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Women have key roles to play in building peace, Nobel speakers assert

Four articulate keynotes addressed nearly 900 at 17th annual Nobel Peace Prize Forum

Women were the focus of the 17th annual Nobel Peace Prize Forum February 11-12 at Augsburg College in Minneapolis. The annual event rotates to each of the five campuses of Lutheran colleges in the upper midwest which were founded by Norwegians.
This year’s event honored a woman who, due to the political situation in her homeland, wasn’t able to attend. Shirin Ebadi, a 2003 Nobel Peace Laureate, is an Iranian lawyer and human rights activist and one of the first female judges in Iran.
Honoring Ebadi were four women who addressed the assembly of 900 on the Augsburg campus.
Davar Ardalan, National Public Radio reporter and producer of the news program “Morning Edition,” was born in Iran but fled when the 1979 anti-democratic revolution swept the country. She returned to Iran after high school, ended up in an arranged marriage, and left a second time — for good.
She described the efforts of her great-grandfather, who worked to reform Iran’s legal system. He ran into opposition from those favoring theocracy. When he became powerful and popular, his enemies brought him down. Facing possible execution, he took his own life.
Said Ardalan, “He was the founder of modern law in Iran,” adding, “It is a delicate balancing act [there] to speak against the government.” But, she said, “Those who know their rights are more likely to be free.”
She asserted, “The wo-men’s movement in Iran is very powerful. They are active and will bring change. You don’t see any 40-year-old men in family court, because everything is already in their favor.”
Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, told the assembly, “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a great gift to the world.” She reminded her listeners that Eleanor Roos-evelt led the committee that created it. She drew laughter when saying, “Eleanor made sure no ‘lawyer talk’ or ‘gobbledygook’ would creep in.”
She pointed to what she perceived as “a togetherness in the world” after Septem-ber 11, 2001. “But that togetherness was dissipated,” she lamented, saying, “The language that was used in the U.S. was not helpful.
Talking about a ‘war on terrorism’ was counter-productive. It encouraged those on ‘the other side’ to celebrate being at war with ‘the Great Satan’ [the U.S.]. Fighting a war against those committing crimes against humanity would have been more appropriate,” she said.
There is a link between poverty and justice, Rob-inson said. “Our world is shockingly unfair in its division between rich and poor.” She quoted British prime minister Tony Blair, who said, “Poverty and instability lead to weak states, which become havens for terrorists.” She asked, “[Do we] really care if millions of children die every year from preventable causes — most of whom are girls?”
Sima Samar, chair of the Afghanistan Human Rights Commission, described the dire situation for women in her country. “Afghanistan has always been a patriarchal society,” she said. “Fundamentalism was supported by the West as a strategy to fight the Soviet Union. This had disastrous results for women. The worst element was the Taliban. They considered it a crime to give a girl a pencil and a pad of paper.”
She said, “In my country, justice can be bought by the rich while the poor suffer in silence. Trafficking in wo-men and children continues.” There is a need, she argued, for support from the international community until humanitarian conditions improve. “The local military and police have no real incentive to change things [at the present].”
Fundamentalists, she said, are opposed to using even the word “woman” in the national constitution.
Frances Moore Lappé, the author of Diet for a Small Planet (1971), told the assembly, “We are the first generation to be aware that we have set our planet in freefall, in a downward spiral.” She reminded her listeners, “In one week, more people die of hunger than all who died in the tsunami.”
She described fear as a neutral energy, waiting to be used for good or evil. “I no longer pray for my fears to leave me,” she said. “I try to learn how to harness them.”