Civics and Government

Definition Oregon Teaching Standards for Civics and Government: Understand and apply knowledge about governmental and political systems, and the rights and responsibilities of citizens.

Content: Understand how the United States government relates and interacts with other nations

Shirin Edabi: A Muslim Woman Nobel Peace Laureate

By Iftikhar Ahmad
Permission granted by Social Education to copy for Educational Use. Volume 68 #4 May/June 2004

Shirin Ebadi

Shirin Ebadi
The Nobel Peace Prize is recognized as one of the most prestigious global awards. Although the prize is worth $1.32 Million, its symbolic value and moral significance is priceless. Each year the Norwegian Nobel Committee, which is appointed by Norway’s parliament to select the winner, receives many nominations from around the world. Since the Nobel Peace prize was founded in 1901, the committee has awarded 110 prizes to individuals and organizations for their exceptional achievements in promoting peace, democracy, and human rights. People who have won the prize include such visionary leaders as Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Jimmy Carter, Martin Luther King Jr., and Nelson Mandela. The Nobel Peace laureates include eleven women from different parts of the world who selflessly worked for humanitarian causes. Some of those women, for example, Jane Addams and Mother Theresa, are legendary for their service to humanity. Shirin Edabi, who is from Iran, became the eleventh female Nobel Laureate in 2003. Edabi is the third Muslim and the first woman from the Muslim world to be honored with the prize. When the Nobel Committee made the announcement, it acknowledged that of the 165 contestants, the committee had selected Edabi because of the courage she demonstrated in her struggle for human rights and democracy in Iran.

Before the news of the 2003 award made world headlines, few people outside of Iran had heard of Edabi. This article explores several questions so readers may learn about some of the challenges that citizens of the Muslim world face in their struggle for democracy: Who is Shrin Edabi? What is her contribution to human rights and democracy in Iran? And, what is the significance of the Nobel Peace Prize for Iran and other Muslim societies?

Who is Shirin Edabi?
Shirin Edabi was born in 1947. She studied law in Iran’s capital at the University of Tehran. After her graduation in 1969 she joined the legal profession and also taught law at the University of Tehran. As a young woman Edabi lived through the social and economic reforms of the White Revolution, initiated by the shah of Iran in 1963. The White Revolution not only brought Western influences to a traditional Iranian society, it also enhanced the shah’s autocratic rule. Nevertheless, Iranian women enjoyed relatively more social, political, and economic rights than they do today under the current theocratic system. The shah’s regime imposed fewer restrictions on women in their selection of professions. In 1975, Edabi was appointed as a judge to the city court of Tehran- she was the first female judge ever appointed in Iran. But in 1979, political turmoil in the country seriously affected Edabi’s life and work. The shah and his polices were so unpopular that people protested in the streets. The followers of Ayatollah Khomeini, a religious and political leader, launched a popular opposition movement against the shah. Unable to satisfy public demands, the shah surrendered power and went into exile. Shiia Muslim clerics than declared Iran an Islamic republic and introduced their version of Islamic laws, which were largely rigid and harsh rules, particularly for women, children, and non-Muslim minorities. The new government initiated a program of Islamization of institutions, which excluded women form certain professions, such as working as a judge. Therefore, Edabi was forced to resign from her position as a city court judge. Citizens, who found the rules of the theocratic state unacceptable, immigrated to other countries and became refugees. Edabi decided to stay in Iran and struggle for democracy and human rights.

The Fight for Human Rights
Although the theocratic regime imposed numerous restrictions on women prohibiting them from civic and economic participation, Edabi did not give up. She established her law practice to defend the human rights of women and children. She also represented the cases of high profile political dissidents before the Sharia court, which interprets Islamic law and resolves conflicts between individuals and the state. Some political dissidents were persecuted by the government and its hardliner Islamist vigilantes. Many lawyers, fearing for their own safety, refused to defend dissidents. Edabi took up the cause of these sitizens and volunteered to represent them.

Among Edabi’s cases, two are relatively more noteworthy because they exposed the theocratic regime’s rigid interpretation of Islam and its violation of the universal principles of gender equality and citizen’s rights of democratic participation. In the first case, Edabi represented a divorced mother, Nahid Najidpoor, who sought custody from her ex-husband of their nine-year-old daughter, Aryan Gulshani. The child’s father was a drug addict and had a criminal record. Even though Najidpoor had presented evidence of her ex-husbands’ abuse of their daughter, the court denied her plea for custody on the premise that the Shari’a-based law considered children property of the father. The daughter was later found dead, having apparently been beaten to death. Edabi not only managed to get the father convicted of the crime, she also galvanized a broad-based citizens’ movement against the inequitable child custody law. As a result, in 1998, the Iranian parliament relented and amended the child custody law to the benefit of women and children.

In another high-profile case, in 1999 Edabi championed the principle of citizens’ right of democratic participation. She exposed the government’s plot to repress democratic movements through intimidation and the use of militant vigilantes. Islamist vigilantes were hard-line supporters of the theocratic regime who covertly served the secret police as auxiliaries and used violent means against reformers. Indeed, the government of Iran systematically used Islamist vigilantism as a tool to discourage reform movements in the country. In the late 1990s, when Iranian intellectuals and university students launched a democratic movement, the national intelligence agency of Iran recruited Islamist vigilantes to intimidate them. In July 1999, led by the chief of the intelligence agency, vigilantes stormed student dormitories at Tehran University and terrorized students. One young student, Ezzat Ebrahim-Nejad, was killed. The government quickly dissociated itself from the incident declaring that I had no knowledge of the militant vigilantes. But hundreds of students were arrested and given harsh prison sentences. Ahmad Batebi, a student whose picture appeared on the cover of the Economist, received a sentence of thirteen years in prison for participating in a peaceful protest.

Ezzat Ebrahim-Nejad’s family held the clerical government responsible for the death of their son. Ebadi filed a lawsuit against the government. While collecting evidence for the case, Edabi videotaped an interview with a witness, an ex-vigilante, who discussed his activities as a government-sponsored militant engaged in violent acts against dissidents. The videotape purportedly implicated key government officials in a conspiracy to recruit militant vigilantes for attacking civil disobedience rallies. Edabi was charged with defaming the government. She was tried in a closed court, sentenced to fifteen months in solitary confinement and also disbarred for five years. However, she appealed the court’s judgment and was released after serving three weeks in the notorious Evin Prison.

Despite her persecution at the hands of Iran’s fundamentalist government, Edabi is a practicing Muslim. However, her interpretation of Islam differs from the Iranian government’s official and legalistic interpretation. She represents a pacifist, pluralist, and tolerant Islam. She says that her interpretation is pacifist because she believes that Islam is a religion of peace and the Islamic values are compatible with the values of universal human rights. Her notion of Islam is pluralist because she believes that Islam is respectful of diverse faiths and that it teaches gender equality, social justice, and democratic living. Edabi’s interpretation of Islam is consistent with the civic ideals of modern democracy. She believes that Islam teaches respect for life, liberty, social justice, gender equality, and human dignity. In her Nobel lecture, Edabi explained her views on gender equality in Islam by noting that it is not the religion of Islam but the “patriarchal and male dominated culture” of the Muslim societies that perpetuates discrimination against women. After receiving the prize in Oslo, Edabi told and Iranian Reporter:

Human rights are compatible with Islam. I’ve spent twenty years researching this and studying the theory of this. The problem is that some Islamic countries don’t implement human rights law, it’s because of their interpretation of Islam; you see, you can be a good Muslim and follow the human rights charter.

The Nobel Peace Prize and the Muslim World
Shirin Edabi won the Nobel Peace Prize in a period when Muslims in Iran and elsewhere found themselves in the throes of unprecedented social, political, and economic challenges. Traditional religious approaches for solving modern problems proved inadequate. For example, Iran’s conservative Islamic government has failed to meet the public’s expectations. As a result, a popular reformist movement has emerged which rejects the current rulers’ anachronistic interpretation of Islam- it proposes liberal constitutional and social reforms.

Other Muslim societies are no different from Iran. Countries like Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, and Pakistan are also under immense pressure because tension between a backward-looking conservative Islam and a forward-looking pluralist Islam has divided those societies. Indeed, tensions in Muslim societies are mainly caused by the forces of modernity and globalization. Access to information technology, global media, and an increased level of international interdependence has brought a new level of consciousness to people in the Muslim world about their democratic rights. Young men and women demand from their leaders adequate responses to the complex problems of the modern world, responses that seem not to be forthcoming. They demand full citizenship participation and human rights but face resistance from dictators and conservative leaders. Hence, both the Nobel Committee and Edabi aptly pointed out that the Nobel Peace Prize for a Muslim woman would inspire all those in Iran and the larger Muslim world who are determined to continue their peaceful struggle for democratic change. The choice Edadi as Nobel laureate sends the message that such efforts toward the realization of human rights and social justice will “enjoy the support, backing and solidarity of international civil society.”

Activites (6-12 Grades)

Classroom Discussion (30 Minutes)

  1. Why does the Norwegian Committee award the Nobel Peace Prize each year?
  2. How many women have won the Nobel Peace Prize?
  3. Why was Shirin Edabi selected for the 2003 peace prize?
  4. How did the Nobel Committee describe Shirin Edabi?
  5. What country does Shirin Edabi come from? And what difficulties did she face in her country?
  6. Describe some of Shirin Edabi’s activities for human rights and democracy.
  7. What are Shirin Edabi’s views of Islam? Is her interpretation of Islam similar to, or different from those promoted by the conservative rulers of Iran?
  8. How would you define universal human rights?
  9. Identify four historical documents that focus on universal human rights.

Identify Human Rights in Historical Documents: A Group Project (40 minutes)
Divide the class into groups. Each group should have three students, and each group should elect its own spokesperson. Provide each group with an historical document on human rights. (The documents are listed in the teaching resources section on page 262.) The groups will read their assigned historical documents. Each group will identify three human rights and share them with other groups. Groups will come together to combine their lists and prepare one common list for the class.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee,
Ann Elizabeth Mayer, Islam and Human Rights: Tradition and Politics (Boulder, Colo: Westview Press, 1995), 111.
Elton L. Daniel, The History of Iran (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2001), 213.
Human Rights Watch, World Report, 2000,
Shirin Edabi’s interview with Payvand, an Iranian newspaper, on October 21, 2003,
The Norwegian Nobel Committee, “The Nobel Peace Prize 2003,”

Teachers Resources
U.S. and International Documents on Human Rights

  • Cyrus Cylinder, 538 BC
  • Magna Carta, 1215
  • The Atlantic Charter, 1603
  • English Bill of Rights, 1689
  • Virginia Declaration of Rights, 1776
  • United States Declaration of Independence, 1776
  • French Declaration of the Rights of Man, 1789
  • United States Bill of Rights, 1791
  • Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948
  • Declaration of the Rights of the Child, 1959

Websites for Human Rights and Peace Education

Amnesty International

Human Rights Education Associates

Human Rights Resource Center

Human Rights Watch

Iran Children’s Rights Society

Nobel Peace Prize

Peace Education Center, Teachers College, Columbia University

Peace Women

UN Commission on Human Rights

University of Minnesota Human Rights Center and Library

Female Nobel Peace Laureates and Their Missions

Year Name Country Mission
1905 Baroness Bertha von Suttner Austria Peace Movement
1931 Jane Addams USA Universal brotherhood
1946 Emily Greene Balch USA Anti-war movement
1976 Betty William Ireland Women for peace
1976 MaireadCorrigan Ireland Women for peace
1979 Mother Theresa Yugoslavia Service to humanity
1982 Alva Myrdal Mexico Disarmament movement
1991 Aung San Suu Kyi Burma Democracy movement
1992 Riguberta Manchu Tum Guatemala Ethnic harmony
1997 Jody Williams USA Movement to ban mines
2003 Shirin Edabi Iran Human rights

Bibliography on Women in Iran

Afkhami, Mahnaz and Friedl, Erika, In the Eye of the Storm: Women in Post-Revolutionary Iran (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University of Press, 1994).

Amanat, Abbas, Crowing Anguish: Memoirs of a Persian Princess (Washington D.C.: Mage Publishers, 1983).

Ansari, Sarah and Martin, Vanessa, Women, Religion and Culture in Iran (Great Britain and Ireland: Richmond, Surrey, 2002).

Daneshvar, Simin, Savushun: A Novel (Washington, D.C.: Mage Publishers, 1990).

Ebadi, Shirin, Iran Awakening: A Memoir of Revoltion and Hope (2006).
Farman Farmaian, Sattareh, Daughter of Persia (New York: Crown Publishers, 1992).

Howard, Jane Mary, Inside Iran: Women’s Lives (Washington, D.C.: Mage Publishers, 2002).

Kousha, Mahnaz, Voices From Iran: The Changing Lives of Iranian Women (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2002).

Milani, Farzaneh, Veils and Words: the Emerging Voices of Iranian Women (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1992).

Mir-Hosseini, Ziba, Marriage on Trial: A Study of Islamic Family Law (London: LB. Tauris, 1993).

Muge Gocek, Fatma and Balaghi, Shiva, Reconstructing Gender in the Middle East: Tradition, Identity, and Power (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994).

Sanasarian Eliz, The Women’s Rights Movement in Iran (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1982).

Satrapi, Marjane, Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood (2003 and 2004).
Shahabi, Sorya, What is Happening to Women in Iran: International Campaign for the Defence of Women (Sweden: sn, 1993)

Bibliography on Human Rights Education

Branson, Maragret and Torney-Purta, Judith (Eds.), International Human Rights, Society and the Schools, Bulletin No 68 (Washington, D.C.: National Council for the Social Studies, 1982).

Brown, Margot, Our Rights: Teaching about Rights and Responsibilities in the Primary School, (UK: Amnesty International, 1996).

Flowers, Nancy, (Ed.), Human Rights Here and Now: Celebrating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Hacker, Carlotta, Nobel Prize Winners (New York: Crabtree Publishing Company, 1998).

Hines, P.D. and Wood, L. “A Guide to Human Rights Education,” Bulletin No. 43. Washington D.C.: National Council for the Social Studies.

Human Rights Resource Center, The Human Rights Education Handbook: Effective Practices for Learning Action and Change (University of Minnesota, 1969).

Human Rights Resource Center, United Nations Decade for Human Rights Education (University of Minnesota,, 1995).

Martin, J. Paul, Self-help Human Rights Education Handbook (N.Y.: Columbia University Press, 1996).

Mary, Ann Elizabeth, Islam and Human Rights: Tradition and politics, 2nd ed. (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1995).

Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights, ABC, Teaching Human Rights: Practical Activities for Primary and Secondary Schools (New York: United Nations, 1989).

Reardon, Betty, Educating for Human Dignity (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995).

Tibbitt, Felissa, Human Rights Educational Goals for Children and Youth (Amsterdam: Human Rights Education Associates, 1996).

In addition a lesson plan, done by Norwegian students:

Submitted by Admin on Wed, 02/06/2008 - 8:48pm.