Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi On An Iranian Family's Tragedy

April 12, 2011

Shirin Ebadi ©Jeffrey Henson Scales/HSP Archive

The enormity of the human rights violations suffered by the people of Iran over the past several decades is almost impossible for the ordinary person to comprehend.  Both prior to and after the Iranian Revolution of 1979, thousands of people were killed, thousands more tortured and broken in prison, while hundreds of thousands were driven into exile from a country and families they loved.

The brutal repression of more than thirty years is movingly condensed into the story of one family’s tragedy in a new book by Iran’s Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Shirin Ebadi, called The Golden Cage. While reading the book, we are constantly reminded that its courageous author is herself living in forced exile, away from her family; the personal loss she feels, though not explicitly noted, is nonetheless keenly perceived.

The family at the center of The Golden Cage are old friends of Shirin Ebadi’s family. She is especially close to the daughter of the family, Pari, whose three brothers take markedly divergent paths which equally lead to tragic results.

The oldest brother, Abbas, is a staunch admirer of the Pahlavi monarchy and becomes a general in the last Shah’s army. Unable to reconcile with the Iranian Revolution that has deposed the Shah, and in danger of arrest and possible execution because of his association with the monarchy, he winds up joining the stream of Iranian exiles who ended up in “Tehrangeles” (Los Angeles), a bitter and demoralized man.

The rebellious middle son becomes infatuated with Marxist ideology and joins the Tudeh (Iranian communist) party, which was persecuted both by the Shah as well as by the Islamic Republic. Unwilling to renounce his beliefs, he is forced to live the life of a fugitive—between periods of incarceration in prison.

The youngest son, on the other hand, becomes a fervent supporter of Ayatollah Khomeinei until he experiences his own disillusionment. The brothers, who were close when they were young, grow more and more distant from each other until they are no longer on speaking terms. It is up to Dr. Ebadi’s friend Pari and her mother to try to hold the family together.

The family (whose last name we never learn) is typical of the many Iranian families caught up in the turmoil of the last several decades and torn apart by forces beyond their control. The ravenous machinery of repression has an insatiable need to be fed more and more victims—not only those whose ideas and writings are deemed to be subversive but also an ever-widening circle of their family members, friends and associates—even people whose names appear in the address books of those who are accused of being enemies of state or Zedd-e Enghelab (counter-revolutionaries).  Those who are responsible for perpetrating the abuses are shown to be so blinded by ideological excess, compromised by expediency and/or intoxicated with greed for power and influence, that they refuse to acknowledge the immense suffering experienced by the innocent human beings who are being crushed.

The harrowing story of the three brothers is interwoven with poignant memories of happy times. Even readers who are not familiar with Iranian culture will come away with the sense of the powerful bonds that tie together Iranian families, their deep love for their country and for their traditions.  As Dr. Ebadi describes the garden of her friend’s house, the special foods prepared for festive occasions, the customary greetings used between friends and relatives, one feels the nostalgia and sadness at being torn from their native land that is felt by many Iranian exiles that I have known. However Dr. Ebadi continues to speak out against the seemingly never-ending cascade of abuses and repression imposed on the Iranian people by their government, despite the fact that her outspokenness only makes it that much more dangerous for her to return to Iran.

Most recently, Dr. Ebadi, together with Amnesty International and other partners sharply condemned a new bill being considered by Iran’s Majles (parliament) that would essentially destroy Iran’s once vibrant civil society organizations by imposing onerous and hobbling restrictions on them. Dr. Ebadi quotes the late Iranian scholar Ali Shariati in her preface: “if you can’t eliminate injustice, at least tell everyone about it.” Dr. Ebadi’s new book complements the numerous reports and actions put out by Amnesty International and other human rights organizations by making the cruel injustices experienced by ordinary Iranian people painfully real.