Seizing progress after embassy Iran: Massoumeh Ebtekar, who as 'Mary' lashed out at America while taking the U.S. Embassy in 1979, has come a long way. Other Iranian women are doing the same, says Iran's first female vice president.


July 25, 1998|By Robin Wright | Robin Wright,LOS ANGELES TIMES

TEHRAN, Iran -- 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.

She was 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.

For the outside world, Ebtekar may best be remembered as the angry 19-year-old who, as "Mary," went before TV cameras as spokeswoman for the students who seized the U.S. Embassy and took 52 Americans hostage for 444 days.

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

Many hostages remember her with bitterness. "I recall her as someone who should have known better," says 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."

What has happened to Ebtekar in the intervening years reflects the passage of both time and events in the Islamic republic.

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?

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. 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 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.

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

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

In education, around 97 percent of Iranian girls have access to elementary enrollment. At universities, between 25 percent and 30 percent 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 percent and 45 percent women -- 10 percent in engineering, then going to humanities and medical sciences, women reach about 45 percent. And in medical schools, where I teach, about 25 percent of the faculty are women, too.

Parliament has given preliminary approval to two bills -- one on gender separation of medical services, and the other banning published pictures of women without proper Islamic dress. Twenty years after the revolution, in the current climate of liberalization, they seem unusual measures. Why now?

The idea of separating women and men goes back to the fact that women feel more comfortable if they're treated and attended by women. But in reality, do we have enough services to divide everything on the basis of gender? I think that will determine how things ultimately turn out.

On the issue of pictures, I think the existing law is sufficient. This is a policy of the revolution that women are not used in any form of advertising and commercials. I personally feel this is a very progressive idea. . . . The thing is that some factions or some conservatives think that this law is not enough and they think that an additional bill has to be passed.

What legislation has passed to change the status of women?

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