Behind the Veil: Iran’s Shirin Ebadi

Iran's first female judge lost her title after the Iranian Revolution -- but now, this Nobel Prize-winner is fighting for women's equality in her country. And she hopes one million others will join her.

Shirin Ebadi made history when she became Iran’s first female judge in 1975. For four years, she presided over the city court of Tehran – until the Iranian Revolution of 1979 transformed her country overnight.

Under the new Islamic government, women were forced to hide their bodies and faces beneath layers of dark clothing. They were not permitted to drive, or even to leave their houses without their husbands’ permission. They were forced to engage in polygamous marriages, where their husbands might have several other wives. A woman’s life, by law, was valued at half of a man’s worth. In this grim new world, there was no place for a female judge – so Ebadi was stripped of her title and forced from her chambers.

But this brave woman could not be silenced, despite Iran’s oppressive new regime. She could have left Iran for a life of intellectual freedom in the United States or elsewhere, but, as she told New American Media, “Your nation, your homeland, to me is like a mother. When my homeland faces difficulties, I do not allow myself to leave it.”

Instead, Ebadi established her own civil rights legal practice in Tehran, where she defended liberal political activists and women’s rights advocates – the sort of people that other lawyers in this conservative society would be afraid to represent. She has written books calling out for social change in Iran, and publicly spoke out about the human rights abuses occurring within her country – all despite frequent death threats from the extremist government.

For her courageous stance, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003. She defiantly refused to wear her veil when she took the stage for her acceptance speech, and announced that, by selecting her, the Nobel committee provided “inspiration to the masses of women who are striving to realize their rights, not only in Iran but throughout the region - rights taken away from them through the passage of history.”

In the speech, she also noted, “Women constitute half of the population of every country. To disregard women and bar them from active participation in political, social, economic and cultural life would in fact be tantamount to depriving the entire population of every society of half its capability.”

And now, Ebadi is taking action to restore Iranian society to its rightful balance. With a group of brave female activists including feminist magazine editor Shahla Sherkat and civil rights lawyer Shadi Sadr, Ebadi is leading the fight for women’s equality within Iran. Last year, Ebadi and more than 50 other activists drew up a petition stating their desire for equal rights under Iranian law, and christened it “The One Million Signatures Campaign” – their goal, of course, is to collect one million signatures from supporters of gender equality within Iran. It is Ebadi’s hope that the government will realize the growing demand for social change, and will abolish the existing anti-woman laws. All going well, it won’t be long until she can return to her rightful place on the Judge’s Bench.

But until that day comes, she will speak out for her countrywomen who have been silenced and hidden from view, reaching across the oceans for understanding of their plight: “The West should realize that more than 65% of our university students are women. The West should understand that Iran has more than 2,500 years of civilization,” she told Time Magazine.

And most of all: “The West should know that there are thousands of women like Shirin Ebadi.” And they refuse to keep their mouths shut any longer.

Want to learn more about this courageous woman’s struggle for social equality and human rights? Read her memoir, Iran Awakening: One Woman’s Journey to Reclaim Her Life and Country, available at Amazon.