Nobel prize goes to Iranian lawyer who fights for the rights of Muslim women

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Shirin Ebadi was racing to Orly airport to catch a flight to Tehran yesterday morning when she got a call on her mobile telling her to turn on the car radio: her name was being read out at the top of the French news.

The combative Iranian human rights lawyer who has spent much of her career tangling with the conservative mullah rulers of her country did not understand. She had to be told: "You are on the news because you've just won the Nobel peace prize."

Shortly afterwards at a hastily arranged press conference in Paris, where she appeared without the headscarf women must wear in public in Iran, Ms Ebadi said she was not sure whether she was shocked or astounded by the award.

"It's not easy to be a woman today in Iran because they have laws that are against the rights of women," she said. "This prize gives me the energy to continue my fight."

And she will need to fight, as yesterday's mixture of venomous and congratulatory comments from her compatriots made clear. The country's near-powerless President Mohammad Khatami welcomed the prize saying it would "boost her status and make it difficult for the conservatives to brush the focus away. In that case, it could really bring change".

But the country's real rulers, the hardline religious conservatives, ordered a statement that Iran was "happy' with the prize to be withdrawn.

Women and human rights are a troubled issue in the Islamic Republic of Iran where there are frequent executions, at times by stoning, for actions that would not be considered a crime in the West. Amnesty International was raising the alarm yesterday about the fate of Afsaneh Nouroozi, a woman sentenced to death for killing the head of police intelligence as he tried to rape her. There were rumours yesterday that she had been secretly executed after the sentence was upheld by the Supreme Court.

This year a Canadian-Iranian woman journalist was bludgeoned to death, again involving secret police agents, for taking photographs of families outside Evin prison in north Tehran, where hundreds of dissidents have been hanged by the neck like so many starlings.

The nation's Islamic judiciary will stop at nothing, it seems, to ensure its moral code is implemented, under pain of death. A woman who participated in a pornographic film, her head covered with a scarf, was tracked down by the serial number of a domestic gas meter, and executed by stoning.

The Nobel peace prize, awarded in Norway, has not pleased the Islamic hardliners, but there was widespread international praise for the award, even if Ms Ebadi is little known outside international human rights circles. In the Nobel committee's secretive and politically astute way, it has again raised a little-known campaigner to the world stage and delivered a huge push for reform in the Muslim world.

In 1992, the prize went to a little-known Guatemalan human rights campaigner Rigoberta Menchu, putting the struggle of the indigenous peoples of Latin America on the map. A few years later, even the British winner and anti-nuclear bomb campaigner, Joseph Rotblat, was taken aback by the award.

But where there was most surprise yesterday was in the Vatican, where the Pope John Paul II was the bookies' favourite to win.

Assorted cardinals and other high-flying officials could barely conceal their disappointment that the pontiff had been bypassed in favour of a relative unknown. "He deserved it and it would have been nice if he had got it, but he does not need it," one official said. The 83-year-old Pope, who has Parkinson's disease and recently seemed close to death, has made thousands of appeals for peace, disarmament, Third World debt relief and controls on raw capitalism throughout his long papacy.

In liberal Norway, it is assumed the Pope was overlooked because of his views on abortion, pre-marital sex, birth control, homosexuality and female priests. Martin Kluge, a German student visiting the Vatican, told Reuters news agency: "Sometimes the Church does not accept people's opinions, and that is a problem with respect to the prize." A Vatican official said acidly: "I thought this was a peace prize and not a prize in sexual ethics."

In Poland, the Pope's homeland, Lech Walesa, who won the Peace Prize in 1983, was more direct. "I have nothing against this lady, but if there is anyone alive who deserves this year's Nobel peace prize, it is the Holy Father."

Last year the Nobel committee sent a sharp rebuke to President George Bush on the eve of war on Iraq by awarding the prize to the former president Jimmy Carter, a fierce critic of the US policy of pre-emptive military strikes.

By naming the first Muslim woman Nobel laureate and only the third Muslim to win the prize since it was inaugurated in 1909, another unmistakeable signal was sent by the Nobel committee of support for defenders of democracy and the fight for equal rights in the Islamic world.

There was also an implicit rejection of the Bush administration's simplistic view of Iran as part of an "axis of evil" where military force might be required to topple the regime.

Ms Ebadi, 56, was Iran's first woman judge before the 1979 Islamic revolution when she was sacked by the mullahs. When Sharia (Islamic law) was enforced, women were too emotional and irrational to pass judgment in the courtroom, Iran's new leaders said. Her work as a human rights activist has landed her in jail and she has been denounced and branded a threat to the Islamic state.

Ms Ebadi's campaigns for children's rights, her defence of human rights lawyers, and her decision to take on the case of a wide range of political activists, have earned her a reputation as a fearless jurist. The Nobel prize should give her and her human rights colleagues, at least, a degree of protection inside Iran.

As a lawyer, writer and part-time lecturer at Tehran University, Ms Ebadi has argued passionately that Sharia could be adapted to modern times without undermining Islam.

"There is no contradiction between Islam and human rights," she said. "If a country abuses human rights in the name of Islam then it is not the fault of Islam." Ms Ebadi found herself on the wrong side of the law in 2000, when she was accused of disseminating a politically explosive videotape of a violent Islamic vigilante group member who confessed to links with conservative politicians in Iran.

That incident also landed Ms Ebadi in Evin and she was also banned from practising law for five years. In solitary confinement, she wrote: "Angrily I am trying to write on the cement wall with the bottom of my spoon that we are born to suffer because we are born in the Third World. Time and place are imposed upon us. So let's be patient as there is no other choice."

TEN YEARS OF PEACE PRIZE WINNERS

1993 Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk, South Africa

1994 Yasser Arafat, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, Palestine and Israel

1995 Joseph Rotblat and the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, for their campaign against nuclear arms

1996 Bishop Carlos Belo and Jose Ramos-Horta, East Timor

1997 Jody Williams and the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, United States

1998 David Trimble and John Hume, Northern Ireland

1999 Médecins Sans Frontières

2000 The former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung

2001 The UN secretary general Kofi Annan

2002 The former US President Jimmy Carter

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