Book review- The Golden Cage by Shirin Ebadi

In The Golden Cage, Nobel peace prize laureate Shirin Ebadi quotes Alì Shariati, an Iranian intellectual who died in mysterious circumstances a year before the Islamic Revolution: "If you can't eliminate injustice, at least tell everyone about it." Ebadi, an Iranian lawyer, former judge and one of the world's leading human-rights activists, has dedicated her life to doing just that.

This book centres on the lives of three men, brothers of a childhood friend. Their stories encapsulate many of Iran's major political events of the past 60 years, from the ousting of PM Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953 and the downfall of the Shah in 1979 to the rise of Khomeini and the birth of the Islamic Republic, through to the present government under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Ebadi's memoir illustrates how these tumultuous shifts in power affected ordinary Iranians and continue to influence the repression today.

Each of Parì's brothers is prisoner to a different political ideology that threatens to destroy his life and the lives of those closest to him. The eldest, Abbas, is a die-hard monarchist who serves in the Shah's army as a general. His younger brother, Javad, joins the Tudeh, Iran's communist party, participates in the Islamic Revolution and is later persecuted and imprisoned. Alì, the youngest, "unexpected fruit of Hossein and Simin's long marriage", finds himself drawn to his local mullah and becomes a devoted follower of Khomeini.

All three lives end tragically and Ebadi leave us in no doubt that this is a direct consequence of the brothers' refusal to compromise their beliefs and principles. In the words of their sister: "it's as if each one of them has locked himself in a golden cage – beautiful, strong, and as safe and secure as any ideology. But it's still a cage and they can't see out of it or communicate with each other."

The Golden Cage is a powerful account of the intolerance and repression that has dogged Iran since the CIA-backed overthrow of Mossadegh. Ebadi interweaves her own experiences into the brothers' stories. She participated in the Islamic Revolution, sang hymns to Khomeini on his triumphant return to Iran, and witnessed the joyous evening ritual of many Iranians shouting Allah Akbar, God is Great, from the rooftops of their homes. But, as she notes sadly, the first measures taken by the Islamic Republic were "the legalization of polygamy and the decree that women must wear the veil." Ebadi was swiftly removed from her position as a judge and, like Javad, imprisoned by the regime she once believed would bring positive change. As she admits, the Shah's secret police, the Savak, may have been brutal but "the Pasdaran were like mad dogs unleashed by a single owner – Khomeini."

Much of what Ebadi writes about will be depressingly familiar to those who work in human rights. But as she notes, "history is best described through life stories". By using the personal narratives of three brothers, all "victims of equal injustice", Ebadi ensures that her exploration of Iran's past is both accessible and highly readable. The Golden Cage is a testament to Ebadi's resilience and the courage of those, like her, who continue to peacefully fight against injustice.

As well as demonstrating the power of the pen, it is a deeply personal gift to an old friend. It is at times painful reading and the scale of the tragedy that befalls Parì's family is truly shocking. As Ebadi proves in this extraordinary book, truth is often stranger than fiction.

Originally published in the Independent, 15 July 2011