A Nobel for change

October 12, 2003

IRANIAN LAWYER Shirin Ebadi, this year's winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, has spent the last two decades fighting for the rights of women and children in her country, fearlessly challenging the autocratic Islamic regime that controls Iran. Upon learning that she had won the prestigious award, Ms. Ebadi embraced the honor on behalf of all those working for human rights and democracy in Iran. How gracious, but more to the point, how right.

Ms. Ebadi is the first Iranian and the first Muslim woman to be honored in the 102-year history of the prize. The Norwegian Nobel Committee's decision to honor the 56-year-old human rights activist will have repercussions beyond her work at the Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child, the nonprofit advocacy group she established in 1995. The reason is that Ms. Ebadi's fight to protect and improve the rights of women and children has been waged within the rule of law in Iran.

So, too, the fight by democracy movement supporters who demonstrated by the thousands last spring. Ms. Ebadi talks about human rights in the context of Islam, and that's the rub for Iran's leading clerics, who rule with a closed fist. As she has in the past, Ms. Ebadi reminded the religious hierarchy last week that in her view there is no difference between Islam and human rights. Supporters of the democracy movement in Iran also talk about reform in the context of their religious and cultural heritage. Many point out that a free and democratic Iran won't necessarily resemble the democracies of the West.

Theirs is a struggle not about freedom from religion, but about freedom from a government that uses religion to control and curtail citizen rights.

That's why the Nobel Committee's decision to bestow the peace prize on Ms. Ebadi will be problematic for Iran's ruling mullahs. "It's not about politics; it's about how you treat your own citizens," said Sam Zia-Zarifi, of Human Rights Watch in New York.

The political reality in Iran, however, is this: Hard-liners control the country under a theocracy that centralizes power in the hands of a supreme religious leader, currently the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and a council of clerics. Dissidents and journalists are routinely jailed for speaking out. Student activists reportedly are facing university disciplinary panels for protesting earlier this year.

Shirin Ebadi acknowledged her fellow Iranians in receiving the Nobel Prize. They, in turn, should rejoice with her and press on with their struggle.

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