To have the fight for human rights rewarded by the most prestigious prize is deeply reassuring for many. But the Nobel peace prize for Ms Shirin Ebadi resonates with many meanings, adding greater significance to the core concept of human rights itself. She is the first Muslim woman and the first Iranian to be so honoured. The activist lawyer has been given the prize “for her efforts for democracy and human rights”, according to the Nobel committee, particularly for her efforts on behalf of women and children in Iran. The Nobel peace prize for women has been rare, and winners from non-Western countries even rarer. Among this select breed, Ms Ebadi’s predecessors are Mother Teresa, Ms Aung San Suu Kyi and Ms Rigoberta Menchu. Even here, Ms Ebadi’s award is perhaps imbued with the sharpest sense of history. In a world where “the clash of civilizations” has become the keyword for polarizing cultures and providing the pretext for the most inexcusable violence, the prize for Ms Ebadi underlines the values the world must look for today. It is not enough to say that Ms Ebadi is the first Muslim woman to win the prize. It is more important that she believes change in Islamic society will come from within; it is this process that she and others like her are trying to push forward. Her attitude to human rights is not identical to the West’s. For the West, an enriching of the concept in this way could act as a buffer against destructive generalizations about “clashes” and “civilizations”. For non-Western countries, it is an acknowledgment of other ways of seeing.
Such an award could not have passed without comment, and some of the most unfortunate ones have been made by those who feel that it should have gone to Pope John Paul II. On the other hand, orthodox Islamic groups and societies have been divided, occasionally hesitant. It is the very nature of orthodoxy to be suspicious of a woman who believes in a different kind of Islamic society. The easiest solution is to applaud Ms Ebadi as a campaigner for human and women’s rights, and recognize her achievements as contributions to civil society. While there is no untruth in this — Ms Ebadi’s fight is as important for civil society as for a religious one — the irony of this kind of relegation is inescapable. Ms Ebadi’s achievement straddles both kinds of society, and her award is a recognition, however ironic in the context of the present, of campaigners in all countries where human rights are in danger.