“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. Human rights is a universal standard. It is a component of every religion and every civilization.” -Shirin Ebadi
Shirin Ebadi is a a lawyer, a former judge, a human rights activist and a Nobel Peace Prize winner. Founder of the Defenders of Human Rights Center in Iran, she has dedicated herself to correcting the injustices that were so predominant in her home country, as well as fighting for the rights of women, children and refugees.
She was born in 1947, in Hamadan, to ethnic Persian parents. Her father, a notary and public lawyer, would be a key political influence in her early life, one of the forces that would drive her to committing herself to public service. At eighteen, she was admitted to the University of Tehran’s law department, excelling as a student and completing her undergraduate and masters degrees. She would pass the qualifying exams to be placed as a judge and in 1975, would become the first woman in Iran to preside over a legislative court, as well as to become a chief justice. This would change shortly after she had gained her position, as the Iranian Revolution began to take hold over the country. In 1979, conservative clerics would ban women from becoming judges, due to their interpretation of Islamic law. Ebadi was demoted from her position as a judge, to a secretary in her previous department. Though she and other women who had been in positions of power protested, she would eventually resign as it became clear that she no longer carried with her the power she once held. Ebadi would not be able to practice law again till 1992, even though she had a law office permit. She would petition tis Islamic law throughout the years, as well as use the time to write, giving way to the swork she is most famous for today.
From childhood, I fell in love with a phenomenon I later learned was justice, When I was a child and saw other children fighting I would go aid the underdog, without even knowing what they were fighting about, which would also cause me to get in the middle and get beaten. That is why I later became a student of law. And later, because of this feeling, I became a judge, as I thought I could help execute and bring about justice. When the Islamic Revolution came about and said a woman could no longer be a judge, I changed my job, and became a lawyer. It was the same feeling that encouraged me to become active in defending human rights.
When her license was reinstated in the ’90s, she immediately began practicing again, most often offering her services to political prisoners, Iranian dissidents, and those who were often victimized by the Iranian government the most. She established two private, Western-funded organizations in Iran: The Society for Protecting the Rights of the Child and The Defenders of The Human Rights Center. Both organizations were active legal resource centers for women, children, political prisoners, and ethnic and sexual minorities. Ebadi started the organizations after she had represented the family of Dariush Forouhar, a leftist intellectual who was the founder of the Hezb-e Mellat-e Iran, a pan-Iranist opposition party that was highly critical of the conservative clerics power. He and his wife had been found murdered in their home, a crime which the state claimed it had nothing to do with. Ebadi and Forouhar’s family felt otherwise.
She also defended women and children who were often victims of domestic and sexual abuse, crimes that in Ebadi’s words, “went shamefully unpunished.” She would later be requested by the Iranian parliament to help draft a bill against child abuse in 2002, due to her experience. But it would be soon afterwards that she would come to grab the world’s attention by representing the family of Zahra Kazemi-Ahmadabi, a Candadian-Iranian photographer, who on a trip to Iran, had been arrested during the 2003 demonstrations. Ebadi fought tooth and nail against the Iranian intelligence agents who were accused of murdering Ahmadabi. The state claimed that Ahmadabi had died of a stroke and that she had mental issues and was therefore released. Ebadi, gathering all sources she could, proved that Ahmadabi had been brutally beaten, tortured, and raped. Ebadi won the case for Ahmadabi’s family, only to have the two agents acquitted, and all of Ebadi’s witnesses be condemned to prison. It was a large blow to Ebadi’s work, and she was threatened by undercover cops for many months afterwards. Nonetheless, the rest of the world had witnessed Ebadi’s work in the trial and finally began to recognize her work as an activist.
In 2003, Ebadi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her legal defense work in human rights. Though many felt that Ebadi was a natural shoe-in for the Peace Prize, there were many dissidents of her award. Some felt that her work was comparable to that of awarding Gorbachev, obvious that she had been selected for calculated, political reasons. While some of the world cheered and some of the world naysayed, Iran took a harsh stance against her, calling it “political sabotage by a pro-Western institution,” and “an abomination that Ebadi was to go uncovered” (Ebadi did not cover her hair when accepting her award).
Ebadi would later leave Iran and travel around the world, lecturing and teaching. She began to openly speak out against the human rights violations in Iran, though she always expressed a deep love for her home country. She also spoke out against the Bush administration and called them instigators of the conditions of Iran’s state. Threats began mounting against her and her family and it was decided that Ebadi would not return to Iran, even though her husband still lived there. She would later learn that her Nobel Peace Prize and diploma had been forcibly seized by the Revolutionary Court of Iran. They would also later shut down her Center for Defenders of Human Rights, raiding the offices and seizing all papers, files and computers that held information on political prisoners and activist.
Ebadi has resided in exile in the U.K. since 2009, where she continues to teach and write, working mainly towards human rights for people around the globe. She would go on to pen her memoir, Iran Awakening, a book that would not be published in Iran, but would tell her story of working inside the legal justice system in the country. She continues to criticize oppressive structures and urges the international community to work toward defending political prisoners, students and women. Though she continues to receive threats and most recently, had her husband assaulted and her bank account frozen, she still believes the call to reform for not only the Iranian government, but for any political system that oppresses anyone who does not fall directly in line with its priorities, making her a badass lady of history.