Published: April 10, 2023

Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi told a CU Boulder audience Friday night that unlike Iran’s male-dominated 1979 revolution that overthrew the Shah and produced a theocratic dictatorship, the country’s current democracy and human rights movement will eventually succeed thanks to the leadership of Iranian women.

“This time, in 2022, when women took to the streets and decided to cut their hair off, the men decided to support the women, and that’s why this revolution will succeed,” Ebadi said. “It’s a glamorous revolution—the men have found out that democracy will come to Iran through women’s rights,” she said to the enthusiastic applause of a crowd of 200 that packed Chancellor’s Hall in the CASE building on the CU Boulder campus.

Ebadi, whose talk was sponsored by the Office of Faculty Affairs in the provost’s office, the Boulder Faculty Assembly and the Department of Women and Gender Studies, spoke for close to an hour following the screening of a biographical film by filmmaker Dawn Clifford Engle titled Until We Are Free.

The film told Ebadi’s personal story and tracked her long campaign for human rights and a secular democracy in Iran, starting with her dawning political awareness as a young girl following the purge of her father from the government of prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, overthrown in 1953 by the intelligence agencies of the United States and Great Britain.

The film chronicled Ebadi’s earning a law degree and rising to become one of Iran’s first women judges before being purged by leaders of the Islamic fundamentalist regime of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who overthrew Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in 1979, but who quickly established an Islamic republic that limited the rights of women and whose heirs have cracked down on all political opposition ever since.

Ebadi was consigned by the Khomeini regime to serve as a law clerk in the court she once presided over as a head judge. She then spent subsequent decades as an attorney representing women, children, and political dissidents victimized by the regime. By the early 2000s, she was widely recognized as Iran’s most outspoken leader for women’s and human rights and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003.

Today, Ebadi said, it’s important to learn lessons arising from the failed Iranian revolution, a legacy she described as “forty-three years of unclaimed expectations...that the government never responded to.”

She said Iran’s current movement for secular democracy and women’s rights needs American and Western support, but not via the application of global power.

“Let’s remember, support is different than intervention,” Ebadi said. “So what we ask from other countries, specifically America, is to not support the dictators. It is our role to bring democracy to Iran, and we’re doing it very well,” she said, again to rousing applause.

Ebadi said the current women-led uprising in Iran, prompted by the September 2022 death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who died following arrest by Iran’s morality police for not wearing a head covering, has a lesson in perseverance for American women seeking to secure reproductive rights.

“Don't keep silent for having lost the abortion rights—(even though) they may come after you—you may lose other rights, too,” Ebadi said.

Shideh Dashti, associate dean for research in CU Boulder’s College of Engineering and Applied Science and the lead organizer in bringing Ebadi to CU, said her visit was inspiring to the Iranian American community, which she said has been “fighting patriarchy and dictatorship for many years, but much more intensely since the death of Mahsa Jina Amini in September 2022.

“And we have paid a heavy price and are exhausted. Her words and energy brought the fresh air of unity and hope to our community,” Dashti said.

CU environmental design professor Shawhin Roudbari, a co-organizer of the event, said he was encouraged by the turnout, which packed the auditorium in the CASE building.

“The cross section of participants from within and beyond the CU community was noteworthy to me,” Roudbari said. “Seeing folks across nationality, age, gender, race and also their roles at the university spoke to a broader interest in this movement and in Ebadi than I had realized existed.”

Executive Vice Provost Ann Schmiesing, who kicked off the event on behalf of the university, said the evening was symbolic of the value CU Boulder provides.

“The CU Boulder faculty, staff and students who volunteered their time to organize her visit to campus demonstrated the best of the university in action: creating understanding and action based in community. I am grateful to all of them, and to Dr. Ebadi,” Schmiesing said.