The appointment last month of Dr Masoomeh Ebtekar as vice president in the cabinet of president Mohammad Khatami caused surprise among those unfamiliar with Iran. To those aware of the true state of affairs in the Islamic Republic, and in particular relating to the activities of women, this was a natural step.
Dr Ebtekar is no ordinary person. She has a doctorate in Immunology. Her articles on the subject have appeared in many international journals. She has attended numerous international conferences such as the Women’s Conference in Nairobi in 1985, the Beijing Conference in 1995 as well as conferences in Denmark and other places. She is articulate and actively involved in the affairs of Muslim women.
In addition to her appointment as vice president, she has also been given responsibility for the Environment, of which she is now the director. This writer had met her in Tehran during a recent international conference and held detailed discussions with her about the situation of women in the Islamic Republic.
Before assuming her new post, Dr Masoomeh Ebtekar was an active member of the Bureau of Women’s Affairs, a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) in Iran. Its primary function is to coordinate the activities of various bodies on women’s issues and to advocate solutions from the Islamic perspective. The Bureau’s position is to ensure that women’s rights are properly addressed. With her elevation to the new post, Dr Ebtekar will be able to devote her considerable energies to this noble task.
But unlike the drum-beating in the west about women’s rights, Islamic Iran has taken major strides. Women’s participation in all walks of life is actively encouraged. Only last month, Ayatullah Seyyed Ali Khamenei, the Rahbar (Leader of the Islamic Revolution), while addressing a group of women, said that there was absolutely no prohibition on their participation in any activity in society, be it in government or outside it. The late Imam Khomeini had also constantly encouraged the women to be involved.
The facts speak for themselves. Since the Islamic Revolution, women have made impressive gains. For instance, enrolment at the primary level is virtually the same for girls and boys: 97 percent and 98 percent respectively. According to the 1996 census, women’s literacy rate increased by 22 percent over the last 10 years, this was double the rate for men.
In higher education, this is equally impressive. For instance, in certain departments in medicine, women have a 50:50 ratio with men. This is especially true of gynaecology and internal medicine. Overall, in medical colleges, female enrolment stands at 48 percent of all students.
Even at the faculty level, their representation has gone up. At present, 35 percent of all faculty staff at universities is female compared with 15 percent 10 years ago. The overall representation of women in all faculties is 17 percent, being naturally higher in humanities and lower in engineering.
While Dr Ebtekar admitted that women’s representation is lower in certain government departments, this is certainly not the case in the health ministry where women occupy several positions as director generals.
There is another area where women have made impressive gains. The Buruea of Women’s Affairs has been actively engaged in agricultural development in the rural areas and with Jihad-e Sazindagi. More than 60 Women’s Cooperatives have been opened in four years, run, managed and administered by women. Working closely with the ministry of cooperatives, the Women’s cooperatives receive loans and credits from the ministry for running their affairs.
Each cooperative has its own board of directors. They encourage women to participate and offer them shares in the cooperative. The board is also responsible for disbursement of profits.
At present, the cooperatives are involved in small-scale industries designed primarily to give the women more self-confidence. For instance, they have taken on such tasks as workshops on carpet-weaving, processing, marketing etc. Small-scale jam production has also been launched. All these activities are carried out within the framework of increasing the understanding of Islam and role of Muslim women in society.
Last April, when a delegation from the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation visited the rural areas of Iran and witnessed the work of the women, it was impressed. Iran’s rural programme was cited as a model for others to emulate.
Another field closely related to women’s activity is family planning. While it is the responsibility of both parents, in most Muslim societies, the subject is considered taboo. Not so in Iran.
Religious scholars have emphasized the importance of family planning and stressed it as a religious duty so that the Islamic Government can properly plan for future generations. Iran has brought down its population growth rate to 1.7 percent today from 2.4 percent in 1985. This has been achieved with the involvement and understanding of women.
Dr Ebtekar, however, is not entirely content with the present state of affairs. She pointed out that women are not sufficiently represented at the decision-making level in government. Nor was she satisfied with the standard of textbooks in the manner in which they depicted boys and girls. The ministry of education, however, is looking into this and no doubt appropriate changes will be made.
With her new cabinet post, Dr Ebtekar will have an opportunity to press her case for even greater representation for women. As the Rahbar said, men and women are like the two eyes on the human face. There is absolutely no room for one to oppress the other. Whosoever makes obstacles for women in education and political or economic activity in the name of religion is actually going against the Word of Allah, he said.
The women of Iran have an opportunity to show the world the rights that Islam confers upon them. One practical example is far superior to endless talk about equality.
Muslimedia: September 16-30, 1997