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Iranian Attorney Shirin Ebadi: 2003 Nobel Peace Prize

Ray Suarez leads a discussion about the work of Iranian attorney Shirin Ebadi, the first Muslim woman to win the Nobel peace prize. The Nobel committee recognized Ebadi for her work to promote democracy, human rights and equality for women in Iran.

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    The Norwegian Nobel Committee made clear today why they awarded Iranian lawyer and human rights activist Shirin Ebadi the peace prize.

  • OLE DANBOLT MJOES, Chairman, Norwegian Nobel Committee:

    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.


    The 56-year-old Ebadi, who was chosen from a record 165 nominees this year, was in Paris when she received the surprising news.

    SHIRIN EBADI, 2003 Nobel Peace Prize Winner: I must tell that it does not belong only to me. It belongs to all people who work for human rights and democracy and peace in Iran. It belongs to all of us.


    Later at a press conference she had this to say:

  • SHIRIN EBADI (Translated):

    The demand that I have for the Iranian regime yesterday, today and for the future is that all of us together united will install human rights in Iran. It is not this easy to be a woman today in Iran because actually in Iran we have laws against the rights of women.


    Ebadi's win was downplayed by the Iranian government. A spokesman for Iran's reformists said it was "an honor for Iranian women." Conservative hard-liners reacted angrily to the award.


    For more on Shirin Ebadi and why she won Nobel's marquis prize, we get two views. Azar Nafisi is a literary scholar who was born and raised in Iran. She is currently a research associate at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and author of the recent book "Reading 'Lolita' in Tehran."

    Gary Sick is a member of the board of Human Rights Watch in New York and co-chairman of the advisory committee of Human Rights Watch/Middle East. He is also a senior research scholar at Columbia University.

    Professor Nafisi, the newly minted peace laureate said today "This prize gives me the energy to continue my fight." What is the fight? What has Shirin Ebadi been fighting against?


    Well, I think the fight Shirin Ebadi is talking about today is one that is going on within the Iranian society, what we call the civil society in Iran by different forces. And at the center of it is issues that the Islamist regime has been targeting for the past 24 years.

    Their main targets have been women's rights, human rights, minority rights and culture. And Ebadi, who was a former judge before the revolution, and was, I — you know, disrobed or whatever you would like to call it after the Islamic regime came to power continued her profession, becoming defense attorney for human rights.


    Gary Sick, earlier today a spokesman for Human Rights Watch, your organization, said we hope the Nobel prize gives her a measure of protection when she returns to Iran. Is the society so divided that she is actually a threatened person?


    Well, I mean, let's face it she has been trying to defend prisoners who were in some respects by the Islamic regime, indefensible. They were prosecuting these people; she stepped in as a defense lawyer over and over again. Some of her actions to try to uncover what were real abuses in the system resulted in her being, first of all, silenced, put in jail, and then her ability to practice law removed from her.

    So this is — her courage is really astonishing. She is, you know, a very — a woman that is not flamboyant and doesn't make great gestures, but she works steadily at what she does, and actually has had a tremendous impact on the society but, indeed, being recognized like this gives her a stature and a credibility in her society that she would never have otherwise, and this is, you know I work on the Middle East, and it's almost always bad news that brings you on television.

    This is good news and I'm really very pleased that the committee, the Nobel Committee, had the courage, in fact, to take a difficult step, rather than going with an easy choice.


    Professor Nafisi, that same Nobel Committee was careful to refer to Shirin Ebadi as a conscious Muslim, to cite the fact that she is still a person of faith. How does she navigate that status in contemporary Iran?


    Well, actually, this is one important point about Shirin Ebadi. She also mentioned the fact that she is both a Muslim and she also fights for human rights. She said that there is no discrepancy between Islam and democracy and Islam and human rights. And I think this breaks the stereotypical images of what exists of what a Muslim should be, especially a Muslim woman should be.

    You notice that today she appeared without a veil, you know, and looked like any other woman, Christian, Muslim or atheist, and it proves that when we say Islam and democracy are compatible, we don't mean that we want an Islamic state. It means that you can be a Muslim and you could also support human rights.

    She, like many people within the civil society in Iran, former veteran Islamist revolutionaries want a separation between state and religion. But that doesn't mean that they're anti-religion. I think that in this way they're in fact, supporting the right of every person to worship their god the way they see fit. So that is very important, I think.


    Professor Sick, today from official and semiofficial voices, there was quite a mix of opinion from people saying this is good news for Iran and Iranians, people who are aligned with the current president, people who are aligned with the clerics talking about how this was an opening to bring world criticism on Iran. Is this difference of reaction sort of a quick thumbnail sketch of what is going on inside the country today?


    It is in many ways. You can't really do anything in Iran these days without having a divided opinion about the reaction, but in this case, I think it's particularly important because some 70 percent or more of the population repeatedly over the past eight years, has expressed themselves as being genuinely opposed to the direction that the government was taking.

    And Shirin Ebadi has been actually a part of that. She has been challenging the government, not challenging Islam, but saying within Islam there is room for the actual adoption of human rights. There is another group of people who — and they're a dwindling group but very powerful group — who claim that they speak to god and that they can make the decisions about what is and is not right. And those people, as I say, have a tremendous amount of power, but they do not have a great deal of support in the country, and that support is actually dwindling.


    Help us, Professor Nafisi, understand a little better the condition of women in today's Iran, because often you see them in the professions, in universities, very well trained technical professionals. So it's sort of hard to square with this idea that they're terribly oppressed, but what is it that is part of the struggle?


    Yes, I think the image you say about the Iranian women is very true. But for — in order to put this image in perspective you have to go to the past, and I don't mean the immediate past of Iran, just the past … women in Iran alongside many other forces for 150 years have been fighting for their rights and for the right of the society to come into the modern world.

    The first woman to unveil and to question both political and religious orthodoxy was a woman named Tahireh who lived in early 1800s, you know. And we carry this tradition. And at the start of the Islamic Revolution, Mrs. Ebadi herself is a good example. She was the first judge. We had two women ministers. We had one woman minister for women's affairs, who is actually now living in Bethesda and working again on the same issues.

    We had some of the most progressive laws; one being the family protection law on which Mrs. Ebadi and another fantastic human rights lawyer worked on, you know. So before the revolution, what we wanted was not less rights, but more rights. What we were deprived of was the right to political participation. I was among many students who was asking for that right. And after the revolution, the first thing that was confiscated was women's rights and individual rights. So they became central.

    And many women who were traditionalists, who were within the government, then they themselves started questioning their very laws that Mrs. Ebadi, for the past 24 years, has been questioning. So what we want is neither to go back to the past and nor accept the present, but go further than what we had. And right now when you have the age of marriage reduced from 18 to 9, then, you know, you do have a problem at hand.


    Thank you both for joining us this evening.