TEHRAN, Iran (AP) – Nine years ago, sociologist Saeed Madeni was jailed for three months for writing an article about Shirin Ebadi’s campaign for women’s rights.

“Feminism was considered as bad as atheism at that time,” Madeni said Saturday, a day after Ebadi became the surprise winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Some limits on Iranian women have been rolled back since Madeni’s arrest. But Ebadi’s new international stature is considered a powerful tool to strike at more barriers – including laws that stripped Ebadi, Iran’s first women judge, of her right to preside in court.

“This is an important moment for Iranian women,” said Madeni, a researcher at a state-funded institute. “It could be a real turning point. I think Iranian reformers always expected a man to lead them, but it turns out differently.”

The Norwegian Nobel Committee’s selection of the relatively unknown lawyer-activist over others, including Pope John Paul II, was widely interpreted as a message to the Islamic world to expand women’s roles on all levels.

“I am so happy I can’t control myself,” said Parvin Ardalan, an activist who has often joined Ebadi in challenges of Iran’s ruling clerics. “This prize will push the Iranian women’s movement to a brighter future.”

President Bush said Saturday that Ebadi’s Nobel win “recognizes her lifetime of championing human rights and democracy,” adding that he backed “the Iranian people’s aspirations for freedom, and their desire for democracy.”

Ebadi said in Saturday’s editions of the French daily newspaper Le Monde that her prize would encourage human rights campaigners in Iran.

The 1979 Islamic Revolution wiped out the Western-style of life and ambitions that were available to Iranian women. But even the most conservative clerics recognized that Iran’s culture would not tolerate the heavy restrictions imposed in nations such as Saudi Arabia.

Slowly, Iranian women have made advances as the theocracy answers to the influence of reformers. The clerics have ceded ground on social issues, while making no concessions that would erode their political power.

The 290-member parliament has 11 women. Earlier this month, Iran’s first women police officers joined the force.

Rules on the required coverings for women in public have been eased: hair pours out from under head scarves and the formless coat, known as the manteau, once favored by Iranian women has been largely replaced by shorter and tailored knee-length coverings.

But many doors remain closed.

A woman needs her husband’s permission to work or travel abroad, and a man’s court testimony is considered twice as important as a woman’s.

Jobs such as judge and posts with the ruling inner circle are for men only. The powerful Guardian Council, which vets political candidates and interprets laws, has indicated women are barred from becoming president. But that interpretation could be challenged by Ebadi’s supporters if momentum builds for her candidacy to succeed President Mohammad Khatami in 2005.

Ebadi has argued for a new interpretation of Islamic law that embraces democracy and equality before the law.

“The time of revolutions is finished,” she said in Le Monde. “The Islamic republic cannot continue if it does not evolve. Not only within the government, but in the whole country, we want reforms to be pursued in a serious and radical manner.”

Those reforms include stopping the use of harsh Islamic punishments – such as amputations and stonings – for convicted criminals and allowing free elections of legislators, she said.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan saw a direct connection between the Nobel decision and demands for a greater voice for women.

“I hope this award will also underscore the importance of expanding human rights throughout the world and also how women speak out and insist on their rights,” Annan said Friday.

The new Nobel laureate is scheduled to return to Tehran from Paris on Tuesday. Khatami’s office – which has praised the award – said top government envoys would greet her.

The response from the hard-liners controlling the real power has ranged from indifference to harsh denunciations.

Conservative newspapers either ignored the news or published small items – in contrast to the banner headlines in the reformist press. State radio and television mentioned Ebadi at the tail end of their broadcasts.

“The prize is a support for secular movements, and against the ideals of the 1979 Islamic revolution,” said Hamid Reza Taraqi, a former lawmaker and member of the hard-line Islamic Coalition Society.

“The Norwegian Nobel Committee, against its original objectives of promoting peace, has turned into a political tool in the hand of foreigners to interfere in the internal affairs of our country.”

AP-ES-10-11-03 1625EDT

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.