The woman who drives Iran's mullahs crazy

August 24, 1994|By Georgie Anne Geyer

Auvers-Sur-Oise, France -- IN MY 30 years as a foreign correspondent, I have interviewed many "unusual" leaders -- but I think that I have finally found the most stunningly unusual one. Her name is Maryam Rajavi, she has been elected the "future president of Iran" by the growing Iranian Resistance, and she is driving the women-hating mullahs of Iran crazy.

To find this impressive woman, one drives about an hour outside of Paris to this lovely, leafy, languid French town. Here, in a neat compound of small buildings heavily guarded by the French police, the Iranian mujahedin or National Council of the Resistance has long had its government-in-exile. What is new is that Mrs. Rajavi has suddenly become a prime player at the highest levels of plans to overthrow Iran's theocratic regime.

"My first task is to give the Iranian people back their hope," she said during our three-hour interview. "I want to give them hope that, with our solidarity, they can overcome the darkness, hopelessness and death that has enveloped our country."

As eloquent as she can be regarding freedom for Iranians -- and particularly freedom for women -- it soon becomes clear that this cultured 41-year-old woman is a figure to be watched. Since its founding in 1965, originally to overthrow the shah, the mujahedin have been active, but always in the background of world news.

But this spring, from Washington to Sydney to Bonn, tens of thousands of exiled Iranians (20,000 in Bonn alone) demonstrated peacefully on behalf of the resistance. And invariably, they were shouting, "Maryam, the shining sun, future president of Iran . . ."

As far as she personally is concerned, Mrs. Rajavi did not really want to be elected president last October by the 235 members of the resistance council. "I would have preferred doing what I was doing," she told me, "without all the limitations that go with the presidency." Since her election, she has overseen all of the organizing for the between 3 million and 4 million Iranian exiles.

Meeting Maryam Rajavi in the mujahedin's strange little world in Auvers, one soon senses a complicated human being. In the simple waiting room with its Persian rug, a classically beautiful woman comes forward, with perfect white teeth, an aquiline nose and unflinching gray eyes. There is an oddly tremulous quality about her, and with it, a contradictory feeling of solidity. This day, she was wearing a violet scarf tied around her head, hiding her dark hair.

Her decision to wear the scarf came while she was still a metallurgy engineering student in Tehran. It was a sign to her of a real inner freedom. She is not -- repeat, not -- under any circumstances wearing the chador, the ugly black robe that the Ayatollah Khomeini and the mullahs insist Iranian women wear. "That is a means to enslave women," she said. Instead, the neat head scarf, which is part of a tradition known as the hejab, "allows us to be active as human beings, not only as women."

If that decision was controversial, consider her decision in 1984 to marry Massoud Rajavi, the charismatic and respected top leader of the mujahedin. It tells even more about the degree to which women of different cultures and beliefs find fascinating pathways to independence and fulfillment.

For one thing, she was already married and the mother of a little girl. She had also been elected to a top mujahedin post. But let her tell the story:

"Because of circumstances, it was necessary to marry Massoud. I had a difficult choice to make. I had to divorce my previous husband. I felt that for any woman to be seriously involved in political work, to work for the ideals of nation and of countrymen . . . in order to be at the highest level, any factor that would impede the movement was simply unacceptable. If my role as joint leader was not a formalistic one -- but one to which I was to give all my energies -- my commitment could not be conditional.

"What I did was to set an example for all the members of the great family of the resistance -- to show them that they must go beyond their own personal lives."

Today, Maryam Rajavi and other mujahedin leaders seek to convince others that the original anti-American or "Islamic Marxist" (or whatever else) caste of this complex movement are things of the past. They say they want a democratic, free-market Iran, with a political life close to that of the European Social Democrats. Massoud Rajavi, with whom she seems to have an excellent relationship, is in Iraq most of the time with the mujahedin army there, which he commands.

Meanwhile, she is becoming the symbol of something new -- the modest but active Islamic woman. "She emerges as the antithesis of the mullah's fundamentalism," adds Ali Safavi, a mujahedin spokesman. "You cannot confront fundamentalism with an anti-Islamic culture; you confront it with a tolerant and modern Islam. Our society is a society bleeding, a society needing a symbol to offer compassion, mercy, tolerance and love. She has those attributes more than anyone."

Georgie Anne Geyer is a syndicated columnist.

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