Shirin Ebadi: First Muslim Woman Nobel Peace Prize Winner

“Whenever women protest and ask for their rights, they are silenced with the argument that the laws are justified under Islam. It is an unfounded argument. It is not Islam at fault, but rather the patriarchal culture that uses its own interpretations to justify whatever it wants.”
        -Shirin Ebadi

When we think about Nobel Peace Prize winners, those who often come to mind surely include the great Nelson Mandela, who was awarded the prize in 1993 for his work in ending the Apartheid regime in South Africa. Or maybe Mother Teresa, who was rewarded in 1979 for her constant work in combating poverty and distress, both which were seen as a threat to peace. Indeed, both of them, as well as the many other Nobel Peace Prize laureates, put forth much effort to make a difference in the world that we live in today — but who would’ve figured that a Muslim woman would be among the many to win the prestigious award?

For Shirin Ebadi, becoming the first Muslim woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize was a feat that was not to be accomplished between day and night, but after years of work in democracy and human rights causes. Ebadi was born in Hamadan, Iran in 1947 to parents of high academics and faith, but spent much of her childhood in Tehran after relocating to the city with her family at the age of one. It was in Tehran that she began her education at Firuzkuhi Primary School and continued until she reached the University of Tehran in 1965, where she was admitted to the Department of Law. In 1968, Ebadi successfully passed the qualifications exams to become a judge, after which she officially became one in 1969. While doing so, Ebadi continued her studies in the University of Tehran to pursue her doctorate’s degree in Law in 1971, and in 1975, she was declared to be the first woman president of the city court, as well as the first woman in the history of Iranian justice to have served as a judge.

Ebadi’s accomplishments during her term, though numerous, were short-lived. It wasn’t long before the Iranian Revolution took over the country in 1979 and instigated the belief that women were not permitted to serve as judges in a court of law, forcing Ebadi and several others to be dismissed from their positions and be given clerical duties. Frustrated by these new changes, Ebadi and a few others protested for their positions to be returned to them, only to be promoted to “Law Experts” in the Justice Department, a position slightly higher than the former, but not exactly what they were aiming for. Eventually, Ebadi requested early retirement as the situation remain unchanged, but little did she know that her time away from the courtroom would lead her to other noteworthy successes.

But just because she was no longer serving as a judge, didn’t mean that Shirin Ebadi would give up her hold on the political scene entirely. She immediately sent in an application request to obtain a lawyer’s license, but was repeatedly rejected until 1993, when she was allowed to set up her own practice. During this waiting period, Ebadi used her time to publish many books and journal articles, several of which became recognized internationally. Once she became a lawyer, however, Ebadi gained a strong foothold in defending many pro-bono cases of those who have fallen bad with the judiciary, such as the families of murder victims, (like that of Dariush and Parveneh Foruhar) as well as several press-related and social cases. Aside from her practice, Ebadi also lectures at the University of Tehran and frequently campaigns to strengthen the legal status of women and children in Iran, a factor which played a key role in the May 1997 presidential election of Mohammad Khatami.

When Ebadi was selected to be the next Nobel Peace Prize winner on the 10th of October, 2003, many were surprised. Some had predicted that Pope John Paul II would be the one to win the prize, as there was speculation that he was nearing his death. The Pope’s supporters even denied that Ebadi’s work was within accordance to what the prize stood for — but when presented the award, the Nobel Prize committee had praised Ebadi for being a “courageous person” who had “never heeded the threat to her own safety.”

Indeed, her courageousness and defiance are continuous to this day. As a post-Nobel Prize winner, Ebadi has traveled abroad to different countries to lecture and continue to defend the rights of women and children, as well as those accused of political crimes in Iran. She has also created the Nobel Women’s Initiative to promote justice and equality for women.