Iranian Presidential Contenders Court Women Voters

For the first time in Iran’s 30-year history of presidential elections, candidates are going all out to win over female voters, making a flurry of last-minute appeals before Friday’s balloting.

Today’s campaigns are a departure from the past, when candidates spoke of women voters in general terms, mostly centered on their respect for a mother’s role in society or through economic assistance to widows.

In this election, the three candidates challenging President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose tenure has included a crackdown on women’s-rights activists, have tried to set themselves apart from the incumbent by focusing on female voters.

“Iranian women can be a major force and now candidates are realizing our support can deliver them victory and credibility,” says Elahe Koulaee, a professor of political science at Tehran University and a former parliament member.

The top reform contender, Mir Hossein Mousavi, broke the taboo of mixing personal life with politics by campaigning with his wife, Zahra Rahnavard, an artist and scholar who has been dubbed Iran’s Michelle Obama by local media.

Presidential candidate Mehdi Karroubi, a reformist cleric, has said he is against forcing women to wear the Islamic veil. He recently debated with his team the number of cabinet posts women should fill. Mr. Karroubi’s top advisers lobbied for the foreign ministry, speculating that when relations with the U.S. normalize, the new foreign minister could shake hands with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Conservative candidate Mohsen Rezaie, who formerly headed Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, has an advisory team of accomplished women and said he plans to reform the law so it ensures more equality for women. Mr. Rezaie has said he will place Iranian women in top posts in politics, education and management both in and outside the country.

Female voters have responded to the candidates’ appeals, with many attending rallies and street demonstrations.

Mr. Mousavi’s following among professionals and educated women is thanks in part to his wife — a well-known artist and Iran’s first female professor. Ms. Rahnavard also was chancellor of a prominent women’s university, Al Zahra, a job she lost when Mr. Ahmadinejad took office.

“She is very liberal and intellectual, we feel like we can trust her to fight for our rights,” said Shirin Shadi, a 23-year-old university student who studies physical education and wants to see restrictions eased on the Islamic garb female athletes wear.

During a recent candidates’ debate on live television, President Ahmadinejad mentioned Ms. Rahnavard, engaging in a rare public attack on a prominent woman. Mr. Ahmadinejad held up a folder with a picture of Ms. Rahnavard and questioned the validity of her doctorate in political science.

Many women rallied behind Ms. Rahnavard, saying the president had insulted all educated, professional women. Ms. Rahnavard has said she will file a defamation suit against Mr. Ahmadinejad if he doesn’t publicly apologize to her. The president says he stands by his statement.

At a rally in Tehran on Wednesday, Ms. Rahnavard told a crowd of women and youth, “He wants to force all women to sit at home and be housewives. I am a symbol of Iranian women. By insulting me, he has insulted all of you.”

Mr. Ahmadinejad hasn’t spoken at length publicly about his position on women and his wife rarely appears in public. Half-way through the election season, his sister, Parvin, began to campaign for him among conservative women.

The president also held a rally specifically for women. To boost turnout, his campaign brought supporters by bus from his political base south of the capital and from nearby towns and villages.

Last year, Mr. Ahmadinejad’s government introduced two bills that would impose a tax on a woman’s dowry and make it easier for a man to practice polygamy. The bills were dropped after an uproar and pressure from women’s-rights activists who marched to the parliament by the tens of thousands, demanding to meet with lawmakers.

Iranian women are among the most highly educated and socially active in the Middle East. Women have a 77% literacy rate and account for 60% of university students, according to local census. Half of the eligible voters in Iran, which has a population of 72 million, are females.

In April, a spectrum of secular and conservative women’s-rights activists formed a coalition and made a list of demands from Iran’s next president.


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