Shirin Ebadi — a commanding figure with muscular, decisive movements — first became interested in human rights during the 1979 Iranian revolution. Now 70, the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize winner was a judge at the time and also raising two young daughters. “I loved my profession, but in short time not only did I lose my job for being a woman,” she explained when we were traveling together in October 2017, “I also saw how many discriminatory laws against women were passed.” She wanted to be able to answer her children if they asked, “Mother, considering your profession and your knowledge of the law, what have you done for women’s rights?” And that is how she became a human-rights activist.
This February, I reflected on Ebadi’s life from Yangon, Myanmar, where I was working on an article for Longreads about press freedom. A few weeks earlier, two Reuters journalists in Myanmar had been charged with breaking the Official Secrets Act, a little-used colonial law, and were facing 14 years in prison. When I was planning my trip there, almost everyone I spoke to told me not to go because, for example, Pulitzer Prize–winning Myanmar journalist Esther Htusan had recently been forced to leave the country due to death threats. (During that trip, I traveled out of the country to interview Htusan, and she reiterated that the real danger in Myanmar was directed at local journalists, especially those who worked for international media outlets — not international journalists, like me.)
Over the course of her life, Ebadi, like many women, has been told a litany of places she should not go and things she should not do as a woman. I had an ongoing conversation with Ebadi over the two weeks in October when we both traveled with the Nobel Women’s Initiative in Guatemala and Honduras to visit and learn from indigenous women human-rights activists. When I asked Ebadi about how she responded to receiving death threats for her work, she said, “Life is more beautiful lived dangerously.” These are words I will never forget.
As a journalist traveling with Ebadi and Nobel laureates Rigoberta Menchú, Jody Williams, and Tawakkol Karman, I witnessed the work of powerful, outspoken women, women who had persisted and thrived despite often working on issues or in areas where they were encouraged to stay silent and stay at home. Ever since I was a child, I have wanted to go where people told me not to go — both because I am interested in telling difficult stories and because I want to prove people wrong. I want to show them that I am equal and prepared for any task, that being a girl or a woman is no impediment. That, in fact, it could be an asset, especially when reporting on women’s rights.
Even though I have reported everywhere from Culiacán, Mexico, to San Pedro Sula, Honduras, and have completed both RISC and HEFAT safety trainings for journalists, editors still sometimes ask me, even as recently as last week, if I am willing to go to a place because it is “too dangerous.” I doubt they would ask male journalists the same question. In response to such questions, I usually list my hostile-environment-training certifications and discuss my work in Juárez, Mexico, which I undertook when it was the most violent city in the world. I want people to understand that I am not crazily rushing to dangerous places — I am prepared, there are stories that must be told, and I want to be treated as an equal to my male colleagues who dominate war reporting and most other assignments in places with high levels of violence.