Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi Discusses Oppression of Women in Islamic States


On October 26th, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Shirin Ebadi, spoke at a lecture hosted by the Islamic Studies Program, discussing the gender and sexuality-based oppression that takes place in Islamic states. Ebadi, who is an internationally recognized human-rights activist, has spent her career as a lawyer and judge fighting for women, children, and other oppressed minorities in Iran. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 for her work, and has lived in political exile from Iran since 2009.

Ebadi characterizes countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran as having patriarchal cultures, where men are treated as a priority over women. Laws in these countries discriminate against women by limiting their property rights, political influence, and individual autonomy, resulting in the government enforced—and culturally accepted—oppression of women.

Ebadi also contends that the patriarchal culture in these countries allows for capital punishment laws to be passed against homosexuality, as these acts are viewed as undignified to their fellow men. She argues that the patriarchal culture uses anything to justify its existence, including the use of religious texts. Religious texts are used to justify discriminatory laws such as limiting inheritances to women and permitting polygamy. Although Ebadi concedes that these religious decrees may have had justification in the past, she states that the conditions of society have changed, and so must the laws.

With the oppression that results from the establishment of Islamist theocracies, Ebadi calls for the separation of religion and state in countries like Iran, so people are not prevented from pursuing freedom. In her view, no country has the right to punish their citizens for not observing certain religious doctrines.

Despite doubt that discriminatory laws in Saudi Arabia and Iran will not change, Ebadi cites empirical evidence to provide hope for possible progress. For centuries, slavery was permitted in Islamic states with support from religious texts, but due to prevailing cultural and social conditions, slavery has been prohibited in all Islamic states.

Ebadi also notes contemporary examples of legal progress in Islamic states. Despite the prior enforcement of inequitable laws by its government, Tunisia was able to repeal many of their discriminatory laws against women following their revolution during the Arab Spring.

With the aspiration of future progress, Ebadi states that if people want to live in peace they must learn to appreciate other cultures and not be repressive toward individuals of differing backgrounds. She closed her lecture by calling on her audience to “… be forgiving like the sky, let’s grow the seed of cooperation like the earth, spread friendship like wind, be like fire burning prejudice and ignorance, and be kind to each other.”

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About Cole Carnick

Cole is a senior at the University of Michigan, studying Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. He currently serves as Editor-in-Chief of The Michigan Review. He can be contacted at, or on Twitter @ColeCarnick.