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Nobel Peace Award Could Have Impact for Iran's Reformers - 2003-10-10

Iranian lawyer Shirin Ebadi has won the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize for defending human rights in her country, especially those of women, children and refugees.

"We hope that the people of Iran will feel joyous that, for the first time in history, one of their citizens has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. And, we hope the prize will be an inspiration for all those who struggle for human rights and democracy in her country, in the Muslim world and in all countries where the fight for human rights needs inspiration and support," said Ole Danbolt Mjoes, chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee.

He was explaining the motivation for awarding the Nobel Prize to 56-year-old Shirin Ebadi.

Ms. Ebadi was one of Iran's first female judges in 1974, but was forced to step down after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The hard-line Muslim clerics who took control of the country said a woman could not preside over a law court.

Since then, Ms. Ebadi has fought for the legal rights of women and children in Iran, and was briefly jailed for her outspoken work.

Ms. Ebadi has always maintained there is nothing in Islam that is incompatible with Western concepts of human rights. "During 20 years, I tried to show that it was possible to be a Muslim and at the same time to have a law that goes together with the human rights," she said.

At a news conference Friday in Paris, Ms. Ebadi also called on Iran's government to respect human rights and release all political prisoners.

"All of us should be united and together fight and work for human rights in Iran," she said.

The conservative clerics who took power in 1979 imposed strict Islamic laws that treated women as second-class citizens. Nearly 20 years later, it was the voting power of Iran's women and youth that brought the reform-minded Mohammad Khatami to power. Shortly after his election, President Khatami named a woman as a deputy president. But hard-liners in the government have continued to block his reform efforts.

Analysts inside and outside the country say the honor bestowed on Ms. Ebadi should energize Iran's reform movement.

Ali Reza Nourizadeh, who runs the Center for Iran and Arab Studies in London, said, "Whenever there's talk about Iran, condemnation comes first. So, for the first time, Iran is praised by [in the person of] Dr. Shirin Ebadi, who is not just representing Iranian women, or Muslim women, she is an Iranian national. So, I am sure the reformists now can go to the conservatives and explain to them, just look at what she brought for us - honor and and praise all over the world. So, just by giving a few concessions for the reformist movement, we may have, instead of condemnations, praises on other fields, as well," he said.

Still, Mr. Nourizadeh does not rule out some harsh reaction from the hard-line clerics. "I'm sure there will be a backlash. Up to now, they were considering Ms. Ebadi and others as Western-minded and influenced by the corrupt western culture. Now, they can see this person is recognized by the Committee of Nobel Peace Prize, as woman who has struggled for human rights, for women's rights and children's rights," he said.

The U.S. government also praised the Nobel committee's choice of Ms. Ebadi. The United States has expressed support for Iranian reformers in the past, but it has not always had the desired effect. Late last year, when President Bush encouraged student protesters, hard-line clerics intensified their crackdown. Some analysts see Ms. Ebadi's Nobel Prize as a subtle warning to President Bush, who included Iran in the so-called "axis of evil" along with Iraq and North Korea. Iran's religious leadership has been on alert since the U.S. interventions in neighboring Iraq and Afghanistan.

Showing her strong sense of nationalism, Ms. Ebadi insists Iranians do not need outside interference in order to achieve their democratic reforms. "We have the power. We're going to fight for the human rights in Iran. And, every stranger who will come from the outside to impose that on us, of course we are against it," she said.

Elsewhere in the Muslim world, news of Shirin Ebadi's Nobel Prize has been greeted with joy by human rights activists, who see it as a reaffirmation of their own campaigns for democratic reform.

Ms. Ebadi did not lose sight of the broader implications of her award, and used her news conference Friday to criticize the abuse of human rights in the name of religion in many other Muslim countries, too.