Global and Iranian history are both closely intertwined with the lives and destinies of prominent figures. Every one of them has laid a brick on history’s wall, sometimes paying the price with their lives, men and women alike. Women have been especially influential in the past 200 years, writing much of contemporary Iranian history.
In Iran, women have increased public awareness about gender discrimination, raised the profile of and improved women’s rights, fought for literacy among women, and promoted the social status of women by counteracting religious pressures, participating in scientific projects, being involved in politics, influencing music, cinema… And so the list goes on.
This series aims to celebrate these renowned and respected Iranian women. They are women who represent the millions of women that influence their families and societies on a daily basis. Not all of the people profiled in the series are endorsed by IranWire, but their influence and impact cannot be overlooked. The articles are biographical stories that consider the lives of influential women in Iran.
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Although she is best known for being the first female vice president of the Islamic Republic, Masoumeh Ebtekar first came to the world’s attention in 1979, when students seized the United States embassy in Tehran and held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days. The event still casts its shadow over relations between the two countries. During the hostage crisis, Ebtekar acted as the spokeswoman for, and the public face of, the occupying students. For this and other reasons, she is a good example of the divergent paths that Iranian revolutionaries have taken since they overthrew the monarchy.
Masoumeh Ebtekar was born Niloofar to a middle-class family in Tehran in 1960. When she was three years old, her father Taghi Ebtekar took the family to the United States so he could study for a Ph.D degree at the University of Pennsylvania. They spent six years in the US, living first in Massachusetts and later in a Philadelphia suburb. As a result, Ebtekar has a near-perfect American accent.
After returning to Iran, she studied at Tehran International School. After graduating, she joined a group of Islamic militant students and started wearing a black chador, leaving only her face visible.
On November 4, 1979 a group calling itself the Muslim Students of the Imam Khomeini Line occupied the US embassy in Tehran, taking staff and diplomats hostage. In violation of international laws, not only did the government fail to take action to free the hostages, but Ayatollah Khomeini publicly supported the seizure, calling it “the second revolution” and referring it to the American embassy as a “spy den”.
The students selected Ebtekar to be their spokesperson because of her fluent English and American accent. She was a permanent fixture on American and international television throughout the duration of the hostage crisis, and many media outlets referred to her as “Mary” or “Sister Mary.” During interviews, she regularly spoke of the “crimes” the US Embassy and the Americans had committed against Iran.
She later wrote a book about the takeover. In it, and in interviews, she has never apologized for what happened at the embassy or her role in it — in Iran such an apology would amount to political suicide — although she has riled the hardliners by making statements implying that she and many other students did not agree with how the regime exploited the incident. In 2015, she told the magazine Foreign Policy that the students did not think that the crisis would last more than a few days and that the new Iranian government’s foreign policy was out of their hands. “In the relationship with the West and with the United States, the students were not directly involved,” she said. “Ultimately, they probably criticized some of the policies that ensued in the later years.”
In 1980, following the release of US hostages, Mohammad Khatami, who was at the time the representative for Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini at Kayhan Institute, appointed Ebtekar to be the editor-in-chief of the English daily Kayhan International. In 1983, Khatami left Kayhan and Ebtekar was left without a job.
In 1991 she co-founded the Institute for Women's Studies and Research and in 1992 she launched the bilingual Farzaneh Journal for Women's Studies and Research. She also continued her education, receiving a Bachelor’s degree in laboratory science from Shahid Beheshti University and a Ph.D in immunology from Tarbiat Modarres University in 1995. Since then she has been a faculty member of Tarbiat Modarres and has published more than 40 scientific articles on immunology.
The First Woman Vice President
In the intervening years, Ebtekar married the businessman Mohammad Hashemi and had two children. At the same time, her political views gravitated more and more towards the reformists' views. In 1997, Mohammad Khatami won the presidential election and appointed her as the country’s first female vice president, serving two terms with him until 2005. It was both the first time that a woman was appointed to the role of vice president and the first time that a woman had held a cabinet position in the Islamic Republic.
During those eight years, Ebtekar also served as the head of Iran’s Environmental Protection Agency and radically changed the structure, policies and the goals of the agency. In 2002, she addressed a Women Leaders on the Environment meeting in Helsinki and the same year she participated in the World Summit on Sustainable Development in South Africa. In 2006, the United Nations Environment Program named her a Champion of the Earth. In 2005, when Khatami’s presidency came to a close, Ebtekar co-founded the Center for Peace and Environment. In 2007, she ran for the City Council of Tehran, was elected and served with the council until September 2013. She created the Tehran City Council’s Committee on the Environment, which today has 20 working groups.
She was a regular critic of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his administration. In 2007, she began writing a blog that reflected her reformist views, writing on issues ranging from the environment to politics to women’s rights. It became hugely popular and despite it being blocked eventually following a judicial verdict, she started a new blog and continued her critical writing.
After the disputed 2009 presidential election, Ebtekar visited the families of some of the protesters killed during peaceful demonstrations. For this, hardliners accused her being a “seditionist”.
In the run up to the 2013 presidential election, Ebtekar supported Hassan Rouhani. When he won the elections, he reappointed her to her old job of vice president and the head of the Environmental Protection Agency. These days, hardliners regularly criticize her because of both her affiliation with President Rouhani and her own reformist views. They accuse her of nepotism and mismanagement of the agency.
New parliamentary elections are scheduled for February 2016, coinciding with elections for the Assembly of Experts, the body responsible for overseeing and supervising the work of the Supreme Leader, and for appointing the next leader. Since 2004, parliament has been controlled by conservatives and hardliners, so the future of Rouhani’s policies and his chances for re-election in 2017 depend to a large degree on the outcome of these elections.
“In order to understand how to move forward, we need to make an assessment of the past,” Ebtekar told Foreign Policy. “It’s an integral part of the reform process, the moderation process…Yes, we need to look at our shortcomings.”
Whether Ebtekar has made a thorough examination of her own past is difficult to know, and she has been guarded on the topic. In 1979 she issued almost daily threats against American hostages, but recently she has talked about the need for peace, democratic participation, women’s rights and, of course, protecting the environment. For anybody in Iran, especially for a reformist woman, politics is like walking a tightrope under the most adverse conditions. Ebtekar has shown that she can walk this tightrope and move ahead — as she has done for the past 35 years.
Also in the series: