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Editor's Note > Editor's Note > Stepping Forward with Shirin
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Pari Esfandiari
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Stepping Forward with Shirin   Comments 
Date : 2004-06-22

Dear Friends,

In a recent American TV quiz show, a contestant was asked to name the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize winner. Without hesitation, the contestant replied, “Shirin Ebadi from Iran”, as if asking the name of the first U.S. President.

Shirin Ebadi’s recent status as Nobel Peace Prize winner has not only won her a coveted award, but heaps of attention that comes with such recognition. Her name has been spread across major newspapers and, as noted above, has made its way into American pop culture. There has been an incredible frenzy surrounding the Iranian woman and, for the most part, mainstream spectators and the media have embraced the honoree and presented her in a positive light. Nevertheless, within the Iranian community, there are some who find themselves more skeptical than the typical bystanders.

What has really heated the debate over whether Ebadi is deserving or not, however, is the controversial conspiracy surrounding Ebadi’s selection. It is argued that specific influences, including the European Union, hope to enforce Islamic inclined governments in Moslem countries, much like the one Ebadi envisions in her thesis addressing democracy and its compatibility with Islam. Those angry are irritated with the fact that Ebadi may have been chosen in order to help set another’s plan into action. Some even go further and claim that Ebadi is part of this grand scheme.

There is no doubt that international awards in general, and the Nobel Peace Prize in particular, are always political, and cultural contexts are constructed prior to economic and political invasions to justify such acts. It is critical to analyze the actions, to understand the motives, predict the aims and reveal the implications. As a nation having undergone the struggles of the last century, we have reached a maturity where we do not follow blindly; rather, we are aware and acutely alert. While being attentive and analytical is important, it is also vital to steer clear of cynicism or misdirecting our reasoned reactions.

As it stands, the Nobel committee’s alleged political aims have not been confirmed, but be they true, the fact that external pressures may have used a Nobel laureate as a pawn in their ultimate plan should not reflect poorly on the chosen winner. The claim that she is part of the scheme is unfounded. Shirin Ebadi is a deserving success, regardless of the committee’s alleged aims. Her life history is telling evidence. She has dedicated herself to defending the defenseless and supporting the needy, all while the only prospect for her was imprisonment, not an international prize or recognition. She has not been silenced by the harsh measures of the Islamic government, nor by the public or those in her personal life. She has risked much for her actions and beliefs. So many arguments have been brought to the table that one begins to wonder why we are so fiercely adamant in nit picking, in tearing this woman down. We have become skeptical of her every move to the point of blaming her for actions she has no control over.

It seems that in the midst of the selection process controversy, we have lost sight of what this monumental event has done for the Iranian community. The last decades have constructed a negative image of the Middle Eastern and Islamic cultures. We can refer to an idealized past all we want and deny Middle Eastern roots, but the reality is that we are a part of the Middle East and Islam makes up part of our national identity. Both negative and positive representations of Islam have a bearing on our community. A year ago, the only image a Westerner could have conjured up of an Iranian was a dangerous, uncivilized, strange, or, at best, different. An Iranian female was perceived as submissive, conservative, exotic and an unspoken presence. Ingrained stereotypes like these take time to break down. With the start of the new millennium, it seemed as if things were slowly starting to shift. Shirin Ebadi’s win is an incredible opportunity to continue the shift away from the off-putting image that has been constructed. Yet, just as the perception is beginning to finally move toward someone like Ebadi, an intelligent, independent human rights role model, criticism from within the community is risking tarnishing what has just begun to form.

The sheer fact that a popular quiz show mentioned the Iranian peace prize winner as part of the question is important, but, then, an American was quick to respond with the correct answer. This small incident implies something bigger; the particular response comments on the Westerner’s current frame of mind. There are those that like Ebadi’s ideas and those that do not, as it is with many Nobel laureates. Regardless, this is a time of celebration because an Iranian woman’s deserved acknowledgment has opened up new doors. It is a sign of moving forward. Over the last few decades, an unfair image of Iran has been painted for the international public; today, our own community should not taint what Shirin Ebadi’s recognition has done to tear down the old and pave way for the new.


Pari Esfandiari
Editor in Chief

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