Easier to impose strict laws in Iran than in raucous India

May 07, 2017 10:07 AM
Ms Masoumeh Ebtekar ,vice presidents of Iran

By Saba Naqvi

Last week I met Masoumeh Ebtekar, one of the four vice presidents of Iran and the most powerful woman in the government of the Islamic Republic. Unlike most Iranians, she was fluent in English that she spoke with an American accent. I was fascinated during the hour-long conversation as she was one of the few women I had met who willfully wore a chador (unlike the stylish head scarves seen across Tehran) even as she radiated power and intelligence. 

Ebtekar is a figure to remember because she played a starring role in an event that would shape world history and not be forgotten till today. She was the main spokesperson for the group of students who took over the US embassy in Tehran and held fifty-two American diplomats hostage for 444 days from November 4, 1979, to January 20, 1981, in the wake of the Islamic revolution.

Supreme Leader of the revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, would later endorse the students’ actions (although subsequent books by Americans and Iranians have said that he was not involved in the planning). Ebtekar’s own story is this: her father studied at the University of Pennsylvania and she lived with her parents in the US for six years, hence the perfect English. But she would return to Iran, enrol in university and become influenced by the ideas of Ali Shariati, who focused on the sociology of religion and is considered one of the most important Iranian intellectuals of the 20th century. That’s when Ebtekar covered herself with a chador revealing only her face. 

Iran is in the midst of presidential polls. Iranian women are among the most educated. They have one of the highest participation in sciences

Now, 37 years later, she’s in a beautiful office with a view of the mountains ringing Tehran, speaking with some pride about the fact that half the work-force in the building are women. Head of the Department of Environment, she spoke mostly about her challenges in controlling pollution, including the air quality in Tehran. Residents of Delhi please note that 10-year-old cars are banned and the country has shifted to petrol and diesel that meets Euro 4 standards. The other polluting agent, power plants are in the process of transformation. And yes, as in India, crop burning remains a problem but the penalties are now strict. 

It would, I imagine, be far easier to impose strict laws in Iran than in raucous India. 

Iran is currently in the midst of presidential elections and will vote on May 19. They have televised live debates between the candidates, six of whom were cleared for standing for elections by the guardian council that works under the supreme leader. Ayatollah Ali Khameini has been the supreme leader since 1989 after the death of Ayatollah Khomeini. Current president Hassan Rouhani is running for re-election and there are two serious contenders (his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was denied permission to run for the third term by the guardian council, a move that he announced against the wishes of the supreme leader).

Broadly, they have genuine elections at various levels but individuals fight and not political parties. Supreme leader is, well, the supreme leader! The Islamic Republic’s system flows from the idea of Vilayat-e-Faqih that gives a jurist custodianship over people (until the twelfth Imam returns as a messiah) hence political and spiritual power both flow from the supreme leader.

I would also learn that Masoumeh Ebtekar had considered running for the presidential election in 2009 but decided against it. Broadly, she said that a certain ambiguity remains in the Constitution and the Guardian Council has said that there is no legal restraint against a woman running for president. Still, till now they have never cleared a woman candidate and many do apply. 

Iranian women are in fact among the most educated in region, if not world, with an 83 per cent literacy rate. They have one of the highest participation in the sciences. Indeed, each year 60 per cent of seats in universities in all streams are filled by women who make up half the faculties as well. Not only is the data impressive, they are visible at every level of the work force while travelling through Iran. 

Today Iran is stable within its borders and the main issue in the presidential debates is economic growth. The 8 years of war with Iraq after the 1979 revolution and the subsequent sanctions imposed by the US forced Iran to build its own strengths, beyond dependency on selling oil.  The “resistance economy” possibly saved them from being a puppet of the US as they indeed were in the days of the Shah. There is a quiet pride that they produce most things within their borders, unlike other Muslim states, seen as markets for US products including weapons, hence Iranians believe there are clear economic incentives to fuel wars. 

An Indian diplomat agrees and tells me that the self-sufficiency of Iran is similar to what India built over decades. 

In the view of the Iran foreign office and in the emblematic and dramatic wall paintings across Tehran there is no ambiguity about holding the US responsible for the problems in the region, indeed world. That is why MasoumehEbtekar has never had to apologize for her part in the embassy siege. 


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