You could have made a case for former Czech President Vaclav Havel or Pope John Paul II. But the choice of Shirin Ebadi, a lawyer and activist who has been a thorn — though always a legal one — in the side of the Iranian regime for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize was a worthy, even inspired one.
For decades, Ebadi has worked peacefully to protect human rights in Iran, arguing that Islam properly understood is perfectly compatible with protection of individual human rights. Although she had to give up her position as Iran’s first female judge when the Islamic Republic overthrew the old regime in 1979, she has since put her legal skills at the service of those — especially dissidents, mothers and children — who find themselves under the thumb of the ayatollahs.
People interviewed for news stories have expressed the hope that winning this prize will reactivate the reformist or democracy movement in Iran, which seemed about to make a major breakthrough with student demonstrations this summer. Ebadi was in Paris when the prize was announced, but her husband, Javad Tassolian, in Tehran, declared that “the reform movement is reborn.”
Over the long haul, this recognition of continuing reformist activities in Iran will no doubt help. But as Shirin Ebadi herself recognizes, reform in Iran cannot depend on just one person and may still take a while.
“I hope that young Iranians can go farther than me,” she told Newsweek. “When I was young, we had neither computers nor the Internet.”
The prevalence of Internet activity, including a wide range of “bloggers” who comment incessantly on political and cultural topics — opinion that is beyond the control of the regime — is one of the more encouraging signs in Iran and other countries with repressive regimes.
The desire for freedom has never died in Iran — indeed, it has probably been intensified by repression — and, if votes in elections mean anything, it has become a majority sentiment. But in regimes controlled by ruthless minorities, it can take the unflagging work of courageous individuals like Shirin Ebadi to translate popular sentiment into policies and effective restraints on tyrants. Whatever the political impact of this award, it is appropriate that Shirin Ebadi be recognized and celebrated.