Page last updated at 12:56 GMT, Friday, 27 November 2009

Profile: Shirin Ebadi

Shirin Ebadi (2009)
Shirin Ebadi has criticised Iran's recent disputed presidential election

Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian lawyer and former judge, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 for her pioneering efforts to promote democracy and human rights, particularly for women and children.

She was the first person from Iran and the first Muslim woman to receive the award.

Ms Ebadi's outspoken campaigns have often brought her into conflict with the Iranian government and the country's conservative clerics, particularly since the disputed presidential election in June 2009.

Though she has not been arrested since becoming a Nobel laureate, many of her close associates have been targeted, and last year the authorities closed the Human Rights Defenders Centre in Tehran, a leading non-governmental organisation she founded in 2001.

Any person who pursues human rights in Iran must live with fear from birth to death, but I have learned to overcome my fear
Shirin Ebadi, 1999

In November 2009, Ms Ebadi said her Nobel medal had been confiscated on the orders of Tehran's Revolutionary Court. The court also froze her bank accounts, demanding $410,000 in taxes it said was owed on the $1.3m prize money, she said.

Norway has protested against the move - the first time that a Nobel Peace Prize has been confiscated by national authorities - and compared the treatment of Ms Ebadi with that of the Burmese opposition leader, Aung San Su Kyi.

Politically sensitive

Born in 1947 in the city of Hamadan, Ms Ebadi studied law at Tehran University before beginning a career as a judge in 1970.

Within five years she became a president of the Tehran city court, the first woman in Iranian history to be appointed to the position.

But after the Islamic Revolution in 1979, she and all other women judges were either dismissed or forced to resign, as the new government considered women unsuitable for such posts.

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 of Islam that is in harmony with equality and democracy is an authentic expression of faith
Shirin Ebadi, 2006

Although she was eventually appointed as legal adviser, Ms Ebadi found her situation intolerable and took early retirement in 1984.

After several attempts, Ms Ebadi went on to establish a law practice in 1992, taking on the kind of sensitive cases many Iranian lawyers would touch, challenging the authorities on anything from human rights and freedom of expression to their interpretation of Islam.

Two of her clients, liberal intellectuals Daryoush and Parvaneh Forouhar, were stabbed to death in a series of killings in 1998 which turned out to be the work of "rogue elements" in the Intelligence Ministry. She also defended women's rights activists.

The lawyer found herself in the dock in 2000, accused of distributing the video-taped confession of a hardline hooligan who claimed that prominent conservative leaders were instigating physical attacks on pro-reform gatherings and figures.

That won her a suspended jail sentence and a professional ban.

She also wrote books calling for greater legal protection for Iranian children.


In 2003, the Nobel award committee awarded Ms Ebadi its Peace Prize, saying she had been chosen because "as a lawyer, judge, lecturer, writer and activist, she has spoken out clearly and strongly in her country, Iran, and far beyond".

Shirin Ebadi with the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003
The Nobel Committee paid tribute to Ms Ebadi for her courage in 2003

The committee also paid tribute to her courage, noting that she had "never heeded the threat to her own safety".

After the award was announced, Ms Ebadi told the BBC that she thought it would give people who worked for human rights in Iran more courage.

Ms Ebadi has since continued to defend prominent political prisoners, journalists, students and women in Iran, and has repeated her calls for reform.

In 2006, she published a memoir, Iran Awakening, which was unable to pass the censors inside Iran but was well received internationally.

"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 of Islam that is in harmony with equality and democracy is an authentic expression of faith," she wrote.

"It is not religion that binds women, but the selective dictates of those who wish them cloistered. That belief, along with the conviction that change in Iran must come peacefully and from within, has underpinned my work."

Ms Ebadi left Iran for a conference the day before President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's re-election and has not returned since.

She says she has been sent "threatening messages" warning her to stop working for human rights and calling for reform, while her husband was recently arrested in Tehran and "severely beaten".

She has nevertheless criticised the authorities for their suppression of opposition protests, and urged the international community to reject the outcome and called for a new election monitored by the UN.

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