Behind the veil with a Nobel Prize winner

When I traveled to Iran five years ago to help establish a journalism exchange, I wanted, most of all, to understand how strong women could live where adult females are forced to be veiled in public and legally considered to be just half of a man. Nobody helped me understand the situation facing women in Muslim society better than Shirin Ebadi. The world knows her now as the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, the dark horse candidate who bumped out an aging Pope John Paul II.

From the hours I spent with her that June morning in 1998, I know that the committee made a brilliant choice. It will have impact far beyond Iran and give hope to all people in the Middle East who struggle for justice, particularly women.

When I knocked on the door of her home in Tehran, I adjusted my veil and manteau, the shoulder-to-ankle shapeless coat that females above the age of 9 wearover their clothes in Iran. To appear in public without such covering would invite arrest.

A similarly veiled Ms. Ebadi swung opened her door to greet me - she reached out and shook my hand, a Western gesture rarely done in Iran. As soon as I entered the hallway, she closed the door, smiled broadly, and took off her veil, inviting me to do the same.

"Oh, can I take mine off, too?" I asked in relief. The extra clothing was a burden inthe 95-degree heat of the afternoon, and I rarely got respite from it during days packed with meetings and interviews. But Ebadi soon taught me that being forced to wear a veil was the least of women's worries in Iran.

A lawyer appointed by the Shah as the first female judge in Iran, she was forced to resign her position after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini took over in 1979 and imposed fundamentalist Islamic rule. But the Islamic revolution made her a revolutionary. Ebadi used her legal skills to speak out continually on behalf of women.

The plight of women wasn't Islam's fault, she said. It was the fault of the government's patriarchal view and profoundly incorrect interpretation of Islam. At the time of my interview, she told me it was critical for women to gain the right to divorce their husbands more easily, and to gain custody rights of children. If a boy in a divorce case was older than 2, and a girl older than 7, judges routinely assigned custody to the father. Children were property, and women were of no consequence. Men called the shots.

Of special concern to her was the tradition, under Islamic law, of considering women to be worth only half a man - literally. This meant, she said, that if the family of a woman killed in a car accident sued for damages, a court would determine what the value of a man would be had a man been killed - and then halve the award.

Under such circumstances, she said, repealing the laws of hijab, the Islamic dress code that forces women to wear veils in public, was really a low priority for most women. When I asked permission to take pictures of her for the newspaper, she was careful to put on her veil again.

As we talked, Ebadi spoke English and, when explanations became complicated, she nodded toward my interpreter and spoke in Farsi. She made coffee in a small kitchen adjacent to her home office. She emanated warmth and conveyed both the difficulty of constantly fighting the authorities, and her determination to do so until her last breath. To do otherwise, she said, would be akin to accepting a system that forced women to live as slaves.

Not only was she a lawyer with a sense of justice, she was a mother of two daughters and, I sensed, she wanted to set the right example. But I wanted to know about her own situation. In Iran, a married woman must have the written permission of her husband to travel abroad - and she traveled frequently. Smiling, her face softened, as she said simply, "My husband is a kind man." Such permission was never a problem for her - much to the government's regret.

I knew the toll her activism must take, the anger that the authorities must feel toward her. "Are you ever afraid?" I asked. She nodded. Yes, she was often afraid. But her own sense of outrage wouldn't allow her to stop.

I've often thought of Ebadi over the years. I was especially concerned, but not surprised, when she was arrested three years ago for what Islamic judges called "disturbing public opinion." I remember her saying she was often afraid, and thought of her in a jail cell.

Last week, as I heard the committee's decision, I looked at the picture of a veiled Ebadi that I've kept in my office. I remembered us: two women sipping coffee, talking and talking. I recalled her warmth, the power of her convictions, and her refusal to keep silent. Then I saw the wire photos of a jubilant Ebadi at a press conference in Paris, addressing the world for the first time as a Nobelist, her arms raised as if to signal a touchdown. And she didn't wear a veil.

Maura J. Casey is associate editorial page editor of The Day.

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