A daughter of Cyrus the Great

November 02, 2003

IT WAS A GESTURE that would seem unremarkable to most in this country: a middle-aged woman and two men shake hands after a speech at a university. But the handshake between the Iranian human rights activist Shirin Ebadi and two dissidents took place in Tehran before a crowd of 1,000 students. And in the Islamic republic, such contact between a woman and a man to whom she is not related could result in jail or flogging.

Ms. Ebadi's handshake was a salutation with significance beyond obvious goodwill or polite greeting. Courageous, yes, but also commensurate with Ms. Ebadi's stealth style of political activism.

Ever since Ms. Ebadi won the Nobel Peace Prize last month, the first Iranian and Muslim woman so honored, many of her fellow citizens have lobbied the 56-year-old lawyer to take a prominent role in the struggling democracy movement there. The ruling hard-line clerics and sympathetic paramilitaries have successfully thwarted reforms and undermined the elected president, who is a moderate.

Ms. Ebadi has declined to enter politics, but she has publicly called for the release of Iran's political prisoners, jailed journalists and activists. Her focus over the past 20 years has been the rights of women and children who have suffered under the present government's hard-line view of Islamic law. Men have primary custodial rights of children in divorce, and a woman's life is valued at only half of a man's. Ms. Ebadi espouses a moderate view of Islam and believes change can come from within.

And, in her way, she has worked toward that change - by serving time in jail, extending her hand in greeting to a man she doesn't know and reminding fellow Iranians of the example of an ancestral Persian king. Cyrus the Great, the author of the first Charter of Human Rights, ruled his vast empire with tolerance and understanding and was recognized for his ethical and moral leadership. After the 1979 Iranian revolution, the ruling clerics banned the use of the great king's name.

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