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Troubled backdrop for Iranian’s Nobel award

October 10, 2003

by Mohsen Asgari in Tehran, Najmeh Bozorgmehr in London, Guy Dinmore in Washington and Christopher Brown-Humes in Stockholm
Oct 10, 2003

In awarding the 2003 Nobel peace prize to Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian human rights activist, the Nobel committee said it wanted to inspire “all those who struggle for human rights and democracy in her country – [and] in the Muslim world”.

But the award comes at a difficult time in the west’s relations with Iran and the Islamic world.

President George W. Bush last year included Iran alongside Iraq and North Korea in an “axis of evil”, and Tehran is sensitive to US and European pressure over its nuclear programme. Alongside many Arab countries, Iran is determined to resist Washington’s demands that it end support for militant Palestinian groups.

While some senior politicians on Friday told the Financial Times that they welcomed Mrs Ebadi’s success, state-run media barely mentioned the award.

Elahe Kulaie, a leading female member of parliament, congratulated the Nobel committee for its “understanding of Iranian society” but warned that “hardliners” in Iran might accuse Mrs Ebadi of “being backed by western countries”.

In the wider Muslim world, Tahany el-Gebaly, Egypt’s first female judge, complained that Mrs Ebadi had been chosen ahead of “many fiery Muslims whose actions and positions are a lot more outspoken, but who are anti-American or [against] western policy in the region”.

As a lawyer since 1984, Mrs Ebadi, a 56-year-old mother and committed Muslim, has taken up a variety of cases, driven by tough determination and a fundamental belief that equal rights for women and children are entirely compatible with Islam.

She has worked closely with members of parliament and senior clerics to try to revise laws governing divorce and inheritance rights, and to end “blood money” and execution by stoning.

Appointed as Iran’s first judge in 1974, she stepped down after the 1979 revolution decreed that all judges should be male. Her growing public campaigning of recent years has reflected a new openness in Iranian society fostered by Mohammad Khatami, the reformist president elected in 1997.

Reactions to her work – with opposition from many clerics within the judiciary and support within parliament and elsewhere – has illustrated Iran’s social and political divisions.

In her most celebrated case she acted for the family of Leila Fathi, a nine-year-old girl raped and killed by three men in western Iran some 10 years ago.

The men were captured and sentenced to death. But for the executions to be carried out, Iranian law obliges the victim’s family to pay “blood money” to the families of the condemned men.

Because a woman’s value is deemed half that of a man, Leila’s family faced paying the difference, which was around $10,000 for each killer. To raise the money the parents sold their house and belongings, and were about to sell their kidneys when Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, then head of the judiciary, ordered the state to pay the rest.

Mrs Ebadi had limited success in the case – one killer escaped from prison, another committed suicide and a third has launched an appeal – but she won support for her campaign against the disparity in “blood money” from Yousef Saanei, a grand ayatollah in Qom.

Undeterred even when she was herself briefly arrested three years ago, Mrs Ebadi has long argued that Iranian women, who now claim 60 per cent of university places, enjoy higher social status than their peers elsewhere in the Middle East.

“I see a bright future for Iranian women,” she told the Financial Times earlier this year. “Their determination to gain their legitimate rights is increasing.”


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