The crowd of young Iranians roared their approval as a group of burly men led the speaker to the stage. When the cordon of men opened up, it wasn't one of the candidates in this week's presidential elections who stepped up to the podium. It was Zahra Rahnavard, the wife of candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi. (Story continued below...)
"Why do they want to turn women into housewives?" shouted Rahnavard, clad in a black chador and red floral head scarf. "Freedom for women needs to be supported in the country!" The crowd at the rally in north Tehran shouted back, "Rahnavard, Rahnavard, the equality of woman and man!"
In the most knock-down, drag-out presidential election in the history of the Islamic Republic, women have become a key voting bloc. And Rahnavard, educated and urbane but also traditional--she carries a colorful woven handbag often seen in rural Iran--has become the public face of the competition for those votes, roughly 50 percent of the electorate. Women's votes have played a big role in previous presidential elections, particularly in the victory of Mohammad Khatami in 1997, but rarely have they been chased so fiercely and openly. "All the candidates are competing for women's votes," says Elahe Koulaie, a former parliamentarian and one of the most prominent female politicians in Iran. For her part, Rahnavard has appeared with her husband at nearly every campaign stop, often speaking out forcefully for change. Some have even started calling her the "Iranian Michelle Obama." The comparison is inexact, but Rahnavard, a mother of three, has broken plenty of taboos in this campaign, capturing the attention of female voters in the process.
Rahnavard is no newcomer to the Iranian political scene. She was active in the struggle to oust the shah in the late 1970s and is the author of a popular book on Islam and women's rights. She went on to earn a master's degree in art and a doctorate in political science and was appointed as the chancellor of Tehran's Alzahra University in the late '90s. During the same period, she served as a political advisor to Khatami. She's also a more charismatic speaker than her husband: at a recent election rally in the Milad tower in central Tehran, the crowd could hardly contain themselves during Rahnavard's speech, but Mousavi got only a lukewarm response. "Rahnavard was well known before this campaign," says Issa Saharkhiz, a political analyst in Tehran. "Maybe even more than Mousavi."
Traditionally, the wives of candidates have been not seen and not heard on the campaign trail. Rahnavard shook that up, and the rival candidates were quick to notice. Mohsen Rezaie took his wife along on the day he registered his candidacy. Another candidate, Mehdi Karroubi, also tried to highlight his wife's political activities. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seems to have perceived her as a threat. During his debate with Mousavi last week, Ahmadinejad held up a file with a small picture and questioned Rahnavard's academic credentials. The effort backfired. Many Iranians saw it as a cheap shot, and Mousavi supporters at rallies began chanting, "When Ahmadi comes up short, he brings up your personal life." Rahnavard didn't take it sitting down either: she threatened to file an official complaint against Ahmadinejad unless he apologized, which he has not done in public.
Rahnavard's very public role comes at a time when many observers say women's rights have been rolled back in Iran. During Ahmadinejad's term in office, several women's rights activists have been jailed, and the morality police, who try to ensure that women are dressed according to Islamic guidelines, have stepped up their patrols. "Ahmadinejad has tried to put women back in the house for the past four years," says Koulaie, the former parliamentarian. Many women have chafed under these restrictions. "We want the morality-police patrols to stop," says Mahsa Motavalizadeh, a 19-year-old university student who attended Rahnavard's rally earlier this week. She describes one incident when a female member of the morality patrol tore her clothes as she was being detained. "It was humiliating," says Motavalizadeh, who was sporting brown camouflage pants beneath a conservative tunic at the rally. "We want freedom. We want our rights. That's why Mrs. Rahnavard is important to us. She's a smart, educated woman, and she symbolizes equality for me."
Even if Rahnavard doesn't become the first lady of Iran--and with no reliable polling it's nearly impossible to predict the outcome of Friday's election--her role in this campaign has had a profound effect. All the candidates are now promising to appoint either a female minister or ambassador if they get elected.