By Shirin Ebadi
March 3, 2016
The story of how Iranian agents caught my
husband with another woman, threatened to stone him to death and then forced
him to denounce me.
IN August 2009, I was betrayed by both my
husband and my country.
A few months earlier I had left Iran — for
good, perhaps, though I did not know it then. The government had harassed me
for years for my work as a lawyer and a human-rights activist, and the threats
against me had increased in the run-up to the presidential election that June.
I took a vacation and, along with my younger daughter, Nargess, went to visit
my older daughter, Negar, in Atlanta.
I usually spoke to my husband, Javad, two
or three times a week, on appointed days. He had a SIM card for my calls,
bought under someone else’s name, to make it difficult for the authorities to
One Monday, I wasn’t able to reach him
during our usual time. I wasn’t unduly concerned. He often spent long weekends
at our country house, where the reception was weak. But days passed, and there
was no word from him. I finally called my sister in Tehran, Nooshin, and asked
her to check on our apartment, but it was empty.
Then Nooshin called me to say that she had
knocked again and found him at home. She said he had just returned from a trip,
was unwell, and was going straight to bed.
The next day, Javad called.
“Shirin?” His voice shook.
“Where have you been? Nooshin has been
looking for you!”
“Shirin, I don’t know if you can forgive
me.” I could hear him breathing shallowly.
“Are you crying?” My fingers flew to my
throat. “What’s happened?”
“Will you forgive me?”
“Javad, tell me first what’s happened!”
He began to explain, in a crushed,
flattened voice, what had transpired in the nearly two weeks since we had last
spoken. This is what my husband of 34 years relayed to me:
He had been feeling, in his words, “very
lonely and empty.” One evening a friend of his, a Ms. Jafari, invited him over
to her apartment.
“Very unexpectedly, a mutual friend, Mehri,
also stopped by.” Javad’s voice dropped off.
“Between Mehri and me … a romantic
relationship used to exist. But I had not seen her for a very long time. Years.
We had stopped our relationship. But Ms. Jafari thought we should get back
together. She kept pouring us more to drink and saying that we were both going
through difficult times and could support each other. She kept stressing that
now that my wife was gone, I was all alone and needed someone to show me some
Apparently, at that point, this Ms. Jafari
said she had an appointment and left my husband and the other woman alone.
“Mehri started taking her clothes off,
hugging me, saying how much she had missed me.”
I said nothing.
“Shirin, are you there? Are you listening?”
I was not a suspicious wife. He had never
raised questions about my male colleagues, and I’d accorded him the same
understanding. It had seemed to work for us, this mutual respect. Until now. I
kept staring at the coffee table, with its magazines, a Rembrandt coaster; all
of it looked the same as it had five minutes ago. How could it look the same?
“She kept touching me … and I … I succumbed
… We were embracing in the bedroom when suddenly the door of the second bedroom
of the apartment burst open.”
That was when an intelligence agent — a man
I knew well, who had gone after my work for years — and two cameramen came in.
They had recorded everything — the conversation, the whole event. They ordered
Javad to dress, and in a few minutes the apartment was full of agents. Javad
was handcuffed, blindfolded and pushed downstairs and into a car.
“What happened to … that woman? And your
host?” I tried to keep the rage out of my voice, but I couldn’t bring myself to
say her name.
“They only arrested me. I’m sure Jafari was
cooperating with them. How else could they have set up all their equipment
before I even got there? I can’t really be sure about Mehri. All I know is they
didn’t arrest her.”
Javad was taken to Evin Prison, where I had
visited so many clients and where, nine years earlier, I myself had once spent
25 days, on a charge of “disturbing public opinion.”
Because he had been caught drinking
alcohol, his bare back was lashed. Did the lasher hold a Quran under his arm,
to prevent him from using too much force? I forgot to ask this.
And then they led him to a solitary
confinement cell, perhaps only slightly bigger than a bathtub, and left him
there for two days.
On the third day, two prison guards came.
They blindfolded him again and led him to a sort of courtroom, where a bearded
cleric, the judge, sat behind a wooden desk.
Javad later told me what the judge had
“I’ve watched the entire film. There’s
really no room for denial. You are a married man and have committed adultery.
According to Article 225 of the Islamic Penal Code, you are sentenced to death
by stoning. The sentence will be carried out two days from now.”
“I want a lawyer,” Javad said. “I’m not
going to do anything without a lawyer.”
“A lawyer!” the judge said, amused. “What
for? What is a lawyer going to say? We have a film of you, sir — your entire
liaison is on camera! What kind of defense do you imagine you could mount? Just
go. Go be ashamed of yourself, and spend your last two days repenting to God.”
The trial took about 20 minutes. Iranian
judges scarcely ever handed down stoning verdicts, but the situation seemed to
require an especially horrific punishment. The real purpose of the arrest
became clear a few hours later, when the intelligence agent who had arrested
Javad, along with his boss, came to Javad’s cell.
I can’t help imagining them standing over
him, Javad unshaven, with dark circles under his eyes.
“Now Ebadi can see the result of her
activities,” the agent told him grandly. “I warned her so many times. So many
times I told her, ‘You need to shut up.’ But she never listened.”
Javad had never been involved in my cases;
he was not political. “Why should I be responsible for what my wife does?” he
asked them. “What kind of dirty games are you trying to play with me? Because of
my wife, you harass me like this, in the name of Islam?”
The agent’s eyes darkened. He lunged toward
Javad, punching him, kicking him savagely.
“Don’t you dare ever mention Islam again,
do you hear me? The word ‘Islam’ is dirty in your mouth.”
The intelligence agent said I had been
proud; now I would see my weakness.
When Javad saw that pleading or protesting
would only provoke more beating, he asked what it was they wanted.
For the first time, the agent’s boss spoke.
He explained the problem:
“If you’re still defending your wife, it
means you’re her ally and collaborator. And you should be punished as such. If
the truth is otherwise, you need to prove that to us.”
All he had to do in order to gain his
freedom was to read a short statement in front of a camera:
“Shirin Ebadi did not deserve to receive
the Nobel Prize. She was awarded the prize so that she could help topple the
Islamic Republic. She is a supporter of the West, particularly America. Her
work is not in the service of Iranians, but serves the interests of foreign
imperialists who seek to weaken Iran.”
He knew immediately he would do it. Surely,
everyone would know that he had been pressured into saying those things.
And so the next day he shaved, showered and
sat in a staged living room, with comfortable armchairs and a side table with a
vase of plastic pink roses, and denounced me.
He told me all this, and it was bad enough.
But what I heard next was worse. In order to overturn the stoning sentence for
adultery, he and the woman he had slept with would have to go to a cleric for a
certificate of temporary marriage, backdated by five years.
Javad was waiting for me to say something,
but I was, for perhaps the first time in my life, unable to come up with a
single thing. As a woman, a wife, I was sick with anger. He had betrayed me.
But I was even more furious with the intelligence agents. They were prepared to
do anything — crush people’s families, their marriages — to achieve their ends.
What did they want from me? I didn’t permit
myself that thought very often. But it came careening into my head, and I
wanted to run out onto the balcony and scream it. How much could they take away
from one person? I had been the first female judge in Iran. After the Islamic
Revolution, they took that from me. When I resurrected myself and built a
human-rights center, they took that, too. With their violence and electoral
fraud, I had lost my homeland. And now they had tried to take away my husband.
I closed my eyes, wanting nothing but to go to sleep. But Javad was talking
again, asking me — me! — for advice about his pending stoning sentence.
“What do you think I should do?”
“I don’t see any option but to do as
they’ve asked,” I said. “But, of course, only if … that woman … agrees.”
Javad said he would try to contact her and
would let me know what happened.
I waited to hear back. Moving around the
apartment in Atlanta, I thanked God for small graces. That my daughters had
been out when Javad called, and that they would — at least for a time — be
spared knowing what had been done to their parents.
I swung between rage and guilt. It was my
work that had caused this to happen to my husband. And yet was it not Javad who
had betrayed me? But I was not in his shoes, isolated, away from my wife and
daughters, vulnerable. I thought of telling him that he was not alone. That I
knew of many cases where the Intelligence Ministry had done the same sorts of
things to others, used sexual blackmail in order to force dissident politicians
out of public life or simply to wound and silence critics. But knowing this
didn’t lessen my anger, and I doubted that it would lessen his pain.
A week later, Javad called and told me how
things had gone. He had telephoned Mehri — he said her name, I did not — and
she had agreed to go with him to see the cleric. As promised, the cleric had
issued a backdated marriage certificate that showed them, at the date of
filming, to have been “Sigheh,” or temporarily married. Under Sigheh, the
duration of the marriage is determined in advance; it could be as short as an
hour or as long as a decade. If a child is born, he or she is a rightful child,
with all legal entitlements from both parents. When the Sigheh expires, the
couple should separate, unless the arrangement is mutually extended. The
practice has existed for centuries but is shunned by younger and less
traditional Iranians, who see it as an archaic religious loophole that
effectively legalizes prostitution.
Javad had taken the certificate back to the
court at Evin and paid a small fine. The punishment they had dangled over him,
execution by stoning, the punishment they had used to force him to denounce me
before the cameras, was null. But he had been required to turn over his
passport and was barred from leaving the country.
In the days that followed, we talked
several times. But I felt as though I was speaking to a stranger. Javad was
broken, pleading during each conversation for me not to leave him. He sounded
so unwell that regardless of my own feelings, I was worried for him. His
denunciation of me had not yet been released, and the threat of it hung over
our heads. He kept saying he wanted to see me and the girls, but it was
I tried to keep it from our daughters, but
Nargess finally confronted me. She had overheard something I’d said on the
phone; she wanted to know what was happening.
After I told her, she just kept demanding:
“Why would he do such a thing and speak against you? Why would he go with that
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I decided to be frank. Nargess worked in
The Hague, researching and documenting terrible atrocities. She needed to see
how that work connected to what she was experiencing in her family. The field
of human rights is not about pretty words; it involves the abuse of the
vulnerable by those who wield power. That was the line that connected massacres
in Sarajevo to atrocities in Sierra Leone to the systematic persecution of
dissidents in places like Iran and Russia.
I told her that if she wanted to be a
human-rights lawyer, she had to understand what that world involved.
“Human beings are free, Nargess. But each
individual has only a certain threshold for suffering. Your father couldn’t
take that kind of torture. This could have happened to any man,” I said. “This
is something between him and me. But you have to look at it differently. You
should be wondering why an intelligence agent was hiding with a camera in the
second bedroom. Were the country’s problems resolved by determining who was
cheating on whom? This was a trap they used against me, and that is how you
must think about it.”
It was a bitter lesson to impart to my
daughter. More than six years later — after Javad’s denunciation of me was
aired on television; after countless agonized phone calls; after we finally
agreed to divorce — it is a lesson I am still learning myself.
Shirin Ebadi, a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, is the author of the
forthcoming memoir “Until We Are Free: My Fight for Human Rights in Iran,” from
which this essay was adapted.