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Iranian Women Encouraged by Nobel Peace Prize - 2003-11-17

Could the decision to award this year's Nobel Peace Prize to Iranian attorney Shirin Ebadi add momentum to the movement for change in Iran? A group of Iranian women scholars in the United States say the award will help, but they also say that in the 24 years since Iran's Islamic revolution, women have never stopped struggling for legal and political reform.

When Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Shirin Ebadi returned to Iran after receiving the prize, tens of thousands of Iranians took to the streets to cheer her.

Ms. Ebadi was born, raised and educated in Iran. Before the revolution, she was one of the first female judges in the country. Now she works as a lawyer and teaches at Tehran University.

The Nobel committee, in awarding Ms. Ebadi the peace prize, noted that although she has been in imprisoned for her work on several controversial political cases, she has worked persistently for women's rights, children's rights and human rights and has also promoted an interpretation of Islamic law that is compatible with democracy.

Haleh Esfandiari, professor of Middle Eastern studies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, says Iranian women can identify with the Nobel laureate.

Ms. Esfandiari says now that Ms. Ebadi has won the peace prize the international community can expect to see an even greater push for change from inside Iran. "Iranian women will feel not only vindicated but will also feel emboldened and will push for more and even drastic legal, social and political reforms," she said.

Prior to the Islamic Revolution, Ms. Esfandiari worked as a journalist and was a deputy secretary general of the Women's Organization of Iran.

She recently spoke at a panel discussion on women and social change in Iran hosted by the private Asia Society in New York. Ms. Esfandiari says while the courts continue to favor men, there has been some progress. The age of marriage for girls has been raised from nine to 15, women can now seek divorce under certain conditions, and they can pursue child custody in the courts.

Women continue to hold political aspirations, too, according to another speaker at the conference, Boston University Professor Shahla Haeri. During the presidential election in 2001, Professor Haeri interviewed Iranian women in Tehran about political activism and discussed the ambiguity in Iran's constitution on whether women can become president.

"Women contend that they are also part of this political elite, therefore, gender should not be a barrier to any political office," she says.

Ms. Haeri says she has prepared a documentary, based on her travels in Iran, to show her American students the complexity of the struggle of Iranian women. "The two points I wanted to show in this video are how women are trying to challenge the constitution and how also, the fact that they wear the scarf does not mean that they are not thinking, it does not mean that they stop being social actors or agents," she says.

Academics at the panel discussion in New York say Iranian cinema has been one of the most important outlets for challenging the status of Iranian women. A professor at Princeton University, Negin Nabavi, says not only have women achieved prominence as directors, but some of Iran's most popular films depict heroines who are either assertive and defiant or victims of oppressive circumstances. "Iranian cinema has not only taken on the task of being subversive, it has also come to mirror developments in the society at large. And in a society in which an increasing number of women are becoming part of the work force, where more than 60 percent of the university students are women and where [Iran's] first-ever Nobel laureate is a woman, perhaps it will not be that strange if we see many more films dealing with women and women's issues in the years to come."

But Elahe Sharifpour-Hicks of the New York-based monitoring group Human Rights Watch and the United Nations Commission for Human Rights says the failure of Iran's President Mohammed Khatami to secure institutional reforms has hindered not only the fight for women's rights but the reform movement in general. "Change in all areas has been difficult and the underlying problem is broadly similar. It is not only in the area of women's equality where we can see a lack of progress. The same can be said of religious freedom and of progress towards a more representative government."

Ms. Sharifpour-Hicks says Iranians will know that change is occurring when women are given equal rights in areas such as child custody, inheritance, and the transmission of citizenship to their children.