Cheri Brooks

Fighting for Green in Iran

It's easy to underestimate Victoria Jamali. She doesn't call attention to herself or cause a stir when she walks into a room. She seldom wore the traditional hejab, or head covering, of Muslim women during a visit to the United States last fall. But a veil of calm reserve seemed to envelop her, and she kept her opinions hidden behind them.

Nevertheless, Jamali is helping to spearhead a quiet revolution in her home country of Iran. Along with colleagues from the University of Tehran, she is launching the country's first environmental law program. She also co-founded one of Iran's most active non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the Women's Society Against Environmental Pollution.

"I think Victoria is comparable to pioneers of the U.S. environmental movement, a David Brower or a John Muir," says Bern Johnson, executive director of the Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide (E-LAW), which sponsored Jamali's visit last fall.

"It's unusual to see someone who goes in where no citizen environmental movement exists and starts one."

In America, the popular view of Iran has focused on arms-for-hostage deals, the war with Iraq, and the Ayatollah Khomeini's condemnation of Salman Rushdie. Few have heard about the Persian zebras, Iranian cheetahs, lung-choking air pollution, and dwindling caviar in the Caspian Sea. And few are aware of the country's burgeoning environmental activism.

But in the wake of the Islamic revolution, another revolutionary movement has emerged in Iran -- this one led by women.

Ten years ago, Jamali was approached by a seventy-four-year-old woman, a librarian at the university named Mahlagh Mallah. Concerned about air pollution and other environmental problems, she wanted to organize a group of women to work on these issues.

"The family is the smallest group of the society," Mallah was fond of saying. Thus, as caretakers of families and teachers of children, the role of women in society is very significant.

Today, the group Jamali and Mallah founded has more than 2,500 members and publishes a bilingual journal, "Cry of the Earth." And as Iranian society has become more open, especially over the last five years, close to 250 other environmental NGOs have sprung up and grown.

Many in Iran are concerned about severe water and air pollution. Cities like Tehran must close the schools during fall air inversions, when pollution suffocates children, the sick, and elderly. Grand predators such as the Persian cheetah that dwell in the central mountainous regions are in trouble, along with other endemic species. And the Caspian Sea, a body of water bordered by several nations, including Iran, is losing the Caspian salmon, Caspian seal, and important caviar-producing fish, due to over-fishing and pollution.

"The country has severe pollution problems given the primitive state of environmental regulation there," says Bob Percival, a law professor at the University of Maryland, who co-led a workshop on U.S. environmental law at the University of Tehran last May.

But Percival adds, "It was very heartening to see that a thriving civil society has begun to emerge in Iran, despite the immense political problems the country still faces."

The lack of regulations and public knowledge about environmental matters sparked Jamali's own interest in environmental education. While studying geography at the University of Tehran during the 1960s, she spent time on the outskirts of the city and saw firsthand how sprawl was affecting the landscape and rural communities.

"I could see the effects of population expansion and development," she explains, "how they are related to each other and how they work."

After earning a Master's degree in rural and regional resources planning, in 1974, from the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, Jamali began working at the University of Tehran's Institute of Environmental Studies.

Though the institute had to make changes after the Islamic Revolution, in 1979, it was able to persist and even expand, especially after the more moderate Khatami Mohammad was elected president in 1997. "We kept this center alive," Jamali says. "There was a need for knowledge about the environment."

But sometimes knowledge is not enough. Now that Iranian civic life has begun to open up, Jamali wants to give citizens the tools to protect the environment as well as understand its problems. Now as director of environmental research at the University of Tehran, she wants to train Iran's scholars and activists in American-style environmental law.

"That's the way we have to go," she says, "even if it causes some problems in the beginning."

Jamali got the idea for the program after taking part in a conference in Washington, DC, in 1999, attended by leaders of environmental NGOs from both Iran and the United States. The conference was sponsored by the nonprofit organization Search for Common Ground and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Jamali presented a paper on "Higher Education in Environmental Studies in Iran," and she got a glimpse of how environmental NGOs in the United States were effecting changes in policy and practice. She realized that law was an arena where activists could wield some power.

Upon returning to Iran, Jamali successfully convinced male deans at her university that the program was a good idea. Then she proceeded to make it happen. She got funding from Search for Common Ground to hold an environmental law workshop with three American experts, who came away wowed by Jamali 's brains and determination.

"So much of the progress of the environmental movement, both in the U.S. and elsewhere, has been the result of the courageous actions of extraordinary individuals," says Percival. "Victoria Jamali is one of these remarkable people. Her life has been enormously disrupted by revolution, war and the oppressive policies of a radical theocracy."

He adds, "Despite the incredible obstacles facing Iranian women who seek to promote social change, Victoria has been a tireless crusader for environmental justice. Though this has been a lonely crusade at times, she now has growing support for her efforts, which our trip was designed to help facilitate."

Iran faces an torrent of environmental problems, which the country is only beginning to tackle. Although a Department of Environment was established in 1971, industrial and political goals have tended to trump long-term environmental concerns. Conservation was the main focus during the '70s, with the establishment of a number of national parks, national monuments, and wildlife refuges throughout the country.

After the Islamic Revolution, the government enshrined environmental protection in the Constitution. "In the Islamic Republic of Iran protection of the environment, in which present and future generations should enjoy a transcendent social life, is regarded as a public duty," reads Article 50. "Therefore, economic and any other activity, which results in pollution or irremediable destruction of the environment is prohibited."

However, eight years of war with Iraq, political isolation, and economic sanctions kept environmental concerns on the back-burner. Tehran, with about 10 million people, is one of the world's most polluted cities. Two million cars, many more than 20 years old, run largely on leaded gasoline in a city that boasts just a single subway line.

Though some environmental laws are on the books, such as clean water and clean air acts, they rarely are enforced. For instance, in the recent planning of a highway from Tehran to the Caspian Sea, the government ignored citizens' requests to conduct an environmental impact analysis. "The government didn't listen to the NGOs," Jamali maintains. "If NGOs were educated more about the rights of citizens, laws, and the environment, they would be more likely to demand protections."

However, the smoggy winds may be shifting. President Khatami recently appointed the Iranian feminist Massomeh Ebtekar to be Vice President for the Environment. Ebtekar is now the highest-ranking female official in a Muslim country. Westerners might know her best, though, as "Mary," the English-fluent spokeswoman for the Iranian students who seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979, taking 52 Americans as hostages and holding them for 444 days.

Since those radical days, Ebtekar became an immunologist, married, had children, and launched an intellectual journal on women's issues. She briefly worked for Khatami as a journalist, and when he became president in 1997 he made her a vice president (one of the few cabinet-level positions that doesn't require approval by parliament).

Instead of cursing American foreign policy, Ebtekar today denounces pollution and the ecological perils facing the Caspian Sea. As head of the Department of the Environment, she also oversees registration and coordination of Iran's environmental NGOs.

"The environment and ecology must become policy priorities," she told members of the foreign press last year.

According to Robin Wright, author of "The Last Great Revolution: Turmoil and Transformation in Iran," Ebtekar typifies an emerging group in Iran known as "regime women," who believe gender equality can be achieved through an Islamic government.

Though the political and professional role of women was stifled considerably in Iran after the Ayatollah Khomeini and other religious leaders came to power, Wright says, "Iranian women ... proved to be irrepressible.... Even the clerics, in the end, had to begin ceding ground."

In 1996, 200 women ran for parliament and 14 won (outnumbering female U.S. senators at the time). In 1997, four women registered to run for the presidency, and a national poll revealed that 72 percent of the public approved of a woman as president. About a third of Iranian government employees are female. Around half of the students in Iran's highly competitive university system are female. Iranian women work as professors, doctors, teachers, engineers. They play basketball other sports (in female-only leagues).

Even though Iranian women must wear hejab, their faces can still be seen, and increasingly their voices can be heard.

Haleh Esfandiari, an Iranian scholar and consulting director of the Middle East Project at the Woodrow Wilson Center, says, "There are a large number of Iranian professional women who are achievers. They have managed to progress and advance within the restrictions of that revolutionary society."

Esfandiari met Jamali when both attended the Search for Common Ground conference in Washington, DC, in 1999. She says Jamali fits this profile.

Esfandiari adds that Iran's women-led NGOs, such as the Women's Society Against Environmental Pollution, are extremely impressive. "They have their roots in the communities," she says. "They're doing very practical work."

Under Iran's system of government, a lobbying group can promote their agenda if they gain support from just a few members of parliament. The key to success is buying into the overall system, while focusing on a narrow arena of policy change.

Esfandiari predicts, "As long as you have women like Victoria who are very capable but also apolitical, they will be able to function."

Jamali agrees that she must remain above the political fray -- both inside Iran and internationally -- in order to achieve her goals. "We all think about protecting the environment, nature, and protecting the planet," she says. "It's beyond politics."

Cheri Brooks writes for the Eugene Weekly, where a version of this article first appeared.


Happy Holidays!