Vol. 4 Num 138 Sat. October 11, 2003  
Front Page

Ebadi first Muslim woman to win Nobel Peace Prize

Iranian human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi became the first Muslim woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize yesterday in an award intended to foster wider democracy in the Islamic world.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee praised Ebadi -- Iran's first female judge before the 1979 Islamic revolution forced her to step aside in favour of men -- for fighting for children and women and for taking on cases others were too afraid to touch.

Ebadi, 56, won from a record field of 165 candidates including Pope John Paul and former Czech President Vaclav Havel. She said she was shocked but proud to learn she had won the $1.3 million prize, to be handed out in Oslo on December 10.

Iran's conservative-run state media reported the country's first Nobel peace laureate without comment, after several hours, while the reformist government cheered the prize.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan called Ebadi courageous and many other foreign leaders hailed the award. But ex-Polish President Lech Walesa, the 1983 winner, grumbled that the ailing 83-year-old Polish pope should have won.

"We hope that the prize will be an inspiration for all those who struggle for human rights and democracy in her country, in the Muslim world, and in all countries where the fight for human rights needs inspiration and support," said the Committee, which is made up of five Norwegians chosen by parliament.

"This prize gives me the energy to continue my fight," Ebadi told a news conference during a visit to Paris, without the headscarf required back home under Islamic law.

Ebadi is a lawyer and part-time lecturer at Tehran University. Jailed several times and once branded a threat to the Islamic system, she said she was honoured by messages of congratulation that came even from the Vatican.


"It's not because you're a Muslim that you can't respect human rights, so all real Muslims should be really happy with this prize," Ebadi said. She urged the release of political prisoners in Iran.

Ebadi is the first Muslim woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, first awarded in 1901. She is the 11th woman to win and the third Muslim -- after Palestinian President Yasser Arafat in 1994 and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1978.

Last year, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter won.

Reaction in Iran reflected the split between President Mohammad Khatami's government and hard-liners who wield power.

In a statement read to Reuters the government praised Ebadi.

"Her points of view regarding the defence of human rights, especially women's rights, were noticed by international peace-seeking circles and this is an honour for Iranian women and shows Iranian Muslim women have gained a positive atmosphere for their activities," it said.

"We hope her views will be noticed inside and outside Iran."

But hard-liners reacted angrily.

"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," Amir Mohebian, an editor of the hardline Resalat newspaper, told Reuters.

The United States congratulated Ebadi, who it said had worked tirelessly for all Iranians, and used the occasion to restate its opposition to the country's government.

"We fully support the aspirations of the Iranian people to live in freedom and hope the call for democracy will be heard and transform Iran into a force for stability in the region," a White House spokesman said.

Nobel watchers say the committee has wanted to promote the cause of moderate Muslims since the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States to try to avert a gulf of religious intolerance after U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Iran was branded part of an "axis of evil" by U.S. President George Bush with pre-war Iraq and North Korea.

"Ebadi stands for a non-Western way of looking at human rights. That is a strong signal," said Kari Vogt, a University of Oslo researcher who had correctly tipped her for the prize.

She said it would help Iran's reformists and signal that "Islam and human rights are compatible."

Nobel watchers say the pope's opposition to birth control, pre-marital sex, homosexuality and female priests seemed outmoded to many in mainly Protestant Norway, especially women.

Annan said: "I hope this award will also underscore the importance of expanding human rights throughout the world, and also empower women to speak out and insist on their rights."

Ebadi had often defended controversial causes. In 2000, she was given a suspended sentence after a court convicted her and another lawyer of producing a video alleging that prominent conservatives supported activities of violent vigilantes.

Former Polish president and 1983 peace laureate Lech Walesa slammed the committee for passing over the Polish pope.

"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," he told the all-news TVN 24 channel.

Shirin Ebadi