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.
A voice for the silenced
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.
The long road to reform
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.
A Recent History of Iran
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 in Iran. In a 2003 article for the Weekly Standard, Ebadi told journalist Amir Taheri: "If the present regime does not reform and evolve into one that reflects the will of the people, it is going to fail, even if it adopts a secularist posture." In other words, to Ebadi, the most important element of government is that it be democratic, subject to the wishes of the general public, whether under a religious or nonreligious banner.
Recognized by Nobel
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."
For More Information
Dorsey, Gary. "Nobel Cause." Baltimore Sun (May 15, 2004).
"Ebadi to Give Nobel Prize Money to Rights Charities." Europe Intelligence Wire (December 9, 2003).
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).
Shirin Ebadi (born 1947) has taken great risks while fighting human rights abuses and advocating for children's rights in Iran. Ebadi was the first female judge in her country. Removed from her post after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, she entered private law practice and advocated for those who had been abused, oppressed, or murdered by Iran's new hard–line Islamist government. She is closely watched by the government, which has imprisoned her for her actions. In recognition of her efforts, Ebadi received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003.
Ebadi was born in the city of Hamedan in northwestern Iran, one of four children of Mohammad Ali Ebadi and his wife, Mino. Ebadi's father was head of Hamedan's registry office and a lecturer in commercial law. The family moved to Tehran, the country's capital, when Ebadi was one-year-old. There, she attended Firuzkuhi primary school and Anoshiravn Dadgar and Reza Shah Kabir secondary schools."We always encouraged our children to be active in society," Ebadi's mother told Time in 2003. "I always wanted to become just like Shirin became." Ebadi attended Tehran University and continued on to law school, receiving her law degree in three–and–a–half years. Following a six–month apprenticeship, she became her country's first female judge in March 1969. She pursued a doctorate in private law at Tehran University, while maintaining her judgeship, graduating with honors in 1971. In 1975, Ebadi became the president of Bench 24 of the Tehran City Court.
Began Human Rights Work
In 1979 an Islamic revolution overthrew the Shah of Iran. Although Iran was a patriarchal country, the Shah's secular monarchy had granted many freedoms to women and down played the influence of religion in the political life of the nation. The new fundamentalist regime, led by Ayatolla Ruholla Khomeini, severely restricted women's rights, and Ebadi and all her fellow female judges were stripped of their positions and reassigned to clerical duties. Ebadi became a clerk in the same court over which she had once presided. Following protests by the demoted women, the female judges were named "experts" in the Justice Department. Still dissatisfied, Ebadi resigned. Her subsequent application for a license to practice law was denied, and she spent the next several years unemployed. During this time, she wrote several influential books and articles focusing on the rights of children and the broader issue of human rights. In 1992, she finally obtained her lawyer's license and set up her own practice in the basement of her home. She also began teaching at Tehran University and established a non-governmental organization, Association for Support of Children's Rights in Iran.
Once she resumed practicing law, Ebadi accepted several high–profile cases centering on human rights abuses, often providing her services at no charge. She defended numerous journalists accused or imprisoned for speaking out against the government and advocating for free expression, and also represented the children of murdered dissidents Dariush and Parveneh Forouhar. In 1994, she was one of 134 signers of the Declaration of Iranian Writers, a petition opposing Iran's fundamentalist government that was regarded as a turning point in the struggle for democracy. In 1999, she represented the family of Ezzat Ebrahiminejad, one of at least three students murdered in a para military attack on a university dormitory following a demonstration protesting restrictions on the press. Ebadi has worked to prove that government–supported forces committed the murders and, as a result of her activities, she was jailed for 25 days in 2000 on charges of defamation. Ebadi spent the time in solitary confinement, although after 18 days she was permitted access to books. "[T]he prison library was available only to men," she explained in an interview with the online Iranian feminist journal Bad Jens. "So they chose some books and brought them to me."
Ebadi also represented the mother of Arin Golshani, a young girl who was tortured to death while in her father's custody. The case was an outgrowth of her efforts to improve the status of children under Iranian law. "The problem with child laws in Iran is that they view children as objects, albeit valuable objects, in relation to their fathers," Ebadi told the UN Chronicle in 2004. For example, she explained, a man may receive the death penalty for murdering a neighbor's child, but only ten years imprisonment for murdering his own. Futhermore, fathers are automatically awarded custody of children in divorce cases. "This is an inappropriate law that forgets about the welfare of children, who do not belong to anyone, and the courts must creatively seek to find the best methods for protecting them," Ebadi said in the UN Chronicle interview.
Awarded Nobel Peace Prize
The government scrutinizes Ebadi, who constantly feels the threat of harm or assassination. In a 2004 interview with The Progressive, she said she had learned to accept such danger: "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. Every time I am fearful I think to myself, the reason they do this is to discourage me from doing what I do. Hence, if I discontinue my work I will have succumbed to my fears." In 2001, the Norwegian government awarded her the Rafto Prize for her fearless efforts. Two years later, Ebadi's work and the fight for human rights in Iran took the world stage when she received the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize, for which she did not even know she was nominated. Ebadi became the first Iranian and the first Muslim woman to receive the award, which was largely viewed as an international call for reforms in Iran. "In naming Ebadi last week, Norway's Nobel Committee handed a platform to a formidable Iranian voice of conscience, breathed life into the country's dying reform movement and put the Islamic regime on notice," Scott McLeod wrote in the October 20, 2003, issue of Time. "Your name will shine in the history of the Peace Prize," Norwegian Nobel Committee chair Ole Danbolt Mjøs said in his presentation speech. "Let us hope that the prize will also inspire changes in your beloved home country, Iran, as well as in many other parts of the world where people need to hear your clear voice."
Elated students in Tehran distributed flowers and sweets (the name Shirin means "sweet" in Persian) to passersby. The Iranian government, on the other hand, sought to discredit the honor. "This is not worth the fuss," Iranian president Muhammad Khatami said, according to National Review online. "The Nobel Peace Prize is nothing. Prizes for literature and science matter." The state–sponsored television channel did not even relay the news of the award until the end of its broadcast, following the sports roundup and a report on a downed airplane in New Zealand. The channel refused to carry Ebadi's acceptance speech because she did not wear the hijab, a headscarf that the Iranian government requires all Iranian women to wear, in the awards presentation. Ebadi has long refused to wear the hijab, which was first required by the Lebanese government in the 1970s, outside of Iran. "Instead of telling Muslim women to cover their heads we should tell them to use their heads," she remarked, according to National Review online in 2003. "We must not accept anything that is rejected by our reason."
Drew Attention to Islam
In several interviews, Ebadi said the human rights abuses and the oppression of women by the Iranian government contradict the true teachings of Islam. "It is not Islam at fault, but rather the patriarchal culture that uses its own interpretations to justify whatever it wants," she told The Progressive in 2004. "It utilizes psychology to say that women are emotional. It utilizes medical science to say that men's brains are formed in such a way that they are better able to understand concepts. These are all hypotheses. None of this has been proven. Needless to say, the dominant culture is going to insist on an interpretation of religion that happens to favor men." She also sought to counter the common association outside the Muslim world between Islam and violence. "If certain people exploit their religion and commit murder in the name of Islam, we should not put that on account of Islam, just as we did not attribute to Christianity the horrors that were perpetuated in Bosnia, or just as we do not blame Judaism because of Israel's disregard for UN resolutions," she said in a 2004 interview with the UN Chronicle. "How is it, then, that if some Muslims commit an error, that is interpreted in the name of Islam—that is a mistake and certainly there is no winner in this dark contest."
Ebadi has also been vocal about her belief in her country's autonomy, and has sharply criticized the United States government targeting Iran as needing a democratic government. "The American government includes Iran in the 'axis of evil' and is so busy demanding that Iran embrace democracy that it shouts over the heads of millions of Iranians who demand democracy and freedom—often at great peril," Ebadi told Time in 2003. "Every nation needs to select what's best for itself on its own—whether that's Iran, Iraq or in Europe." Ebadi sued the U.S. government in 2004 for blocking publication of her memoirs in the United States as part of a ban on literature from nations subject to U.S. sanctions.
Ebadi has seen progress over her career. "Iranian women . . . already have some impressive accomplishments to their credit," Michael Theodoulou wrote in the Christian Science Monitor in 1999. "With 14 women in Iran's 270–seat parliament, they enjoy better representation than their sisters in the U.S. Senate. More Iranian women than men have passed university entrance exams in recent years. They are snapping up jobs that were once exclusively male, such as bus driving." Despite her ability to effect change and the increased visibility of her work, Ebadi, who is married with two daughters in college, told the UN Chronicle she had no interest in seeking a government position. "I have repeatedly stated that I have no intention of taking part in factional disputes, or of direct participation in governmental affairs," she said. "A human rights advocate would be hard pressed to be self–critical if he or she is within the government; that person should remain within the fabric of society. I have always been a judicial counsel, defending the innocent, political prisoners, women and children within my capacity. I shall remain as such in the future, an attorney committed to human rights."
Christian Science Monitor, October 15, 1999.
Progressive, September 2004.
Time, October 20, 2003.
UN Chronicle, March–May, 2004.
"A Short Visit with Shirin Ebadi," Bad Jens,http://www.badjens.com (December 4, 2004).
"Celebrating Shirin Ebadi," National Review Online, October 17, 2003, http://www.nationalreview.com. (November 29, 2004).
"Shirin Ebadi," Biography Resource Center Online, Gale Group, 2003, http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (February 11, 2005).
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 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."
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