“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.”
During the ceremony to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway, Shirin Ebadi did a simple thing which caused people of very different points of view to criticize her. She chose not to wear the hijab, the traditional head covering for Muslim women. In Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution women have been required to wear the hijab. Ebadi as a tireless advocate for women’s rights chose her form of dress to highlight freedom of choice: “I want Iranian women themselves to be able to choose whether they want to use the hijab.” The religious mullahs In Iran were not the only ones upset. Non-religious Iranian women were also dismayed and planned to protest because Ebadi seeks equality using the Qur’an as the moral and legal basis. Her action is not a rejection of her Islamic faith, rather an expression of trying to live out the demand for justice and respect for human rights she finds deep within it.
Shirin Ebadi was born into a legal family. Her father was a professor of commercial law and the chief notary public in Hamadan. She studied law at the University of Tehran, and in 1969 she passed the exam to become a judge. In 1975 she became the first woman in Iran to preside over a legislative court.
Then in 1979 the Iranian revolution changed everything. The ruling religious clerics insisted that Islam prohibits women from being judges, so Ebadi and the other women judges were demoted. Ebadi became a clerical worker in the judicial office over which she once presided. Unable to overturn the policy against women judges, she was even restricted from practicing law and so she retired. From her home she began to write extensively on legal and political matters, which boosted her into a larger spotlight in Iranian society.
The election of reformist Mohammad Khatami as president led to a change in legal opportunities for women. Ebadi regained her law license in 1992 and returned to her legal practice, taking up especially cases for dissidents and minorities. She represented the family of a dissident intellectual who had been murdered along with his wife. Eventually the murders were traced to a team from the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence. The controversy came to a climax when the Ministry of Intelligence head allegedly committed suicide before the case came to trial. Ebadi also provided legal representation in a high profile case for the family of a young man who was killed in student protests. As she dealt with the case she herself was arrested and sentenced to five years in prison for sending President Khatami and the head of the judiciary a videotaped confession that tied the killers to high-level conservative officials. A higher court eventually overturned her conviction, and Ebadi was released.
Ebadi established the Defenders of Human Rights Center in 2001 with four other human rights lawyers. Through the center Ebadi has continued her defense of the marginalized. She has defended the rights of refugees, particular Afghans fleeing into Iran. She has also advocated for the rights of media journals banned by the government and of people who have been sentenced for merely expressing their views.
Ebadi has made a special cause of dealing with issues of child abuse and domestic violence. She challenged the child custody laws in divorce cases that separate children from their mothers, giving priority to the fathers. She established the Society for Protecting the Rights of the Child in Iran, and served as the group’s president. She helped to draft a law against the physical abuse of children, which passed the Majilis, the Iranian national assembly, in 2002.
For Ebadi her work on human rights is consistent with her faith as a Muslim. She wrote, “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 convention that change in Iran must come peacefully and from within, has underpinned my work.” Ebadi earlier opposed the Shah and has also supported critics of the Islamic revolutionary regime, but she does not support those who call for outside intervention against Iran. “The fight for human rights is conducted in Iran by the Iranian people,” she says, “and we are against any foreign intervention in Iran.”
In May 2008 the Iranian government cracked down upon the Baha’is, an extension of the harassment of adherents of that faith that has been on-going since the establishment of the revolutionary government. Ebadi claimed that Iran’s respect of human rights was regressing, and she cited her own harassment, including death threats when she agreed to represent imprisoned Baha’is. The government attacked her in the state-controlled media, accused her of links to the Baha’is, links to the West, support of homosexuals, not wearing the hijab, and protecting CIA agents. The office of the Center for the Defense of Human Rights was raided by police and shut down. Ebadi’s computers and files were seized. Later, demonstrators connected with the government attacked her office and her home.
In 2006 Ebadi joined with five other women recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize to launch the Nobel Women’s Initiative. Betty Williams, Mairead Corrigan Maguire, Wangari Maathai, Jody Williams, Rigoberta Menchu and Ebadi decided to pool their resources and experiences to provide a collaborative boost for women’s rights around the world.
Ebadi doesn’t just join with the global eminent women in the struggle for justice. She also empowers individual women to link together for nonviolent change. She has provided leadership in a campaign to collect one million signatures of Iranian women protesting their lack of legal rights. The effort to get women to sign the petition is set up to be far more significant than merely gathering signatures. It is a tool for educating women about the situation in their country. Organizers talk to women about their legal rights and raise awareness of the issues. They give women a simple act they can take, signing their name, to join with others in making a change. The petition drive has trained 400 women as grassroots educators and organizers. The government has responded with repression, shutting down the petition website and arresting three journalists who wrote in support of it. Ebadi says, “By getting one million signatures, the world will know we object to these conditions.”
Whether encouraging one woman at a time to sign her name for change, or joining with Nobel laureates to speak for peace and justice around the world, Shirin Ebadi refuses to be trapped in anyone’s box of what she should be and say. She speaks for freedom for all, and practices that freedom in the face of those who would deny it to her.