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Opinion

The outsider
In a restless Iran, Shirin Ebadi is a problem for conservatives and reformists

October 15, 2003
The Iranian

President Khatami finally reacted to Shirin Ebadi's Nobel Peace Prize, five days after the fact, and on the day of her triumphant return to Iran. He congratulated her but his praise was mixed with comments that showed discomfort, if not fear -- fear of what it could all mean to the future of the Islamic Republic.

"This award has been given to her totally on the basis of political considerations," Khatami was quoted as saying to reporters. He called the Peace Prize "not very important" compared with other Nobel awards, such as science and literature.

His comments are understandable. After all, Khatami cannot be expected to embrace Ebadi and all she stands for. The ruling conservatives are fuming from the fact that the world's most prestigious award has been given to a lawyer -- and a woman, astaghforellah -- who has been defending victims of some of the worst crimes committed by the regime. Khatami's outright support for Ebadi would have added fuel to the fire.

But although Khatami may have saved himself from the wrath of his conservative foes, his double-talk could still cost him dearly. He may now have lost the support of those who still had some hope left in his ability to bring about change. Worse still, by discrediting the just recognition of the great work of a spotless human rights activist, he has badly damaged his credibility. There were those who thought despite his political impotence, at least he was a "nice guy". No more.

***

There's no doubt that the Nobel Committee's statement on Ebadi took a stab -- several stabs -- at Islamic hardliners everywhere, especially in Iran. It called her a "conscious Moslem" who "sees no conflict between Islam and fundamental human rights." And it concluded with this:

We hope that the people of Iran will feel joyous that for the first time in history one of their citizens has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and we hope the Prize will be an inspiration for all those who struggle for human rights and democracy in her country, in the Moslem world, and in all countries where the fight for human rights needs inspiration and support.

Political? You bet it is. And for all the right reasons.

The award could not have been given to a more deserving Iranian. Ebadi represents the women of Iran who have lost more in terms of social standing and dignity than any other sector. If Iranian women have excelled here and there, which they have, it's no thanks to the Islamic Republic.

For every woman who has achieved a measure of success inside and outside the home, there are hundreds who have suffered. Women have serious doubts about their self worth in a society that was overly male-dominated even before the Islamic Republic officially relegated them to lesser citizens, thus lesser human beings in many respects.

And of course there's no need to explain the adverse effects of mandatory hijab which has so symbolized this dark theocracy.

Ebadi has defended the rights of children in a very real sense, in her legal writings, in the courts and as one of the founders of the Society for Protecting the Rights of the Child. She is undoubtedly a pioneer in this field.

But what makes Ebadi even more remarkable is that she has used her legal skills as a former judge (the Islamic Republic took that right from women as well) to defend victims of highly sensitive political crimes. She took on cases that other lawyers would not even consider because they didn't want to risk their life and livelihood by exposing the brutality of the regime's henchmen.

So although the great majority of Iranians were unaware of her quiet but courageous work, she had earned great respect in women's and human rights circles. But now the Nobel Prize has suddenly made her an international celebrity and a hero back home. And that's a big problem for Iran's conservatives, as well as reformists.

The problem for the conservatives is obvious. The Nobel Committee has simply spat on the face of the ruling clergy by calling them uncivilized, undemocratic and violators of human rights.

The problem for the reformists is more complicated. Some members of parliament, junior politicians and journalists in the Khatami camp, are happy that conservatives from Supreme Leader Khamenei to radical thugs in the streets have been badly embarrassed. On the other hand, within the context of Iran's political terminology, Ebadi is not a reformist. That's why her prestigious award annoys Khatami and his closest followers. She is not one of them.

Ebadi can best be described as a secular Muslim -- with emphasis on secular. She has not relied on religious texts to seek justice, rather she has taken the rational approach, emphasizing that human rights are not against the spirit of religion. And by choosing not to wear the scarf at a high-profile press conference in Paris after being declared the winner of the Nobel prize, she sent a clear message that she belongs to neither of the ruling factions. She appeals to Iranians who are tired of both Khamenei and Khatami. And God knows they are everywhere and from all walks of life.

***

Ebadi has become an instant celebrity, and by all standards a loveable one. The Ebadi buzz on the internet has been unprecedented. And the cheerful welcome she received from thousands of people at Tehran airport after her return from Paris could just be the beginning. Remember the last time a popular figure returned to his country from Paris? He swept away a monarchy in ten days. Ebadi is no Khomeini -- and thank God for that. But just like 1979, the masses are restless and they are desperate for a hero.

Six years ago they weren't so desperate. Most had hoped that the huge votes for Khatami, and later his reformist allies in parliament, would bring change for the better through the ballot box, that authoritarian rule would gradually come to an end, that the government would become more rational, that personal freedoms would expand, political prisoners would be freed, restrictions on the press would become less and less, and women's rights would be restored over time.

But what do we have now? We have a president who is presiding over his own demise and that of a harsh theocracy he wanted (or said he wanted) to reform. We have a parliament that is a graveyard for laws killed one by one by a panel of clerics who couldn't give a damn about reform. We have fewer newspapers that speak the truth and more journalists in jail, not to mention scores of student protesters and political activists of all colors. On the other hand, women are wearing less and less in public. But I don't think Khatami would take credit for that.

Disenchantment is rampant and deep. Iranians are angry to the point that they despise fundamentalism, all mullahs and the Islamic Republic. They have not only lost hope in reform but are becoming more and more radical and fearless in standing up to the religious establishment. It is in this environment that Ebadi's message of human rights and democracy has so electrified Iranian society. Where will it all lead? Hard to tell, but the Islamic Republic is no longer at the controls.

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