Real Leaders

“It’s Our Turn As Women To Teach Men What Islam Is Really About”

Photo by Simon Abrams on Unsplash


  • Shirin Ebadi is the first Islamic woman to win a Nobel peace Prize.
  • The Iranian lawyer, former judge and human rights activist has actively campaigned for women’s and children’s rights.
  • She is shocked by legislation that values a women’s life at half that of a man and decides to use her legal training to try and change it.
  • Fanatical people who cannot look past their own beliefs make her the most angry.
  • In this exclusive interview with Real Leaders, Ebadi tells us how best to achieve world peace.

You have managed to move between opposing believe systems in Iran and make people aware of their common humanity. How have you managed this?

The Islamic Republic of Iran has had human rights violations from the beginning. They have cited Islam as the reason why they should be in charge, especially to preserve Sharia law. I demonstrated that there are different interpretations of Islam and that the Iranian government is using incorrect interpretations. I managed to change the law regarding the custody of children in 2004, in favor of Iranian mothers. The minimum age for marriage was nine years old for girls, based on Sharia law and has now been increased to thirteen because of protests from my colleagues and myself. However, this age is still too young and must be increased to 18 years old. We were successful in telling the government they shouldn’t abuse Islam and force people to obey the law in the name of religion.

In your view, what does the world need more of in order to become more peaceful?

While weaponry is such a profitable industry, the world won’t see peace. We also need to close the gap between ever-expanding poverty and wealth in the world. The number of hungry people are increasing daily and this creates tension.

The lack of social justice is one of the biggest causes of war along with a lack of democracy in some countries. People become tired of dictators and you can see the consequences of this in some Arabian countries. In Libya, Iraq and Syria people are suffering from the legacy of dictators who controlled these countries, If Gaddafi hadn’t been in power for 40 years and Saddam Hussein didn’t rule for such a long time people wouldn’t be suffering now.

Why have you focused on women and children rights in particular?

I also work on the issue of political prisoners and the freedom of religion. My job is about covering the entire spectrum of human rights, but children are the most vulnerable group of society. They cannot defend themselves and need someone to advocate for them. From my point of view, children are always the priority.

Is it a bad idea to allow religion and state to become one?

They should be separated to prevent politicians from abusing people’s beliefs. Nearly 37 years after the establishment of the Islamic republic of Iran, we’ve seen how politicians can abuse religion against citizens. I am Muslim in my personal belief, yet still believe that state and religion must be separate from each other.

There are many conflicts in the world right now, where each side is convinced they are fighting for freedom. How do you reconcile these opposing viewpoints?

Any fight against dictatorship should be peaceful; there is no excuse for using a gun. I cannot accept violence as a political weapon, especially someone taking a bomb into a crowd and killing scores of civilians. I will never accept the use of weapons, even if the goal is to achieve democracy.

What role should business be playing in solving serious social issues?

Companies that operate internationally, who are fair and don’t exploit people can increase cultural diversity for their benefit. International labor law is important to prevent developed countries abusing less developed and poor countries for cheap labor.

The building collapse in Bangladesh a few years ago, where many underpaid workers died, made the world much more aware of cheap labor. The situation of foreign workers is painful at the moment, with many reports documenting horrible situations. Fair labor practices will benefit businesses in the long-term.

Was there a moment in your life, when you realized that you wanted to make a positive difference in the world?

After the Islamic revolution in Iran, women lost all their rights and many discriminatory laws were imposed. When I read the country’s criminal legislation for the first time I realized that the value of a man’s life was double that of a woman. If a man and woman both had a car accident, the compensation paid to the man was double that of the woman. The testimony of two women in a court was equal to the testimony of one man. The age of criminal responsibility was nine for girls and 15 for boys, meaning that a 10 year-old girl and a 40 year-old man, would be equally guilty for committing the same crime.

I couldn’t believe what I was reading and thought it must be a printing mistake. I read it again and couldn’t believe that these things can become law. The third time I read it, and realized they were serious, I developed my very first migraine. I knew that I had to use what I’d learnt from law school to correct these laws. I managed to change some of these laws successfully, but we still have a long way to go.

What makes a good leader?

I don’t agree with heroism. Everybody should be the hero of his or her own life. It’s not good to give someone a high position and turn them into a hero. I always tell my daughters not to look at my life as an example to follow, because the situation I was in was very different from now. I have to let them follow their own dreams.

What makes you the most frustrated and angry?

My biggest problem is fanatical people; those who cannot accept the truth and think their beliefs are the best. They think everyone else is wrong and never want to hear what others have to say. These fanatical groups exist in all religions and cultures and make me disappointed. The best solution for lasting peace in the world is to accept that the truth is not our thoughts alone. There is a mythical story that tells how God lived in the sky and that truth was a mirror in his hands. This mirror fell to earth and broke into thousands of pieces, each falling on a different house and person. Therefore, truth is with everyone and we all have the same rights. If we can develop this mindset, we can prevent many future problems.

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