Reluctant leaders: Dr Shirin Ebadi

Paul Russell looks at the reluctant leadership of Dr Shirin Ebadi.

Dr Shirin Ebadi may be a Nobel Laureate, an author, a human rights lawyer and a one-time Iranian judge but she is categorical about what she is not. In an interview with the New Statesman in 2009 Dr Ebadi said: “I’m not a leader of any sort. Nor am I the head of any political movement,” and in an interview with Time: “I am not political competition for anyone. I’m just an attorney.”

Yet Dr Ebadi’s convictions about human rights have shaped her life to such an extent that she lives in exile from her home country of Iran, once read a death warrant with her name on it and lives by the quote: “If you can’t eliminate injustice, at least tell everyone about it.” 

Ebadi was born in Hamadan, Iran in 1947 and had a fairly unconventional upbringing by cultural and societal standards of the time. Her father, Professor Mohammad Ali Ebadi was a lecturer in commercial law.

Ebadi was encouraged from a young age to be strong and independent and followed in her father’s footsteps to become a lawyer, and then a Chief Magistrate at just 28 years of age – both the first female judge in the country and the youngest.

This was until the Islamic Revolution of 1979 curtailed Ebadi’s career and she was forced to leave her post. Once allowed to practise again some 14 years later, Ebadi became a champion for the rights of women and the young but after leaving Iran to attend a seminar in June 2009, has been living in exile.

Following these tumultuous political years, it is understandable that Ebadi would be reluctant to be seen as a leader, especially in a political context. Indeed, Ebadi has said: “A political leader shows people the way, moving in front of the people and showing them a path.

A human rights advocate – and I am a human rights advocate – instead walks behind people, and, if anyone is left behind, takes their hand and helps them.”

What is perhaps remarkable about Ebadi has been her response to the oppression and aggression. In her book Until We Are Free, Ebadi said: “As I have experienced so often myself, being crushed simply gives you greater exercise in collecting the shards of yourself, putting them back together, and figuring out what to do next.”

A key moment for Ebadi had to be that of reading the transcript between a government official and the death squad, naming Ebadi as the next to die but typically of Ebadi she was not cowed: “I wasn’t scared, nor was I angry. I remember mostly an overwhelming feeling of disbelief. Why do they hate me so much? What have I done to elicit hate of this order?”


And the retribution was not destined for Ebadi alone. Whilst Ebadi has been in exile both her husband and sister have been arrested. When asked whether this would make her more careful in her actions and behaviours Ebadi said: “How can I remain quiet in such circumstances? Obviously, that the people closest to me are threatened, imprisoned and threatened, will always deeply trouble my conscience but these people support what I am doing and have asked me to continue. If I were to stop, that would only please the government, they would identify the weakness in me and exploit it to make life even more difficult for those individuals.”

Ebadi has an overwhelming desire to do what is right, no matter the personal cost. In an interview with Time, Ebadi was asked what her husband said when they saw each other after four years and responded: “He said my work was ruining our family life. And it was not going to result in bringing democracy to Iran, so how long did I want to continue doing it? My response was that this is the path I have chosen.”

It is Ebadi’s conviction and determination that led her to become the first Muslim woman and the first Iranian to be awarded the Nobel Peace prize.

As for what happens next, in an interview with Middle East magazine, Ebadi said: “I will go back to Iran because I am Iranian and I want to die in my country. Imagine, your mother is a sick old woman, whereas your neighbour next door is a younger, more dynamic mother. Still, you’ll stay with your old sick mother because she is your mother. When I’m in Paris…of course I enjoy it and I am happy. But it is not my home.”

Ebadi may not identify with the political leaders of Iran or indeed any country, she may not identify as a leader and yet what she does is undoubtedly leadership of the highest order. Ebadi’s final quote perhaps says it all: “I have to be where I can be more useful for Iran and use my freedom of expression to bring the voices of the people of Iran.”


About the author

Paul Russell is co-founder and director of Luxury Academy London, a multi-national private training company with offices in London, Delhi, Mumbai and Visakhapatnam. Luxury Academy London specialise in leadership, communication and business etiquette training for companies and private clients across a wide range of sectors.


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