updated 12/10/2003 6:06:15 PM ET 2003-12-10T23:06:15

Iranian democracy activist Shirin Ebadi, the first Muslim woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, said Wednesday her award would inspire other women in the Islamic world to seek their rights and denounced leaders in the region who use religion as a pretext for dictatorship.

Ebadi, Iran’s first female judge, appeared at the award ceremony without the headscarf that Iran requires women to wear in public, in what many viewed as a silent expression of her battle for freedom.

The Oslo ceremony came as the 10 other Nobel winners in 2003, including six Americans, were in Stockholm, Sweden, receiving the awards for medicine, physics, chemistry, literature and economics. Afterward, the laureates were to attend the traditional Nobel banquet with the Swedish royal family and a host of dignitaries including former Vice President Al Gore.

An audience of hundreds, including members of the Norwegian royal family, rose to give Ebadi a standing ovation after she was given the coveted Nobel gold medal and diploma.

Selection as 'inspiration'
The award “inspires me and millions of Iranians and nationals of Islamic states with the hope that our efforts, endeavors and struggles toward the realization of human rights and the establishment of democracy ... enjoy the support, backing and solidarity of international civil society,” Ebadi said in a speech after receiving the $1.4 million award.

“Undoubtedly, my selection will be an inspiration to the masses of women striving to realize their rights, not only in Iran but throughout the region,” she said, speaking in Farsi.

Ebadi also criticized the United States for using the war on terrorism as a pretext for violating human rights, pointing to the detention of hundreds of Muslim men at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, without access to lawyers.

The 56-year-old lawyer, author and activist was named the 2003 Nobel peace laureate for her work in fighting for democracy and the rights of women and children. She is the first Muslim woman to win the prize.

Lightning rod, rallying point
In 2000, she was jailed for three weeks on charges of slandering government officials and banned from working as a lawyer after riling her nation’s theocratic rulers.

Since winning the Nobel, Iranian reformers have looked to Ebadi to rally opposition to unelected hard-liners who oppose any change to the conservative Islamic system of running the country. Hard-liners have denounced her as a “Western mercenary,” and she recently was given police bodyguards after receiving numerous death threats.

Last week, about 60 female hard-liners prevented Ebadi from making a speech at a women’s university in Tehran.

Ahead of the ceremony outside Oslo City Hall, thousands of children sang for the laureate, with snow surrounding the building.

Ebadi, wearing a light-colored skirt and blouse, spoke during a solemn one-hour ceremony before an audience that included members of Ebadi’s own family and Academy Award-winning actors Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones. The ceremony also featured music performed live by an Iranian-Kurd folk music group.

‘every human right’
“If the 21st Century wishes to free itself from the cycle of violence, acts of terror and war ... there is no other way except by understanding and putting into practice every human right for all mankind regardless of race, gender, faith, nationality or social status,” she said, according to an English translation of her speech.

In her acceptance speech, Ebadi said despotism was incompatible with Iranian and Islamic traditions.

“Some Muslims, under the pretext that democracy and human rights are not compatible with Islamic teachings and the traditional structure of Islamic societies, have justified despotic governments and continue to do so,” Ebadi said.

She said the plight of women in Islamic states and the lack of freedom and democracy is caused by “the patriarchal and male-dominated culture prevailing in these societies, not in Islam.”

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