Ebadi, Shirin (1947–)

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Ebadi, Shirin

Shirin Ebadi is an Iranian lawyer, human rights and peace advocate, teacher, and writer. She received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 for her pioneering efforts to promote democracy and human rights, especially women's and children's rights. She is the first Iranian and the first Muslim woman to receive the Nobel Prize. Ebani's contributions to the causes of human rights, peace, justice, and democracy give her the distinction of being one of the most prominent and resolute voices of justice and human rights in Iran and beyond.


Ebadi was born on 21 June 1947 in the city of Hamadan in central western Iran. Her family moved to Tehran when she was a year old. Ebadi was raised in an educated, cultured Muslim family filled with love. Her mother dedicated herself to her four children. Her father, Mohammad-Ali Ebadi, was the city's chief notary public, one of the pioneers of the modern Census and Recording (Sabt-e Asnad) of the city of Hamadan, and one of the first instructors of commercial law in Iran. Ebadi grew up with two sisters and a brother, all of whom, like herself, achieved degrees in higher education.

Ebadi attended Firooz Koohi elementary school. She attended high school at Anooshiravan Dadgar and then at Reza-Shah Kabir, where she received her diploma. In 1966 she was admitted to the University of Tehran and began her studies in law. Ebadi received her bachelor's degree in three-and-a-half years and immediately took part in the Judicial Training. Following a six-month internship, she began her career as a judge in March 1970. In the meantime, she continued her studies and in 1971 received her master's degree with honors from the University of Tehran.

While serving in the judiciary branch of the government, Ebadi held different positions. She became the district chief judge of the 24th precinct in 1975. She was the first woman in Iranian history to achieve chief judicial status.

In 1975 Ebadi married Javad Tavassolian, an electrical engineer, and they have two daughters: Negar (born in 1980) and Nargess (born in 1983). Negar received her degree in telecommunications engineering from Canada's McGill University and Nargess graduated from the law school of the University of Tehran and is currently studying for a master's degree in law at McGill University.

Following the 1979 Revolution and inception of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ebadi and her fellow female colleagues were dismissed from their positions and given clerical duties. Under the new government's interpretation of Islam, women were not allowed to be judges and Ebadi was demoted to a secretary position at the branch where she previously presided. She and her female colleagues protested their demotions and were subsequently given somewhat higher positions as legal advisers. ebadi found her situation intolerable and took early retirement in 1984.

The independent Lawyers Association had been out of commission for years in Iran and law licenses were under the supervision of the judiciary branch of the Islamic government. Ebadi's application for a law license, therefore, was repeatedly rejected, rendering her home-bound for several years. During this time, she wrote books and articles for various journals and publications. Her writings, critical of the ruling law and shari'a (Islamic law), made her renowned. In 1992 Ebadi was finally allowed to obtain a license to practice as an attorney. Her law office became an advocacy center for civil and human rights.


Name: Shirin Ebadi

Birth: 1947, Hamadan, Iran

Family: Married, husband: Javad Tavassolian (m. 1975); two daughters: Negar (b. 1980), Nargess (b. 1983)

Nationality: Iranian

Education: B.A. (law), University of Tehran, 1969; M.A. (law), University of Tehran, 1971


  • 1970: Begins working as a judge
  • 1975: First woman in Iran to achieve rank of chief judge
  • 1984: Retires
  • 1987: Publishes The Rights of the Child: A Study of Legal Aspects of Children's Rights in Iran
  • 1992: Becomes a lawyer
  • 1994: Helps found the Society for Protecting the Rights of the Child, also known as the Association for Support of Children's Rights in Iran
  • 1996: Human Rights Watch awards her with the Official Monitor of Human Rights
  • 2000: Arrested by the Iranian government
  • 2001: Helps establish the Defenders of Human Rights Center; receives Rafto Human Rights Award
  • 2003: Receives Nobel Peace Prize
  • 2004: Publishes Iran Awakening: A Memoir of Revolution and Hope
  • 2006: Along with other female Nobel Peace Prize laureates, helps establish the Nobel Women Initiative for Peace, Justice and Equality


Ebadi was first exposed to politics in 1953, the year before starting grade school. Ebani found her parents and her grandmother "in a terrible mood," sitting around a battery-operated radio listening to the trembling voice that announced the fall of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh. She later learned that after four days of turmoil in Tehran, the popular and democratically elected Mossadegh (a secular nationalist) had been toppled in a coup supported by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and British Intelligence Service. As reflected in her memoir (Ebadi, 2006, p. 4), this turning point in Iran's modern history left a lasting impact on Ebadi's political views. As a secular yet devoted Muslim, Ebani's feminism is intertwined with her nationalist and anti-imperialist tendencies rooted in years of her people's struggles and aspiration for an independent and progressive modern nation.

Through her writings and practice, Ebadi soon emerged as a leading advocate in the human rights and civil rights movements in Iran. In the meantime, Ebadi also taught law at the University of Tehran as a part-time lecturer, mentoring international students in human rights internship programs. During these years, she was among the academic and intellectual circles that paved the way to the reform movement manifested in the May 1997 landslide presidential election of the reformist mohammad khatami. As an attorney, Ebadi defended many cases concerning human rights and freedom of expression of political prisoners, challenging the religious authorities' interpretations of Islam while demonstrating the need for an overall reform of the Iranian religious courts and justice system.

Ebadi has established two important nongovernmental organizations, the first one focusing on children. In 1994, along with a number of other women, Ebadi founded the Society for Protecting the Rights of the Child (SPRC), also known as the Association for Support of Children's Rights in Iran. This organization has lobbied the Majles (parliament) to introduce legal reforms in accordance with the United Nations (UN) Convention on the Rights of the Child. Ebadi represented victims of various cases of violence and child abuse, including the mother of Arian Goleshani, who was not granted custody of her child (an eight-year-old boy) and witnessed his death due to abuse from his stepmother. This blatant case of child abuse drew national and international attention to the unjust nature of the law. Subsequently, Ebadi drafted the original text of a bill against physical abuse of children, which was passed by the Iranian parliament in 2002. She has also directed or helped with several UNICEF (United Nations Children's Fund) research projects concerning children's rights and well-being in Iran.

Among many victims of human rights violations Ebadi has defended in court, some were cases of prominence at the national level. For instance, in 1998 Ebadi was the defense lawyer for the families of the victims of the political assassinations (known as the Chains Murders) of dissident intellectuals, writers, and activists such as Dariush Forouhar and Parvaneh Eskanadri Forouhar (the prominent couple found stabbed to death at their home). This was part of a terrorizing attempt by the extremist hard-liners determined to put a stop to the more liberal climate fostered by the reform movement and election of Khatami. The murders were found to be solicited by a team of the agents of the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence led by Saeed Emami, who allegedly committed suicide in jail before being brought to the court of justice.


Human rights are indivisible. All defenders of human rights are members of a single family. When we help one another we're stronger. What's important is to give aid to democratic institutions inside despotic countries. But when the United States undertakes a military invasion of another country, the situation for human rights activists can deteriorate. In Iran, for example, every time we speak of defending human rights, we are asked: "Do you want to be like Iraq?" I know very well that what they say is not right—it's merely an excuse. But I don't want anything to happen that might weaken our situation.


The [Iranian] government claims that the unsatisfactory laws that prevail in the country are, in fact, Islamic laws, and that's how they justify it, but I studied Islamic text and law very carefully and my efforts are geared towards proving to the government that they are, in fact, basing the law on a wrongful interpretation of Islamic law and that indeed that there are other interpretations. The cases that I generally work on are those that I try to focus on the practical results of, to show the people what the practical results of law are, to show that to society. Oftentimes when I take a case to trial I invite reporters to come and write about the case beforehand and to raise public awareness of the results. By creating that awareness people put pressure on the government and demand the change in laws. By carrying out this technique I've, in fact, succeeded in changing a number of laws.


Ebadi also represented the family of a young man, Ezzat Ebrahimnezhad, who was murdered during the attack on a university dormitory in July 1999. He was the only officially accepted case of murder in the widespread Iranian student protest of that year. Antagonized by Ebadi's resolute and vocal style of defense of the victimized students, the Iranian Islamist judiciary arrested her in June 2000. She was accused of producing and distributing a videotape that allegedly "disturbs public opinion." This was the videotaped confessions of Amir Frashad Ebara-himi, a former member of one of the main suppressive vigillante groups known as Ansar-e Hezbollah. Ebarahimi implicated certain senior officials and high-level conservative authorities from whom the group received orders to attack supporters of the reform movement and commit atrocities against the reform-minded members of Khatami's cabinet. Ebadi argued that she had videotaped Ebra-himi's confessions only in order to present them to the court as she had already given the tape to Khatami and the head of the Islamic judiciary. In order to discredit this videotaped deposition, hard-liners who had been controlling the judiciary system named the case "Tape Makers" (Navar Sazan) and arrested Ebadi and one of her colleagues (Mohsen Rohami). They were tried in closed court and sentenced to five years in jail and suspension of their law licenses. However, a court of appeal overturned these sentences and Ebadi was released from the jail after three weeks of solitary confinement.

Ebadi has also defended various cases concerning freedom of press and freedom of expression in relation to banning of newspapers and periodicals (including the cases of Habibollah Peyman, Abbas Marufi, and Fraj Sarkouhi). To better coordinate and strengthen the defense of victims of such human rights violations, Ebadi founded a second nongovernmental organization. In 2001, along with other lawyers, she established the Defenders of Human Rights Center (DHRC). On 10 December 2003 Ebadi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for that year.

Post-Nobel Activities and Contributions

Ebadi has continued to speak out on a number to topics after receipt of the Nobel Prize. She has repeatedly and explicitly rejected military intervention in Iran. At a press conference shortly after the Nobel Prize announcement and in many subsequent media appearances and lecture presentations at different universities, Ebadi has stated that "the fight for human rights is conducted in Iran by the Iranian people, one cannot import democracy through cluster bombs."

The most serious problem in Iran today, Ebadi argues, is the misuse of religion and that judges must be independent of the Islamic government. She points to that fact that women in Iran are becoming better educated than men as they make up more than 60 percent of the university enrollments and are playing increasingly more active roles in socioeconomic and cultural life. Yet the legal and overall sociopolitical status, individual freedoms, and choices of women have actually regressed since the Islamic Revolution.

In her post-Nobel years Ebadi has utilized her high profile to garner global awareness about and international support for the women's rights, pro-democracy, and human rights activists in Iran. Yet like many other feminists and pro-democracy activists in Iran, she seeks social transformation from within through cultural, ideological, and political changes. The main obstacle to change, says Ebadi, is "an incorrect and fundamentalist interpretation of Islam," which is reinforced by the paternalistic culture and patriarchal political structure in Iran and in the rest of the Middle East. She believes Islam can and must be interpreted differently in order to adapt to modern realities and the universal declaration of human rights.

Despite her increased fame since receiving the Nobel Prize, Ebadi has retained a sense of humility arguing that she is a "simple defense lawyer who has no golden key to enable her to open the doors of the prisons in order to free all the prisoners of conscience." She warns against the danger of personality cults and maintains that she has no desire to be a spokesperson or role model for Iran's 70 million citizens. She does not consider herself the leader of the opposition nor would desire any partisan role and governmental positions. According to First Run Icarus Films, she is and will remain "a simple lawyer," committed to pursuit of peace, justice and human rights.

Ebadi has remained a "courageous" defense lawyer, as the selection committee praised her, not "heeding the threat to her own safety." Ebadi has continued representing the prisoners of conscience and victims of human rights violations mostly on a pro-bono basis, including some of national and international significance. In November 2003, for example, she represented the family of the murdered Zahra Kazemi, a Canadian-Iranian freelance photographer. In summer 2006 during the prolonged hunger strike of Akbar Ganji, a prominent investigative journalist imprisoned for six years, Ebadi continued her legal representation of him despite the authorities' threats and intimidations against her involvement. On 17 May 2007 Ebadi announced that she would defend the Iranian American scholar Haleh Esfandiari, who has been jailed in Tehran since early May. Ebadi and her colleagues have also provided sustained legal representations to more than forty women's activists in Iran arrested during 2007 because of their roles in women's rights organizations or participation in the One Million Signature Campaign for Equal Rights.

In addition to sustained efforts in representing victims of human rights violations inside Iran, Ebadi has been in great demand for speaking engagements internationally. She frequently appears in the media; travels extensively to present lectures or deliver the commencement addresses at major universities; and consults with research institutions, think tanks, human/women's rights organizations, and the UN agencies in Asia, Africa, North America, and Europe.


In recognition of Ebadi's resolute and sustained struggle for human rights and democracy, especially the rights of women and children, she has received many awards and honors. One of her books, The Rights of the Child: A Study of Legal Aspects of Children's Rights in Iran, was selected as the Outstanding Book of the Year by the Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance. In 1996 Human Rights Watch awarded her with the Official Monitor of Human Rights and in 2001 she received the Rafto Human Rights Award from Norway. On 10 December 2003 Ebadi received the Nobel Peace Prize for that year.

When on 11 October 2003 the Norwegian Nobel Committee announced Ebadi as the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, the news filled Iranians all over the world with happiness. Except for the ruling conservatives, people in Tehran started congratulating each other in the streets. The timing and choice of this prize have placed the state of human rights in Iran under a spotlight and thereby affected the politics of Iran's international relations.

Honoring a feminist Muslim woman with the Nobel Prize has highlighted the issue of women's rights in the Islamic societies in general and under the Islamist regime of Iran in particular. It has provided more legitimacy and credence to the cause of the women's movement in Iran led by many activists and feminist lawyers for more than hundred years. As evident in the growing activism and expanding networking of women activists in Iran since 2004, the women's movement has actually been galvanzied by the Nobel Prize. Symbolizing international support, the Nobel Prize has boosted the self-esteem and self-confidence of feminist activists in Iran. Through the current women's campaigns to illegalize and stop violent practices such as stoning and especially the One Million Signature Campaign for Equal Rights, one can detect the positive and inspiring impact, directly or indirectly, of the Nobel Prize and Ebadi's national and international efforts.

While thousands of jubilent women (along with many men) wearing white scarves and holding red roses rushed to the airport in Tehran to welcome back Ebadi after her trip to accept the Nobel Prize, some conservatives and fundamentalists called it political mischief. Iranian state media waited hours to report the Nobel committee's decision. Even the moderate Khatami downgraded the historic significance of the prize by stating that although the scientific Nobels are important, the Peace Prize was political and therefore not important.

Some Iranian dissidents have been critical of Ebadi for her avoidance of a strong confrontational position against the Islamic regime. They argue that Ebadi has not made the most of the Nobel Prize to mobilize the opposition against the repressive regime. The state of human rights has deteriorated under President mahmoud ahmadinejad while Ebadi is still using a reformist and compromising approach, especially insisting on rejection of U.S. and European military intervention in Iran.

Ebadi has received more than a dozen honorary doctorate degrees from major universities in the United States and Europe and has been awarded several new human rights prizes, including the Légion d'honneur from French president Jacques Chirac in the Elysée Palace in Paris in November 2006; the Lipentz Freedom of Expression Prize (from German reporters); Lila's Prize for the most Courageous Woman from German readers; and the Best Women's Writers Prize from Al-Zahra University, Iran. In 2005 Ebadi was voted the world's twelfth leading public intellectual in the 2005 Global Intellectuals Poll by Prospect Magazine (U.K.).

Ebadi's latest book, Iran Awakening: A Memoir of Revolution and Hope (with Azadeh Moaveni), was published in several languages in 2006 and has been well received internationally. A reading of the book was serialized as BBC Radio 4's Book of the Week in September 2006. Her memoir would have not passed the censorship office in Iran to receive a permit for publishing in Iran. It was therefore crafted mainly for an international audience. Ironically she was also faced with restrictions in the United States due to the U.S. Department of Treasury's trade laws that included prohibitions on writers from embargoed countries. Supported by some other writers, Ebadi sued the Department of Treasury in 2004 arguing that the law infringes on the first amendment. After a long legal battle, Ebadi was finally able to publish her book in the United States in 2006.


Without shying away from the term feminism, Ebadi identifies herself as a Muslim feminist, an identity that may sound oxymoronic to the ears of some puritanical secularists as well as antifeminist Muslim fundamentalists and traditionalists. But Ebadi represents the creativity in women's ways of fighting patriarchy, the multiplicity of women's voices, and the diversity in the women's movement and feminisms in Iran as in many other societies living under religious laws and traditionalist rules. Ebadi indeed symbolizes the paradoxical status of Iranian women and a growing women's rights movement and feminist consciousness in Iran and the Middle East. As a staunch advocate of universality of human rights, Ebadi debunks cultural relativism. She boldly criticizes not only certain laws and state policies in Iran, but also the patriarchal and chauvinistic foundations of Iran's culture and traditions.

Along with five other women Nobel Peace laureates—Jody Williams (United States), Wangari Maathai (Kenya), Rigoberta Menchú Tum (Guatemala), Betty Williams (Ireland), and Mairead Corrigan Maguire (Ireland)—Ebadi initiated the formation of a transnational organization called the Nobel Women Initiative for Peace, Justice and Equality (NWI). Registered in Canada and inaugurated in April 2006 at the headquarters of the Feminist Majority Foundation in Los Angeles, this new organization aims at spotlighting and promoting the efforts of women's rights activists, researchers, and organizations working to advance peace, justice, and equality. Aung San Suu Kyi (Myanmar) is the only imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize laureate who remains under house arrest in Myanmar (Burma) whose release has been among the campaigns the NWI has been pursuing. The NWI's First International Women's Conference ("Women Redefining Peace in the Middle East & Beyond") took place in Galway, Ireland, from 29 to 31 May 2007. More than eighty leading women activists and researchers from thirty-seven countries participated in this conference during which Ebadi and other female Nobel Peace Prize laureates pledged to become "a global voice in tackling violence against women and in peace advocacy."


"Free Zeinab." Change for Equality. Available from http://we-change.org/english/spip.php?article87.

Haeri, Safa. "Iranians Celebrated with Joy Ebadi's Nobel Peace Prize." Iran Press Service. Available from http://www.iran-press-service.com/articles_2003/Oct-2003/ebadi_wins_nobel_peace_101003.html.

"Iran Awakening: An Interview with Shirin Ebadi." New American Media (20 May 2006). Available from http://news.newamericamedia.org/news/view_article.html?article_id=8ad8e36442c10ef7fc33f0c8e70c08d8.

"Iran's 'Illegal' Jailing of an American Scholar." US News & World Report. Available from http://www.usnews.com/usnews/blogs/news_blog/070517/irans_illegal_jailing_of_an_am.htm.

"Shirin Ebadi: A Simple Lawyer." First Run Icarus Films. Available from http://www.frif.com/new2005/shir.html.

Tohidi, Nayereh. "Defending Iran's Women." Ms. Magazine 16 no. 3 (Summer 2006): 43.

"Who We Are." Nobel Women's Initiative. Available from http://www.nobelwomensinitiative.org/about.php.


Penal Codes (written under Professor Abdolhassan Ali Abadi); Tehran: Meli Bank Publishing, 1972.

Medical Laws. Tehran: Zavar Publishing, 1988.

Laws of Literature and Arts. Tehran: Roshangaran Publishing, 1989.

Young Workers. Tehran: Roshangaran Publishing, 1989.

Architectural Laws. Tehran: Roshangaran Publishing, 1991.

History and Documentation of Human Rights in Iran. Tehran: Roshangar Publishing, 1993.

Refugees Rights. Tehran: Ganj-e Danesh Publishing, 1993.

The Rights of Child: A Study of Legal Aspects of Children's Rights in Iran. Translated by Mohammad Zamiran Tehran: UNICEF, 1994.

With Mohammad Zamiran. Tradition and Modernity. Tehran: Ganj-e Danesh Publishing, 1995.

Comparative Children's Rights. Translated by Hamid Marashi. Tehran: Kanoon Publishing, 1997.

Women's Rights. Tehran: Ganj-e Danesh Publishing, 2002.

With Uichol Kim and Henriette Sinding Aasen, eds. Democracy, Human Rights and Islam in Modern Iran: Psychological, Social and Cultural Perspectives. Bergen, Norway: Fagbokforlaget, 2003.

With Hadi Ghaemi. "The Human Rights Case against Attacking Iran," New York Times (8 February 2005). Available from http://hrw.org/english/docs/2005/02/09/iran10159.htm.

With Azadeh Moaveni. Iran Awakening: A Memoir of Revolution and Hope. New York: Random House, 2006.

                                          Nayereh Tohidi