Dawn of the Iranian Woman

Call it the dawn of the Iranian woman.

Within the past year, Iranian human rights attorney Shirin Ebadi won the Nobel Peace Prize, actress Shohreh Aghdashloo was nominated for an Oscar and authors Azar Nafisi and Firoozeh Dumas saw their memoirs climb The New York Times paperback best-sellers list. In the political arena, Iranian-American Goli Ameri won the Republican nomination in Oregon's 1st Congressional District in May, and will face Democratic incumbent David Wu in the fall.

These women represent millions of other Iranian-born women and men who adapt well to positive Western values. They can be instrumental in championing democracy and pluralism in the Muslim world. Yet, the Bush administration continues to alienate Iranians as a whole with policies and pronouncements that isolate and demonize their home country.

Though they come from a tradition that has marginalized women for centuries, the Iranian women who now find themselves in the international spotlight have shown admirable self-confidence.

Shirin Ebadi, firm and dignified, rebuffed the clerics who belittled her achievements – Iranian President Mohammad Khatami opined that the peace prize was of little importance compared to those for literature and sciences – and ridiculed her for keeping the award money rather than donating it entirely to philanthropy.

Aghdashloo, nominated for best supporting actress as the wife of an exiled Iranian officer in "House of Sand and Fog," more than held her own during the grueling pre-Oscar weeks of lobbying and publicity events. "A beauty contest in a slaughter house," George C. Scott called the process before declining his Oscar for "Patton" in 1970. Aghdashloo, relating deferentially to her colleagues and the press, focused in interviews on how she strove to bring authenticity, nuance and depth to her performance, to avoid Hollywood stereotypes of Middle Easterners.

Nafisi has also used the forums afforded her as the best-selling author of "Reading Lolita in Tehran" and a Johns Hopkins professor to debunk preconceived notions of Iranian women. Her book describes how she invited her students to study Western novels at her home after she was banished from Tehran University as an English literature professor for defying the clerics. In the informal study sessions, the young women defined for themselves identities separate from those imposed on them by men and the Islamic state.

American women, in book clubs and study groups across the country, are using Nafisi's work to learn more about their Middle Eastern counterparts, sometimes identifying with them in their own long struggle for self-definition and parity.

"Funny in Farsi," Dumas' memoir about a daughter who helps her immigrant parents assimilate in America, echoes narratives by writers who have come here from abroad. These stories, in their universality, transcend national and religious differences. They show how the early empowerment of immigrant children in America, with their ability to learn English and adapt faster than their parents to a new environment, is a continuous source for this country's exceptional energy and enterprise.

With the campaign slogan of "Go America," Goli Ameri is contesting Taiwanese-born Wu's Congressional seat. Their district, in suburban Portland, Ore., is indicative of an emerging new America of vigorous, constructive diversity.

While Wu voted against the Iraq war and the Patriot Act, Ameri so far has toed a strict Republican Party line. Noting that she personally witnessed how Islamic radicals gained the upper hand in Iran, she said of the beheading of American engineer Paul M. Johnson Jr. in Saudi Arabia: "These terrorists hate Americans because we are pluralistic, prosperous and free. There is no negotiating or reasoning to be had with these fanatics. We must find them and destroy them before they can realize their evil intentions."

But when her rival suggested that her Iranian descent might make her softer on the war on terror, rather than downplay her heritage Ameri instead emphasized that her strong ties to the Middle East gave her a special understanding of the region's politics.

Ameri and other Iranian women, who have so successfully selected from a rich Eastern heritage and the possibilities offered to them by the West, are in a unique position to foster between their two worlds the mutual understanding which today is critical to world peace.

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