Iranian jurist and activist Shirin Ebadi was awarded the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize on Friday for her long fight for human rights in her native land, becoming the first Iranian and the first Muslim woman to win the honor.
Ebadi has battled Iran's hard-line Islamic rulers on behalf of women, children and pro-democracy students but remains a practicing Muslim who insists that Islam and democracy are fully compatible.
Choosing Ebadi over such contenders as Pope John Paul II and former Czech President Vaclav Havel, the Nobel committee praised her work for nonviolent reform and described her as a beacon of hope for Muslims everywhere.
"She sees no conflict between Islam and fundamental human rights," committee chairman Ole Danbolt Mjoes said in making the announcement in Oslo. "It is a pleasure ... to award the Peace Prize to a woman who is part of the Muslim world and of whom that world can be proud."
The Nobel committee made it clear that by selecting Ebadi, it hoped to speed the progress of human rights and democracy in troubled regions.
The choice of a dynamic woman with a benign and democratic vision of Islam could also weaken Iranian hard-liners who -- apart from stifling reform at home -- are at the center of an increasingly tense standoff with the international community over their nation's nuclear program, analysts say.
News of the surprise choice reached the 56-year-old Ebadi while she was on a trip to Paris. During a news conference here, she exhibited the steely serenity she honed as Iran's first female judge and later as a dissident lawyer, writer and lecturer whose clashes with conservative clerics landed her in jail in 2000.
"The duty of life is to fight in a difficult situation, as there is in Iran," Ebadi told journalists. "If today, as a woman and a lawyer, I was living in a country in which all the rights of women were respected, I wouldn't be as proud of myself as I am today."
Ebadi employs a studied strategy in fighting Iran's clerical regime, according to a leading French scholar of the Islamic world who knows her. Her arguments for women's equality are grounded in law and the text of the Koran. She insists that the abuse of women by Islamic conservatives results from a misreading of the true spirit of the Koran, according to Olivier Roy of the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris.
"She is very strong, very articulate, very brave," Roy said. "She's a pragmatist, not an ideologue. She says you can't use Western arguments in front of a mullah -- he won't listen. But she says he will listen if you use the text of the Koran, and that's how you can concretely help Iranian women."
The Nobel committee's announcement brought cheers from human rights activists around the world, and especially in Iran.
"This prize is very important for the future of the country," Saed Lailaz, a political analyst in Tehran, said in a telephone interview. "The conservatives, however, are very angry. The prize was announced eight hours ago, and still there has been no official comment on TV from the conservatives. They fear what this prize means to their future."
Lailaz said the Nobel strengthens Ebadi and the cause of Iranian women, who are excluded from many jobs and enjoy fewer rights than men.
"It will improve the role of women in Iran. There will be a sense of empowerment. I can already see this with my wife," he said, laughing. "She is braver now than she was before the announcement of the prize."
At Ebadi's home, her family watched updates of the news via a satellite dish -- technically illegal but recently tolerated.
Ebadi's 79-year-old mother, Minu Yamini, said the Nobel announcement marked the third time she cried for her daughter. The first time was at her university graduation; the second was when she was jailed.
Ebadi's husband, too, was inspired by his wife's recognition. "The reform movement is reborn," said Javad Tavassolian.
In Los Angeles, where a third of America's 277,000 Iranian immigrants live, there was joyous reaction to the news.
"I hope this will help the women in Iran and throughout the region," said Farideh Behrozi, who burst into tears when she learned of the award. "I hope they recognize that if you fight, someone will listen. If you scream and holler and speak your piece, someone will hear."
At the Renaissance hair salon in West Los Angeles, Delba Jenab, who fled Iran 25 years ago, said she had goose bumps after learning that Ebadi had won.
"This is very exciting because this means doors are opening," Jenab said. When she lived in Iran, she said, police would stop her on the street if a strand of hair had escaped her head scarf.
Ebadi has worked closely with activists struggling for democratic reform in Iran. But she has also criticized reformers for ignoring women's rights, which she believes is as urgent a priority as the freedoms of expression and assembly.
Ebadi is said to attract people with the force of a magnet. Whether she is giving a seminar or arguing passionately in a vain attempt to raise the marriageable age of girls from 9 to 15, Iranian women flock to her for advice about having their daughters study law. Sometimes people simply walk up and recount their personal tragedies, perhaps an executed or arrested son or an abusive marriage with no possibility of escape.
Shortly after the massive pro-democracy demonstrations of July 1999, Ebadi agreed to represent scores of students arrested for taking part in the protests. Each day of the trial, she drove from her modest apartment in central Tehran to the courthouse.
Some days, even getting into the courthouse was a battle. Once authorities detained her for a security check, using a bureaucratic pretext to bully her.
One of Ebadi's most prominent cases involved the 1998 killings of four dissident intellectuals by a death squad connected to the Intelligence Ministry. Ebadi represented the adult daughter of Dariush and Parvaneh Fourouhar, a couple who were slain in their home with machetes. When a reformist newspaper published bold reports alleging that the masterminds belonged to the regime, Ebadi found an ally in the publisher, Saed Hajjarian.
In March 2000, gunmen riding a motorbike shot Hajjarian on a downtown Tehran street, leaving him gravely wounded with a bullet in his neck.
Ebadi rushed back to Tehran from Europe, where she had been attending a conference on women's rights.
On the flight to Tehran, she wore a veil, although she did not have to. She slumped in her seat, exhausted. In five days, she had spoken in four countries, encouraging Europeans to press Iran on human rights.
"If not for people like Hajjarian, the public would never have known about these serial killings," she told a reporter aboard the plane. "When are [the conservatives] going to learn that they cannot eliminate the opposition?"
She closed her eyes and prayed for Hajjarian, who survived. Several intelligence agents were ultimately convicted in the slayings of the dissidents.
But later in 2000, the regime tried Ebadi on charges of publicizing evidence of official involvement in attacks on pro-democracy forces, convicting her at the closed trial.
She served three weeks in prison, had her sentence suspended and was barred from practicing law for five years.
After her release, she described the despair of solitary confinement in a magazine article.
"I try to remember who said, 'We are not born to suffer,' she wrote. "I can't remember. Wrathfully, with the end of a spoon I try to engrave on the cement wall of the cell: 'We are born to suffer because we are born in the Third World -- space and time are imposed on us. Therefore, there is nothing to do except to stay patient.' "
Ebadi's patience and perseverance had brought a breakthrough in the mid-1970s, when she became Iran's first female judge. After the overthrow of the shah in 1979, she was transferred to a lowly post in the Justice Ministry.
She began her own law practice in the 1980s and became internationally known as a professor and prolific writer and speaker. In the 1990s, she founded the Society for the Protection of the Rights of Children. She took part in the drive for women's empowerment that propelled the 1997 election of moderate President Mohammad Khatami.
Khatami is still embroiled in a power struggle with hard-liners in the clergy, judiciary and security services, who defend the authoritarian model of a pure Islamic state as envisioned by Iran's late supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Analysts say the Nobel Prize will serve as a shield for Ebadi and other reformers.
"Europe has been the most important supporter of Iran," Lailaz said. "Diplomatically. Economically. Politically. But now Europe may be moving closer to U.S. policy. The prize and Europe's dispute with Iran over its nuclear industry are reflections of that change. Europe is getting impatient about the pace of reform here. They cannot wait anymore."
Nonetheless, the choice of a relative unknown caused surprise and some discontent. In Poland, the birthplace of the pope, there had been widespread expectation that the ailing John Paul would be honored. Lech Walesa, the hero of Poland's democratic transition and himself a winner of the peace prize, did not hide his displeasure.
"I have nothing against this woman, but if there is anyone who really deserved to get it, then it is the Holy Father," Walesa said. "I wouldn't like to question this decision, but it seems there is no justice in this world.... It is a mistake of humanity, a mistake of this committee, a distasteful mistake and we should quickly forget about it."
The Nobel Peace Prize, which comes with a $1.3-million award, will be awarded Dec. 10 in Oslo.
Moaveni reported from Carmel, Calif., and Rotella from Paris. Times staff writers Jeffrey Fleishman in Berlin, Ela Kasprzycka in Warsaw and Tracy Wilkinson in Rome contributed to this report. Associated Press was used in its compilation.