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Women and the Vote

12 May 2009 18:55No Comments


Raising hopes -- and eyebrows: Women in the political sphere. Mir Hossein Mousavi and his wife Dr. Zahra Rahnavard. Photo/GhalamNews.ir
Mir Hossein Mousavi stepped out into the hallway and walked through its glass doors; his meeting with the faculty and students at the University of Tehran was over. To his right was his wife Dr. Zahra Rahnavard wearing a colorful headscarf and a long green coat. She donned the traditional black chador, but a red handcrafted purse was slung very visibly over her shoulder. Smiling, Mr. Mousavi, held her hand and stepped outside into the gaze of the public and the photos began to snap.

This small gesture symbolizes a departure from the standing protocols of the Islamic Republic of Iran, where officials walk the public stage without their spouses. On the rare occasion an official is accompanied by his wife, there is certainly no holding hands. Though simple and innocent, this gesture for many sparks wild hopes about the progress of women's issues in Iran. For them, this is a good omen. Symbols and symbolism have always played prominent roles in Iranian politics.

Over the past few decades, Iranian women have entered the male-dominated social scene with persistence, patience and grace. They are members of town councils across the country and every political party in Iran has a branch for women. No matter what a politician may think with respect to the rights and social stature of women, he is sure to show great reverence when speaking about them or of their role. Their support does matter.

Women's issues continue to be the most controversial and the most paradoxical aspect of Iranian social life. On one hand, the Islamic dress code, or hijab, is compulsory for women and young girls; on the other hand, women constitute the majority of the college student population in Iran. On one hand, the conservative version of Islamic family values emphasizes their role as mothers; on the other hand, the government of the Islamic Republic has pursued family planning programs vigorously and with resounding success--Iran has seen the sharpest decline in the fertility rate in the region. Women own their own businesses and work as pilots, engineers, farmers, workers, teachers and researchers; and yet, they face numerous challenges every day.

Few women capture and represent this paradox as vividly as Dr. Rahnavard, Mousavi's wife. Fiercely independent, Rahnavard met Mousavi while both were students at the faculty of arts at the University of Tehran. Her future husband was a promising architect, a shy member of the Islamic Association of Students, or Anjoman Islami, and a budding painter. In fact intellectual pursuits and artistic endeavors have played a prominent role in both of their lives.

After the revolution, as her husband rose rapidly in the foreign ministry and became Iran's wartime prime minister, Rahnavard received her doctoral degree in political science, authored 15 books and still found time for artistic creation. The Mother statue, standing in the center of Mother Square in the north of Tehran, was designed by her. In 1998 she became the first woman to become a university chancellor after the revolution. She was appointed Chancellor of Al Zahra University, Tehran's only all-women university. She left her post in 2006, after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected President. Still, she had a set a precedent and the tradition was carried on. Her successor was a woman as well.

For many, Dr. Rahnavard walking side by side with her husband, waving to crowds, smiling at them, wearing a colorful headscarf and holding a purse (in a taboo color!) symbolize that should her husband become president, women will be more welcome in the public arena of Iran's affairs. Of course much remains unclear about when, where or how such a feat would be accomplished. In the absence of pragmatic solutions and viable goals, much remains to be desired. One feels obligated to ask how much longer we can resort to symbolism and the promise of solutions instead of offering actual solutions and pragmatic approaches. However, in the meantime, there is no denying it: Symbolism matters and these gestures create hope and inspire voters. It's a pity though that the challenges ahead cannot be addressed by such gestures alone.



Parody fit for the Onion: After the photo of Mousavi and his wife Dr. Rahnavard became all the rage, a photo purporting to be from arch-conservative Fars News made the rounds in private emails. The caption: "In response to Mousavi's publicity stunt, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad pulls his wife into his arms."

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