Nobel Peace Laureate Shirin Ebadi received a standing ovation from more than 300 students and faculty for her lecture on gender and sexuality in Islamic cultures Wednesday.

The Rackham Amphitheatre was packed for the Digital Islamic Studies Curriculum Distinguished lecture, “Gender and Sexuality in Islamic Culture,” which was co-hosted by the Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies and the University of Michigan Law School.

Ebadi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 for her work as a lawyer in Iran, representing women, religious minorities and other marginalized voices. Speaking in Farsi through an interpreter in her remarks Wednesday, she discussed the political repression of women in Islamic countries, citing her experience as an attorney and as a Muslim.

She told the crowd she appreciated the opportunity to lecture on Islam and the patriarchy in the Middle East because she felt much of the fear surrounding Islamic culture stemmed from the lack of knowledge about the region.

“If people in a society want to live in peace together, there is no other choice but understanding and appreciating other’s cultures,” she said.

Contextualizing laws with historical and religious information, she touched on the background of a variety of oppressive laws in the Middle East, such as the death penalty as a punishment for homosexuality and the laws of inheritance that are limited for women.

Overall, she said she felt providing information helped combat growing Islamophobia in society.

“We have to put an end to the flame before it takes over, because then we will have destruction that cannot be fixed,” she said. “Let’s be forgiving like the sky, let’s grow the seed of cooperation like the earth, spread the friendship like the wind, be like fire burning ignorance and prejudice, be kind to each other.”

Ebadi also provided an interpretation of the Quran that she said permitted the change of unjust and patriarchal laws.

“Societies change, and things change in society, so according to the change in society, the time and the condition, these laws must change,” she said.

Following the lecture, a Q&A session was hosted, in which audience members asked Ebadi questions about her experience and her ideas for positive change in the Middle East.

Public Policy and Taubman graduate student Michelle Rubin said she felt Ebadi’s lecture provided a unique space on campus to discuss issues not often addressed in her experience at the University.

“I think (lectures like this one) definitely help campus climate, help to bring people together for a dialogue that’s not really happening a lot of places and bringing cross-disciplinary students together,” Rubin said.

Social Work student Ariana Sulejman said she enjoyed hearing about these issues from Ebadi’s viewpoint as a woman who grew up in the Middle East.

“I’ve never really heard about these types of things from someone who’s actually from the Middle East, so getting that perspective was amazing,” she said.

Sulejman added she admired Edabi and appreciated her hopeful perspective on positive societal change.

“I thought she was amazing, just knowing what she’s done in her life, and she still has such a positive outlook on everything,” she said. “She was so funny and adorable, it was amazing to hear her talk about it, the moments where she flared up and got very passionate about things was really powerful to hear.” 

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