Where Will the Power Lie in Iran? The Role of Gender Politics

This article was published in New York Times, Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The presence of Zahra Rahnavard, the wife of Mir Hussein Moussavi, was a significant factor in the election. Mr. Moussavi, who is not a very charismatic speaker and had left politics nearly 20 years ago, saw his prospects for victory increase when his wife joined him in the campaign. The well-publicized picture of them holding hands was not merely symbolic.

During the campaign, both spoke out for greater women’s rights, which is an issue that resonates with Iranian voters. Her presence also encouraged other candidates to campaign with their wives, the first time this has happened since the 1979 revolution.

Ms. Rahnavard was a leftist long before she became an Islamist, and in that sense she and her husband are different from the more conservative rightist Islamists.

Leftist Islamists were moved by social and economic concerns of the poor and dispossessed, and thought that Islam would be a unifying ideology toward greater social progress and democracy in Iranian society. Since 1979, both she and her husband have gone through a series of changes. She has become a strong advocate of women’s rights and headed al-Zahra Women’s University until President Ahmadinejad removed her from that post in 2005.

Ms. Rahnavard called for Iran joining the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and Mr. Moussavi spoke against polygamy. He published a very comprehensive list of gender reforms, including social, economic, political, cultural reforms, and promised to carry them out if elected.. In the meantime, she called for freedom of all political prisoners and Mr. Moussavi, who is an Azeri (from the northwestern Iranian province of Azerbaijan), encouraged greater recognition for ethnic minorities of Iran.

The press also became bolder and began to address all sorts of taboo issues. Women activists called for an end to compulsory hijab. It became clear that the election of Mr. Moussavi would lead to a greater democratization of the Islamic Republic.

I think this frightened the supreme leader who wanted to avoid such a scenario at any cost. In the meantime, sexual politics remained a dominant focus of the campaign. Mr. Ahmadinejad returned to his familiar denunciation of sexual “immoralities” the West, issues that usually resonate with his base. However, the changing sexual norms in Iran have made this type of rhetoric less effective.

On Monday, Ms. Rahnavard appealed to the public to join the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in Tehran. The success of this remarkable turn out suggests that we may be witnessing some extraordinary days ahead. As President Obama suggested on Tuesday, given the volatile history of U.S.-Iran relations, it is best if the United States government does not interfere and overtly take sides in this matter. But all efforts should be made to give broad coverage to this unique social movement.