The Los Angeles Times from Los Angeles, California on December 2, 1979 · 145
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The Los Angeles Times from Los Angeles, California · 145

Los Angeles, California
Issue Date:
Sunday, December 2, 1979
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10 Pirt X-Sun.. Dec 2. 1979 Cos Angeles States A Woman Astronomer's View From Iraq BY KATHLEEN HENDRIX TkmSMIWritar BAGHDAD Last summer, when the world was waiting for Skylab to fall on it. there was the added danger that Chicken Little would get control of the airwaves and predict the outcome. That did not happen in Iraq. The weekly installment of the television series, "Science for Everybody." sought to dispel the rumors and calm the people. Although Iraq and the United States do not have diplomatic relations. Americans from the American Interests section of the Belgian Embassy were invited to share their information on Skylab in a panel discussion. The program, like the series, was May Kaftan's work. Dr. May Kaftan, radio astronomer and director of the new Astronomical Observatory Unit of the government's Foundation for Scientific Research, was uniquely qualified to provide such a service. She has spent most of her professional life, 15 years of it, in the United States first as a doctoral and post-doctoral fellow at Harvard; then on the staff of the National Radio Astronomical Observatory in West Virginia; then on the faculty of the State University of New York in Albany. Iraq has been urging its expatriates to return and in 1976 it convinced May Kaftan to do that and to build an observatory and direct the project. "I came back with the understanding it would be six months here, six months there, but there is so much to do I can't go back to the States." she said. Having so much to do seems to suit her. She is the sort of person who has a warm, nostalgic spot in her heart for Another in an occasional series on the changing role of women in certain Muslim countries. peace and quiet, but who knows well that the fact she has not had a real holiday "since I don't know how old" is nobody's doing but her own. A slim, handsome woman with iron-gray hair and deep-set, tired eyes, she greeted her visitors in an easy-going, pleasant manner in her no-frills office at the foundation. As she described her work at the foundation, her life style and her adjustment to living in Iraq again, it was obvious she qualifies as a workaholic, but she delivered her description unrushed. She has a 21 -year-old son studying astronomy at MIT; she and her husband, a pediatrician now living in Connecticut and an American citizen, have what she calls a "gentlemen's divorce"; she lives alone in Baghdad to the despair and disapproval of her sister and brother; she has a profession that makes her unique not only among Iraqi women but men as well her staff at the foundation consists of three other astronomers and one atmospheric scientist, and that's it until the 15 students sent abroad for graduate work return. All this for someone born into a "fairly conventional, very religious Muslim family" 51 years ago. "But I think they were a little bit special," she smiled in reference to her family. Like many Arab professional women, May Kaftan mentioned early on that it was her father, a member of par liament, who encouraged her to further her studies, even to go abroad for them. She went to secondary school in Baghdad, she said, and wanted to apply to medical school ("All bright kids went to medical school in those days"). Instead, she won a scholarship to study math and physics at the University of Manchester in England. She had been wearing an abeyah for two years before going to England, she said, "and I can't remember whether or not I wore it to the airport, but I do know I never saw it again." "It was very tough," she said of her time in England. "Here I was completely shielded. I had been brought to school in a car, never handled money. I got there. I knew no Iraqis . . ." She survived England and returned to Baghdad, taught for three years and met her husband at the Fine Arts Institute, where he played violin and she piano. She went with him to Harvard. He trained there in public health and she won a scholarship to do her Ph.D. in astronomy at Radcliffe. They returned to Iraq in 1958. For almost 20 years her life was back and forth between the United States and Iraq. It was always work that took her away from Iraq, she said, never a question of wanting to emigrate and give up her citizenship. There was simply nothing doing in astronomy in Iraq. Her longest stay in the United States was from 1964 to 1976, with only summer visits, if those, to Iraq. She was repeatedly invited back, she said, twice to evaluate equipment for the proposed observatory. She never abandoned the idea of returning, but in addition to the professional problems, she did not want to interrupt her son's education. In 1976, with her son away from home at MIT and the observatory project at her disposal, she returned. "I was worried when I came back," she said, "whether I would be accepted as a woman leading a project like this. But I got all the encouragement I needed. Especially when we did site testing, the army gave us a helicopter escort to the remote areas in the north. They did not resent a woman. In fact, they liked the idea of a woman who is different. They would not allow their sister to go and live alone, but they can enjoy a woman who can do it in a way they can respect." She did not come back to the Iraq she had left as a young woman. The place was full of consumer goods, she said, people with money to spend, a revolution with stated goals of a classless society and equality for women. "I'm impressed," she said of the progress women have made. "You see kids going into parachute jumping, exotic professions. There's hardly anything women haven't tried." Among Muslim countries Iraq stands out for its aggressive approach toward changing society. Its highly centralized government has an authoritarian attitude toward change: you mill. For example, its National Compulsory Literacy campaign, aptly named, carries heavy penalties and fines for serious truants. Since twice the number of women as men are illiterate, it is a program women are well familiar with and the complaint is often heard that at two hours a day, five days a week, whether employed or not it imposes a heavy burden on women. "I'm all for the compulsory literacy program," May Kaftan said. "You can't do it any other way. When you're up against such attitudes and customs it would never work if it was voluntary. It is a burden. There's no way around it. So a woman will have to be doubly responsible for a while. 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