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Iran: Ebadi Becomes First Muslim Woman To Receive Nobel Peace Prize

Iranian human rights activist Shirin Ebadi became the first Muslim woman to receive a Nobel Peace Prize in an award ceremony held today in Oslo. The award comes in recognition of Ebadi's work promoting the rights of Iran's women and children.

Prague, 10 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- In her acceptance speech today in Oslo's City Hall, Nobel peace laureate Shirin Ebadi said fighting for human rights is the only way to free the 21st century from the cycle of violence and war with which it began.

The human rights lawyer -- who has been branded by Iranian conservatives as "American Shirin" and an agent for the United States and Israel -- implicitly criticized the United States in her speech, saying some countries have used the attacks of 11 September 2001 to justify human rights violations.

"In the past two years, some states have violated the universal principles and laws of human rights by using the events of 11 September and the war on international terrorism as a pretext," Ebadi said.

Ebadi, who also criticized U.S. foreign policy in a separate press conference yesterday, used the occasion of today's speech to comment on the plight of prisoners currently being held by the U.S. in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. "Hundreds of human beings, who have been arrested in military actions, have been imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay for months without the benefit of rights stipulated under the International Geneva Conventions, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the United Nations International Covenant on Human Rights," she said.

Ebadi is the first Iranian citizen and the first Muslim woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. The 56-year-old lawyer -- who was Iran's first female judge before being forced to resign following the 1979 Islamic Revolution -- was chosen by the Nobel Committee on the basis of her work fighting for the rights of Iran's women and children.

The distinction has made Ebadi a symbol of national pride and a model for many Iranians, especially women and young people. Some observers hope Ebadi's award will encourage the reform movement within Iran and force the international community to cast a more critical eye on the country's human rights situation.

Ebadi, who appeared at today's ceremony without the traditional headscarf mandatory for women under Islamic law, dedicated her prize to Iranian women as well as Muslim women fighting for their rights in other countries.

"This award will allow women, in Iran and beyond the borders of Iran, to believe in themselves. The patriarchal structure and discrimination against women, particularly in the Islamic countries, cannot continue forever," she said.

Ebadi also defended the Islamic religion, saying it does not inherently conflict with human rights and democratic principles. Instead, she said, it is repressive regimes in Islamic countries that have used the religion to spread messages of prejudice and hatred.

"Some Muslims, under the pretext that democracy and human rights are not compatible with Islamic teachings and the traditional structure of Islamic societies, have justified despotic governments and continue to do so. In fact, it is not so easy to rule over a people who are aware of their rights using traditional patriarchal and paternalistic methods," Ebadi said.

The Nobel laureate, who has received death threats since the award was announced, says she will continue her fight for human rights in Iran. The head of the Nobel Committee, Ole Mjoes, said today that Ebadi's prize may have led to greater hostility in the short term, but that repression, in the long term, cannot persist.

Ebadi has drawn the ire of Iran's conservatives by lobbying on behalf of political prisoners and calling for a new interpretation of Islamic law to grant women equal rights with men. Iran's state broadcasting network, which is controlled by the conservatives, did not cover today's award ceremony.

As a Nobel laureate, Ebadi receives a diploma, a gold medal, and a check for 10 million Swedish crowns (about $1.4 million). In an interview in today's "Le Figaro" newspaper, Ebadi says she will donate her prize money to the rights organizations she leads in Iran. These include the Association for the Support of Children's Rights and the Center of Human Rights Defenders, which supports the rights of prisoners of conscience.
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is managing editor of RFE/RL's Radio Farda, which breaks through government censorship to deliver accurate news and provide a platform for informed discussion and debate to audiences in Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.