An Activist Draws Interest at the Bank
By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 4, 2004; Page C01
Shirin Ebadi's big day at the World Bank, her first visit to Washington since winning the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize, began outside, on Pennsylvania Avenue, in the chill wind of a very gray morning. She was immaculate in a light blue pantsuit, better suited to August, and her hair and makeup were television-worthy. It was just after 9 and she was about to spend the next six hours meeting the suits.
Hair, makeup, clothing -- none of this matters much, except that Ebadi has an untouchable, remote, hands-off quality that is seamless, from the way she looks to the way she talks to the way she moves through a room. The Iranian lawyer, the first Muslim woman to win the Peace Prize, is a civil rights activist, a champion of women and children's issues, a former magistrate in Iran and now a Nobel laureate traveling the world at breakneck speed, using the limelight while it lasts. She is never off-message. She has put on determination like a coat of armor, and there are no chinks in it.
Ebadi had one very simple message for the people who tend to the economies of the world's poor and developing nations: Don't lend to tyrants. Don't lend to undemocratic regimes. Don't support countries that oppress their people. She spent the entire day saying it, over and over again, to people who don't so much resist the idea as find it too broad to be practical.
She was saying it already, at a quarter after 9, in the World Bank bookshop, where she was meeting and greeting some of her handlers for the day. "The prerequisite for economic development is compliance with human rights standards," she said through a translator. She said it again, on the top floor of the bank, in a vast boardroom overlooking Washington, where the bank's executive directors meet to decide the fate of several billion people. She said it yet again in her main public address, part of the bank's Presidential Fellows Lecture Series, and during a question-and-answer session afterward (her challenge was met with applause, cheers and a standing ovation). And she said it repeatedly during a small lunch with the bank's president, James D. Wolfensohn, and some of his senior managers.
Did the message get through?
"They listened . . . carefully," she said. This is as close as Ebadi will come, the whole day, to being ironic. Ebadi is precise. She knows what she wants to say. There's no room for anything that distracts from that message. For public consumption, she offers no small talk, little humor, no casual communication that is even remotely ambiguous. When she was presented with a bouquet after her speech, she tossed a flower into the audience and addressed the Iranians in the crowd: It was something about the inevitability of freedom, the only gesture not entirely contained within the neat confines of a lawyer's carefully chosen language.
It is, no doubt, a defense mechanism. Ebadi is a very small woman who looks straight up into the face of power and speaks her mind. She will jab an index finger, on occasion, to make a point; she will touch index finger to thumb when she is summarizing an important detail, a small, tight gesture (like her smile); her voice will rise and take on an almost incantatory quality when she is driving to a conclusion. If she was not so soft-spoken, you'd swear she was shouting.
"Human rights cannot be imposed with warplanes," she said in her remarks to the bank's employees. Don't think human rights are the gift of Western governments to the benighted people of what she calls "the South." "Aren't we human beings? Can't we determine our future?"
The crowd roared. The World Bank may be monolithic to its detractors in the anti-globalization movement; but inside, among its rank and file, are some of the world's best-dressed revolutionaries.
No one is getting off unchallenged. Ebadi has been embraced, in the West, as an ardent women's rights crusader against the Iranian government. President Bush, who singled her out for praise in an International Women's Day proclamation in March, will not find Ebadi a comfortable voice. She is against the war in Iraq, and adamant that the United Nations (and by extension the United States) enforce resolutions critical of Israel. If American mothers knew the full truth of what was happening in Iraq, she says, they would not allow their children to die, far from home, in a country that doesn't want them there.
She has the impatience of a soldier in the human rights trenches with any grand pronouncements about the sorry state of affairs in Islamic countries. Don't pat her on the back for fighting those mean old mullahs, because she'll come right back at you: Governments don't just repress people with false interpretations of religion; sometimes they do it with false cant about national security.
Ebadi's tour of the World Bank felt like a lesson in the physics of institutions. A foreign element that enters a stable system must either be absorbed or alter that system. The bank has magnificent powers of absorption. It is polite, it is generous, it is smooth and serene from its glass and metal architecture to the melodious hubbub of its cafeterias.
At lunch, a small lunch in a small dining room, with marbled walls and modern art -- as remote a space as the king's bedchamber in a palace -- top World Bank officials wanted to get past the simplicity of Ebadi's message, to get her to say something more pragmatic, more doable as an agenda item on the bank's to-do list.
"In many countries, we have enfranchised civil societies," Wolfensohn said. "I'd like to know if you think we should stop doing that and wait until we had perfect countries before we lend?"
Wolfensohn was driving at a question that has been put to Ebadi all through the morning. Do you disengage from undemocratic regimes, and let the people suffer? How much should one compromise? Isn't allowing poverty to continue, in undemocratic countries, just hurting the people?
Ebadi was answering those questions all morning. Do not lend to corrupt or tyrannical regimes and then expect the people to pay the bill. Lend only for projects that benefit people, not governments. Make a human rights checklist, rate countries on their progress, check up on that progress every three to five years, and reward only those countries that are moving toward greater human rights. If you support dictatorial regimes with economic assistance, when they fall -- and they will always fall -- the people will hate you. It's really quite simple.
Mamphela Ramphele, a World Bank managing director and major force in the South African fight against apartheid, tried to reformulate the question. In South Africa, during the struggle for basic equal rights for black people, there were different strategies, she was saying.
Then somebody from the bank staff noticed there was a reporter present, and evicted him. (This on World Press Freedom Day, which is one of the reasons that Ebadi has come to town.) But the World Bank that is fractious and freewheeling upstairs, in its public rooms, needs to close doors when the discussion gets down to the nitty-gritty of how you might implement a policy as complex and subtle as Ebadi's proposal: Don't lend to tyrants.
When the reporter rejoined the conversation, there was the first whiff of absorption, the first sense that Ebadi had softened her line. She was praising Wolfensohn for his policies, for focusing more on poverty and people and dealing with a less heavy hand.
Afterward, Wolfensohn said, "The easiest thing for me, for the bank, would be to say, just wait until these countries are democratic." But that is impracticable. The bank is not the United Nations. Its goal is economic development. Sometimes this must go hand in hand with democratic development.
"In the end, she softened a lot," Wolfensohn said.
She wasn't looking much softened at the Corcoran Gallery. Her day progressed, but it was always the same thing. Great throngs of people coming at her, wanting autographs or just a little human contact. She moved through these clots of humanity with impeccable reserve -- speaking when spoken to, looking her interlocutors straight in the eye, folding her hands together when listening as the Corcoran's president and director, David C. Levy, somehow managed to segue (and none too elegantly) from grand talk about freedom of expression to pumping up the Corcoran's photojournalism program.
It was well after 3 p.m. Ebadi had been "handled" all day. Yet each time someone put her in front of a microphone, she went straight for the hardest issue. Earlier in her meeting with World Bank directors, a Saudi Arabian executive asked her about traditional Islamic law, how it balances both different rights for men and women and different obligations. She went right at him, talking about the difference between the basic principles of Islam (which she embraces) and certain traditional laws, some of them "14 centuries" old, that have nothing to do with those principles. It was a magnificent moment, a clean, polite, surgical evisceration.
So, in front of the microphone at the Corcoran, she had one last message. Yes, there's censorship in Iran. You must have permission to publish a book, she said, and sometimes the censors remove passages they don't like. But look at Western media, increasingly owned by small numbers of people, elites who channel and control the news. This too is censorship.
Ebadi was pulled aside and asked some personal questions. In a little room off the main hall of the Corcoran, she answered. She is a mother of two daughters. Even after winning the Nobel Peace Prize, she has received death threats. People who support human rights are never safe, no matter where they are.
"I have miraculously escaped assassination twice," she said. "I have been to prison."
Her family doesn't mind. They support her. They think the way she thinks. Since winning the prize, she has traveled the world, hardly rested at all. She will go back to Iran this summer, she thinks, to argue the case of Zahra Kazemi, a Canadian Iranian photojournalist who died after being arrested and beaten in a Tehran jail. Perhaps there will be justice for Kazemi.
"If I lost my hope, I would not be able to work," she said.
That's it. Terse, to the point, not without a certain charm, but not one wasted word. One gets the sense that the Nobel Peace Prize came to Ebadi rather as the new Dalai Lama is miraculously found in Tibet. It has given her extraordinary moral authority; she will not waste an iota of it; and there is nothing, now, that is not work.