Shirin Ebadi was born on June 21, 1947 in Hamedan in central-western Iran approximately 180 miles from Tehran. Her father, Mohammad Ali Khan was born into a wealthy land-owning family and his father had been a colonel in the military during the last days of the Qajar Dynasty - the Qajars were a Turkmen tribe. She has two sisters and one brother.
In terms of an historic perspective, Agha Mohammad Khan, the leader of the Qajars, unified present day Iran in 1794 by eliminating all of his enemies. Ebadi’s father, Mohammad Ali Ebadi, was the head of Hamedan’s Registry Office at the time of Ebadi’s birth. He had written several books in his field and was a known lecturer. He was chosen to be the Deputy Minister of Agriculture under the Shah; as a consequence of this promotion, the family moved to Tehran. Ebadi was one years old at the time. Ebadi’s parents were married in 1941 in a traditional Iranian ceremony. Her mother, Minu was a devoted wife and mother; she was beset however, with mental and medical problems – she showed the symptoms of paranoia and suffered from asthma. Her father passed away in 1993.
Ebadi was educated at the Firuzhkuhi primary school and went on to Anoshiravn Dadgar and Reza Shah Kabir secondary schools. Ultimately she received her law degree from the University of Tehran in 1968. In March of 1969 she began her career as a trial judge. In addition, she held a number of positions in the Justice Department, and in 1975 became the President of Bench 24 in Tehran City Court. It is interesting to note that she was the first woman in Iranian history to have served as a judge.
Ebadi and her family lived through the Islamic Revolution that culminated in 1979 in the formation of a state governed by Sharia Law. The transition to this revolutionary leadership had a profound effect upon her, her family and her career. As a consequence of the changes invoked by the new authority, she was ultimately dismissed from her judgeship and offered a position as a clerk on account of the fact that she is a woman. She refused to countenance this change and applied for early retirement and was granted this option. Not to be easily dissuaded, she submitted an application to practice law; she was initially turned down until 1992 when she finally succeeded in obtaining a law license.
Recognizing the harsh injustices that became apparent following the Islamic Revolution, Ebadi refused to be quiet. Since her personal life in particular and the role of women in Iran in general had been so seriously impacted by the imposition of Sharia Law, it would, therefore, be germane to examine the events that led up to this profound political and cultural revolution.
In the early twentieth century, the government of Iran was experiencing the onslaught of modernization that was exerting its effects throughout the world. Britain and Russia had considerable influence; although, they did not colonize the country. In 1905, violent student protests led to the formation of the first Majlis – National Assembly - and in 1906 this body met to create a Constitution. The Shah died and the new king promulgated the Supplementary Fundamental Law. This law and the document that was the product of deliberations of the Majlis became the essence of the Iranian Constitution. Fearful that the newly constituted Majlis would accrue too much power, the Russians invaded the country, and dissolved the Majlis. Although the constitution and parliament survived, their powers were significantly curtailed.
At the beginning of World War I, the Iranian economy was in disastrous condition. As a result, by 1921 Reza Khan entered Tehran with troops, took control of the military, and by 1923 he became its Prime Minister. As a consequence, the Shah from the Qajar Dynasty abdicated and Reza Khan named himself Shah and created the Pahlavi Dynasty. During his reign, many progressive reforms were instituted and he even banned the veil worn by traditionalist women. These changes were welcomed by what constituted the middle and upper classes. To many, however, these changes were met with severe disapproval; they were viewed as incompatible with the teachings of the Koran.
World War II brought into play new political forces. The British and Russians occupied Iran, for they needed oil to sustain the war effort. As a consequence, Reza Shah was forced to abdicate in 1941, and he was replaced by his son, Mohammad Reza, who was found to be more maleable in the eyes of the occupiers. The British needed access to the vast oil reserves of the Persian Gulf and needed a local ruler that they could more effectively control. Although the young Shah had the support of the rich landowners and clerics, he proved to be a weak ruler.
In 1949, Mohammed Mosadegh formed the National Front Party (NFP) with the intended objective of living up to the 1906 constitution. He became involved in the ambitious and controversial goal of nationalizing the oil industry. At that time the British company, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company was making more money from oil than the Iranian government. Under popular pressure, the Shah appointed Mosadegh as Prime Minister. In response, the British removed its technicians and attempted to impose a worldwide embargo on Iranian oil. The British also attempted to take its position to the International Court of Justice at the Hague. The court, however, found in favor of Iran. Mosadegh’s power and influence continued to grow. He reduced the term of the National Assembly to two years and ultimately removed the legislative body. These events made the government of the United States, under the leadership of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, very uneasy, especially in the midst of the Cold War.
In 1953 Mosadegh was overthrown and replaced by the Shah, whose former power was reinstated. It was later discovered that The CIA was deeply involved in the plot to unseat Mosadegh in an operation referred to as Ajax. Mosadegh was deemed to be a threat on account of his leftist political leanings. The Anglo-Iranian oil company had been expelled from the country some nine months earlier. According to Kermit Roosevelt in his book entitled, Countercoup: the Struggle for the Control of Iran (this book was deemed so “dangerous” that McGraw Hill was persuaded by British Petroleum to recall all the books from the book stores), Anglo-Iranian oil proposed the overthrow of the Iranian Premier. Initially, Mosadegh fled the country and was later put under house arrest until his death. Ebadi was a young girl attending grade school when these momentous events unfolded.
In 1963, the Shah announced the so-called “White Revolution.” His intention was to speed the transition of an essentially agrarian society to an industrial base. The changes that he imposed deeply disturbed the conservative clerics. Among these changes, women were given the right to vote. The minimal age for legal marriage for women rose to 18 and the divorce laws were liberalized. Many women from upper and middle-class backgrounds subsequently entered the workforce.
Ruhollah Khomeini, a conservative cleric, was so distraught and angered by these changes that he organized an uprising against the White Revolution. The Shah, responding to this threat, had Khomeini expelled from the country and sent to Najaf, Iraq. This happened on the same year as Mosadegh’s death. At that time Mosadegh was beloved by his countrymen and anti-American sentiment was deeply entrenched in the hearts and minds of the population.
The Shah continued to pursue a policy of accelerated development and growth; in cities such as Tehran; development proceeded at a fevered pace. Traditionalists were deeply troubled by these changes, fearing that Western values were being imposed upon them. The clerics were angered by these events, for they felt that their power and influence were being eroded.
In January, 1978 President Jimmy Carter visited Iran, and was shown on television drinking champagne with the Shah. This seemingly innocuous event, sent shockwaves throughout the nation, for it was the first time a Muslim leader was seen drinking alcohol on television; the drinking of alcohol is forbidden under Islam. In response, angry protestors marched on the shrine in the holy city of Qom; the government sent in the military and protestors were killed. As a consequence, the pent-up frustrations of many Iranians were released and an open struggle between the clerics and the Shah began. All of this came to a bloody climax when the government sent tanks to quell the demonstrations at Zhaleh Square in Tehran; as a result, 600 protestors were killed. This day became known as Black Friday. At the behest of the Shah, Saddam Hussein expelled Khomeini from Iraq; he took refuge in France. From there, he directed the opposition. Facing overwhelming opposition from the people of Iran, the Shah finally fled Iran on January 16, 1979. And on February 1, 1979, Khomeini left his wife behind and flew to Tehran. When he touched down on Iranian soil, he was greeted by millions of supporters. He immediately appointed Mehdi Bazargan as prime minister of the provisional government, and on March 1979, the Islamic Republic of Iran came to fruition. After 2500 years, the Iranian monarchy had been abolished – a remarkable and historic event. Khomeini went on to create the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution, and its members began the process of the setup a new government. When the newly created constitution was presented to the Council of Experts – dominated by Shia clergy – they were not happy with the essentially secular nature of the document and proceeded to make it more Islamic. Ultimately, under Khomeini’s guiding hand, a new doctrine was formulated, Velayat-e-Faqih – rule by jurisprudence. This essentially gave Khomeini more power than the Shah ever had.
As an Iranian lawyer, human rights activist and founder of Centre for the Defense of Human Rights in Iran, Ebadi wrote several books and had many articles published in Iranian journals. She became involved in many troubling cases as the defense attorney. Among them, she represented the families Dariush and Parvaneh Foruhar) and Ezzat Ebrahiminejad, who were killed during the attack on the university dormitory by a serial killer. She also took on a large number of child abuse cases. As a result of these experiences, she helped to found a children’s rights organization.
She also represented the mother of Mrs. Zahra Kazemi, a photojournalist killed in Iran. According to Ebadi, involvement in such high-profile cases radically changed her perspective and she became actively engaged in the human rights movement. She wrote an article for Iran-e Farda in which she decried the way Iranian law treats women. This article became wildly popular and the authorities found her to be a threat and wanted to silence her. In the defense of one case in particular, she was sent off to prison. She was eventually released.
On October 10, 2003, Ebadi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize In 2009, Ebadi's award was allegedly confiscated by the Iranian authorities; this allegation was later denied by the Iranian government. If true, she would be the first person in the history of the Nobel Prize whose award has been forcibly seized by state authorities.
The following is an excerpt from her Nobel Prize Acceptance speech; it provides some insight into her character and unwavering support of peace and social justice.
“Today coincides with the 55th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; a declaration which begins with the recognition of the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family, as the guarantor of freedom, justice and peace. And it promises a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of expression and opinion, and be safeguarded and protected against fear and poverty.
“Unfortunately, however, this year's report by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), as in the previous years, spells out the rise of a disaster which distances mankind from the idealistic world of the authors of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In 2002, almost 1.2 billion human beings lived in glaring poverty, earning less than one dollar a day. Over 50 countries were caught up in war or natural disasters. AIDS has so far claimed the lives of 22 million individuals, and turned 13 million children into orphans.
“At the same time, in the past two years, some states have violated the universal principles and laws of human rights by using the events of 11 September and the war on international terrorism as a pretext. The United Nations General Assembly Resolution 57/219, of 18 December 2002, the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1456, of 20 January 2003, and the United Nations Commission on Human Rights Resolution 2003/68, of 25 April 2003, set out to underline that all states must ensure that any measures taken to combat terrorism must comply with all their obligations under international law, in particular international human rights and humanitarian law. However, regulations restricting human rights and basic freedoms, special bodies and extraordinary courts, which make fair adjudication difficult and at times impossible, have been justified and given legitimacy under the cloak of the war on terrorism.”
Ebadi has lived in exile in Canada since June 2009 due to the disturbing increase in persecution of Iranian citizens who are critical of the current regime. The story of the life of Sharin Ebadi to date is an extraordinary one; she exemplifies the influence an individual can exert when driven to shed light on injustice and demand meaningful change.