x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Women's voices heard as their votes are courted

Iran's reformist presidential candidates are courting female voters as both pledge to respect women's rights.

A young Iranian woman at a Tehran rally for Mir Hossain Mousavi, the reformist candidate.
A young Iranian woman at a Tehran rally for Mir Hossain Mousavi, the reformist candidate.

Mohammed Khatami, Iran's charismatic former president, was a big hit with female voters. They liked his pledges to liberalise Iranian society and loved his smiling good humour. Once asked who had the last word in his household, Mr Khatami quipped: "I do. My wife tells me what to do and I say, 'OK'."

Now the two reformist challengers hoping to unseat Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in next month's presidential elections are following the trail blazed by Mr Khatami, who won by a surprise landslide eight years ago: Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karrubi are courting female voters. Both have pledged to respect women's rights and to install women as cabinet ministers if elected. But Mr Mousavi, a former prime minister who is regarded as the main challenger to Mr Ahmadinejad, has gone further than Mr Khatami. While the former president's wife was rarely in the public eye, Mr Mousavi's wife, Zahra Rahnavard, is seen constantly at her husband's side, putting aside years of tradition. It is the first time the wife of a presidential hopeful has taken a major campaign role. The Iranian media have dubbed Ms Rahnavard Iran's next "first lady".

A household name in her own right, Ms Rahnavard, a renowned sculptor, academic, prolific author and impressive orator, has delivered rousing and outspoken speeches, often firing up a delighted crowd before her husband takes the platform. Men and women are like "two wings", the 64-year-old grandmother said at a recent campaign rally where she demanded equal rights for her sex. "A bird can't fly with one wing or with a broken wing."

A photograph of Ms Rahnavard leaving another rally holding her husband's hand has been circulating in cyberspace, winning plaudits on many blogs, although conservatives in Iran frown on public displays of affection even between married couples. Mr Karrubi, a former parliamentary speaker, has also begun to involve his wife in his campaign and insisted recently that "ensuring equality between men and women was one of the aims of the Islamic Revolution". Conspicuously absent in public, however, is Mr Ahmadinejad's wife, Azam Al Sadat Faraahi, who runs a Tehran high school.

Even Mr Ahmadinejad's weakest challenger, Mohsen Rezai, the hardline former head of Iran's Revolutionary Guard, has promised to appoint a woman as foreign minister "to challenge Hillary Clinton". Reaching out to women voters gives Mr Mousavi and Mr Karrubi one distinct advantage over the incumbent. Mr Ahmadinejad's record on women's rights does not inspire confidence, although he claims that women in Iran enjoy the highest level of freedom.

When he campaigned for the presidency four years ago, Mr Ahmadinejad suggested he would be lenient on the dress code for women but did a U-turn once in office. Numerous women activists also have been arrested and intimidated during his presidency. At one campaign rally, Mrs Rahnavard lambasted Iran's tough police clampdown on "un-Islamic attire" over the past three years as "the ugliest and dirtiest patronising treatment of women". She also 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".

Women now outnumber men at Iranian universities and have more liberties than in most other Middle East countries, including the right to vote, drive, work alongside men and run for most public offices. But despite playing a key role in the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iranian women since have had only a token presence in Iranian politics. All 42 women who registered to contest the presidential elections were barred by a conservative vetting panel, a point recently raised by Ms Rahnavard who also demanded: "Why are there no women cabinet ministers?" She insisted: "This must change. Getting rid of discrimination and demanding equal rights with men is the number one priority for women in Iran."

When Mr Khatami was elected in 1997, he acknowledged his huge debt to female voters by appointing a woman, Massoumeh Ebtekar, as one of his vice-presidents. She had been famous years earlier as the teenage spokeswoman for the radical Islamic students who seized the US Embassy in Tehran, holding 52 hostages for 444 days. Fluent in English and cowled in a black chador, she was nicknamed "Sister Mary" by the American media. But like many involved in the embassy takeover, Ms Ebtekar became a prominent supporter of Mr Khatami's reforms, which included mending ties with the US.

Mr Ahmadinejad, however, seemingly realises that it may not be worth his time trying to win votes from women. His campaign instead has focused on defying the West on the nuclear dispute and boasting of breakthroughs in missile technology. mtheodoulou@thenational.ae