If ever there was a woman to have left her mark on Iran’s recent history, it is, without doubt, Shirin Ebadi. Even before reaching the age of 30, she had become one of the first women to be appointed judge at the Court of Justice in Tehran. When the Iranian revolution culminated in the Islamic Republic in 1979, she was forbidden from practising her profession and was excluded from public service all together. Confronted with the loss of civil rights and the injustices faced by her compatriots and fellow citizens, it was from the other side of the bar that Shirin Ebadi then began her struggle to defend the fundamental rights of those being violated in her country, especially when it involved women.
In 2003, her struggle was recognised unanimously when she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. She became the first Muslim woman and the first Iranian to be granted this distinction.
Confronting the status quo
Today, Shirin Ebadi continues to be a spokesperson for human rights, especially those of women. “We still have a long way to go,” she tells us, “because our patriarchal societies have historically considered the role played by women to be an inferior one and this remains deeply entrenched in many cultures, even in the West. Often, women experience this injustice as a commonly accepted form of status quo, which does little to encourage them to mobilise. It is then in spite of themselves that they are complicit in this injustice.” She laments having to see women - even educated and active women - who do not dare reveal their disagreement out of fear that they will not be taken seriously or for fear of embarrassment or inconvenience. So Shirin Ebadi travels the world to meet these women, and in telling her own story hopes to open their eyes to the positive role and impact they could have on democracy.
In pursuit of her advocacy efforts, she meets leaders who are willing to have their roles challenged when it comes to the defence of women’s rights, particularly in their relationship with countries where these rights are trampled underfoot. When we ask what advice she would give them, she doesn’t hesitate for a second: “Make sure your ambassador is a woman.”
Democracy borne by women
And what is the role of philanthropy in all of this? For Shirin Ebadi, anyone wanting to contribute to women’s rights needs to invest in education, with special attention for girls. Young girls must be given the necessary tools to fight for their own rights. The situation in Iran has shown that the pre-revolutionary period did not allow for a generation of women to emerge fully prepared to fill the political vacuum brought on by the revolution. Changing a cultural fact takes time, but the freedoms enjoyed by philanthropists afford them the ability to see the work through over the long term. For Shirin Ebadi, the philanthropist also has a role to play in civil society by supporting and widely echoing the voices of women who are fighting for their rights.
Her vision is straight-forward: the best bet for a sustainable democracy is to invest in women because they are the primary vectors of values and culture.
Through its “philanthropy forums”, Banque Degroof Petercam wishes to inspire philanthropy and further the debate on social issues by drawing on experiences of people known for their philanthropic efforts.