with the words of Ali Shariati, with whom many of your Western readers are not likely to be familiar. It’s interesting that of the three emblematic brothers on whom the story focuses — Abbas, the monarchist general; Javad, the secular communist; and Ali, the disciple of traditionalist (what Shariati would probably have called Safavid) Shia — none seem to come close to Shariati’s vision of a progressive Islamism that’s deeply skeptical of clerics. Is there an implicit void there around which the tale revolves? Is the vision of Shariati — who you described in “Iran Awakening” as once “beloved by millions” — what Iran needs?
Today what we need for Iran is secularism. A religious government proved to us how religious emotions of people can be exploited. And [secularism] is what the people of Iran want at this time. Even the followers of Shariati state the same thing.
In the prologue, you describe a group of women visiting the unmarked graves of their loved ones, political dissidents, so-called “counterrevolutionaries.” You write, “They did not cry. When people die the way their children did, you can only mourn them at home.” That’s a very powerful idea. Could you explain more about why “you can only mourn them at home”?
I have said in my book that when the families of those who are buried in Kharavan go to visit their graves, the area is usually besieged by the governmental authorities. They attack the families, they beat them up. And unfortunately, it happens every time they go there. Those who have been killed, of course, were in opposition to the government, they had different ideas. And their families do not want to break in front of the government. So by going there and through the gatherings that they have all the time — even this year for Nowruz, the Persian New Year, they were there — they want to prove that although these people are dead, their path still will be continued by the rest.
The family name, the last name, of the three brothers and their sister, Pari, is never given. While they were not particularly prominent people, they were, as described, what we might call semi-public figures. How did you come to decide not to use the family name?
Because I have changed the first names as well. My purpose was not to introduce this family to the reader. My purpose was to talk about the history of Iran through their story. And I hope that the reader [recognizes] that idea.
And what I mean here is that the most logical and strongest character in this book is a woman. And the women of Iran think like Pari. And they’re very strong. Pari told me continuously that each of [her] brothers have made a cage for themselves — and they’re sitting in that cage, closing it on themselves. And when one makes a cage for oneself, he or she sees that as golden, because were that not the case, they would just open the cage and leave. That’s why I named it The Golden Cage: in order to respect Pari’s idea, who said that one should not make a cage out of ideology.
To extend that analogy, you describe three different cages — one of which, it could be said, currently encloses the entire country. How would you describe the relationship — psychological, spiritual — that average Iranians have with the cage in which they now find themselves?
[She laughs.] The difference between a cage and a prison is that a cage is built by one for oneself, whereas the prison is built by the government for that person. The fact that Iran has become a big prison is not the desire of the people; it’s the government that has created this big prison for the people.
In a scene set in 1988, an imprisoned Javad says to his sister, “Do you really believe anything that’s written in the newspapers these days? Do you think there is freedom, or truth, in those pages? Open your eyes — they’re all lies.” Twenty-three years later, how applicable is that description to the mass media in Iran? And if it is, how does the average consumer of information understand or filter what they’re told?
People still think that’s the case. [She laughs.] And this is why after the people had access to the Internet, they started using [it] for their news. And also they watch and listen to Voice of America and BBC, which have Persian-language television and radio programs.
The mother of the central family is a renowned cook, but even aside from her celebrated feasts, I was struck by the attention paid to food, meals, specific dishes throughout the book. Toward the end of the book you specifically address the rich meaning of flowers in Islamic and particularly Persian culture. I wonder if you could elaborate on the significance of food in the culture you describe; I also wonder if it’s something you feel has been taken from you, living abroad as you now do.
They miss the food, all of them. That’s why there are numerous Iranian restaurants in America and European cities.
And I want to talk about flowers in Iran: They’re very aromatic. Roses in this country are more beautiful than roses in Iran, but they’re not scented. If there were two roses from Iran in this room, you could smell it all over.
Also vegetables in Iran are scented. Like the cucumber in Iran — if one eats even one small cucumber and walks into a room, everyone will know that that person has eaten a cucumber. But I don’t see that in cucumbers in this country either. There’s no scent or even flavor to them. This is the size of cucumbers in Iran. [She holds out her hand, thumb and index finger spread two and a half inches apart, and smiles.] And we use them as fruit, not like salad, because they taste very good. You have to come to Iran and eat Persian food.
What did you think when you saw the cover design of the book?
I liked it very much.
Of course, none of the three brothers would actually have worn turbans, right?
But you thought it captured…?
It’s a nice picture. It depicts three people without showing their faces. I liked it. And in reality — although the story is about the three brothers, who did not wear this kind of clothing — it’s the story of many people in Iran. It’s not only their story.