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Massoumeh Ebtekar

Leading the Advancement of Women in Post-Revolutionary Iran

July 19, 1998|Robin Wright | Robin Wright, author of "In the Name of God: The Khomeini Decade," covers global issues for The Times

TEHRAN — Massoumeh Ebtekar is going to make the history books--on several counts.

The latest twist in the unusual life of the 38-year-old mother of two was her appointment last fall as Iran's first female vice president. The job makes her the highest-ranking woman in government since Iran's 1979 revolution--and among the top job holders in the Islamic world.

Always a trailblazer, Ebtekar's lengthy resume is filled with titles that will be her legacy in Iran: editor of Kayhan International newspaper and Farzaneh magazine, doctorate in immunology and medical professor, co-founder of the Center for Women's Studies and Research. But for the outside world, Ebtekar may best be remembered as the angry 19-year-old who, as "Mary," went before TV cameras as spokesperson for the students who seized the U.S. embassy and took 52 Americans hostage for 444 days.

It was not Ebtekar's first brush with Americans. She grew up in Philadelphia. Her English is still slightly American accented.

Her background is one reason many hostages still remember her with bitterness. "I recall her as someone who should have known better," said Bruce Laingen, the ranking U.S. hostage. "Having lived in the U.S. for six years; having seen who we are as a people, and then to say the things she said about the hostages, particularly her constant iteration that we should be put on trial, I deplored it then and regret today that she has been given this important position,"

Mike Metrinko recalled the final TV interviews Ebtekar did with the hostages, the day before they left. "She wanted us to say how well we were treated," he said.

What has happened to her in the intervening years reflects the passage of both time and events in the Islamic republic. Ebtekar, who went back to school after the crisis ended and spent many years as an academic, is now in charge of environmental issues. Today she is angry about pollution in Iran's major cities and the dangers facing the Caspian Sea as the world scrambles to develop its vast energy resources.

She still has brushes with Western culture, however--not all of them negative. In a 1994 issue of Farzaneh, an intellectual quarterly for women, she wrote a study of the Virgin Mary, which ran under the subtitle, "The Chosen Woman." At the threshold of the 21st century, she concluded, the Virgin Mary's attributes of faith, purity, moral and social commitment made her a "flawless personality that deserves to be considered as a model for the bewildered human race."

Question: The stereotype of Iranian women is the hejab, or Islamic dress, which signifies to many in the outside world repression and constraints. How has the revolution affected the lives of women in tangible ways we can measure?

Answer: To properly respond to this question, I have to go to the early stages of the revolution, when Imam Khomeini was trying to propose a clear strategy for the Muslim woman. [Despite] the opposition among both politicians and religious circles, he was very serious about integrating women in different spheres of social, political, educational and economic activities. He took every opportunity to make clear that he does not want the woman to go back into isolation.

He wants the woman not to comply necessarily to Western standards but . . . he says there is no obstacle for women's advancement in Islam. This strategy has opened the way for religious families to send girls to school in rural areas, in tribal areas. And today, 19 years later, we see emerging elites of expert Iranian women who have had a university education.

It's very different from the stereotypes which are projected in the West. It's very different from many of the existing models in the Islamic world even. And it's different from the model of the modern woman, the modern feminist or neo-feminist. But it is in its own sense quite modern [and] dynamic. This lifestyle maintains a balance between social and family roles. The family is not sacrificed. It is regarded as a sacred stronghold.

Q: How has the status of women changed since the monarchy ended?

A: In 1996, we had a national census, and the results show that women have taken great strides in literacy. In 1978, women were 22% behind men. In 1996, the gap has decreased to only 9%. But overall literacy has increased from about 60% to more than 85%, [which means] women have moved faster than men.

In education, around 97% of Iranian girls have access to elementary enrollment. At universities, between 25% and 30% are women. And there's no limitation in terms of fields. Ranging from engineering and sciences to humanities and medical sciences, we have between 10% and 45% women--10% in engineering, then going to humanities and medical sciences, women reach about 45%. And in medical schools, where I teach, about 25% of the faculty are women, too.

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