Iranian Lawyer Is Awarded Peace
Prize for Human Rights Work
By LIZETTE ALVAREZ
Images of Iranian Human Rights
Lawer/Activist and Noble Laureate, Ms. Shirin Ebadi, selected by
OSLO, Oct. 10 — Shirin
Ebadi became the first Muslim woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize today,
in recognition of her work promoting the rights of women and children
in Iran over the past three decades.
In awarding the prize to
Ms. Ebadi, the Nobel committee said it wished to prod the Muslim
world into recognizing that Islam and human rights, particularly
those of women and children, can go hand in hand. The committee
also said it hoped to advance a moderate, nonviolent path toward
reform in Islamic countries, one in which religious and cultural
differences are rewarded rather than punished during this time of
turbulence and upheaval.
"Her principal arena
is the struggle for basic human rights, and no society deserves
to be labeled civilized unless the rights of women and children
are respected," the Nobel committee's chairman, Ole Danbolt
Mjoes, said in a statement after announcing the winner.
In its citation, the committee
noted that Ms. Ebadi "sees no conflict between Islam and fundamental
human rights," adding, "It is important to her that the
dialogue between the different cultures and religions of the world
should take as its point of departure their shared values."
Iran has been criticized
internationally for its harsh, discriminatory treatment of women,
and the award could lead to renewed interest in Iran and its internal
struggles over change.
The selection of Ms. Ebadi
was also viewed in some circles as an attempt to influence the debate
over how best to deal with Iran and the issue of whether it is developing
nuclear weapons. The United States has taken an aggressive stance
on the matter and has pushed Iran — which President Bush has
called part of an international "axis of evil" —
to make clear whether it is developing such weapons. Europe, on
the other hand, would rather rely on diplomacy to resolve the question
and prefers to stoke change in Iran from within the country.
"Iran is at the top
of the international map in terms of weapons of mass destruction
and regime change," said Janne H. Matlary, a professor of international
politics at the University of Oslo and a former deputy foreign minister
of Norway. "There is Western agreement on putting pressure
on Iran. But there are differences between Europe and America about
the effects of regime change. Europe favors working to strengthen
democratic groups from inside the country. Change through cooperation
is very European."
Ms. Ebadi, who was jailed
in Iran on charges of slandering government officials, has long
served as a pioneer for women's rights. She was the first woman
to serve as a judge in Iran, a position she was forced to give up
in 1979, after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini took power and banned
women from the bench. Since then, Ms. Ebadi has used her position
as a lawyer to defend a number of political activists, including
writers and intellectuals. She worked "active and successfully,"
the committee noted, to identify the perpetrators behind a 1999
attack on students at Tehran University.
But it is her work on behalf
of women and children that garnered the most attention. Ms. Ebadi,
56, is the founder and leader of the Association for Support of
Children's Rights in Iran and has written several books and articles
promoting human rights, among then the "History and Documentation
of Human Rights in Iran." Working at a grass-roots level, she
has managed to establish crisis telephone lines for children and
raised awareness about issues like children in prison and forced
The fact that she is a woman
in a Muslim country teetering between reform and fundamentalism
"carries special resonance," Mr. Mjoes, the Nobel chairman,
said in an interview after the announcement.
"Ebadi represents reformed Islam, and argues for a new interpretation
of Islamic law which is in harmony with vital human rights such
as democracy, equality before the law, religious freedom and freedom
of speech," he said.
Ms. Ebadi's selection by the Nobel committee was unforeseen. Her
name had not been raised by Nobel observers on their annual list
of nominees who were most likely to succeed. In fact, Nobel officials
were unable to locate Ms. Ebadi in Tehran and wound up passing the
information on to her husband. Ms. Ebadi, who was in Paris, will
receive $1.32 million in prize money.
In choosing Ms. Ebadi this
year, the committee passed over Pope John Paul II, who was viewed
as a favorite because of his opposition to the war in Iraq and his
fragile health. But some observers say the pope remains too controversial
for the Nobel committee, mostly because of his opposition to birth
control and abortion. Others said the selection of the pope, or
another favorite, the former Czech president, Vaclav Havel, would
have placed too much emphasis on the past rather than the future.
Ms. Matlary, who also serves
on the pontifical council for justice and peace in the Vatican,
said this would have been an ideal year for the pope to receive
the award. John Paul, whose health has badly deteriorated, forcefully
opposed the war on Iraq and has worked through the years to reconcile
different religious groups. He was also instrumental in the downfall
But he remains controversial,
particularly in Scandinavia. "One disagrees profoundly in the
Nordic countries with his moral theology, his views on family, abortion,
homosexuality," she said. "All the controversial issues
of the modern lifestyle."
In Iran, Ms. Ebadi's selection
was met with lukewarm detachment by the government. State-controlled
television and radio did not announce her victory until several
hours after her selection was made public, and then did so with
little fanfare. Conservatives, who have long viewed Ms. Ebadi's
activities as a threat to the Islamic system, reacted angrily to
the committee's decision.
"Although we may be
happy that an Iranian has won the prize, we believe the Nobel Peace
Prize is being used to suit political objectives," Amir Mohebian,
an editor of the hard-line conservative newspaper Resalat, told
The Associated Press. "This prize carries the message that
Europe intends to put further pressure on human rights issues in
Iran as a political move to achieve its particular objectives,"
he said. But officials who advocate change and are closely aligned
with President Mohammad Khatami celebrated her selection.
The selection process for
the Nobel Peace Prize winner is famously secretive. This year it
was also relatively difficult to handicap. There were a record 165
nominations for the prize and three new members on the five-member
selection committee, including the chairman. Three of the five members
Ebadi is the 11th woman and the 3rd Muslim to receive the Nobel
[Editor’s Note: Reprinted from the New York
Times, October 10th. This article was originally titled "Iranian
Lawyer Is Awarded Peace Prize for Human Rights Work"]
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