Shirin Ebadi

“She speaks for freedom for all, and practices that freedom in the face of relentless persecution.”

“How can you defy fear? Fear is a human instinct, just like hunger. Whether you like it or not, you become hungry. Similarly with fear. But I have learned to train myself to live with this fear.” —Shirin Ebadi

The Profile of Shirin Ebadi (b. 1947)

During the 2003 ceremony at which she was to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway, Shirin Ebadi did a simple thing which evoked criticism from many sides. She chose not to wear the hijab, the traditional head covering for Muslim women. Since the 1979 revolution in Iran, women have been required to wear the hijab. As a tireless advocate for women’s rights, Ebadi chose her form of dress to highlight freedom of choice: “I want Iranian women to make their own choice whether they want to use the hijab.” The mullahs (who are usually Islamic clerics) in Iran were not the only ones upset. Non-religious Iranian women were also dismayed and planned to protest because Ebadi was seeking equality using the Quran as the moral and legal basis. Her action was not a rejection of her Islamic faith, rather an expression of trying to live out the demand for justice and respect for human rights she finds deep within it.

Shirin Ebadi was born into a family of legal professionals. Her father was a professor of commercial law and the chief notary public in Hamadan. She studied law at the University of Tehran, and in 1969 she became a judge. In 1975 she was the first woman in Iran to preside over a legislative court.

Then in 1979, the Iranian revolution changed everything. The ruling clerics insisted that Islam prohibited women from being judges, so Ebadi and the other women judges were demoted. Ebadi became a clerical worker in the judicial office over which she once presided. Unable to overturn the policy against women judges, she was even restricted from practicing law, and so she retired. From her home she began to write extensively on legal and political matters, which moved her into a brighter spotlight within Iranian society.

The election of reformist Mohammad Khatami as president led to a change in legal opportunities for women. In 1992 Ebadi’s law license was reinstated and she returned to her legal practice, specializing in cases of minorities and dissidents. She represented the family of one such intellectual who had been murdered along with his wife. Eventually the murders were traced to a team from the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence. The controversy climaxed when the head of the Ministry of Intelligence allegedly committed suicide before the case came to trial. Ebadi also provided legal representation in the high-profile case of a young man who was killed in the 1999 student protests. In a startling development, a videotape circulated that appeared to link the killing to high-level conservative officials. Ebadi was accused of circulating the tape; she was arrested and sentenced to five years in prison. A higher court eventually overturned her conviction, and Ebadi was released.

Ebadi established the Defenders of Human Rights Center in 2001 with four other human rights lawyers. Through the center, Ebadi has continued her defense of those in need. She has defended the rights of refugees—particularly Afghans fleeing to Iran. She has also advocated for the right to circulate media journals banned by the government and of people who have been sentenced for merely expressing their views.

Ebadi has made a special cause of dealing with issues of child abuse and domestic violence. She challenged the child custody laws in divorce cases that separate children from their mothers, giving priority to the fathers. She established the Society for Protecting the Rights of the Child in Iran, and served as the group’s president. Then, she helped draft a law against the physical abuse of children, which passed the Majilis, the Iranian national assembly in 2002. The next year, she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace, especially for defending the rights of women and children.

For Ebadi, her work on human rights is consistent with her Muslim faith. She wrote: “In the last 23 years, from the day I was stripped of my judgeship to the years of doing battle in the revolutionary courts of Tehran, I had repeated one refrain: an interpretation of Islam that is in harmony with equality and democracy is an authentic expression of faith. It is not religion that binds women, but the selective dictates of those who wish them cloistered. That belief, along with the conviction that change in Iran must come peacefully and from within, has underpinned my work.” Ebadi earlier opposed the Shah and, in recent years, has supported critics of the Islamic revolutionary regime, but she does not support those who call for outside intervention against Iran.

“The fight for human rights is conducted in Iran by the Iranian people,” she says, “and we are against any foreign intervention in Iran.”

In May 2008 the Iranian government continued the harassment of believers of the Bahá’í faith. This disrespect has been ongoing since the establishment of the revolutionary government. Ebadi claimed that Iran’s respect of human rights was regressing, and she cited her own harassment, including death threats when she agreed to represent imprisoned Bahá’ís. The government attacked her in the state-controlled media, accused her of links to the Bahá’ís, connection to the West, support of homosexuals, not wearing the hijab, and protecting CIA agents. The office of the Center for the Defense of Human Rights was raided by police and shut down. Ebadi’s computers and files were seized. Demonstrators connected with the government attacked her office and her home.

Ebadi understands that there is strength in personal connection, both globally and in local communities. In 2006, Ebadi joined with five other women who had received the Nobel Peace Prize to launch the Nobel Women’s Initiative. Betty Williams, Mairead Corrigan Maguire, Wangari Maathai, Jody Williams, Rigoberta Menchu and Ebadi decided to pool their resources and experiences to encourage women’s rights around the world. Ebadi also encourages all Iranian women to link together through an elaborate campaign to collect one million signatures to protest their lack of legal rights. In launching the drive, 400 women were trained as grassroots educators and organizers. They spread through the country, talking to women and raising awareness of this issue. The government has tried to repress the effort, shutting down the petition website and arresting three journalists who wrote in support of it. Ebadi says, “By getting one million signatures, the world will know we object to these conditions.”

Whether encouraging one woman at a time to sign her name for change, or joining with Nobel laureates to speak for peace and justice around the world, Shirin Ebadi refuses to be trapped by anyone’s definition of what she should be and say. She speaks for freedom for all, and practices that freedom in the face of relentless persecution.

Meet more peacemakers like Shirin Ebadi

This profile on peace advocate Shirin Ebadi comes from the pages of my book, Blessed are the Peacemakers. It contains more than 60 inspirational real-life profiles plus dozens more shorter stories that are grouped in the introductions to each section. Blessed are the Peacemakers features well-know heroes like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. as well as heroes you may have never heard of.

This book circles the planet, reporting the largely unknown story of how peacemakers from a diversity of backgrounds and spiritualities have shaped our 20th and 21st centuries.

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