Iranian candidate's wife takes spotlight

Hundreds of young women in head scarves scream, stomp their feet and wave green flags and banners inside the Bahman Cultural Center, often a venue for pop bands performing in Tehran.

But it's not a rock star they await -- it's an aging politician and his wife, who has electrified female voters with her impressive resume and seemingly modern relationship with her husband.

As diminutive former Prime Minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi and his wife, Zahra Rahnavard, walk into the stadium from a side entrance, the crowd's roar peaks. She almost leads her frail husband, who appears slightly taken aback by the fervor he has unleashed as the reformist front-runner in the battle to unseat incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Friday's presidential election.

"Rahnavard, Rahnavard, equality of woman and man!" they chant in a Persian rhyme that rolls easily off the lips.

"Mousavi is good with his wife and that's important to me," says Mariam Fathali, a 22-year-old aspiring judo athlete among the crowd. "I've never seen a politician who holds his wife's hand in public. And he holds it with love and respect, not with possessiveness."

A scholar, artist and former university chancellor, the 62-year-old Rahnavard has emerged as a highly visible political figure in one of the most novel developments in the race pitting the conservative Ahmadinejad against three challengers for Iran's most visible if not most powerful post.

The wives of leaders elsewhere in the Middle East, such as Egypt, Jordan and Syria, play large public roles in promoting charity and the arts. But except for occasional trips abroad, Iranian first ladies have been largely invisible and completely silent.

But Rahnavard has been highly visible, especially after Ahmadinejad dragged her into the middle of the campaign by holding up what appeared to be an intelligence file about her during a debate with Mousavi and accusing her of skirting government rules in obtaining her degrees.

Rahnavard appeared to relish publicly defending herself, demanding that the president apologize.

"Either [Ahmadinejad] cannot tolerate highly educated women or he's discouraging women from playing an active role in society," she told reporters.

Last month in the newspaper Etemad, Behrouz Samadbeigi wrote: "In the past, none of the wives of the presidential candidates had taken part in the election campaigns of their husbands. It sends out the message that this candidate is a multifaceted human being and tries to plan his professional and private relations in a normal way, without going to excesses."

Some in the Iranian and Western news media have likened Rahnavard to Michelle Obama, but she more closely resembles Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, the former first lady and New York senator whom many considered a driving force behind her husband's political career and presidency.

In addition to helping raise three children, Rahnavard once served as an advisor to former President Mohammad Khatami, has written at least 15 books and is an accomplished sculptor whose works appear throughout the capital. For years, Mousavi, who served in the now-defunct post of prime minister during the 1980s Iran-Iraq war, was described as "the husband of Rahnavard."

On the campaign trail, she makes up for her 67-year-old husband's lack of charisma.

"Today we can close our eyes and see ourselves," she tells the Tehran audience, wearing a black cloak over a pink traditional gown, her voice rising. "Never have women had so much self-awareness. Women have always been just under the skin of history. Today, we assert ourselves."

By making Rahnavard so visible, Mousavi's campaign is sending a message to women frustrated by the Ahmadinejad era's atmosphere of conservatism, renewed restrictions on women's rights and tightening of Islamic rules in public life.

Other candidates have followed suit. Reformer Mehdi Karroubi's highly visible wife is all but running his Tehran campaign. Another candidate, conservative Mohsen Rezai, has promised to appoint Iran's first female foreign minister.

They appear to realize that increasingly independent-minded Iranian women can choose whichever candidate they like, regardless of whom their fathers and husbands support.

"Women are Iran's largest and most important social movement," said Masserat Amir-Ebrahimi, a Tehran sociologist and former lecturer at UCLA. "The president's wife is the closest a woman can get to real power."

Ahmadinejad has responded by relaxing restrictions on women's dress during the campaign season. The detested "Guidance Patrol," a law enforcement division that stops women for wearing, say, capri pants, flower-print head scarves or too much lipstick, is suddenly nowhere to be seen, though Mousavi's supporters constantly refer to it in slogans.

Last week, the president held a rally in Tehran for women, appearing with his wife onstage, but delivered a standard stump speech touting Iran's nuclear achievements and "resistance" to the United States.

The Mousavi campaign, in contrast, zeros in on women's concerns. At the Tehran rally, a video shows women in laboratories and picking rice, women at home and in universities, complaining about not being able to make ends meet, express themselves or earn recognition in the workplace.

"I want a job that matches my skills," says one woman.

On the stage, activists and scholars speak of laws that discriminate against women in custody battles, workplaces that promote men over women, and officially sanctioned thugs who harass teenagers for their dress in the name of Islam. They say they're the first hurt as the country's finances suffer and inflation rises.

"[Mousavi] says women's share in the government and economy will increase," activist Saadat Pirani tells the audience, her infant daughter perched on her lap.

She adds, "I hope you don't forget your promises."

In the audience are traditional women peeking out of all-covering black chadors and chic uptown women with oversized knockoff Chanel sunglasses propped atop their skimpy head scarves. They are homemakers who left their children with relatives and college students who text-messaged friends to meet up.

One woman begins to weep. Massoumeh Karimi, 47, says she's the daughter of a "martyr," one of the men who died fighting Saddam Hussein in the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, which has become a cornerstone of the Islamic Republic.

"I love them," she says of Mousavi and Rahnavard. "Because they are pure."

When it is Mousavi's turn to speak, many of the women begin to file out, not least because of his underwhelming speech. Staring down at sheets of paper and seated before a microphone, he recites a list of plans he would implement to fight domestic violence and revise discriminatory laws.

The crowd's energy seems to drain out the stadium doors. Most of the women leaving during the speech explain that they have other engagements.

"Isn't it over?" says one, smiling slyly as Mousavi soldiers on, Rahnavard sitting serenely at his side.

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daragahi@latimes.com

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