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Peace Prize Is Awarded To Iranian Rights Activist Is First Muslim Woman to Win By Keith B. Richburg Washington Post Foreign Service Saturday, October 11, 2003; Page A01
PARIS, Oct. 10 -- An Iranian lawyer and human rights activist who has battled her country's Islamic government for years on behalf of women, street children and dissidents won this year's Nobel Peace Prize Friday. The win made Shirin Ebadi the first Muslim woman to receive that honor.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee, which administers the prize, said Ebadi's selection was intended to promote human rights and democracy in Islamic countries and the world as a whole.
Analysts said the committee's decision, announced in the Norwegian capital of Oslo, appeared aimed at showing support for moderate Muslims after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, which many people feel widened the chasm between Islam and Christianity and exacerbated religious intolerance.
In Paris, where she was attending a conference on women, the soft-spoken Ebadi said she was surprised, then happy, because "this gives me enough energy to help me continue my fight."
"All real Muslims should be really happy with this prize," said Ebadi, 56. She expressed the belief that Islam is not in conflict with fundamental human rights.
Speaking at a packed news conference in the courtyard of the Paris-based International Federation of Human Rights Leagues, she appeared, as always when outside Iran, without a head scarf. That was an act of defiance, friends said, against the Islamic government she so frequently opposes, which believes that women must cover their heads as a show of piety.
"If I were living in a country where the rights of women were respected, I wouldn't be as happy as I am today," she said.
At the news conference, in which she spoke mostly in Farsi, she called for the release of all political prisoners held in Iranian jails. She also criticized U.S. military intervention in Muslim countries. Asked about Iraq and Afghanistan, she said in English, "In Iraq and Afghanistan -- especially in Iraq -- people do not have water and electricity. And it is very important for people. How can we talk about human rights and freedom?"
In Tehran, the news of the first Iranian winner of the prestigious prize drew mixed official reaction, reflecting differences between the reformist government of President Mohammad Khatami and the powerful clerics who oppose him.
Reporting from Tehran, the Reuters news agency quoted the editor of the conservative newspaper Resalat as saying, "This prize carries the message that Europe intends to put further pressure on human rights issues in Iran as a political move to achieve its particular objectives."
But Vice President Mohammad Ali Abtahi, a reformist, said he was "very happy that an Iranian, and above all a woman, has won the Nobel Peace Prize. It is a sign of the very active presence of Iranian women on the social and political scene." And in a remark apparently aimed at recent court rulings against reformists, Abtahi added, "The fact that a lawyer has won this prize gives us hope that the judicial system will change its methods."
Ebadi was born in a community 180 miles southwest of Tehran. She received a law degree from the University of Tehran in 1971, and under the rule of the pro-Western monarchy of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was appointed one of the country's first female judges, serving as president of the Tehran city court. But she was forced to resign after the Islamic revolution of 1979, which limited women's role in public life.
She remained in the legal world as an activist lawyer, representing a succession of people with human rights complaints. They included women subject to domestic abuse, street children and the families of writers and other intellectuals murdered in 1999 and 2000. She has also worked to identify people who orchestrated attacks on students demonstrating for democracy in 1999.
At the same time, she wrote books and journal articles, many of them on human rights, including a book about children's rights.
In 2000, she was sentenced to 15 months in prison and was prohibited from practicing law after being convicted of defaming the Iranian authorities. The sentence was reduced to a fine on appeal.
Throughout Ebadi's very public career, she maintained a private life, marrying and raising two daughters. She traveled abroad, visiting Washington in 1996 to receive an award from Human Rights Watch. She now teaches law at Tehran University.
In a statement, the Nobel committee said she is "a sound professional, a courageous person, and has never heeded the threats to her own safety." The committee said it hoped the prize would be "an inspiration for all those who struggle for human rights and democracy" in Iran, in the Muslim world, and in "all countries where the fight for human rights needs inspiration and support."
The committee also praised Ebadi's support for religious freedom, including her advocacy of Iran's minority Bahai community.
This year's prize is worth $1.3 million, and will be awarded at a ceremony Dec. 10 in Oslo, which Ebadi said she will attend. She was due to leave Paris for Tehran Friday, but she stayed on when the prize was announced, said her friend Azadeh Kian-Thiebaut, an Iranian exile and associate political science professor in Paris. Kian-Thiebaut had invited Ebadi here for the women's conference.
Kian-Thiebaut, who left Iran at age 20 in 1980, said she cried when she heard her friend had won. "For Iranians, this is very, very historic," she said. "It's terrific for all of us." She called Ebadi "really very courageous" and said her nickname for her friend is "the Tehran Lion."
"This can reinforce the position of the reformers who are for the respect of human rights, who are for the respect of women's rights," Kian-Thiebaut said. "But this is very, very bad news for the conservatives, who imprisoned Madame Ebadi."
Ebadi is only the third Muslim to win the peace prize. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat won in 1994 and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1978. Ebadi won over a crowded field that is believed to have included Pope John Paul II, former Czech president Vaclav Havel and French President Jacques Chirac, for his opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq.
At Vatican City on Friday, there were open displays of disillusionment with the pope's also-ran status in the judging. One official circulating among reporters at the Vatican said, "The Holy Father has been campaigning for peace not just now but always. Not getting a prize detracts nothing from that or the force of his words."
In St. Peter's Square, several hundred Italian and foreign admirers of the pope had gathered in anticipation that he would win. The ailing pontiff is scheduled to celebrate his 25th anniversary as head of the Roman Catholic Church next week.
In recent days, Vatican officials and outside supporters of the pope indicated that they thought the time was ripe for the award -- not because the pope's general peace message had changed, but because he opposed the invasion of Iraq.
But several Italian commentators had cautioned that the Vatican's opposition to contraception and abortion, as well as the perception among some Europeans that he inhibits women's equality by denying them the right to enter the priesthood, stood in the way of his winning the award.
Correspondent Daniel Williams in Vatican City contributed to this report.
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