Iran's Nobel winner doesn't make the news at home

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Shirin Ebadi accepted her Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo Wednesday to standing ovations and blanket media coverage of her mission to improve democracy and human rights in Iran.

But at home, Iran's state-run Channel One ranked Ms. Ebadi's achievement twelfth in the lineup - after a Taiwan earthquake and a trade fair.

The now-famous defense lawyer - the first Muslim woman to win the Nobel - has been heralded by some as a hero who can energize Iran's embattled reform movement. But she has been largely ignored or threatened by hardliners who see her global prestige and continued push for human rights in Iran as a further threat to their rule.

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The thin media coverage points to the difficulties Ebadi faces as her profile rises in Iran's relentless, rough-and-tumble political battlefield.

"This prize has put Ebadi on the front line in Iran," says an Iranian analyst who asked not to be named. "She is stuck between those who advocate nonviolence and those who ... use violence - between [those] who call for gradual change and those who want it now."

Ebadi was Iran's first woman judge before the 1979 Islamic Revolution. She has often taken on prickly cases - including one in 2000 that led to her imprisonment for collecting sensitive video evidence. Most recently, she has joined the case of a woman photojournalist with dual Iranian-Canadian citizenship who was killed during interrogation in July. Yet many Iranians never knew Ebadi's name before she won the Nobel.

Vice President Mohammad Ali Abtahi, when asked about the Nobel, told parliament: "It's a source of pride for Iran that an Iranian is given the Nobel Peace Prize."

But the reform newspaper Shargh - aware that more than 100 reform publications have been shut down in recent years - ran a Page 1 photo of the ceremony, but showed only a close-up of Ebadi's hands as she received the Nobel diploma.

Fleeting footage on Iran TV showed just a glimpse of the Nobel ceremony, bypassing the prizewinner herself. The hard-line paper Jomhuri-e-Eslami - in a clear bid to emphasize the scale of her disrespect - was the only newspaper that ran a full photograph of Ebadi accepting the Nobel, and the $1.4 million prize - without a head scarf. The story made disapproving mention of the fact that Ebadi shook hands with a man after a BBC interview.

At the ceremony, Ebadi lambasted US and Israeli double standards on human rights, and dug at regimes that use Islam to justify their hard-line rule.

"Some Muslims, under the pretext that democracy and human rights are not compatible with Islamic teachings ... have justified despotic governments and continue to do so," Ebadi said in Oslo, pointing the finger at Iran's ruling clergy. "In fact, it is not so easy to rule over a people who are aware of their rights using traditional patriarchal and paternalistic methods."

While Ebadi has been heralded in the West as a new symbol of Iran's reform movement - which has withered under constant attack from unelected hard-liners - in Iran her position is far less secure.

"Considering the indifference and frustration that hang over people, this Nobel Prize has appeared as a slim light of hope," says Davoud Hermidas Bavand, a professor of law at the Supreme National Defense University. "But [Ebadi] is in a very delicate situation. People are looking to her, and she's trying to walk a tightrope."

Analysts say the Nobel gives Ebadi a new degree of protection, but doesn't bestow power to bridge divisions in the reform camp, or a "golden key," as she says, to open cell doors for political prisoners.

Highlighting Ebadi's privileged but difficult position, the reform newspaper Yas-e-No ran a cartoon Thursday, showing a bright gold Nobel medal emerging as a flower from a tangle of thorns.

The fact that Ebadi has not been overtly political before adds to her clout today. "The conservatives are frightened by this phenomenon of Shirin Ebadi winning the Nobel," says Hamid Reza Jalaeipour, an editor who has seen seven of his reform newspapers closed, and now teaches at Tehran University.

"Why are they afraid? Because she has good influence with the secular elite, as well as Muslim reformists," says Mr. Jalaeipour. "In the midterm, she can protect the democratic trend in Iran."

Ebadi gets points for bravery for vowing to continue her legal quest for human rights, he adds, since hard-liners here consider such work "against God and anti-religious activity."

Indeed, death threats from vigilantes who consider Ebadi a "Western mercenary" - such as those who recently rushed the podium during a speech at a women's university, shouting "Death to Ebadi!" and forcing her to seek shelter among supporters - have prompted officials to provide a car, driver, and bodyguards.

But hard-liners are not Ebadi's only critics. Students have deplored her insistence - echoing the once-popular President Mohamed Khatami, who is widely criticized for wasting the mandate of two landslide election victories - that Islam and democracy are compatible, and that change should come from within. Students are also critical of Ebadi's call to vote in February parliamentary elections, while some angry reformers demand a boycott. "Ebadi has many experiences; most students on campus have little experience. They have high demands that they can't manage," says Jalaeipour. "When she goes abroad and takes off her head scarf, it's a revolutionary activity in the Iranian context. They don't understand that."

Still, some who witnessed Ebadi's return from a European visit at Tehran's airport, after the prize was announced in October, were not impressed. Those who greeted her were tearfully joyful but few. A phone text message had been widely circulated: "Shirin Ebadi. Tuesday night. Mehrabad airport. See you."

"Why did only a few thousand come? There should be so many, in a city of 10 million," says a reformist who was there. "It's embarrassing. The apathy is so thick."

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