Shirin Ebadi

When defending a group of people charged with endangering Iran's national security for circulating a petition calling for equal status of women, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Shirin Ebadi posed a question to prosecutors.

"Do you honestly think that if a wife wants her husband not to take a second wife, that in fact is a pretext for the United States to attack Iran?" Ebadi asked.

"Of course, he didn't have an answer to give," Ebadi, speaking through an interpreter, said Friday at the University of Utah.

Ebadi delivered a world leader lecture on "Human Rights: The Struggle in Iran," hosted by the Tanner Humanities Center. The Deseret News was a co-sponsor of the event.

The petition drive Ebadi spoke of is an effort to raise awareness of efforts to end policies such as legal polygamy and a husband's right to divorce without cause. The effort is local and global through the Web site

Some of the women involved were sentenced to two to three years in prison, said Ebadi, an Iranian lawyer and human rights activist.

She was frequently interrupted by applause as she discussed issues ranging from human rights to nuclear proliferation. She also called on people of both nations to move beyond past disputes and work together.

"Governments come and go, but people stay," she said. "There have always been long periods of friendship between the people of the United States and the Iranian people."

No nation should have nuclear weapons, said Ebadi, including Iran. However, she said the people of her country find it ironic that the U.S. would see a nuclear Iran as a threat, but not Pakistan or India.

Ebadi was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2003 for her support of democracy and human rights. She was one of Iran's first female judges but was forced to resign her post after the nation's 1979 revolution. She now defends political dissenters and those victimized by Iran's legal system.

At the U. on Friday she pointed to some of the discriminatory practices of Iran's government:

• The value of a woman's life is considered only half that of a man's.

• Members of the Baha'i Faith aren't allowed to attend universities.

• Girls can be tried criminally as adults as young as age 9, and boys at age 15.

Still, Ebadi made it clear that while many Iranians are striving for democracy and human rights within their country, there's no call for foreign military intervention.

"A military attack or even a threat of a military attack will basically worsen the human rights situation in Iran tremendously," she said. "We are fully aware that democracy can only grow and flourish in a sound and peaceful environment."

The feminist movement in Iran has support among both men and women, Ebadi says. It doesn't have central leadership, which Ebadi says makes it more powerful.

"If there were a few leaders, the government could easily arrest them, put them under pressure, coerce them, and kill the movement," she said. "But this movement is indestructible."

She added that even with the nation's laws, more than 60 percent of Iran's university students are women and 13 women sit in the nation's parliament.

"This basically shows how much power, strength and capability Iranian women have to even be able to infiltrate the ranks of the radicals and force them to accept them, too," she said.

After speaking, Ebadi took a few minutes to mingle with the audience and sign autographs. U. pharmacy student Shadie Ghaibi, 22, admiringly looked at her signed copy of "Women's Rights in the Laws of the Islamic Republic of Iran."

"To have her sign it means so much," says Ghaibi, who was born in Iran. She hopes Ebadi's visit will raise awareness about Iran.

"I think awareness is a big issue," she said. "It's good to be aware of what's going on there."