Woman of the Week: Shirin Ebadi

She became the first woman president of the city court in Tehran in 1975, and was demoted because of her gender to a court clerk after the Islamic Revolution in ’79. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003, using the money given to her to help people imprisoned for their political or religious views. In 2009, the Telegraph reported that Iran had seized her Nobel medal and frozen her bank accounts. She founded the Human Rights Defenders Centre in 2001, and it was closed down by the authorities in 2009.

Known for helping the plight of many controversial cases of political dissidents, risking arrest and being arrested several times before winning the Nobel Peace Prize, you can imagine the kind of fear this could potentially plague your life with. Or perhaps you struggle to imagine experiencing this fear if you’re living in England, like I am, where our relative comfort and freedom of expression, which is enforced to some extent, distances us from real fear. I’m talking about the kind of fear which is caused by living in a country with a coercive and agitative recent history; a country which is arguably sliding towards a military dictatorship due to the presence of a secretive paramilitary group which has significant influence within government.

Ebadi highlights the reality of this when she claims that ‘any person who pursues human rights in Iran must live with fear from birth to death’, demonstrating her own inner strength by following this up with ‘I have learned to overcome my fear’.

The extent of Ebadi’s courage was recognised by the Nobel committee when they awarded her the prize. Within her work as a lawyer, activist and author she criticised the authorities, raised the profile of women, children and refugee’s rights, and ‘never heeded the threat to her own safety.’ Her life epitomises humanity’s capability for total selflessness and courage. These achievements can stand alone as truly incredible. But to achieve this as a woman living in a country, in fact, in a world, which discriminates half of the population and its abilities merely for their gender, proves her strength of character.

Turning away from Ebadi and Iran and back to our own country, I want to emphasise the importance of looking beyond the celebrities centralised within British culture, and looking towards other countries who are living under less fortunate regimes, in general but also within the context of woman’s rights. It is under such circumstances that we can find examples of intelligence, courage and selflessness – examples which are overshadowed by celebrities, in general, but particularly in the context of mainstream female celebrities, who are often adored for their looks and ability to conform to beauty standards rather than extraordinary achievements and bravery.

Words by Alex Howlett

Image by Jo Wideman

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