1947 • Hamadan, Iran
Lawyer, human rights activist
Before October of 2003, most people outside of Iran—and many people inside that country—had never heard of Shirin Ebadi. She was not a major world leader, negotiating to end wars or topple repressive dictators. She was not a high-profile diplomat, traveling the globe and fighting against poverty or injustice. Ebadi was, and is, an Iranian Muslim lawyer who has devoted her life to improving the lives of victims of human rights abuses, particularly women and children in her home country. A human right is any right considered to belong to all people, including the rights to life and liberty, self-expression, and equality before the law. In recognition of her efforts, Ebadi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in December of 2003, a prestigious award given annually to a person or organization for extraordinary efforts on behalf of peace and social improvement. The first Muslim woman and the first Iranian citizen to earn this prize, Ebadi has since commanded a much wider audience for her speeches as she attempts to convince the world that Iran can be both a moderate democracy—a people whose leaders are fairly elected and responsible to the citizens—and a nation guided by Islamic values.
Ebadi was born in Iran in 1947. Her father, Muhammad Ali Ebadi, was an important lawyer and law professor who contributed significantly to the writing of Iran's trade laws. Ebadi chose to follow in her father's footsteps, training to be a lawyer at the University of Tehran. During the 1970s she supported the reforms of Iran's leader, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, referred to simply as the shah, as he worked to increase the rights of women and to reduce the powers of the nation's Muslim religious leaders. In 1975 Ebadi became the first woman judge in Iran. She held the position of president of the city court of Tehran, the capital city of Iran, until 1979. She married Javad Tavassolian, and they have two daughters who were born in the 1980s.
"I sound like a dreamer, I know. The challenge facing us today is to think like dreamers but act in a pragmatic manner. Let us remember that many of humanity's accomplishments began as a dream."
After the revolution of 1979, which deposed the shah and instated a conservative Islamic government, women were no longer allowed to have such important jobs, and Ebadi was forced to give up her position. The leader of Iran after the revolution was Ruhollah Musawi Khomeini, a conservative religious leader who had risen through the ranks of Islamic teaching to achieve the honored title of "ayatollah." He derived broad support from the lower-level clergy, known as mullahs, who advocate strict application of Islamic law to all aspects of Iranian life. Ebadi had initially supported the idea of the revolution, believing it would improve conditions in Iran. After the ayatollah took over, however, he created an atmosphere of suspicion and fear, enforcing religious regulations with brutality and intimidation. He immediately reversed most of the shah's social reforms, tightly restricting the rights of Iranian citizens, particularly women. Ebadi realized that she, and millions of others, had been deceived about the ayatollah's intentions.
Unlike many of her fellow intellectuals—teachers, scientists, artists—she chose to stay in Iran during a difficult period when anyone suspected of disagreeing with the Islamic state could be arrested, imprisoned, and tortured. Her decision to stay and fight for change while keeping within the bounds of the law earned her the respect of many in her country. Prevented by government decree, as all Iranian women lawyers were, from practicing law on her own, she joined an all-male law practice during the 1980s and began working on human-rights cases. Under the ayatollah's repressive government, which enforced its laws by inflicting violence on and withholding basic rights from the people, Ebadi had plenty of battles to fight. During her years as a judge, she had seen numerous cases that illustrated the unfair treatment of women and children in Iran. Ebadi dedicated herself to changing such laws and to acting as the voice of those who were silenced by the government.
After the death of the ayatollah in 1989, some of the restrictions imposed by the religious leaders were eased. Women were again allowed to practice law, and Ebadi struck out on her own. She sought justice for those whose rights had been violated by the government, often providing her legal services for free. One of her notable cases involved the murder of a nine-year-old girl by her father. Despite the fact that the father was a proven drug abuser who had prevented his daughter from attending school, the father had gained custody of her when the parents divorced. The laws overwhelmingly favored fathers in custody battles, and those same laws allowed the father to avoid any jail time after he killed his daughter, claiming that fathers have the right to do what they choose with the lives of their children. Ebadi took on the case to help the mother find a measure of justice. She argued that the custody laws were grossly unfair and that the father should be punished for the murder. While her victory was small—the father was given just a one-year prison sentence—it was also significant, as she managed to change the custody laws so that fathers abusing drugs or inhibiting their children's education would not be able to obtain custody. This change in the law came too late for the nine-year-old girl, but it undoubtedly helped other children.
Beginning in 1941, Iran was led by Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, known simply as "the shah." In some respects, the shah ruled Iran harshly, forbidding other political parties to form and tightly controlling the press. However, he also instituted a number of social changes, including placing a greater emphasis on secular, or nonreligious, education rather than on religious schooling and giving more rights to women than they had had under previous leaders. Most of his reforms proved controversial with the country's religious leaders, who claimed that giving more freedoms to women went against Islamic values. They opposed any reforms that reduced their own power. One influential religious leader, Ruhollah Musawi Khomeini, an ayatollah (a high-ranking religious leader) and a philosophy professor at an Islamic religious school, or madrasah, sharply criticized the shah's policies. The government responded by raiding the school, killing several students, and arresting Khomeini.
Khomeini was sent into exile, living for several years in other countries of the region, including Iraq and Turkey; he later lived in France. During his exile he kept in close contact with his followers in Iran, promoting the notion of a takeover in Iran that would change the leadership from secular to strictly religious. Meanwhile, during the 1970s, Iran encountered numerous economic hardships, and discontent spread. Even those who had at one time supported the reforms of the shah began to believe that it would be best for the country if he were overthrown. In January of 1978, numerous followers of the Ayatollah Khomeini held demonstrations, joined by many others who were frustrated by the lack of jobs and rising prices. The shah's government responded harshly to these demonstrations, and a number of protesters were killed. These deaths only fueled the rebellion, however, as each protester killed by the government was championed as a martyr, a hero who had died for the cause. The demonstrators demanded that the shah step down. In January of 1979, after a year of violent protests and brutal crackdowns, the shah and his family fled Iran.
Khomeini returned to Iran on February 1, and by April 1, after a nationwide referendum—a special election—Iran was declared an Islamic state, with Khomeini as its leader. While the takeover had been accomplished with the support of numerous groups aside from the religious leaders, once Khomeini took power, the clerics excluded their former partners from all important posts in the government. All social reforms, including those that had established nonreligious schools and that had relaxed restrictions for women, were revoked. Khomeini and his followers instituted strict religious rules, which were violently enforced. In the years of the shah's rule, Iran had developed close ties with the United States, and its culture had become increasingly westernized—that is, displaying a resemblance to societies of North America and Western Europe. After Khomeini took over, the government sought to destroy all traces of westernization in Iran. A group of protesters loyal to Khomeini took over the American embassy in the city of Tehran. They took sixty-six U.S. citizens hostage, demanding that the shah, who was then undergoing cancer treatments in the United States, be returned to Iran. The hostage crisis was eventually resolved; the shah did not return to Iran and died soon after in Cairo, Egypt.
A bitter war that would result in massive civilian deaths began when Iraq invaded Iran in September of 1980. During the war, after terrorist bombings originating from within Iran had killed numerous clerics and government leaders, Khomeini's followers responded with brutal attempts to squash any rebellion. They arrested suspected enemies of the state on the flimsiest evidence, and prisoners were often deprived of basic human rights: tortured, raped, and executed. The war with Iraq ended in July of 1988, and less than a year later, in June of 1989, Khomeini died. Following his death, a struggle for control of the country erupted among various groups, some wishing to maintain the strict social and religious culture of Khomeini's rule and some arguing for a loosening of religious regulations, broader rights for women, and the reestablishment of relations with the West, particularly the United States. Various other groups held positions between those two extremes.
In addition to her work as a lawyer, Ebadi has also worked as a lecturer at the University of Tehran and has written a number of books on the subject of human rights, including The Rights of a Child: A Study of Legal Aspects of Children's Rights in Iran and History and Documentation of Human Rights in Iran. Ebadi has helped found several groups that work to promote human rights in her country, including the Association for Support of Children's Rights in Iran and the Center for the Defense of Human Rights. She was one of 134 people who signed the 1994 Declaration of Iranian Writers, a pro-democracy letter to the government denouncing all forms of literary censorship. Ebadi applied her considerable energy to the campaign of moderate presidential candidate Mohammad Khatami, who was elected by an overwhelming majority in 1997 and reelected in 2001. In spite of Khatami's moderating influence, however, reforms since his election have been minimal due to the entrenched power of the country's religious leaders. In a nation where the legal system is based not on a constitution but on sharia law—Islamic law derived from the Koran, Islam's sacred writings—and where that law is interpreted by conservative religious leaders, reform-minded leaders fight an uphill battle.
Ebadi has not argued for abandoning sharia as Iran's legal basis, but she does believe that sharia can be interpreted differently than it has been traditionally, allowing for greater freedom and equality for all citizens. She has expressed repeatedly her belief that Islamic law and democracy can be compatible and that human rights are possible
After many years of working to improve conditions for women and children in Iran, Ebadi's work began to attract international notice and recognition. She received the Rafto Prize from the Norwegian government in 2001 for her work promoting human rights and democracy. Two years later, to her great surprise, she was chosen by the Norwegian Nobel committee as the recipient of the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize. Ebadi won an amount equal to well over one million dollars, which she then donated to the organizations she leads in Iran. In the aftermath of winning the prize, Ebadi looked back on Iran's recent history in an article in Europe Intelligence Wire: "Compared to twenty-five years ago, I can only see progress. But in a lot of areas, freedoms are still restricted. Freedom and democracy are not handed to you on a silver platter. Neither are they achieved with American tanks."
In spite of the international attention she gained after receiving the Nobel Prize, Ebadi confessed in an article in London's Sunday Times that she still feared for her own safety: "Anyone who fights for human rights in Iran lives in fear. But I have learnt to overcome my fear. In Iran anything could happen to anyone. My fight is to make sure that only good things happen to my people." Various groups in Iran disagree with Ebadi over what those "good things" might be and over how to accomplish them. At one end of the political spectrum, many young Iranians want nothing short of radical change in their country: they want to change Iran from an Islamic state to a secular, democratic country. They feel that Ebadi is too willing to give in to the powerful mullahs, the religious leaders, and that she does not use her tremendous influence to effect significant change. Some women's groups also attack Ebadi for not being more critical of the religious leaders. They dismiss Ebadi's claims that the laws of Islam, if interpreted correctly, can be compatible with human rights and democracy; these groups believe the only way a woman can be truly free is to live in a secular society. Such activists call for a revolution, an overthrow, while Ebadi advocates an evolution, a gradual change. While liberal activists consider Ebadi too timid in her reform attempts, those at the other end of the spectrum, the hard-line religious clerics, consider her a dangerous radical. These clerics, or mullahs, oppose any suggestion that women and children be given more rights. They reject the notion of easing traditional Islamic laws and resist any attempt to reduce their own power and influence.
At many points throughout her career, Ebadi has paid a high price for her views and her actions. Investigating cases involving the deaths of Iranian intellectuals and reformers in 2000, Ebadi obtained evidence that some religious leaders and conservative politicians had been behind the murders. She was subsequently arrested and imprisoned for more than three weeks, held in solitary confinement. Ebadi has received numerous death threats, which increased by thirty times after she won the Nobel Prize. She has been attacked in Iranian newspapers and labeled a traitor. She was forced by protestors to stop giving a speech at Al-Zahra women's university in December of 2003. She has been criticized by some religious Muslims in Iran for not wearing the hijab, the traditional Muslim headscarf, when she travels abroad and for shaking hands with men during such travels. Ebadi responds to such attacks by coolly repeating that she believes in Islam as a religion of peace, justice, and democracy. She points out that the Koran contains numerous references to democratic ideals, such as respecting the ideas and opinions of others.
After winning the Nobel Prize, Ebadi received numerous invitations to speak in many different countries. Through her speeches and media coverage, Ebadi's work became known to millions. Details of her courageous battles for justice in Iran have inspired people all over the world, and Ebadi has made it clear that winning a prominent international prize has only confirmed her decision to fight for change in Iran. She also signaled that, regardless of her level of fame, she would not compromise her message or her beliefs. She openly criticized the United States for its war on terror and for its 2003 invasion of Iraq. In her speeches and writings she has emphasized the importance of education and social justice in the fight against terrorism, explaining that such violence can only be stopped by addressing the causes of terrorism. She has argued that if those inclined to commit acts of terrorism were offered the hope that their lives would improve—a chance to be lifted out of poverty and to benefit from a fair and just system—they would no longer feel the desperation that leads to such acts. In an article in Newsweek International, Ebadi expressed her wish that future generations will carry on the fight for reform, making greater strides than she has: "I hope that young Iranians can go further than me. My generation had very little means to keep itself informed. When I was young we had neither computers nor the Internet. Our only source of information was a small library at the university. So I hope that today's young people can do much more and do better for our country than I did."
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MacLeod, Scott. "Shirin Ebadi: For Islam and Humanity." Time (April 26, 2004): p. 118.
Sunday Times (London) (October 19, 2003).
Taheri, Amir. "Iran's First Lady." Weekly Standard (November 3, 2003).
Valla, Marie. "Shirin Ebadi." Newsweek International (October 20, 2003): p. 92.
"Women a Force for Change in Iran." Europe Intelligence Wire (March 8, 2004).
Ebadi, Shirin. "In the Name of the God of Creation and Wisdom." Nobel e-Museum. http://www.nobel.se/peace/laureates/2003/ebadi-lecture.html (accessed on August 1, 2004).