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Muslim Female Activists Are Honored

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Last fall, Mehrangiz Kar, an outspoken critic of discrimination against women and non-Muslims in Iran, was released from prison where she had been held since the spring of 2000, accused of acting against that country’s national security interests.

Stricken with cancer, Kar--a lawyer, activist and journalist--was freed on bail and permitted to travel to the West to seek medical treatment.

On Tuesday, Kar’s life took another dramatic turn: She and three other Muslim women were honored on Capitol Hill, where First Lady Laura Bush and members of Congress joined the National Endowment for Democracy in celebrating their outstanding contributions in the Muslim world.

“We recognize these four women for their courage and their tenacity,” Bush said. “They speak out against terrorism and injustice.... We look to their countries and we call on them to keep the promise of freedom that people yearn for so desperately.”

In an interview before the ceremony, Kar said many Iranian activists look to leaders for encouragement and education about the kinds of freedoms that some Americans may take for granted. “I hope I could do better for my country and I hope that the activists in Iran that are now in danger could be more secure,” she said.

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Also honored Tuesday were Nadjet Bouda of Algeria, Mariam Hussein Mohamed of Somalia and Muborak Tashpulatova of Uzbekistan. All were cited for their work in countries where a majority of the population is Muslim.

“I think there’s widespread recognition that the participation of women in society is a critical issue, and a way to address long-term struggles,” said Carl Gershman, head of the organization.

Bouda’s activism began when, at age 16, she joined Rally for Youth Action, a nongovernmental organization that works with Algerian youth. By age 20, she was the group’s president. Now 23, she works with SOS Disparus, which advocates on behalf of Algerians who have “disappeared” in that country’s long civil dispute.

Bouda said the award “is a way to recognize not only my work but all Algerian activists who are fighting every day for freedom and democracy.”

Hussein Mohamed founded and heads the Dr. Ismail Jumale Human Rights Organization, a leading human rights group in Somalia. She also co-founded the Peace and Human Rights Network, a consortium of 24 Somali civil rights groups.

Tashpulatova heads the Tashkent Public Education Center, which produces textbooks on civic education. She has also held town hall-style forums for groups of parents, students and government leaders.

The National Endowment for Democracy is a private, nonprofit group working to strengthen democratic institutions. It is active in more than 90 countries.

Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) and Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) were on hand for the presentation.

“I think that [National Endowment for Democracy] has done more to promote democracy around the world than any other organization,” Biden said.

“You know we [in Congress] debate and vote, and we take controversial stands,” he told the recipients. “If we lose, we get defeated and we get a pension. If you lose, you get shot. If you lose, you get imprisoned. This is the real test, the real genuine test of a commitment to democracy.”

For Kar, the battle continues.

Her husband, Siamak Pourzand, a journalist and critic of the government in Iran, was seized by hard-line Islamic fundamentalists and his whereabouts are uncertain.

“I don’t know what I can do for my husband, what I can do for myself, what I can do for my family,” Kar said in the interview. “Everything is dark, nothing is clear.”

But her outlook for Iran remains undimmed.

“In Iran now some movements are beginning to show themselves--the women’s rights movement, the young people’s movement, [the] university movement, [the] press movement, [the] intellectual movement,” she said. “All of them are showing themselves to the government and they’re showing their strength. They are trying to have the government hear their voice.”


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