In a 1999 Christian Science Monitor article, Michael Theodoulou provides an introduction:
Ms. Ebadi was Iran's first woman judge before the revolution, after which the ayatollahs decided women were too emotional and irrational to hold such posts. She now lectures in law at Tehran University, is a vocal campaigner for women's and children's rights, and takes on cases other lawyers would never dare touch. …
The peace prize often does more than merely reward past accomplishments. The committee also seems to use the prize to protect those who may be in jeopardy — as with Lech Walesa in 1983 and Aung San Suu Kyi in 1991 — and to prod their causes forward. They like to give the prize where they think it will do the most good.
Shirin Ebadi is certainly deserving of the honor, but the committee has also made a shrewd choice. Ebadi is accused by regressive elements in Iran of having been "assigned by her contacts with the US to fabricate claims of human rights abuses in Iran." Her country is, as Theodoulou put it, "A tough place to be a woman with a cause," but the Nobel will help to protect her in that cause and the attention it brings may help to move that cause forward.