Shirin Ebadi

By: Victoria Yates

Shirin Ebadi was born in 1947 in Hamedan, Iran. Ebadi’s family were practising Muslims and academics. Her father, Mohammad Ali Ebadi was one of the first lecturers in commercial law and wrote several books during his lifetime. The family moved to Tehran when Ebadi was one, a city where she remained into her adult life.

All four siblings were educated to a high standard, with Ebadi herself completing a law degree at the University of Tehran in three and a half years. Ebadi immediately applied to the Department of Justice where, following a six-month apprenticeship, she began her official role of Judge in 1969, all the while continuing her education. In 1971 she gained a doctorate with honours in private law.  Gaining her position was no small feat, and Ebadi became the first woman in the history of Iranian justice to serve in the role.

However, the breakthrough was short lived. The success of the Islamic Revolution in 1979 brought with it beliefs that woman were unable to serve as judges according to Islam. Ebadi and fellow female peers were removed from their official duties and given alternative clerical work.  The protestations of the women led to their promotion to ‘experts’ in the Justice Department, a continued farce Ebadi could not stand. - so she applied for early retirement.  She attempted to gain a license to practice law, but as the Bar Association had become essentially defunct and fell instead under the Judiciary, all attempts were denied. Ebadi was housebound until 1992 when she succeeded in her efforts to practice law and set-up her own practice.

In the intervening years she did not, however, remain idle. Ebadi wrote various books and articles in Iranian journals. When she did return to practising law, Ebadi was a fearless lawyer who choose cases many refused to touch, pursuing issuing from freedom of speech, to interpretation of Islam, to human rights.

Some of this outspokenness came back to her in 2000 when she was put on trial for allegedly distributing the taped confession of an individual who claimed conservative leaders in the community were physically attacking pro-reform gatherings and figureheads. For this, Ebadi was given a suspended sentence and a ban from her professional work.

In 2003, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Ebadi for “for her efforts for democracy and human rights”, an accolade that Ebadi said she hoped would inspire courage amongst other human rights activists in Iran.  To this day she continues to call for justice for political prisoners, journalists, students, women, and children in Iran, vehemently maintaining her calls for reform.

Ebadi left the country on the eve of President Achmadinejad’s re-election shortly after publishing her memoir on her life in Iran, and her interpretation of an Islam that supports equality, and has not returned. She has been sent threatening messages and her husband was arrested and brutally beaten in Tehran in 2009. Despite the personal danger, Ebadi continues to be a prominent voice criticizing Iran and calling on the international community not to recognize unfairly elected governments or individuals who stifle opposition protest.  

Throughout her time Ebadi has found herself on the regime’s death list, held in solitary confinement, seen her family harassed and her brother in-law executed, and been consistently prevented from pursuing her career in justice.

Yet she remains firm with her convictions and her outspoken desire to lead a change in Iran. She is in so many ways groundbreaking leader, and has proven a true beacon to women and all those seeking justice.