You would think that winning the Nobel Peace Prize would have provided a measure of protection for Shirin Ebadi, a Iranian human rights lawyer who has taken up the cases of Iran's most prominent dissidents, from the wrath of the mullahs.
Not a bit of it. Since gaining an international platform thanks to the Nobel award in October 2003, Mrs Ebadi says she has received death threats and threatening phone calls. She has been summoned to court three times over criminal charges which are still pending, for allegedly encouraging Iran's best known investigative journalist, Akbar Gandji, to begin a hunger strike while in jail.
Even before she won the prize, Mrs Ebadi was a hunted woman. She has spent time in jail for her defense of human rights. In her book, Iran Awakening, she chillingly describes how she came across the official transcript of a conversation between a government minister and a member of a death squad in 2000. "When my eyes first fell on the sentence that would haunt me for years to come, I thought I had misread. I blinked once, but it stared back at me from the page: 'The next person to be killed is Shirin Ebadi.' Me."
In her just-published memoir, Mrs Ebadi says she wants to help correct the Western stereotypes of Islam, especially the image of Muslim women as "docile, forlorn creatures".
Sitting in a London hotel with her hair free of the headscarf she must wear back home in Tehran, Mrs Ebadi is speaking of her hopes of transforming her country into an "advanced democracy".
Even though she has few illusions about it happening, she argues that this is how to end the standoff between Iran and the West over her country's nuclear program. "No government needs nuclear weapons, neither Iran nor America. The Iranian government claims they want a peaceful use, but the world does not accept this," she says.
"What's the solution? To establish a move to advanced democracy in Iran. If the government is democratic, people supervise the government and will not allow the government to misuse its powers. But when a government's decisions are taken behind closed doors and outside people's supervision, the world cannot trust that government. Therefore, if the Iranian government wants the world to trust it, it must establish a more advanced democracy at home.
"Look at France. Is the world worried about a country like France having nuclear weapons? No. Because France is a democracy," she argues.
She says that the first step should be to abolish the Guardian Council, the religious body that vets political candidates and which ensured that hundreds of pro-reform politicians were barred from running in the 2004 parliamentary election and the presidential polls last year.
But she does not spare the United States from criticism, accusing the Bush administration of double standards. "America says that Iran would pose a threat if it gains access to nuclear weapons because it is not a democratic country, and because its government is fundamentalist, and this could pose a danger to the whole region," she says.
"But America has forgotten that Pakistan has nuclear weapons, and Pakistani Muslims are much more fundamentalist than Iranian Muslims, and Pervez Musharraf [the Pakistan President] did not come to power as a result of an election. The only difference between Iran and Pakistan is that Pakistan is friendly towards America and obeys America, while Iran does not obey America. This double standard is something that the Iranian people cannot understand."
Iran Awakening is published by Rider
Copyright © 2006 Independent News and Media Limited