Iran's leading feminist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate said Saturday that a military confrontation between the United States and Iran over nuclear issues would strike a disastrous blow to her nation's struggling human rights movement by strengthening the hard-line Islamic regime.
Shirin Ebadi, in interviews between sessions at a Los Angeles youth peace conference, called on the Iranian government to abandon uranium enrichment, which has fueled fears that the country is developing a nuclear bomb. But she also urged the United States and Israel to forgo any plans for a preemptive military attack, because it would only give the regime an excuse to crack down on human rights activists such as herself.
"If there is a military attack on Iran, people will forget their differences with the government, and they will defend their country," she said in an interview. "It will also damage our human rights movement, because the government will expand its powers and limit freedoms using the excuse of national security."
Instead, the Iranian jurist called for direct and public talks between leaders, legislators and civilians in both countries.
Ebadi carried her message of nonviolent action to 3,000 students from around the world who gathered this weekend at Loyola Marymount University in Westchester for a peace conference sponsored by the PeaceJam Foundation. The high-spirited conference featured music, prayer, testimony and advice from six Nobel laureates, who were cheered on like rock stars.
Besides Ebadi, the other laureates were Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, anti-land-mine activist Jody Williams, Betty Williams of Northern Ireland, Adolfo Perez Esquivel of Argentina and Rigoberta Menchu Tum of Guatemala.
The Colorado-based PeaceJam was founded in 1996 to develop young leaders to work for nonviolent change through the advice and inspiration of Nobel Peace Prize laureates. In the last decade, PeaceJam says, it has mobilized 600,000 youth around the world to develop more than 1 million service projects addressing disease, human rights, racism, equal access to natural resources, environmental degradation, weapons proliferation and other global issues.
Several of the projects were highlighted over the weekend. In one presentation Saturday, Burmese activist Charm Tong tearfully described her encounter with a woman who was gang-raped while seven months pregnant and whose husband was taken and presumably killed by members of Myanmar's military junta. Tong, who has helped document mass rapes by soldiers, appealed to students to step up political pressure on the military regime to democratize the nation and free Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese opposition leader and 1991 Nobel laureate.
In her remarks Friday and Saturday, Ebadi told students to reject the distractions of consumerism and celebrity gossip and pay close attention to world affairs, because international events touch them more than they might realize. As an example, she said U.S. support for Islamist mujahedin against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan inadvertently helped strengthen the Taliban, who aided Osama bin Laden in plotting the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
"When I tell you the fate of the world is intertwined, this is what I mean," said Ebadi, 61. "Something happens in Afghanistan and years later innocent people are killed in New York. This is why I say we shouldn't be indifferent to what happens in the world."
Ebadi, wearing a pantsuit and short brunet coif, drew her biggest gasps from students as she described the repression against women in her native Iran. In 1975, Ebadi was named the first female judge in Iran's history, but she was demoted to clerk after the Islamic regime took control four years later. She was arrested in 2000 for her human rights activities and placed in solitary confinement for three weeks.
In Iran, Ebadi told the students, women's testimony is worth only half that of men's. Men can marry as many as four women, and women who fail to wear the Islamic head covering in public can be punished with 80 lashes. To protest the head covering law, Ebadi said, she went bareheaded to Norway to accept her Nobel Prize.
"It doesn't matter if they put me in prison," she said as the students clapped wildly. "I have to continue my path."
But Ebadi said the women's movement in Iran has won recent victories. Although the government recently arrested four women for writing about gender discrimination in Iran, she said, it also backed down on attempts to ease polygamy laws after Ebadi and others threatened a public protest.
Such gains, however, would be jeopardized by a military confrontation with the U.S. or Israel, Ebadi said. This year, she formed a National Peace Council of more than 80 Iranian lawyers, writers, artists and activists to oppose military conflict over the nuclear crisis and support human rights.
Her remarks, often punctuated with a jabbing finger, seemed to inspire several students. Wendy and Blanca Ortega, sisters from San Bernardino, said Ebadi had given them a powerful example of a mother and wife who still finds time to work for social change.
Wendy Ortega, a 20-year-old student at Crafton Hills College in Yucaipa, said she hoped to join the Peace Corps and work in Africa or Guatemala. Her sister, a 19-year-old Cal State San Bernardino student, has long been inspired to help Palestinians improve their lives.
"I loved the fact that she was so confident and outspoken," Wendy Ortega said. "She's an awesome role model and has empowered us to act."