From the Shah to the Spice Girls: Interview with Masoumeh Ebtekarby Nathan Gardels / April 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
Published in April 2002 issue of Prospect Magazine
Masoumeh Ebtekar, aged 41, is one of Iran’s vice presidents. She is an immunologist by training and a women’s rights activist. When Iranian militants seized American diplomats as hostages in the US Embassy in 1979, she was the militants’ chief spokeswoman. Nathan Gardels: President Mohamad Khatami has called for a dialogue with the west. This should mean not an exchange with Harvard academics, but a dialogue between Islamic values and postmodern mass culture-with MTV and the Spice Girls. Is Iran prepared for that? What does Islam have to offer the west in this dialogue? Masoumeh Ebtekar: The doors of the world are wide open, whether we like it or not. Our youth, like those in other societies, are attracted to the seeming glamour of the entertainment culture. “Aren’t we allowed to have fun in an Islamic society?” they ask. “Is Islam a religion that prohibits everyone from enjoying life?” Indeed, it is a challenge to the Islamic revolution to find a different model of enjoyment and fulfilment to the casual, carefree, sensate lifestyle which “Hollywood” promotes as universal. This is also an issue of cultural diversity. Must we all conform to Hollywood’s view of human nature, which mostly stresses what is base rather than noble in humanity? What about human dignity, particularly in the portrayal of women as little more than sex objects? Isn’t there something more to existence than consumer status and a few moments of pleasure in a life that is otherwise empty and meaningless? I think the legacy of the postmodernist, consumer culture of the west is to enjoy life in the “now” at the expense of thinking about the rest of society or the future of the world, as if it is somehow possible to take a perpetual vacation from reality. It is living without responsibility. The greatest tragedy of the 20th century is evident within this Hollywood culture: life deprived of its spiritual dimension. Maybe this lifestyle is due to the fact that people feel powerless over their lives. Since they can’t change things, they feel they should just enjoy their brief mortality and forget about the rest. This kind of lifestyle is closely linked to other phenomena in the western-dominated world-violence, drugs, environmental degradation, sexual exploitation and even slavery through the sex trade in Asia. Rap music too-originally an expression of dissatisfaction with this culture-has become absorbed in it and is now itself an expression of violence and licentiousness. Other than the profits the music industry is making and the brief distraction for troubled youth it provides, what does it all amount to? Has the lifestyle of the west given the younger generation anything to cherish? Has it given them any self-esteem or identity? Has it opened their hearts to others or to nature? NG: What is the alternative? ME: The alternative is spiritual enjoyment that transforms your inner being and gives you a direction in life, a meaning. The alternative is an enduring satisfaction that connects you to all of God’s creation, rather than just feeding your selfish ego. Religious values offer a guide for living that is not just right for yourself, but for humanity as a whole. It provides a sense of peace, instead of the restless compulsion of always seeking more stimulation through ever greater consumption of goods, entertainment and new experiences. Spiritual joy is profound and lasting. I think that so many in the younger generation are looking for this peace and love, and they can’t find it in consumerism. I remember seeing an interview with a group of teenage boys on 60 Minutes in America about why they used drugs. One of the boys said, “I just need a couple of moments of peace in this life, and when I take those drugs, I find them.” In speaking of the drug problem in the west today, one might turn Karl Marx on his head and say, “Opium is the god of the masses.” There are many forms of physical enjoyment that don’t degrade human dignity, like sports of all kinds. Imam Khomeini often talked of the enjoyment of classical music. But the kind of degradation which flows from unlimited sensate culture-I’ve mentioned the sex trade-is where we have to draw the line. NG: The “clash of civilisations” you see, then, is not a clash between Islam and the Christian west but a clash that pits Islamic values, the values of Pope John Paul and Alexander Solzhenitsyn against the culture of Madonna and Michael Jackson? ME: Exactly. In fact, we believe that all divine religions come from the same source. And one day, they will all again merge together in a global religion, creating an ultimate solution for humanity. The human being of the 21st century has two main challenges: the self and nature. The individual has been deceived into embracing a culture dominated by pleasure and lust. Moral degradation is the result. However, nature cannot be so easily deceived. We already are, and will be, punished by nature for the excesses committed against the environment. That is why I believe the moral and spiritual dimension of life will be revived, it will fight back against economics, science and technology in the next century. Islam provides a model of the integration of the mind and the heart, which we once thought could not come together. Materialism and spiritualism can be accommodated, as can this world and the hereafter. Many in the west are asking, “After we are satiated by consumerism, then what?” NG: Must religion and the state always be fused in Iran? As it becomes more democratic, do you see the chance of a separation between state and religion? ME: A majority of Islamic intellectuals believe that Islam is intrinsically a political religion. There are so many principles and edicts that would be left unattended if Islam shed its political dimension. Greater democracy in Iran has confirmed this view. In Iran, Islam has never been imposed. It arose through the people. In the elections a few months ago, more than 90 per cent of eligible voters took part. This is striking, not only for Iran and the Arab world, but for the west, where voting participation, as in the US, is only about 45 per cent of those eligible. If people didn’t want Islam, it would be meaningless to impose it on them. Faith is not a function of political power in Iran, but the other way around. NG: You are a leader of women’s rights in Iran, which is why you were chosen to join the cabinet. What does feminism mean in Khatami’s Iran? ME: We don’t use the term “feminism” in Iran because it connotes a certain western definition that includes sexual liberation. But if you take the word to mean the restoration of women’s rights, of her equal status and dignity as a human being, then we can proudly say that we have advanced greatly. From the early days of the Islamic revolution, Imam Khomeini always stressed the equality of women in society. The importance of this message of the revolution wasn’t heard in the west, although many other Islamic leaders in Iran at the time opposed Khomeini’s views. He said there was no religious obstacle to women’s full participation in social and political affairs. He opened the way for women in Iran to move into positions of decision-making. I remember when the conservative mullahs and the traditional forces in society wanted to maintain walls between men and women students in the classrooms at the university. Khomeini ordered the walls destroyed and said, “There is no reason why men and women cannot study together.” This was very important for all of us women. The university is such a sacred place that to remove the walls there was to remove all the walls that kept women out in Iranian society. Today, as a result, there is a large and important class of professional women in Iran. NG: If women are free and equal, why do they cover up in public? ME: As the Koran says, modest dress is to the benefit of women, not something imposed by men. The Islamic covering of women is part of a broad framework of social relations between men and women. The point is to avoid one sex being exploited by the other. Men and women should be treated equally. We don’t want to end up in a predicament-like we hear about in the US-where women are harassed in the workplace. This is what we are trying to avoid in Islamic society. We cannot claim complete success. But modest dress has more and more resonance for other societies as men and women work together side by side in situations of equality. Women are intellectuals, artists and workers and they should be looked upon in that perspective, not just as the opposite sex. Whether we like it or not, the way we dress-promiscuous or modest-sends a message about how we want be regarded. I’m sure many women around the world understand that equality with men and modesty of dress go together. NG: So women in Iran have more dignity than women in the west? ME: Well, I would say they have more opportunity for dignity. For example, in Iran the media cannot use women in advertising. They are not portrayed as a tool to sell products. The west does not like to talk about the sex trade in Asia, but it is part of the way women are exploited for commerce. We have a different perspective. Through the revolution, God has given women the chance to come into politics and reach their human potential with dignity. NG: Can women and men pray together in Iran as, for example, they cannot at Muslim funerals in Turkey? ME: Yes, men and women can pray together in all spheres. When the rest of the (male) cabinet prays at meetings, I pray with them in the same room. The problem for women in Islam is that we have sometimes relied on tradition and custom, and not the spirit of the faith. This is why we have been critical of the Taleban in Afghanistan. Men and women are complementary genders. They have different rights pertaining to their different responsibilities. But God created men and women as equal, especially in prayer. More and more, across the Muslim world, things are changing. There is no religious basis for the separation of women and men in prayer or their inequality in other areas. NG: Is President Khatami’s call for a dialogue with the west just a political gesture? ME: Dialogue today is a necessity. That is why President Khatami has initiated a dialogue with the outside world and within Iranian civil society. There are different views within Iran about whether civil society or the state should have the greater role. There are differences about the extent and limits of freedom of expression. I would say, though, that the trend of opening up is irreversible. This is not only because of the strong electoral mandate President Khatami received, but because of the natural evolution of human understanding toward tolerance. The revolution is institutionalised now, so it can relax a bit. NG: Would you say that the Islamic revolution in Iran has moved from its defensive phase to a phase of cultural reconstruction? ME: We are still under the economic pressures of the embargo. But culturally, yes, we are in a new phase of establishing a mature identity. This is especially important for the younger generation that did not directly experience the events of the revolution. There is a gap between my generation and the young that must be bridged. This is our most important dialogue. My generation faced the political and military domination of the west. We had to deal with the Shah. The younger generation must face, as you say metaphorically, the Spice Girls. Today, the west does not have to deploy its armies and naval fleets, only its satellites and television broadcasts. That can pose an even deeper threat to Islamic values. That is why our greatest challenge is to convey to our youth Islamic spiritual values as a counter to the postmodern impiety of the west, while becoming more tolerant of their desires. NG: You were the spokeswoman for the militants who took Americans hostage in 1979. Do you regret that? Do you chalk it up now to the radicalism of youth? ME: No, I don’t regret that. It was part of the revolution. You can’t see it in a personal perspective, but only in the perspective of a national revolution. It was a natural event. It was not rooted in vengeance. Nor was it an attempt to humiliate America. The revolution was struggling to get on its feet, and some people were trying to stop it. Times have changed, though the values of the revolution continue. At that time, the west looked at the revolution as a short-term phenomenon. Twenty years later, it remains standing and is evolving toward tolerance and democracy. At the same time, the world is turning back towards religious values. As President Khatami has said, we are prepared now to coexist and even co-operate with America. But we no longer feel we have to depend on its definition of how the world must be organised.