Some of her admirers in Iran call her a woman of steel. Sure, the Iranian human rights champion also has a heart of gold. But it is Shirin Ebadi's unbending will that explains how she has become the conscience of the Islamic Republic.
Years before reformers like President Mohammed Khatami started talking about political freedom, Ebadi, 56, was demanding fundamental rights from an Islamic regime that systematically violated them. Her Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 gave Ebadi even greater moral authority inside Iran, injecting fresh hope into a pro-democracy movement that has suffered escalating repression at the hands of the mullahs. She refuses to be pessimistic. "When you are hopeless," she says, "you are at a dead end."
In the Shah's era, Ebadi had been one of Iran's first woman judges. A devout Muslim, she supported Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini's revolution against the Pahlavi dynasty, only to find herself out of a job under the Islamic regime. That sparked a long battle against Iran's clerics for women's equality and rights for children, workers, artists and others. Though Ebadi is careful to push for change within the law, that has not kept her out of trouble. In 2000 she spent 23 days in prison, and she has received regular death threats.
Ebadi believes there is nothing incompatible about Islam and democracy. "We can witness the promotion of human rights even under the Islamic Republic," she says. That message has brought murmurs of dismay from young Iranians who demand a radical break with religious rule. Yet Ebadi's relentless fight for justice has inspired hope throughout Iran and well beyond.