Nobel Cause

Shirin Ebadi has long spoken out about human rights in the Islamic world. It just took the Peace Prize to get anyone to listen.

May 15, 2004|By Gary Dorsey | Gary Dorsey,SUN STAFF

She is no taller than a floor lamp, with a swagger like a gunslinger and a stinging tongue that condemns hard-line Middle Eastern mullahs as easily as Washington politicians.

But when she walked into the University of Maryland president's house in College Park this week, wearing a deep blue pant suit, lips painted rosy red, Shirin Ebadi seemed almost demure. A woman unable to speak English. Someone's darling aunt. Hanging closely to a translator, she mingled with schmoozers under a smoldering backyard tent where a flutist played and guests dined on mushroom caps with cheese sauce.

She took them one person at a time, still trying, after the fact, to earn the Nobel Peace Prize she's still so hesitant to fully possess.

The former judge turned human rights activist posed for snapshots with Iranian graduate students such as Sasan Bakhtiari, who admitted he knew little about her before the Nobel announcement in October.

She looked up into faces of men towering over her with smiles and little to say, and others, like Amr Badr, who hoped to broaden her network of peacemakers in the world.

"We have many people in Egypt who would like to see you," said Badr, the Egyptian vice chairman of an international peace organization called People to People International. He bent down in his pink tie and gray suit, struggling to be heard over the cocktail hour din. He wanted her to meet with Suzanne Mubarak, his country's first lady and namesake of the new Women's International Peace Movement. Would she be interested?

Ebadi nodded, graciously. Yes, sure, she said. Send an invitation, and we'll see.

Strange, perhaps, that for a 57-year-old woman who has already won the Nobel, events like this, which launched her first cross-country speaking tour of the United States, seem more like a coming out than the celebration of a brilliant career.

The last time she spoke publicly in the United States, in Seattle in 1996, she addressed issues of human rights, Islam and democracy, but as she remembers, no one paid attention.

Now that she has the Nobel, people listen, wanting to know who is this woman, what has she done, what does she believe?

And because she is still not well known, what she now says to the world outside Iran is taking audiences by surprise.

At her acceptance speech for the Nobel in Oslo in December, Ebadi not only criticized Iran's conservative regime leaders, but also had tough words for the United States. She referenced civil rights abuses at the detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, then warned Western nations not to interfere in Iran's internal affairs.

"If you consider international human rights laws, including a nation's right to determine its own destiny, to be universal, and if you believe in the priority and superiority of parliamentary democracy over other political systems, then you cannot think only of your own security and comfort, selfishly and contemptuously," she had said.

Three weeks ago, in an appearance in Vancouver with two fellow Nobel Peace Prize winners, the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, she questioned American efforts to bring democracy to Iraq.

"Democracy is not a souvenir to be handed over by one nation to another," she said. "Now that the U.S. has attacked Iraq in the pretext of democracy - and I emphasize the word `pretext' - the only solution I see is for the U.S. to get out of Iraq as soon as possible."

She made similar remarks last week at Syracuse University. A few days later in Michigan, she reminded an audience of the United States' initial support of the Taliban government and its weapons sales to Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq conflict. "Truly," she asked, "could Saddam have become so powerful without the assistance of the United States and European nations?"

As the University of Maryland prepared to give her a platform this week to speak and grant her an honorary doctorate in public service, people wondered: What would this outspoken woman say next?

More than 5,000 people came to the Comcast Center on the university campus Wednesday night to hear the speech.

Violet Garoosi brought her 12-year-old son, Sherwin, from Gaithersburg to witness someone she considered an intelligent, articulate heroine, an example of courage and change from her homeland. Although Garoosi left Iran 20 years ago, she experienced Ebadi's appearance as, she said, a "patriotic event."

Like many other Iranian immigrants at the event, she said Ebadi represents the best in Iran. Ebadi, she said, demonstrates that there is a multiplicity of opinion, an understanding of and desire for democracy there and, since she is Muslim, a style of Islam that is compassionate for human life and passionate about human rights.

Iran, a prong on the axis of evil? Not with people like Ebadi in the leadership of the reformist movement.

"My son was born here," Garoosi said, while Sherwin ate a boxed dinner next to her in the stands. "But some day he will want to look for his roots. Tonight, I can show him where to begin."

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