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Nobel prize winner speaks at SMC

Katie Kohler | Friday, April 27, 2007

Internationally renowned activist and author Shirin Ebadi spoke to an audience of more than 400 students, professors, trustees, members of the media and local residents in Angela Athletic Facility at Saint Mary’s Thursday.

Ebadi served as the keynote speaker in the three-day Center for Women’s InterCultural Leadership (CWIL) conference – “Women as Intercultural Leaders: Collaboration at the Crossroads” – that began Thursday.

In its first year of hosting the National CWIL Conference, Saint Mary’s attracted Ebadi as the keynote speaker with financial aid from the Lilly Endowment Inc., which funded the visit.

“We chose Dr. Ebadi because of her heroic advocacy on behalf of human rights, and especially the rights of women and children make her an amazing role model of women’s intercultural leadership for our students,” said Elaine Meyer-Lee, director of CWIL. “Her work promoting peaceful, democratic solutions to serious problems in society is in keeping with the mission of the Sisters of the Holy Cross ‘to reflect on the signs of the times, discern needs and respond.'”

Ebadi opened her speech by highlighting the importance of students in Iran and the U.S.. Her lecture, entitled “The Role of Women in World Peace,” was delivered in her native language – Farsi – and translated into English and sign language.

“Students and professors are cultural ambassadors to us,” she said. “The best relationship between the United States and Iran is cultural and fortunately, there is a future for that.”

Diplomacy, she said, is the most important aspect the countries must keep in mind for the future.

“I hope that this relationship between our two countries is expanded and political issues do not get in the way,” she said, winning the applause of her audience.

While diplomacy and human rights are important, the rights of women remain at the forefront for Ebadi and her cause. She said women’s leaders point to the triumphs of women in “progressive countries” when they are trying to make a point in their own homeland. But even in progressive countries, she said, women face discrimination.

“Just look at America,” she said. “You have had no woman president. More women are government secretaries than men. There is no discrimination with the laws, but men and women are still now equal.”

The problems with Islamic countries, she said, are the common double standards between the two genders, which vary from country to country in the Middle East.

“In Saudi Arabia, women don’t even have an ID card or birth certificate. In Kuwait, women are second-class citizens. In other countries, there is still polygamy and women aren’t even called by their own names,” she said. “The important question is: Is it Islam that created this situation? In other words, can religion accept the equality of men and women?”

There are other Islamic countries, however, that are more advanced than even some in Europe, she said. She pointed to Pakistan, Indonesia and Bangladesh – where women have served as president or prime ministers – as evidence that the problem is not Islamic at its crux. She blamed patriarchal societies for many of the problems plaguing women today.

“I am not fighting masculinity, but what I mean is that it is the culture that deprives women of their rights,” she said. “But we can’t forget, men are raised by their mothers.”

In Iran, however, the political and social status of women is more complicated than that. Though more than 65 percent of university students in Iran are women, and suffrage was made universal five decades ago, Ebadi said she is still not permitted to testify in court without the presence of a man or another woman – 35 years after gaining full lawyer status.

“But the janitor in my office, even illiterate, can go to court and have his testimony heard,” she said. “These examples prove than laws in Iran do not comply with the situation of our women.”

Ebadi is one of the leading women in the strong feminist movement in Iran today.

Presently, Ebadi and her supporters have launched a campaign to get a million Iranian signatures – male or female – in support of ending discriminatory laws in Iran. But the government of the Islamic Republic is fighting the campaign by taking women to court and even imprisoning a few.

“I am an attorney for these women,” she said. “They have been accused of having taken steps against national security. But if my women oppose polygamy or want custody of their children, how does that threaten our national security? How does that danger our boarders? In reality, the government cannot respond to our requests and comes up with false accusations.”

Victory, for Ebadi, is extending democracy to her country and all of its citizens.

“This is impossible if women don’t have full and equal rights. The victory of the feminist movement will open doors for democracy,” she said. “Victory in the real meaning is removing discriminatory law for all.”

Democracy is a lofty goal for Iran, but Ebadi said she has hopes for the future.

“Let’s not forget democracy is not a gift to be brought to a nation. It is not an incident that happens overnight. But the victory of women can shorten this process,” she said. “You … all of you women, have a responsibility to make a difference.”

Elaine Meyer-Lee, director of CWIL, opened Thursday’s lecture by introducing College President Carol Ann Mooney, who recognized the importance of CWIL.

Mana Derakhshani, a French professor and coordinator of the French program, was the final introductory speaker. Derakhshani, who is Iranian-American, reflected on Ebadi receiving the Nobel Peace Prize four years ago.

“I was filled with pride as an Iranian-American,” she said. “For such an honor to be not only the first Iranian honored in the prize’s history, but to be a woman. … That is such an honor.”

Although Derakhshani was not aware of Ebadi’s accomplishments before the prize, she quickly learned about her cause.

“Her efforts to facilitate dialogue between world leaders and religions promotes new thinking and passion for rights,” Derakhshani said. “I was struck by her unconditional commitment to justice and human rights.”

The conference planning committee chose Ebadi from a long list of potential speakers, Meyer-Lee said. The other speaker most seriously considered was Wangari Maathai, an environmental and political activist from Kenya who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004.

Additional activities through the remainder of the conference include “Rain Away” dance performance this morning from 10 a.m. to 11:30, 30 sessions with presenters from 22 different states and four countries and a closing panel Sunday moderated by Caryn McTighe Musil, senior vice president at the Association of American Colleges and Universities.