The First Muslimah Nobel Peace Prize Laureate: This formidable Iranian woman is living proof that once you set your mind to something, you can use this gift to help better humankind.
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‘[THE PEACE PRIZE IS TO BE AWARDED] to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.’
These words were written in 1895 by scientist and inventor Alfred Nobel in his will. Upon his death a year later, the Nobel range of prizes was established. It was funded by his huge estate, at the time valued at 31m kroner (more than US$100m today). As Nobel was the inventor of dynamite and had amassed much of his fortune through weapons sales, their proceeds contributed to the bulk of his estate’s value. Despite this, he was a known pacifist, and worried about the legacy he would leave behind. This is thought to be the reason behind his creation of the Nobel Peace Prize, the fifth and final prize category named in his will. Previous winners include Martin Luther King Jr, Aung San Suu Kyi and the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso.
Shirin Ebadi undeniably deserves her place among these esteemed names.
An Iranian lawyer and former judge, she received the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize for her tireless efforts in promoting democracy and human rights, particularly for minorities, women and children.
She was also the first Muslim woman, and the first Iranian, to receive the award.
Beginning of Law Career
Shirin was born in 1947 in Hamadan, northwest Iran to an intellectual Muslim family. A year later, little Shirin and her family moved to Tehran, the capital of Iran.
Shirin and her brother and two sisters were raised with devotion, affection and, most importantly, equality. They were all nature-loving, highly educated children who were treated equally by their parents despite the highly patriarchal society in Iran. Growing up, she realised that boys had more freedom and enjoyed more privileges than girls.
Despite widespread gender inequality at the time, young Shirin continued to excel in her studies, securing a place at the University of Tehran in the Faculty of Law. She received her law degree three and a half years later. Her father, Mohammad Ali Ebadi, was a notary public, author of numerous books and one of Iran’s first commercial law lecturers. Needless to say, Shirin had the full support of her family in becoming a lawyer.
Upon graduation, Shirin immediately took the entrance exams for the Department of Justice. In March 1968, at only 22, she became the first woman in the history of Iran to serve as a judge. She continued her education and received a doctorate in law from the University of Tehran in 1971.
The revolution of early 1979 saw the brutal monarchy overthrown, replaced with an Islamic republic. The new regime was headed by Islamic clerics, with the Ayatollah, or chief cleric, as the leader.
The government moved quickly to repeal existing laws that were deemed too liberal, with women’s rights suffering significant setbacks. They believed that women and minorities should not have rights equal to men. Thus, a woman serving as a judge was considered incompatible in the new republic. Shirin and all other female judges were demoted to mere clerks in the very courts over which they once presided.
Despite the former female judges’ protests, the only concession they were given was being promoted to the position of ‘expert’ in the Justice Department. Outraged, Shirin opted instead for early retirement.
For several years she stayed at home taking care of her husband and their two daughters. Yet she continued to be as productive as ever, writing articles for Iranian journals and authoring numerous books while plotting her return to law.
In 1992, after many years of attempts, Shirin succeeded in getting a license, and she set up her own practice.
Shirin has become well known for her tireless efforts in taking up controversial cases that many Iranian lawyers won’t touch—usually politically sensitive ones that may threaten the authorities.
She represented the family of two victims of a series of homicides known as ‘The Chain Murders’, committed against Iranian reformists and dissidents between 1988 and 1998. In one especially high-profile case, opposition politician Dariush Forouhar and his wife Parvaneh were brutally stabbed to death in their home. The lengthy government investigation, widely seen as a sham, eventually concluded that rogue elements of the Ministry of Intelligence and National Security were behind the murders. The alleged leader, Saeed Emami, died in prison, ostensibly of suicide and before he could be formally charged.
Then, in a violent July 1999 night-time raid on a student dormitory, plainclothes paramilitary forces shot dead Ezzat Ebrahim-Nejad, who had participated that afternoon in a peaceful protest against the closure of a reformist newspaper. This led to widespread demonstrations across the country, which continued for the next six days. Shirin agreed to represent his family, pro bono, in the resulting trial. But during the case, she was accused of defamation for producing a video confession of Amir Farshad Ebrahimi, a former elite member of the Revolutionary Guard and founder of Ansar-e Hezbollah, an Iranian paramilitary group. He claimed that prominent political and religious officials had ordered his associates in Ansar-e Hezbollah to attack the dormitory where Ezzat was killed. He further stated that they had been directed to attack pro-reform figures, including ministers in then-President Khatami’s cabinet.
Government officials and the media quickly denounced the taped confessions as untrue and not credible, and Shirin was herself put on trial. She was sentenced to five years in prison and banned from practising law, though the Supreme Court later commuted her sentence after she had served 25 days. Ezzat’s killer remains at large.
Nobel Peace Prize
In 2003, Shirin was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The Nobel committee stated that ‘as a lawyer, judge, lecturer, writer and activist, she has spoken out clearly and strongly in her country, Iran, and far beyond’.
Reactions from Iranian officials were predictably critical, denouncing her award as a Western political tool.
She published a memoir three years later, titled Iran Awakening: A Memoir of Revolution and Hope. It was widely praised for informing outsiders of the internal struggle for reform in Iran—details largely not included in short-sighted news reports and textbooks.
Her most recent book, The Golden Cage: Three Brothers, Three Choices, One Destiny, released in April, tells the story of three Iranian brothers she knew through their sister, all of whom carry their own very different ideologies.
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 if Islam that is in harmony with equality and democracy is an authentic expression of faith.
Rebel With a Cause
Shirin has been steadfast in her opposition to the Iranian government, once saying to Reuters that Iran’s human rights record had worsened since 2006. Yet she refuses to give up on a better future for her country, and bravely continues defending minorities, including followers of the Baha’i Faith, despite intensifying threats against herself and her family.
The height of her clash with the Iranian regime peaked in 2009. In June, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was re-elected President in a disputed poll, provoking mass protests not seen in the country since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Shirin was in Spain attending a conference during the disputed election and, following her colleagues’ warnings of the dangerous situation there, has not returned since.
A few months later, in November 2009, the government reportedly seized Shirin’s Nobel Prize, certificate and medallion, along with other possessions from her safe deposit box. She was threatened with prosecution on dubious claims, and her financial accounts were frozen. Her sister Noushin was arrested and detained for three weeks without trial in an attempt to silence Shirin. In an interview with The Telegraph last year, she said, ‘I’ve never been contacted by the regime directly. But they contacted my family and friends and said: “wherever she is, we can get rid of her”. I don’t take the threat seriously. If people want to do something, they don’t talk about it beforehand. Their main aim is to scare me off doing my work properly.’
Despite the threats and hardships, Shirin continues her work abroad, maintaining an ambitious travelling and public speaking schedule and continuing to fight for peace and human rights. She has openly criticised companies such as Ericsson, Nokia and Siemens for supplying the Iranian regime with software used to monitor mobile phone calls and text messages. (The companies deny this, claiming that their software is meant only for lawful purposes,) In February 2011, she joined with human rights groups to call attention to Iran’s extreme capital punishment practices. Since 1979, Iran has executed thousands of people – young and old, male and female – often under murky and politically motivated circumstances.
Though vowing that she would always fight for Iran, Shirin is ironically unable to return to her homeland for now. But regardless of where she lives, Shirin Ebadi will continue to strive for equality and democracy. As she so eloquently opines in the opening pages of The Golden Cage, ‘If you do not have the power to overthrow the rule of oppression, inform others of the oppression.’
Pictures Olivier Pacteau and Eivind Marienborg [2010, www.grafikum.no]