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Video: The life of Iranian women

TODAY contributor
updated 9/13/2007 11:02:08 AM ET 2007-09-13T15:02:08

Iranian law still favors men, but women in that country are more educated and have a more visible role in life than in many other Islamic countries, such as Saudi Arabia. And things are getting better, according to the first woman to serve as a cabinet secretary in that country.

But to see that, Massoumeh Ebtekar told TODAY co-host Matt Lauer, Westerners need to get over their obsession with the hijab, the head scarf that Iranian women are required to wear by law.

“Hijab is a kind of social act,” Ebtekar said in a live interview conducted in Tehran, the Iranian capital. “I don’t think it is a big issue for women, because there are a lot of  issues for women that are so important, and hijab is not a big thing.”

Women are not equal under Iran’s constitution, adopted in 1979 after the revolution that overthrew Shah Reza Pahlavi. The constitution mandates that the legal code adhere to Sharia law, the Islamic moral code based on the Koran. Article IV of that constitution states: “all civil, penal, financial, economic, administrative, cultural, military, political, and other laws and regulations must be based on Islamic criteria.”

Sharia has an Old Testament flavor, providing, for example, for public lashings for certain offenses, and death by stoning for women convicted of adultery.

But there is also a cultural aspect. Iran is a Persian nation, and women there can do many things that they cannot do in some other countries, including Saudi Arabia, which is an Arab nation. For example, in Saudi Arabia, women are not allowed to drive, get a university education or hold public office. In Iran, women not only drive personal vehicles, some drive taxis. They may hold public office, and women make up 65 percent of all university students.

In Tehran, there is a professional fire company composed entirely of women, who wear hijabs under helmets while responding to fire calls. It is the only company of female firefighters in the Middle East.

Also, while Iranian women must cover their hair, they do not have to cover their faces. As that is the only part of their bodies they can show, NBC’s Richard Engel reported, they want it to be as perfect as possible, and plastic surgeons who do rhinoplasties — nose jobs — do a roaring business. Women whose noses are still bandaged after the surgery are a common sight on Tehran’s streets.

But under Iranian law, a woman is treated as half of a man. In court, the testimony of two women equals that of one man; a man’s son inherits twice as much as his daughter; compensation for the accidental death of a man is twice that for a woman.

Men can marry non-Islamic women (males are allowed up to four wives, provided that they can provide equally for all of them), but women cannot marry non-Islamic men. A woman can get a divorce only under extreme conditions; a man can divorce a wife without cause.

Given all of that, Lauer asked Ebtekar if women’s rights and Sharia law can coexist.

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I do believe there are some difficulties understanding Sharia within the law,” Ebtekar replied. “As you know, even the religious leaders, through three decades after the revolution, have tried to reinterpret Islam in favor of women. Also, the female parliamentarians, they have tried so hard to pass laws in favor of women.

“For example, if a man unjustly divorces his wife, the wife is going to be entitled to half of his wealth.”

Ebtekar speaks fluent English, the result of spending her childhood in the United States while her father was completing his doctorate. He was offered a job with NASA, but returned to Iran in 1969 when his daughter was 9. In 1979, while an engineering student at a Tehran university, she joined an Islamic student movement that was closely involved in the overthrow of the Shah. She was one of the students who took over the American Embassy, taking Americans hostage for more than a year, in 1979. Because of her fluency in English, she became the spokesperson for the students. In 2000, she published a book about her experiences.

Ebtekar switched from engineering to medicine and is now a professor of immunology at Tarbiat Modarres University in Tehran. She served as the head of the Department of the Environment under the reform government of President Mohammad Khatami from 1997-2005 and now serves on the Tehran City Council. In 2006, she received the United Nations Champion of the Earth Award for her environmental work.

She is also a co-founder of the Center for Peace and Environment in Iran.

Ebtekar conceded that women in Iran do not have equality with men, but, she told Lauer, “It’s changing through the time. It takes time to change the laws in favor of women, but we have had lots of improvements.”

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