Shirin Ebadi, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003, explains how the heightening tensions between Iran and the international community (particularly the US) have provided a space wherein the Iranian regime can continue infringing on the rights of its citizens. Giving the regime a scapegoat, i.e. the United States, offers a distraction from domestic problems like rising unemployment and poverty, not to mention the aggressiveness of the morality police, and if the US were to launch a military campaign then things would be even worse. Stopping the saber-rattling would make it easier for the democratic factions in Iranian society, which are energized and widespread, to draw attention to their agendas, like freedom of expression and economic reform.
She offers this anecdote to show what could be done:
Ebadi remains optimistic that reform is achievable. Her hope lies in Iran's youthful population – almost 70% aged under 30 – which is hungry for change and prepared to fight for its freedom.
She cites the example of one of her clients, 32-year-old Maryam Hossienkhah, a journalist and member of the One Million Signatures Campaign for equal rights for Iranian women.
Hossienkhah was arrested in November for writing articles demanding respect for women's rights under the Islamic constitution. Her bail was set at the equivalent of £75,000.
Ebadi says: "She told the judge, 'I refuse to do that. I'm innocent but I'll go to jail.' As soon as she arrived in the jail, she started giving advice to the women about how to defend their cases.
"She sent a message out to her friends and colleagues that the prison library didn't have a good book collection. So other members of the campaign brought in books and in less than 20 days the prison had a full library. Finally the judge said to the prosecutor, 'You'll have to get this woman out otherwise she will cause chaos!'"
Hossienkhah was released in January after her bail was reduced to just over £3,500. There are many similar cases before the courts, says Ebadi. "I'm glad to say that the more harsh women's lives become, the more determined they are to overcome them. The will of these women is very powerful and that poses a challenge for the government."