Montana State University

Nobel Prize winner urges MSU students to have courage to change the world

April 17, 2008 -- Carmen McSpadden (406) 994-7275,

MSU President Geoff Gamble introduces Shirin Ebadi, the first Iranian and Muslim woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, at her lecture before more than a 1,000 people in the MSU SUB ballrooms Wednesday. Gamble also gave Ebadi the first Montana State University Presidential Medal for Global and Visionary Leadership. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.   High-Res Available

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The first Muslim woman and Iranian to win the Nobel Peace Prize told Montana State University students to take courage to change the world and not to fear making mistakes or even defeat.

"We have a right to make mistakes," Shirin Ebadi told an audience of more than 1,000 people in the MSU SUB ballrooms Wednesday."However it is important that once you realize you have made a mistake, find a remedy."

A small woman with a large legacy of supporting human rights and opposing the legal establishment in her native Iran, Ebadi used the analogy of rectifying obvious mistakes to speak about her opinion of the current political situation in the Middle East.

"In my opinion, the attack on Iraq was a mistake," Ebadi said through a translator who translated Ebadi's speech as well as a question and answer session following it. "People make mistakes. The difference is a person who makes a mistake should not insist on making the mistake again."

Ebadi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003, is known for speaking up. She has spoken up and worked for women, children, political dissidents, and members of ethnic and religious minorities and against the regime of current Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Earlier this week Ebadi made international news when she sent a letter to Iran's chief of police claiming that there have been recent threats against her and members of her family. Ahmadinejad said this week that he will ensure Ebadi's safety and probe the threats, including three anonymous warnings also faxed to the news service Reuters, which reported the story. Ebadi's husband, Javad, an engineer, also attended the MSU lecture.

"First of all, in regard to Mr. Ahmadinejad, I have no fear about speaking my opinion," Ebadi told the MSU audience. "I have never feared him. I didn't vote for him and I am against whatever he says."

The first female trial lawyer in Iran history, Ebadi told the MSU audience that she was "filled with hope" when the 1979 political revolution overthrew the Iranian monarchy. However, following the revolution, Muslim clerics ruled that Islam prohibited female judges. Ebadi told the MSU audience that the day she was told she could no longer be a judge in Iran "was the hardest day of my life. It was the job I loved most of all."

She said although the demotion was a defeat, she "tried to turn defeat into a new door, an opening." She told the students that they should do the same when they inevitably faced defeat in their lives.

"You should not allow defeat to stop your activities," she said. "When you find a big challenge, take a step back for a minute to find a way to take a higher leap over it."

Ebadi said she found the demotion to court clerk untenable and received early retirement. Unable to practice law in Iran until 1992, she used her time to write 14 books, found the Children's Rights Support Association in Iran and volunteer. Since 1992 she has represented women and children in Iran's courts. Women, she told the audience, are valued at half of a man in Iran's courts. For instance, it takes two female witnesses to equal one male witness in a trial.

Despite that, she said, women in Iran are highly educated. Sixty-five percent of Iranian university students are women, and the feminist movement in her country is active. She called Iran an "imperfect" democracy. While the citizens may vote, candidates must first be qualified by the government's Guardian Council. It is also a wealthy country, with oil, gas minerals and uranium, but also many impoverished people.

"There is economic mismanagement and corruption at the government level," she said. "People have a lot of criticism for the government."

She emphasized that while her government may need changing, it was incumbent only upon the people of Iran to bring about that change rather than outside influence, in a reference to the U.S.' invasion of neighboring Iraq.

Ebadi said that taking action against Iran, or even threatening to take action against Iran, would intensify the government's positions against minority causes. The government would use threats as an excuse to endanger fragile human rights in that country and suppress the voices of minorities and dissidents.

Ebadi was critical of the United State's duplicitous treatment of Saddam Hussein, whom she said destroyed Iranian cities with chemical weapons during an eight-year war with Iran. Around that time Donald Rumsfeld posed in pictures with Hussein in a show of support. Later, the U.S. later denounced Hussein as a dictator and used that as a reason to invade the country. Why, she questioned, did the U.S. feel it had to invade Iraq when there are so many other dictators in the world?

"The only difference between Saddam and the rest of the dictators was that Saddam sat on oil," she said, one of many times that her comments met with applause from the audience.

She also urged the students in the audience to get their news about any event from several sources before making a decision. She said the students should be children of Descartes and think and doubt whatever they hear. "That is the key to making factual decisions."

She instead urged the audience to use their energy and time to work for peace.

"Be generous like the sun," She said. "Spread friendship through the wind and be angry like fire against ignorance and prejudice. Sow the seeds of kindness in hearts and minds as you walk in the world before you. Let us be kind to each other. Truly kind."

Prior to Ebadi's lecture, MSU President Geoff Gamble presented her with the first MSU Presidential Medal for Global and Visionary Leadership. Gamble called Ebadi "courageous, intelligent and very, very inspiring."

Ebadi's lecture is the latest in a series of internationally prominent speakers on campus this year coordinated by MSU's Leadership Institute. The next is Jane Goodall, who will speak at 6 p.m. Monday, April 28, in MSU's Brick Breeden Fieldhouse. There is no admission charge to Goodall's MSU Wallace Stegner Lecture, but seating is limited. Doors will open at 4:30 p.m. and tickets will be distributed on a first-come, first-served basis.

In addition to the Leadership Institute, Ebadi's lecture was sponsored by ASMSU, Office of the President, Provost's Office, MSU Humanities Institute, Humanities Montana, ASMSU Lectures & Lively Arts, the College of Letters and Science, MSU International Programs and MSU Women's Faculty Caucus.