In the upcoming June 12 presidential elections in Iran what has excited voters the most is Zahra Rahnavard, the outspoken and accomplished spouse of one of the candidates, Mir Hussein Mousavi, so much so that she has been dubbed “Iran’s Michelle Obama.” The frontrunners are the hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the reformist Mir Hussein Moussavi. Moussavi, who was an important leader in the early years of the Islamic revolution, was the nation’s prime minister under President Ali Khamenei (the present Supreme Religious Leader) for a time during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War.
This month when Rahnavard — sporting a colorful scarf under her veil — appeared hand in hand with her husband in a campaign photo, voters interested in change certainly took note. For this is the first time since the 1979 Iranian revolution that a political couple has appeared in public in this manner.
Rahnavard’s story is that of a generation of Islamist women who took official positions after the 1979 Islamic revolution, only to become advocates of women’s rights in the 1990s. Born into a highly religious Shia Muslim family, Rahnavard was an extremely bright student with an interest in the arts. She was introduced to the underground stream of secular leftist oppositional literature, but like many students from more traditionalist backgrounds, Rahnavard had trouble reconciling her new political interests with her religious commitments. She abhorred the relative sexual freedoms exercised by the more educated sectors of Iranian youth during the late 1960s. But an embodiment of the culture conflicts of the period, she also wore a miniskirt.
Fired from her first teaching job for expressing criticism of the shah’s authoritarian regime, Rahnavard gravitated to Tehran University. During these years, Rahnavard studied art history and exhibited her paintings. She continued her political opposition, while also holding fast to her religious beliefs.
Eventually, she joined the circle around the lay Muslim theologian Ali Shariati, whose teaching fused Shia Islam with a militant anti-imperialism borrowed from the more secular left. When the state cracked down on Shariati’s Center, Rahnavard — by then married to Mousavi, also a follower of Shariati — fled abroad with their children.
She returned to Iran shortly before the revolution and with her husband joined the circle of the supporters of Ayatollah Khomeini. After the revolution, Rahnavard, who now wore a heavy black chador, became a founder of the Women’s Society of the Islamic Republic (WSIR) and editor of an influential women’s magazine. She used her considerable oratorical skills and her influential position to propagate Islamist values in Iran and abroad, working in particular against Iran’s feminists. She also founded the International Association of Muslim Women, and in 1987 became director of the Cultural and Social Association of Women, which advised then-President Ali Khamenei on women’s issues.
One of her best-known publications was a travelogue written during an official visit to India in 1986. She traveled there unaccompanied by her husband, who was then serving as prime minister. Rahnavard’s travelogue denounced the condition of Indian women, making reference to the notorious “dowry burnings” of brides whose families had provided an insufficient dowry. Yet her compassion for Hindu women was channeled completely into the peremptory injunction that “all Indian women should collectively convert to Islam,” in order to save themselves from the sexism of Hindu culture.
After Moussavi stepped down as prime minister in 1989, Rahnavard remained active in politics but gradually changed her position on women’s rights. In 1990, she joined the High Council of the Cultural Revolution, where she helped to lift some of the restrictions on women’s employment. In 1997, after reformist President Muhammad Khatami was elected by a decisive majority, Rahnavard joined his camp and was appointed president of al-Zahra Women’s University.
By this time, as seen in a 1999 interview with the feminist journal Zanan, she was complaining that Iranian women were treated as the second sex, a reference to Simone de Beauvoir’s book of the same title. Rahnavard unsuccessfully advocated for stronger laws against the sexual abuse, rape, and murder of women by male relatives. She also demanded the lifting of restrictions on women receiving custody of children after divorce, restrictions imposed shortly after the revolution.
These efforts — many of which were blocked under Khatami by conservatives — did not endear her to Ahmadinejad, who was elected Iranian president in 2005. The following year, he removed her as president of al-Zahra University.
In campaigning for her husband this year, Rahnavard has argued that Iran should join the United Nations-backed Convention for Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). She has also advocated freedom for all political prisoners. Her husband recently issued a long list of gender reforms he would carry out if elected. If Mousavi wins the election, this will be due in no small measure to the public persona of Rahnavard, whom many voters, especially women, perceive as an embodiment of change.