Linking Present to Past

Shirin Ebadi

Nobel Peace Prize Winner, 2003


Shirin Ebadi is an advocate for Iranian women’s struggles for equal rights and citizenship. She also has fought to establish the concept of children’s rights, and for censored journalists, prisoners of conscience, victims of violence, and student activists whose human rights have been violated. She has led a life as lawyer, judge, activist, wife, and mother. Even though she has suffered imprisonment and censorship, she has chosen to stay in Iran even when her life was threatened.

Shirin is a practicing Muslim who believes in an Islam that can be compatible with democracy. She opposes not the religion but its narrow legal interpretation, and the outdated patriarchal traditions that keeps the current Iranian order in power. She says the problem “ not the religion that binds women, but the selective dictates of those who wish them cloistered.” She therefore supports the full separation between religion and the state. In her recent biography, “Iran Awakening: A Memoir of Revolution and Hope,” she also states her determination to “help correct Western stereotypes of Islam, especially the image of Muslim women as docile, forlorn creatures.”


Events that Influenced Shirin Ebadi’s Life Course
The following significant moments in Shrin’s life are gleaned from “Iran Awakening.”

  • Parents instill in her a sense of independence and self-reliance. Shirin’s father goes against Iranian family traditions treating Shirin and her sisters the same as her brother. She regards her father’s confidence in her as her “most valued inheritance.”
  • Overthrow of Prime Minister Dr. Mossadegh, Iran’s first democratically elected leader, in 1953 by a coup organized by the CIA and British intelligence service. Shirin’s father, a Mossadegh supporter, is forced out of his job. Coup puts the Shah in power, who rules with an iron hand for 26 years in close contection to the United States.

  • Economic and social reforms started in 1963 under which women enjoyed relatively more rights than they have today.

  • Receives law degree in 1964, and becomes first among 100 women allowed to become judges in 1969.

  • Marries Javad Tavassolian in 1975. Husband supports her public activities and encourages her work. With him she has two daughters.

  • Iranian Revolution in 1979. The Shah’s regime is overthrown. The Ayatollah Khomeini installed. Shirin supports revolution, but deplores seizing of the U.S. embassy by followers of Imam, seeing taking diplomats as hostages as going against international agreements.

  • Imposition of Islamic Penal Code in 1979. Shirin says, “the laws, in short, turned the clock back fourteen hundred years,” making the legal value of a woman's life half that of a man.

  • Stripped of judgeship in late 1980. Clerics dismiss Shirin, calling women unfit to be judges. She is demoted against her will. In removing her rights, Shrin says, Khomeini gave birth to her activism.

  • Invasion of Iran by Saddam Hussein in 1980. Enormous number Iranians killed or wounded; about 2.5 million refugees produced. Power of the revolutionary clerics solidified by most Iranians who were fighting to defend their country.

  • Chaos following Ayatollah Khomeini death 1989. Government repression and extreme acts against the MKO, (Mojaedin-e Khalgh Organization), a socialist opposition movement. Shirin’s brother-in-law jailed and later assassinated. Komiteh (Islamic police) becomes a more fearful part of Iranian women's lives.

  • Iranian Bar Association grants Shirin license in 1992. She primarily takes pro bono cases which showcase the injustice of the Islamic Republic’s laws. Writes articles for magazines. Obtains a growing reputation, along with quartet of female lawyers. In 1995, the mullahs label them, “the four mares of the apocalypse.”

  • Works with women in Society for Defense of Children’s Rights. In 1997 challenges the law denying child custody rights to women. Writes several books, one entitled “The Rights of a Child.”

  • Election of moderate President Khatami in 1997 raises hopes for reforms.

  • High-profile case in 1999 in which Ebadi exposes the government’s plot to repress democratic movements through the use of militant vigilantes. The publicity forces the Islamic Republic to check its excess, and to discard extra-judicial killings.

  • Arrested and jailed in June 2000 after working to pursue death of a student shot by paramilitaries. Released same year.

  • September 2003, wins Nobel Peace Prize. Crowd that greet her number hundreds of thousands of well wishers.

Iranian Women “Transforming History

In the Epilogue of her biography, “Iran Awakening: A Memoir of Revolution and Hope,” Shirin Ebadi wrote:

“A truth I have learned in my lifetime, one that is echoed in the history of Iranian women across the ages; [is] that the written word is the most powerful tool we have to protect ourselves, both from the tyrants of the day and from our own traditions. Whether it is....feminist poets of the last century who challenged the culture’s perception of women through verse, or lawyers like me, who defend the powerless in court, Iranian women have for centuries relied on words to transform reality.”

Click here to read about some Iranian women poets whose words “transformed history.”

To find out about the first woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize  click here

For a list of other Women Nobel Prize winners  click here

To read the essay “Peace as an Early Woman’s Issue”  click here

Lyn Reese is the author of all the information on this website
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