The new suffragettes: Shirin Ebadi - the campaigner who has become an international figurehead for women's rights

A Nobel peace prize 10 years ago has done little to reduce the threats faced by the most charismatic champion of democratic rights for women in Iran

If there is a single face identified with the defence of women’s rights in Iran it is that of Shirin Ebadi. Her influence has spread across the Muslim world, after she became the first Iranian, and the first Muslim woman, to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Since winning the prize in 2003, she has used the power of her global platform to continue to campaign in favour of human rights in Iran, at some considerable risk to herself.

Death threats that forced her to seek exile in London have failed to silence her. “Any failure can be an introduction to victory,” she told a human rights forum in New York a couple of weeks ago. She described how the Iranian authorities’ decision to demote her to a secretarial position from her role as the country’s first female judge only served to embolden her. The mullahs who came to power in the 1979 revolution deemed that women were unfit to be judges, four years after Dr Ebadi became head of the Tehran city court. “Had I not been expelled from the court, would I have worked this hard?”

By defending the most vulnerable citizens in her country against abuse, Dr Ebadi’s contribution was “to give birth to the human rights movement in Iran in the 1990s”, says Hadi Ghaemi, an Iranian human rights activist based in New York. “Before then, there was no civil society.”

Dr Ebadi, 65, is widely credited with spearheading reforms of Iranian family law – in particular, laws on child custody, divorce and inheritance. But she says that much more needs to be done to change the laws that still favour men over women, despite the constitution of 1906 which enshrines equal rights for all.

A few weeks ago, on 16 May, a member of the constitutional watchdog which vets Iranian election candidates said that women could not stand in the 14 June presidential poll because “the law does not approve” of a woman head of state.

Dr Ebadi maintains that religion itself is not to blame for repression; rather, it is the interpretation by the Islamic authorities across the Muslim world. In her Nobel Prize lecture, she made it clear that Islam was being invoked by “despotic governments” in order to repress democracy and human rights. She pointed out that discrimination against women, whether in the social, cultural or political arena, “has its roots in the patriarchal and male-dominated culture prevailing in these societies, not in Islam”.

In a landmark ruling in 2003, divorced Iranian mothers were given the right to the custody of their children of both sexes up to the age of seven, whereas previously they had only the right to take care of girls. Dr Ebadi campaigned for the change after a young girl was beaten to death by her father and stepmother, who had legal custody of the child.

But persecution and arrest were Dr  Ebadi’s reward for her efforts, particularly when she took on high-profile cases with political implications,  defending the families of the victims of serial murders in 1999 and 2000 which left 80 writers and political activists dead.

In her memoir, Iran Awakening, she poignantly describes reading the official transcript of a conversation between a government minister and a member of a death squad in 2000. “When my eyes first fell on the sentence that would haunt me for years to come, I thought I had misread. I blinked once, but it stared back at me from the page: ‘The next person to be killed is Shirin Ebadi.’ Me.”

That year, she spent three weeks in jail after a closed hearing and was banned from working as a lawyer for five years, during which time she wrote articles and books.

But she also took on the case of Zahra Kazemi, a Canadian journalist who was murdered in Tehran, three weeks after being arrested for taking pictures outside Tehran’s Evin prison in 2003. Dr Ebadi now says that she has lost faith in the Iranian judicial system, which she describes as nothing less than “a subsidiary of the Intelligence Ministry”.

In Tehran, she founded one of the country’s first independent non- governmental organisations, the Association for the Protection of the Rights of the Child, which has thousands of members and offers a hotline to report abuse.

However, the Defenders of Human Rights Center, which she set up in 2001, fell victim to political pressure and closed at the end of 2008 after being raided by the Iranian security forces. The raid took place in front of guests arriving for a belated celebration of the 60th anniversary of UN Human Rights Day.

Dr Ebadi’s work promoting the rights of women and children in Iran was recognised by the Nobel Peace Prize committee in October 2003. Yet President Mohammad Khatami – the reformist she had once supported – played down the award’s significance. He said the peace prize was “not very important” compared with the Nobel literature or sciences awards, because the Norwegian committee usually weighed “only political considerations”.

While the Nobel announcement infuriated hardliners inside Iran – who later complained that Dr Ebadi did not wear the Islamic headscarf, or hijab, at the award ceremony – thousands of Iranians mobbed Dr Ebadi on her triumphant return to Tehran. Speaking at Mehrabad airport, she immediately demanded the release of the country’s political prisoners.

The real crunch for Dr Ebadi personally came in 2009, just before the disputed presidential elections which handed a second term to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. She left Tehran for a conference in Madrid the day before the vote, and has not returned home since. She said at the time that she had received “threatening messages” warning her to stop her work, and that her husband, Javad Tavassolian, had been “severely beaten” in Tehran. Mr Tavassolian, an engineer, who has never been a political activist, still lives in Iran and is barred from travelling abroad.

Yet despite her exile in London, the Nobel laureate kept up the pressure on the authorities. She represented the family of an Iranian student and poet, Ezzat Ebrahim-Nejad, who was killed in a raid on Tehran university which triggered student demonstrations after the 2009 elections.

She has also campaigned for the release of the leaders of the Green Movement who galvanised the opposition protests that shook the Islamic state to the core in 2009.

How can Dr Ebadi continue to wield influence inside Iran from abroad? “She still has a very strong presence inside Iran, through her base,” says Mr Ghaemi, executive director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. “Also, she has international relevance, and campaigns relentlessly round the clock, launching campaigns inside Iran and watching the outcome very closely.”

In recent days, she has been travelling to Istanbul, Belfast, Berlin and Madrid – an indication of how much she has inspired women far beyond her native country.

But she is particularly mindful of the situation in Iran, where most of her former colleagues are now imprisoned as the ruling clergy moves to deter any repeat of the 2009 protests in the forthcoming elections. To counter the closure of the Defenders of Human Rights Center, which she continues to chair, a London-based twin organisation has been set up with its own website.

Today in Iran, the plight of women remains a concern. Although the country has plenty of professional women, and while the majority of university students are female, the religious authorities have been slow to implement reform and still enforce penalties in the case of those who flout the wearing of the hijab.

Dr Ebadi was once asked if she had a message for Muslim women. “Yes,” she replied. “Keep on fighting.”

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