Shirin Ebadi, a lawyer and human rights activist, is the only Iranian to ever be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. She was also the first female judge in Iran, a title and position that was taken away from her after the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Since then, she has worked on many high profile cases, until she was forced to leave Iran when the government forced the closure of the Defenders of Human Rights Center, which she had founded, following the disputed presidential election of 2009. At the time, she had received numerous death threats.
Ebadi was born in 1947 in Hamedan — or Ekbatana as it is known in the Bible. Her father was the chief public attorney for Hamedan and a professor of commercial law. He and his family moved to Tehran in 1948.
Ebadi was admitted to the University of Tehran Law School in 1965. Then in 1969, having received her Bachelor’s degree, she passed her exams to join the Iranian Justice Ministry. She went on to attain a doctorate in law and in 1975, she was appointed president of Branch 24 of the City Court in Tehran.
However, the Islamic Republic leaders instated after the Revolution forbade women from being judges, so Shirin Ebadi and other female judges were removed from their posts. She became a secretary at the same court that she had presided over. The situation became unbearable for her. “So I asked for an early retirement, which I was granted,” she says.
But she reversed this decision when the government introduced the Islamic Penal Code bill. “The first time I read it I couldn’t believe it,” she recalls. “I read it again and thought it was badly written. The third time it finally dawned on me that they really thought a woman was worth half a human being.”
Before being granted a license to practice law in 1991, Ebadi published a number of highly critical articles in magazines that protested against the violation of women’s rights.
“I would accept any legal case, but very quickly I discovered that a lawyer needed to pay bribes in court to make any headway,” she says. “So I put up a sign in my office that read ‘Because of the special situation in the courts, I can’t accept cases. I can only consult.’ Then I was confronted with cases that no other lawyer would accept.”
The first high profile case that Ebadi accepted was that of Leila Fathi, an 11-year-old girl who had died after repeated sexual assaults. It was cases like this that led Ebadi to found the Society for Protecting the Rights of the Child in 1995. A year and a half later, she took up the case of Arian Golshani and challenged the Islamic Republic’s custody laws in court.
Arian Golshani was a nine-year-old girl who was murdered by her father and stepbrother in a gruesome manner. After her parents separated, the law and the court presiding over the case had granted custody to the father even though he was a known drug addict. The stepbrother was convicted of murder but the father evaded justice. However, the trial caused a public outcry and 10,000 people gathered at a memorial service for Golshani. In less than a month, parliament passed a law empowering the courts to remove a child from parental custody if they were proven to be unfit.
Ebadi represented many other people involved in high profile and contentious cases, including the case of Zahra Kazemi, the Iranian-Canadian photojournalist who died in 2003 whilst at Evin Prison. She also defended the children of Dariush and Parvaneh Forouhar, prominent dissident figures whose throats were cut by intelligence agents at their home in 1998 during a series of opposition murders that came to be known as the “Chain Murders.” Ebadi says that she came across her own name while reviewing the Forouhars’ case.
Then in 2000, Ebadi spent three weeks in detention for exposing the role of judiciary officials in the attack on student dormitories in Tehran. A year later, she founded the Defenders of Human Rights Center.
A “Worthless” Nobel Prize
In October 2003, Shirin Ebadi received the Noble Peace Prize for her role in defending human rights, especially those of women and children. The Islamic Republic authorities, including the former reformist president Mohammad Khatami, reacted by calling the prize “political.”
“The people of Iran have been battling against consecutive conflicts between tradition and modernity for over 100 years,” Ebadi said in her acceptance speech in Oslo. “By resorting to ancient traditions, some have tried and are trying to see the world through the eyes of their predecessors and to deal with the problems and difficulties of the existing world by virtue of the values of the ancients. But many others, while respecting their historical and cultural past and their religion and faith, seek to go forth in step with world developments and not lag behind the caravan of civilization, development and progress. The people of Iran, particularly in recent years, have shown that they deem participation in public affairs to be their right, and that they want to be masters of their own destiny.”
Ebadi used the prize money to aid the families of prisoners and to create workshops to raise awareness about civil rights. She is also active in representing Baha’is, a religious minority that is not recognized by the Islamic Republic and whose rights are systematically violated.
Gradually, attacks against Ebadi intensified. In 2008, the official Islamic Republic News Agency accused her of seeking support from the West and later the same year, the police shut down the Defenders of Human Rights Center. Ebadi and her family were repeatedly sent death threats.
In June 2009, when she was visiting England, she decided to not go back to Iran. She has lived in exile ever since. Since then, she has worked extensively, including writing a bilingual monthly report on human rights violations in Iran, organizing seminars on human rights and giving lectures in different universities.
Ebadi has received numerous honorary doctorates from universities across the world and other awards for her activities defending human rights and democracy. In 2006, the French government awarded her the Legion of Honor and in 2011, they named a street after her in the city of Poitiers.
“Naturally, the life that I’m living is not a very comfortable life,” Ebadi said in an interview. “But this is the price that we have to pay for freedom in Iran. I’m not the only one paying this price. My colleagues who are in prison are paying a higher price.”