Shirin Ebadi is a 70-year-old female lawyer in Iran and well known human rights activist. Her lives work is devoted to bringing true justice to those whose voices have been silenced by injustices in the Iranian political system. She grew up in Iran’s capital, Tehran and became a judge in 1975 at age 21. She held this groundbreaking position as the first woman judge in Tehran until the revolution began in 1978 and changed the course of her career.
The Iranian Revolution was sparked by a group of Islamic fundamentalists who rose up against the Shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, in 1978. They were unhappy with the western culture he adopted and they saw his dealings with western nations as “weak”. They were critical of a capitalist system because conservative Muslims believed it clashed with the word and doctrine of Allah. Ultimately, they were convinced the west was merely using Pahlavi as their puppet.
In Feb 1979 Reza Pahlavi was overthrown, and a new Islamic regime began under the rule of Shia Muslim religious leader, philosopher, revolutionary, and politician Ruhollah Khomeini. In comparison to the previous shah, Khomeini’s regime was much more suppressive towards women, violent, and strict in enforcing Sharia Law. An
y sign of opposition to conservative beliefs within political groups was punished with brutal violence and he vindicated this violence with passages from the Quran he interpreted as supportive of violence.
The 1975 significant amendment of the Family Protection Act of 1967, which provided further guarantees and rights to women in marriage, was declared void. Dress and behavior codes were strictly enforced, and any form of westernization was suppressed. This led to division within the country and uprisings from the people. To make things worse, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein took notice of the political chaos going on and saw it as an opportunity to attack which made way for Iran Iraq War in 1980.
These drastic changes in government meant drastic changes in Ebadi’s career path as well. In 1979 she was demoted from judge to secretary in the Tehran city court because conservative clerics insisted women shouldn’t be judges. After months of protesting this, her and other women were “promoted” to the made-up position of “Law Expert”. She was expectedly dissatisfied with this but her request for retirement was repeatedly declined so she quit at the city court and decided to write instead until she could return to her passion for law.
Ebadi spent the next 14 years writing books and articles in Iranian magazines, newsletters, and academic journals until she returned to law in 1993. After returning to the practice she primarily represented those victimized by injustices in the political system. She became known for offering pro-bono defense in many cases. These cases included the family of a politician who was murdered due to his more liberal or intellectual views and the family of a teenage girl who was gang-raped and murdered leaving her family homeless because they were unable to pay the government to have the rapist imprisoned and executed. She started lecturing law at the University of Tehran in 2003 and continues to practice today. Through her work, she has brought international attention to injustices within Iranian law.
Links to details on Ebadi’s most famous cases:
Though it may come as surprise, Sharin Ebadi is a strong nationalist in her political views even though she is so outspoken in her opposition to injustice within the Iranian politics. She holds a critical view of western culture and initially opposed the pro-Western Shah and supported the Islamic Revolution. While she claims that Iranian law has many flaws, she believes they must be corrected internally. In her book Iran Awakening, she explains,
“In the last 23 years, from the day I was stripped of my judgeship to the years of doing battle in the revolutionary courts of Tehran, I had repeated one refrain: an interpretation of Islam that is in harmony with equality and democracy is an authentic expression of faith. It is not religion that binds women, but the selective dictates of those who wish them cloistered. That belief, along with the conviction that change in Iran must come peacefully and from within, has underpinned my work( Ebadi, Sharin. Iranian Awakening).”
Though she has received an admirable and ever-increasing amount of honors,
some of Ebadi’s most notable include being the first Iranian and Muslim to receive a Nobel Peace Prize on Oct. 10th, 2003 for her efforts in democracy, human rights, and the work she has done for women and children in her nation. She attained a spot as one of Forbes “100 Most Powerful Women in the World”, and she was named the world’s 12th leading public intellectual in The 2005 Global Intellectuals Poll by Prospect (UK). She’s also founded a number of organizations geared towards human rights like, the Society for Protecting the Rights of the Child in 1994 which fights against child abuse in Iranian homes, the Defenders of Human Rights Center in 2001 which is a non-governmental organization that is actually funded by the west, and the Nobel Women’s Initiative in 2006 which promotes peace and equality for women in Iran.
Not only has Ebadi made a lasting impact in the political and social sphere through her law career, but her literature continues to influence the people of Iran and around the globe today. In 2007 she published, “Awakening: One Woman’s Journey to Reclaim Her Life and Country”, which tells the story of her law, teaching, and writing careers while also revealing her private self. She opens up about her faith, experiences, and her longing for a traditional life, even while boldly speaking out against injustice in a land where such voices are severely punished. In 2008 she published, “Refugee Rights in Iran, which inspects the legal aspects of life as a refugee in Iran and addresses controversial issues such as poverty and right to education. In 2011 she released, “The Golden Cage: Three Brothers, Three Choices, One Destiny”, which is a fictional story of three brothers whose lives were heavily influenced by Iranian history. The oldest was a Sciàn soldier, the second, Javad, a communist; and the youngest, Ali, is a supporter of Khomeini’s regime. In 2016 she published, “Until we are Free”, which is another novel about Ebadi’s love for Iran and her battle for justice in such an oppressive political atmosphere.
Two quotes that are quite telling about Ebadi’s view on her country’s political injustices come from her book, “Iran Awakening: One Woman’s Journey to Reclaim Her Life and Country”.
In the first quote she writes:
“ Under Iranian Code, the worth of a woman’s life equals half of a man’s , a point that often leads to grotesque legal judgments that effectively punish the victims. In this instance, the judge ruled that the ‘blood money‘ for the two men was worth more than the life of the murdered nine-year-old girl, and he demanded that her family come up with thousands of dollars to finance their executions (Ebadi, Sharin. Iranian Awakening).”
In this quote, Ebadi is referring to the rape case of Arian Golshani. Upon analysis of this quote, I found it interesting that she significantly reduces the value of women by half when she could’ve chosen any value. This makes it clear how little regard Khomeini’s regime has for women. She ties this in with the power of money in the political system when she uses the word “finance”. This implies that the family is making an investment in the government like it’s normal like this is one standard way that the political system makes a profit. She implies that they feed off of the injustices between Iran’s weaker class and gender.
In the second quote she writes:
“Sometimes, radical slogans are a trap. They are shouted by infiltrators so that a group of students protesting a press crackdown can be depicted as seeking to overthrow the regime. Sometimes they are not traps at all but the frustrated stand of a brave person. But how are you to know? Your objective is to avoid being a pawn, to avoid getting dragged into trouble because you are curious, or believe you are seeing history being made(Ebadi, Sharin. Iraninan Awakening).”
In this quote, she boldly calls out the regime by name in the first sentence. She puts the press up against the regime, implying that it is the cold hard truth versus definite lies. The word “pawn” makes the government into a game, and since a pawn is controlled by a singular hand, it depicts Khomeini as the controlling player of this political game.
Both quotes involve bravely calling out of the government. This boldness is incredibly admirable considering that they get rid of people who expose them. Ebadi is honest and very effectively gives vivid imagery to very obvious injustice going on in her country.
Today, Ebadi continues to teach on Iranian politics around the globe, shedding light on issues in the government and proposing ways in which they might be solved. With her literature, she has done an astounding job in bringing attention to those whose voices have been silenced. Through her career, she has brought about positive, tangible change in her country.
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- Ebadi, Shirin, Iran Awakening: A Memoir of Revolution and Hope, by Shirin Ebadi with Azadeh Moaveni, Random House, 2006, p.204