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Iranian Jurist Wins Nobel Peace Prize

October 11, 2003|Azadeh Moaveni and Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writers

PARIS — Iranian jurist and activist Shirin Ebadi was awarded the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize on Friday for her long fight for human rights in her native land, becoming the first Iranian and the first Muslim woman to win the honor.

Ebadi has battled Iran's hard-line Islamic rulers on behalf of women, children and pro-democracy students but remains a practicing Muslim who insists that Islam and democracy are fully compatible.

Choosing Ebadi over such contenders as Pope John Paul II and former Czech President Vaclav Havel, the Nobel committee praised her work for nonviolent reform and described her as a beacon of hope for Muslims everywhere.

"She sees no conflict between Islam and fundamental human rights," committee chairman Ole Danbolt Mjoes said in making the announcement in Oslo. "It is a pleasure ... to award the Peace Prize to a woman who is part of the Muslim world and of whom that world can be proud."

The Nobel committee made it clear that by selecting Ebadi, it hoped to speed the progress of human rights and democracy in troubled regions.

The choice of a dynamic woman with a benign and democratic vision of Islam could also weaken Iranian hard-liners who -- apart from stifling reform at home -- are at the center of an increasingly tense standoff with the international community over their nation's nuclear program, analysts say.

News of the surprise choice reached the 56-year-old Ebadi while she was on a trip to Paris. During a news conference here, she exhibited the steely serenity she honed as Iran's first female judge and later as a dissident lawyer, writer and lecturer whose clashes with conservative clerics landed her in jail in 2000.

"The duty of life is to fight in a difficult situation, as there is in Iran," Ebadi told journalists. "If today, as a woman and a lawyer, I was living in a country in which all the rights of women were respected, I wouldn't be as proud of myself as I am today."

Ebadi employs a studied strategy in fighting Iran's clerical regime, according to a leading French scholar of the Islamic world who knows her. Her arguments for women's equality are grounded in law and the text of the Koran. She insists that the abuse of women by Islamic conservatives results from a misreading of the true spirit of the Koran, according to Olivier Roy of the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris.

"She is very strong, very articulate, very brave," Roy said. "She's a pragmatist, not an ideologue. She says you can't use Western arguments in front of a mullah -- he won't listen. But she says he will listen if you use the text of the Koran, and that's how you can concretely help Iranian women."

The Nobel committee's announcement brought cheers from human rights activists around the world, and especially in Iran.

"This prize is very important for the future of the country," Saed Lailaz, a political analyst in Tehran, said in a telephone interview. "The conservatives, however, are very angry. The prize was announced eight hours ago, and still there has been no official comment on TV from the conservatives. They fear what this prize means to their future."

Lailaz said the Nobel strengthens Ebadi and the cause of Iranian women, who are excluded from many jobs and enjoy fewer rights than men.

"It will improve the role of women in Iran. There will be a sense of empowerment. I can already see this with my wife," he said, laughing. "She is braver now than she was before the announcement of the prize."

At Ebadi's home, her family watched updates of the news via a satellite dish -- technically illegal but recently tolerated.

Ebadi's 79-year-old mother, Minu Yamini, said the Nobel announcement marked the third time she cried for her daughter. The first time was at her university graduation; the second was when she was jailed.

Ebadi's husband, too, was inspired by his wife's recognition. "The reform movement is reborn," said Javad Tavassolian.

In Los Angeles, where a third of America's 277,000 Iranian immigrants live, there was joyous reaction to the news.

"I hope this will help the women in Iran and throughout the region," said Farideh Behrozi, who burst into tears when she learned of the award. "I hope they recognize that if you fight, someone will listen. If you scream and holler and speak your piece, someone will hear."

At the Renaissance hair salon in West Los Angeles, Delba Jenab, who fled Iran 25 years ago, said she had goose bumps after learning that Ebadi had won.

"This is very exciting because this means doors are opening," Jenab said. When she lived in Iran, she said, police would stop her on the street if a strand of hair had escaped her head scarf.

Ebadi has worked closely with activists struggling for democratic reform in Iran. But she has also criticized reformers for ignoring women's rights, which she believes is as urgent a priority as the freedoms of expression and assembly.

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