Zahra Rahnavard, the wife of moderate presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, is breaking the mould in Iranian politics by campaigning openly alongside her husband for next month’s election.
If Mousavi, a former prime minister, is elected president in the June 12 vote, the Islamic republic may get its first “first lady” in decades who would have a strong public profile like her peers around the world, observers say.
Despite playing a key role in the 1979 Islamic revolution that toppled the US-backed shah, Iranian women have had but a token presence in politics under the three-decade rule of conservative clerics, with just a handful of parliament seats and two cabinet posts.
Many Iranians have no clues what their presidents’ wives look like, as heads of government, even the reformist Mohammad Khatami, mostly kept their spouses out of the spotlight and shied away from appearing with them at political events or on foreign trips.
But with a prolific academic and artistic background, Rahnavard is to many a household name in her own right, especially those who studied at Tehran’s all-women Al-Zahra university, where she was chancellor for eight years.
Since her husband announced his bid for the presidency, she has appeared at most of his campaign rallies and has given numerous speeches, notably criticising Iran’s treatment of women, especially under hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
“It is very ordinary, natural, sensible and religiously-accepted” for a president’s wife to have an active and visible role alongside her husband, she said in an interview with popular youth weekly Chelcheragh this month.
An admirer of her namesake, the Prophet Mohammed’s daughter Fatemeh Zahra, Rahnavard has for years been an advocate of equal rights for women and called for their economic empowerment and a change to Iran’s laws deemed as discriminatory to women.
The 64-year-old grandmother, whose husband served as Iran’s last premier before the post was abolished in 1989, has said that mothering three daughters has made her more sensitive and concerned about women’s issues.
Despite appearing in public in the traditional black chador favoured by conservative women, she sports flowery headscarves and bright coats underneath, and says she did not wear the Islamic veil until her early 20s.
The sculptor and painter says she enjoys rap music and her favourite accessory is a bohemian handbag adorned with Iranian tribal motifs.
Rahnavard has slammed Iran’s tough police crackdown on “un-Islamic” attire over the past three years as “the ugliest and dirtiest patronising treatment of women”.
At a pro-Mousavi rally in Tehran on Saturday, she urged young supporters to vote for a new government that will “not have political and student prisoners” and one that will fulfil the wish of “removing discrimination against women.”
In 2005, shortly after Ahmadinejad’s election, she invited Nobel peace laureate Shirin Ebadi to speak at Al-Zahra university — a move which did not go down well with hardliners who condemn Ebadi over her criticism of human rights in Iran.
Rahnavard was replaced as university chancellor less than a year later.
She met Mousavi at one of her exhibitions in 1969. The two shared a love of the arts and a common cause of overthrowing the shah.
In 1976, as the former regime stepped up its pressure on political dissent, Rahnavard left Iran for the United States with her two children and returned shortly before Islamic revolutionaries seized power in 1979.
She holds a PhD in political science and served as an advisor to Khatami, who was president from 1997 to 2005. She has also been a Koran researcher and authored several books on art and politics.
A picture of Rahnavard and Mousavi leaving a rally holding hands has been circulating in cyber space, sparking positive comments on many blogs — although conservatives frown upon public displays of affection even between married couples in Iran.