Shirin Ebadi Biography

Human-rights activist

Born in 1947, in Hamadan, Iran; daughter of Mino Ebadi; married to Javad Tavassolian (an electrical engineer); children: two daughters. Education: Studied law at Tehran University.


Office —c/o The Nobel Foundation, Box 5232, SE–102 45 Stockholm, Sweden.


Judge in Tehran, Iran, until 1979; human–rights lawyer; children's advocate and founder of nongovernmental organization for children's rights; author of several books on women's rights and law in Islamic societies; professor of law, Tehran University.


Nobel Prize for Peace, Norwegian Nobel Committee, 2003.


Iranian human–rights activist Shirin Ebadi became the first Muslim woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize in the prestigious award's 103–year history. Since her country's 1979 Islamic Revolution, Ebadi has worked to secure civil rights for Iranian women, children, and political prisoners, which has often put her at odds with the country's conservative Muslim clergy who wield immense influence in the Islamic republic. Her win, noted Time International writer Scott Macleod, "is proof that while Muslim women continue to endure severe inequality, many

Shirin Ebadi
are nonetheless making remarkable efforts to re-shape their own lives as well as the societies that shackle them."

Ebadi was born in Hamadan, Iran, in 1947. Her father was a lawyer who authored a work on Iranian commercial law that served as a standard law–school text for a number of years, and he also served in the government of Iran's Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. During Ebadi's youth and early adulthood, Iran was both a progressive and repressive place on the Middle Eastern map: the Shah courted Western investment, encouraged literacy and education, and granted Iranian women equality on many fronts, but the nation's oil wealth was unevenly distributed, and a secret police force carried out harsh reprisals against those who opposed the Shah's regime.

Ebadi followed in her father's footsteps and studied law at Tehran University. In 1975, she became president of the city court of Tehran and the first female judge in the country. Her promising career, however, was cut short by the 1979 revolution, when groups of Islamic extremists began rioting and forced the Shah into exile. A fundamentalist cleric, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, became Iran's new leader, and an Islamic republic was declared. Ebadi was herself a devout Muslim, and supported the revolution and the new government, but she lost her job when new decrees based on strict interpretations of the Koran, or Muslim holy text, declared women unfit to hold decision–making positions in the judiciary.

Ebadi instead turned to writing books on civil rights and children's advocacy issues, an area of interest roused by the abuse cases she had heard as a Tehran jurist. Their plight was closely linked to the legal status of women in conservative Islam, and Ebadi began taking cases that other lawyers were unwilling to defend in the repressive political climate. In one notorious incident, a father was accused of killing his nine–year–old daughter. The girl's mother had lost custody after the divorce—a common practice in Iran, though the woman claimed her ex–husband was a drug user and kept the girl out of school. Initially the court declared the man guilty of murder, but he was not given any jail time, on the grounds that a father has ultimate control over his offspring. The highly publicized case and verdict angered many in Iran, and Ebadi campaigned to force the court to jail the man for a year. Her crusade also forced lawmakers to amend the family law statutes to make drug abuse and neglect of a child's education grounds for losing custody.

In 1997, many in Iran and the outside world were hopeful when a moderate, Mohammed Khatami, became president. Khatami began a cautious liberalization effort, but fundamentalist elements fought back decisively. Intellectuals and others who argued in support of speeding the reform process were harassed, and several dissidents were slain in a string of heinous, unsolved murders. Some believed that vigilantes in the hire of conservative factions in Iran were responsible, and Ebadi began collecting evidence to prove it. One thug's videotaped confession admitted that hardliners in the government were indeed linked to the slayings, and Ebadi secretly distributed the tape. Authorities caught on, and in June of 2000 she turned herself in to the local magistrate when she learned that her arrest was imminent.

Ebadi spent 23 days in solitary confinement in Tehran's notoriously brutal Evin Prison. International human–rights groups pressured the Khatami government to release her, and she was convicted on a charge of defaming the Islamic republic and given a suspended sentence. She was also banned from practicing law for five years. In Paris, France, in October of 2003 to deliver a speech, she learned that she had won the Nobel Peace Prize from a news report on the car radio. She became the first Iranian in history to win it, and only the third Muslim. Government–run news sources in Iran initially downplayed the honor, but popular support was effusive; when Ebadi flew home, thousands of women turned out at Tehran's airport to greet her. Her 79–year–old mother confessed to Macleod in the Time International interview that she herself cried all day when she heard the news. "I always wanted to become just like Shirin became," Mino Ebadi told the magazine.

Ebadi received death threats both before and after her acceptance speech in Oslo, Norway, in December of 2003, and was grudgingly provided with a bodyguard, car, and driver by Iranian authorities. The prize was not without controversy abroad as well: some in international human–rights community claimed the choice of Ebadi was a tacit victory for Islamic fundamentalism. The activist has long asserted that democracy and an Islamic–based society are not mutually exclusive goals. "There is no contradiction between an Islamic republic, Islam, and human rights," she said in an interview with Newsweek International writer Marie Valla. "We need an interpretation of Islam that leaves much more space for women to take action. We need an Islam that is compatible with democracy and one that's respectful of individual rights."

In February of 2004, Ebadi joined in a widespread boycott of parliamentary elections after the cleric–controlled Guardian Council of the government summarily disqualified some 2,000 liberal candidates. She lives and works in a modest Tehran apartment she shares with her husband, an electrical engineer, and is the mother of two daughters. One of them is a law student, and Ebadi has said that one unexpected benefit of a strict Muslim society has been a rise in the number of Iranian women earning university degrees, for the schools are segregated by gender and thus the more tradition–minded Muslim fathers do not disapprove of their daughters' educational goals. She was also heartened by the rise of new channels of information–sharing. "My generation had very little means to keep itself informed," she told Valla. "When I was young we had neither computers nor the Internet.… I hope that today's young people can do much more and do better for our country than I did."



Contemporary Theatre, Film and Television, volume 27, Gale Group, 2000.


Independent (London, England), October 11, 2003, p. 5.

Middle East, November 2003, p. 32.

Nation, January 12, 2004, p. 11.

Newsweek International, October 20, 2003, p. 92.

New York Times, December 11, 2003, p. A20; February 18, 2004, p. A6.

Time, October 20, 2003, p. 39.

Time International (Europe Edition), December 15, 2003, p. 44.


"Iranian rights activist wins Nobel," , (October 10, 2003).

Carol Brennan

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