Shirin Ebadi: Nobel Peace Prize Winner

A reading and activities on the Iranian human rights activist and her beliefs about Islam, democracy, human rights, and U.S. foreign policy.

The awarding of a Nobel Peace Prize is always a teachable moment. The prize focuses worldwide attention on a notable, but perhaps not well-known, individual for her or his exemplary work. Before her selection, Shirin Ebadi was probably known to few outside of Iran. But her nonviolent efforts on behalf of human rights in an environment often hostile to such work and her insistence on the compatibility of Islam, democracy, and human rights in general — and women's and children's rights in particular — are especially worthy of student attention and understanding at this time and in our own country.


Student Reading:

Shirin Ebadi, A Nonviolent Human Rights Activist

Should a woman have the same right as her husband or father to work or to travel abroad? Should a woman's testimony in a trial be given the same weight as a man's? Should a woman have the same rights as a man in getting a divorce? The answer to each of these questions in Iran is No.

Is Islam a religion that supports human rights? Does Islam call for equal rights for women and men? Does Islam support nonviolence and peaceful solutions to problems? The answer to each of these questions by Shirin Ebadi, the first Muslim woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize, is Yes.

Shirin Ebadi (pronounced SHEE-REEN eh-baw-DEE) was born in 1947. She received a law degree from the University of Tehran, where she teaches today, and was one of the first female judges in Iran and president of the city court of Tehran for four years. After the Islamic revolution of 1979, she was forced to resign and demoted to a legal assistant. The reason given by the ruling clerics was that women are too "emotional" to be judges. Ebadi later said that experience was like turning "the president of a university into a janitor." She is married and has two daughters.

Unlike many professional women who left Iran after the Islamic revolution of 1979, Ebadi stayed. A few years later she started her own law practice and began writing books. After the election in 1997 of President Muhammad Khatami, a reformer who called for tolerance and the rule of law, she began speaking out forcefully on human rights issues, especially on behalf of women and children. "Khatami is talking about the rule of law; everyone is talking about the rule of law," she said in 1999. "We will only have the rule of law in Iran on the day that women are treated the same as men under the law."

"The crucial issues for women," she says, "are custody [of their children after a divorce], divorce, and being able to study for any field or enter any occupation that we want. We think that if we change men's attitudes toward women, which is a gender and sex issue, we will change their attitudes toward religion as well." She thinks that conditions for Iranian women have been "improving" in recent years.

Iran is a Middle East nation of nearly 70,000,000 and slightly larger than Alaska in area. A majority of its people are of Persian descent and 89 percent are Shia Muslims (10 percent are Sunni Muslims). After the 1979 revolution that overthrew the ruling Shah, Iran became a theocracy. Since 1989 its Supreme Leader has been Ayatollah Ali Hoseini-Khamenei who, along with a clerical group making up a Council of Guardians, controls Iran's justice system and its army. President Khatami and the Iranian parliament were elected as "reformers" but have limited authority. The Ayatollah Khamenei and the Council of Guardians, for example, have opposed bills on women's rights and recently blocked approval of the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which most nations support.

The Iranian rulers, who have a different view of Islam from Ebadi's, regard political opposition as unacceptable. They have closed newspapers and imprisoned journalists, political activists, and members of other religious groups, including Sunni Muslims. In recent years, though, political opposition in Iran, especially among student groups, has risen. They seek greater freedom and democracy and, like Ebadi, they do not believe these ideals conflict with Islamic belief. Poor economic conditions have also fueled their opposition. In 2002, 41 percent of Iranians lived in poverty; in 2003 the unemployment rate is 16.3 percent.

Ebadi says, "There is no contradiction between an Islamic republic, Islam, and human rights. If in many Islamic countries human rights are flouted, this is because of a wrong interpretation of Islam. All I've tried to do in the last 20 years was to prove that with another interpretation of Islam it would be possible to introduce democracy to Muslim countries. We need an interpretation of Islam that leaves much more space for women to take action. We need an Islam that is compatible with democracy and one that's respectful of individual rights."

Ebadi insists that "Iranians are profoundly disappointed" by Iran's Islamic Revolution because it denies political, social, economic, and human rights reforms. But she is also disappointed by "certain western states that blame the sublime religion of Islam for acts of a few Muslims, whereas there are many Christians who indulge themselves in murder and terrorist acts, but Muslims never say they do so because of their religion."

Ebadi has been critical of the Bush administration's stance toward Iran. (Bush cited Iran as part of what he called the "axis of evil," and the administration has accused Iran of working to build nuclear weapons and supporting terrorists.) "The fight for human rights is conducted in Iran by the Iranian people and we are against any foreign intervention in Iran," declared Ebadi.

Much of Ebadi's human rights activism has stemmed from her work as an attorney.
"I always acted within the law; I never did anything that was illegal. I support peaceful protests. But when things go wrong I'm there to defend the victims, for free," Ebadi explains.

Ebadi led a campaign demanding justice in the case of a 9-year-old Iranian girl who was murdered by her father and stepbrother. Ebadi helped get the stepbrother convicted for the girl's murder, and forced attention to the Iranian law that prevents a father's conviction in such a case. Currently she is fighting for justice on behalf of the children of dissidents opposed to the Iranian government who were murdered.

In 1999, the Iranian government allegedly looked the other way while an armed civilian group attacked students in Tehran University dormitories after a student protest over freedom of the press. Ebadi defended one victim's family in court. She was arrested because of this work, sentenced to 15 months in prison and banned from practicing law for five years for making public a taped confession of a militia member involved in the attacks. Her sentence was eventually reduced to three weeks in prison and a $200 fine.

Ebadi is the founder and leader of the Association for Support of Children's Rights in Iran. Among her books translated into English are The Rights of the Child and History and Documentation of Human Rights in Iran .

In awarding her the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize, the Nobel committee declared: "Her principal arena is the struggle for basic human rights, and no society deserves to be labelled civilized unless the rights of women and children are respected. In an era of violence, she has consistently supported nonviolence. It is fundamental to her view that the supreme political power in a community must be built on democratic elections. She favors enlightenment and dialogue as the best path to changing attitudes and resolving conflict." The prize has been awarded yearly since 1901 and now pays its winner $1.32 million.

Iranian government officials were unenthusiastic about Ebadi's award. President Khatami called it "political." Another spokesperson criticized Ebadi's personality and activities. Kayhan, an Iranian newspaper, commented that undoubtedly "the goal of this prize is to embarrass Muslims and, especially, the Iranian people." But when Ebadi returned from Paris to Tehran shortly after learning of the prize, she was greeted by a crowd of thousands of supporters, the majority of them women. After she stepped off the plane, she said, "I hope that all political prisoners will be freed."

In Ms. Ebadi's address in Oslo, Norway accepting the Nobel Prize on December 10, 2003 she criticized her Iranian government mildly. But she delivered a sharp rebuke to the United States, declaring, "some states have violated the universal principles and laws of human rights by using the events of September 11 and the war on international terrorism as a pretext." She was referring especially to the American detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where hundreds of prisoners have been held for more than two years without specific charge and without access to legal counsel. The U.S. maintains that these "enemy combatants" are a potential threat and are not covered by the usual legal protections.


Classroom Activities

For Discussion

1. Why do you think Shirin Ebadi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 2003?

2. Why makes human rights work difficult in Iran?

3. What has Ebadi accomplished as a human rights activist?

4. What human rights have been especially important to her? Why?

5. How has she suffered personally because of her work? Why?

6. What is her view of Islam?

7. How does it differ from that of Iranian authorities?

8. How would you explain the Iranian officials' and an Iranian newspaper's reactions to the award? the reaction of those who met her when she returned to Tehran?

9. How would you define "human rights? What do you think are some specific and very important human rights? (the teacher might list student responses on the chalkboard)

10. How does the student list compare with the UN's "Universal Declaration of Human Rights"? (see, on the UN's website)

For Group Work

The Nobel Committee cites Ebadi's support for enlightenment and peaceful dialogue "as the best path to changing attitudes and resolving conflicts."

Divide the class into groups of four to six students. Ask each participant in each group to consider a conflict that they participated in or observed closely. Each student should describe this conflict to the others, focusing especially on how the conflict was resolved. Was it resolved peacefully? Why or why not? If it was not resolved peacefully, what might those involved have done differently? (See this website for information on the Resolving Conflict Creatively Program and specific suggestions for classroom activities).

Have students select one of the conflicts for presentation to the class and for class discussion.


For Writing

1. A paragraph describing a conflict you were involved in. What was the conflict about? What did each person want? Was the conflict resolved? If so, how? If not, why not?

2. A paragraph describing a conflict you were not involved in but witnessed or know about in some detail. What was the conflict about? What did each person want? Was the conflict resolved? If so, how? If not, why not?

3. A paragraph describing a human rights violation, one that the writer knows about personally or has read about. What was the human right that was involved? How and why was it violated?


For Further Inquiry

1. An investigation of the work of famous human rights activists—e.g., Susan B. Anthony, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jr.

2. An investigation of the work of human rights activists who are not famous. For example, the movements led by Anthony, Gandhi, Mandela, and King would not have been successful without the initiative, intelligence and persistent hard work of many others.

3. An inquiry into Islam and human rights.

4. A comparison of the struggle for women's rights in the U.S. and in Iran.

5. An inquiry into criticisms that the Patriot Act, approved by Congress after 9/11, has led to human rights violations in the US, especially against Muslims.

6. A study of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which has been approved by most of the countries in the United Nations.

7. A study of one of the international human rights organizations: Amnesty International, (Nobel Peace Prize winner, 1977) or Human Rights Watch. Or, study of a prominent US human rights and civil liberties organization, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, the Center for Constitutional Rights, or the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights.

8. An inquiry into the impact of the Nobel Peace Prize on the nation of a recipient who worked for human rights. For example, Andrei Sakharov (USSR, 1975) and Aung San Suu Kyi (Myanmar, formerly Burma, 1991).


For Student Action

Human rights and civil rights organizations, like those noted above, offer opportunities for student involvement. Students might write letters on behalf of individuals or become involved in a particular campaign. Students who want to do something can visit the websites of the organizations for more information.



Human Rights Watch (
Norwegian Nobel Committee (
Iran Press Service (
Iranian Children's Rights Society (
BBC News (
Christian Science Monitor (
New York Times (10/11/03 and 10/17/03)
PBS Online, "Beyond the Veil—Women Seeking Change"


This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: