What does it take to be a Nobel Peace Prize winner? The individual winners are a diverse lot, but having read some of the words of Nelson Mandela and the most recent winner Muhammad Yunus, and having just completed the autobiography of Shirin Ebadi, Iran Awakening, it seems there is one unifying factor — a clarity of vision that enables these exceptional individuals to understand their own actions, and the workings of their society. That's combined with a certain pig-headed determination to effect change, and the courage to maintain that even in the face of death.
That makes them sound almost inhumanly perfect, but Ebadi's book is a very human text, if unusually honest for an autobiography, for you feel she insists on always being honest with herself. She'd be a loyal, but uncomfortable, friend - always able to see through her compatriots' self-deceptions, and her own.
Ebadi's tale is also that of Iran - and particularly of its women. She writes of her mother - a bright woman prevented in the 1940s from attending college by marriage, obediently in love with her husband, yet also consumed by inner demons that emerged as paranoiac fear. So it was her father who was the chief shaper of her life - and he was, she says "as unpatriarchal as could be imagined, for his time". Crucially, he treated her and her brother as equals, to the astonishment of their servants.
It was not until I was much older that I realized how gender equality was impressed on me first and foremost at home, by example. It was only when I surveyed my own sense of place in the world from an adult perspective that I saw how my upbringing spared me from the low self-esteem and learned dependence that I observed in women reared in more traditional homes. My father's championing of my independence, from the play yard to my later decision to become a judge, instilled a confidence in me that I never felt consciously, but later came to regard as my most valued inheritance.
Her father was deputy minister of agriculture in the popular government of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, which was overturned in a US-backed coup in 1953, but after the Shah's takeover stepped back from politics, so Ebadi spent her adolescence and early adulthood in something of a political bubble - like many of the Third World technorati fulfilling a moral, practical role while largely avoiding broader issues. She was obviously an exceptional student, for after graduating in law at the age of 22, she immediately became a judge. The Shah's repression was, she says, carried out in the military courts, and so, she says, those in which she worked were "largely fair and uncorrupt".