Dr. Shirin Ebadi is a lawyer by trade, but it is perhaps more accurate to describe her as a professional fighter. She has spent much of her acclaimed career fighting—first for women’s rights, and then for the rights of children and political dissidents, and she is making a difference. Such a difference, in fact, that in 2003 she became the first woman from the Islamic world to win a Nobel Prize.

It’s not just about hope and ideas. It’s about action.

Shirin Ebadi was born in Hamedan, Iran, on 21 June 1947, but she and her family relocated to Tehran when she was only a year old. After graduating from secondary school, Ebadi was admitted Tehran’s University Faculty of Law, where she spent the next three and a half years earning her law degree. After earning her degree, Shirin worked as an apprentice for six months before beginning her position as a judge in 1969.

Shirin worked as a judge for several years while continuing to work toward earning her doctorate in private law from Tehran University. Shirin was one of the first female judges in Iran, and as her career progressed, she was eventually named the president of Bench 24 of Tehran’s City Court. It was the first time in history that a woman had earned that distinction in the Iranian justice system.

We must not enable anyone to impose his personal view regarding religion on others by force, oppression, or pressure.

Career-wise, things were going quite well for Shirin until 1979, when the Islamic Revolution took place and conservative, religious leaders took over. Under the new religious rule, women were forbidden to serve as judges, and as such, Shirin was dismissed from her post. Adding insult to injury, she was assigned to be a clerk in the same court she had previously presided over.

Understandably, Shirin wanted out, and she began petitioning the court for early retirement. Once it was finally granted, she planned to open a private law practice, but she could not get her licence approved. It would be 1992, 13 years after the revolution, before Shirin was granted her licence.

My aim is to show that those governments that violate the rights of people by invoking the name of Islam have been misusing Islam.

While Shirin waited for the licence that would allow her to enter private practice to be approved, she began teaching human rights courses at Tehran University. When her licence finally went through, she maintained her focus on human rights, deliberately taking cases that would allow her to fight for the rights of women, children, and political dissidents. Her cases representing political dissidents were particularly controversial, and she herself was arrested numerous times as a result.

This did not stop Shirin, though, who has continued to campaign for human rights, representing the repressed in court, teaching courses in human rights, and authoring over 70 articles and 13 books on the subject. She has also started several organizations, including the Million Signatures Campaign, which aims to end the legal discrimination of women under Islamic Law.

Nothing useful and lasting can emerge from violence.

Shirin’s influence has been far reaching. In 2003, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in honor of her work in activism. She was the first woman from a predominantly Islamic country, and also the first Muslim woman, to receive such an honour. Thanks in no small part to her prolific writing, renowned activism, and prestigious awards, Shirin was named by Forbes Magazine, in 2004, as one of the 100 most powerful women in the world.

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.

Shirin continues to use her power and acclaim to make a positive impact on the world. Unfortunately, however, Shirin must now do her work from London, as her activism has made it unsafe for her to remain in Iran. Despite her distance from her home country, she has not forgotten the plight of her people, and she continues to fight for the people of Iran.

References include The Independent, The Nobel Women’s Initiative, Nobelprize.org, Biography.com.

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Amber Karlins

Written by Amber Karlins

Amber works as a professor in Florida, teaching writing, literature, and theatre. Her first book, a work of creative non-fiction, was published in 2011. She also enjoys academic writing and has published papers in such places as the African American National Biography and the Journal for the Society of Armenian Studies.

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Chatham House, Shirin Ebadi, Nov 2011