On October 10th, Shirin Ebadi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her struggle for basic human rights in Iran. Ebadi was chosen over 165 competing candidates, among them Pope John Paul II and former Czech president Vaclav Havel.
Peace is inherently a political issue, and the choice of Peace Prize winners often carries political statements. Winners are selected by the Norwegian Nobel Peace Committee, whose five members are appointed by the Norwegian Parliament and is distinct from the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences, which is in charge of the Nobel awards for science. Ebadi was cited for her work as a human rights activist and "conscious Muslim" who sees "no conflict between human rights and Islam" and "has consistently supported non-violence."
Ebadi has a solid track record in defense of human rights. At age 27, she became one of the first female judges under the Pahlavi dynasty (She was not a supporter of that regime). She lost her job after the Revolution since female judges were not allowed under the newly enacted Islamic law. However, she was not discouraged. In the past twenty-five years, she has worked as a lawyer and university lecturer. She has actively promoted women and children's rights and founded the Society for Protecting the Rights of the Child (SPRC). In recent years, she has gotten more involved in political cases. She has defended famous authors such as Abbas Maroufi, editor of Gardoon magazine, and Faraj Sarkuhi, editor of Adineh magazine. She has also represented the family of Ezzat Ebrahim-Nejad, who was killed when Tehran University's student dormitories were stormed on July 9, 1999.
Ebadi strongly believes in reforming Islam from within. Instead of rejecting Islamic law, she tries to analyze its contradictions. For example in one of her articles, she points out that based on the Islamic law practiced in Iran, a father who helped his wife abort her unborn child could be jailed for up to six months. If a father killed his grownup child, however, he would not be jailed. (Payment of blood money is required in both cases.) By bringing up these obvious contradictions, Ebadi tries to convince others that Islamic laws need to be reformed based on the current needs of the society.
Even though many Iranians did not know of Ebadi, they reacted with pride and joy to the news of her selection. Although the prize implied the existence of gross human rights violations in Iran, many believed it to also be an indication of the vitality and dynamism of Iranian society. Women in particular were fascinated by the fact that one of them had become the most celebrated Iranian in the world.
Some people welcomed her selection with some restraint (check out the comment section of a post at Jeff Ooi's Screenshots). There are traditional Muslims who believe that Islam and "Western" human rights are not compatible and disagree with what Ebadi advocates. In addition, there are supporters of secularism who believe efforts by Ebadi to make Islamic shariah softer and more tolerable could only postpone the eventual secularization of Islamic societies. They also are shocked by Ebadi's claim that Islam and human rights are compatible and narrate passages from Quran to prove the contradiction between the two.
After receiving the award, Ebadi stated that she would continue her work in defense of human rights and would not become a politician. As a human rights activist, her direct impact remains limited by the political circumstances in Iran, but her symbolic influence does not recognize any boundary. She has already captured the imagination of women in Iran. Many share her belief that the path to democracy lies in improving human rights. Moreover, many Iranians share the Nobel Peace committee's hope that this award can be "an inspiration for all those who struggle for human rights and democracy" in Iran and in the Muslim world.