Iranian lawyer Shirin Ebadi has won the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize for defending human rights in her country, especially those of women and children. The Norwegian Nobel Committee says the award is aimed at inspiring democratic reform, not only in Iran, but across the Muslim world.

Ms. Ebadi is the first Iranian and the first Muslim woman to win the coveted peace prize. The slight, softspoken 56-year-old lawyer was one of Iran's first women judges, but she was forced to step down, after the 1979 Islamic revolution, when the ruling clerics in that country decreed that women could not preside over courts.

She has since devoted herself to fighting for reforms to Iran's Islamic legal system, including efforts to improve the status of women. In the process, she has incurred the wrath of her country's powerful, hard-line clerics.

Ole Danbolt Mjoes, chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, made it clear Friday in Oslo that the award is aimed at fostering human rights and democracy, and inspiring hope among people fighting oppression anywhere in the world.

"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," he said, "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."

Contacted by Norwegian public radio in Paris, where she has been living for the past few months, Ms. Ebadi says the award is good for her and good for the cause of human rights and democracy in Iran.

Diplomats who monitor events in Iran say the country's embattled reformists have been given a rare boost by the award to Ms. Ebadi. But some western human rights activists who follow the situation in the Islamic republic say they fear the award could inspire a backlash by the conservative clerical establishment against the reformists in the weeks ahead.

Judith Vidal-Hall, of the Index on Censorship - an organization in London that studies crackdowns on news media in such countries as Iran - says the award to Ms. Ebadi not only has deep implications for the struggle for democracy there, but could also be meant as a warning to the Bush administration, which has made no secret of its hostility toward the Iranian government.

"Leave Iran alone. Don't touch Iran," she said. "There are serious democratic forces at work. Don't invade. Don't intervene. Give Iran a chance. Support the democratic forces ? and above all, and I'm sure Shirin would say this herself, support the Shirins within Iran, who are so desperately trying to bring about change."

Ms. Ebadi was chosen for the peace prize out of a field of 165 candidates, including Pope John Paul II and former Czech President Vaclav Havel.

Former Polish President and Nobel laureate Lech Walesa attacked the Norwegian committee, saying it was a mistake not to give the award to his compatriot, the pope.

But Nobel watchers say the committee has been seeking to promote moderates in the Muslim world since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, in an effort to avoid stoking religious conflict.

And, they say, the pope's opposition to contraception seems outmoded to many Norwegians.