A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Women's Role in the Iranian Campaign

Gary Sick has picked up on a theme I was also thinking of commenting upon: the role of women in the Iranian campaign. He links to this BBC report on women in the campaign, and on a different, not unrelated theme, this Time report suggesting that Iran's "marriage crisis" — those wishing to marry can't afford an apartment — is hurting Ahmadinejad. Gary and I have been linking each other a lot lately, but it's because he's one of the Iran-watchers I respect and this is election week.

As Gary briefly notes, an important element in this campaign is the role of Zahra Rahnavard, the wife of Mir-Hossein Mousavi. Unusually for Iranian Presidential politics, she has been appearing regularly with her husband, and plays a major role in his campaign. An artist and political scientist, she served as Chancellor of Alzahra University in Tehran. Another brief profile is available here. An AP account here.

During the debate between Mousavi and Ahmadinejad (and elsewhere in the campaign), Ahmadinejad criticized her prominent role and suggested that she lacked the qualifications required for her appointment as Chancellor. Clearly no shrinking violet, she has threatened to sue Ahmadinejad. It's hard to be sure at such long distance, but I have the impression that Ahmadinejad's criticism of her role may have actually hurt him: women were not a strong base of his support in any event.

And of course, CNN has headlined her as "Iran's Michelle Obama." I suppose that was inevitable. A decade ago she would have been Iran's Hillary Clinton. And, as this New York Times piece makes clear, she's not that eager to sustain the comparison: "The candidate’s articulate and engaged wife has even been compared with America’s first lady (though, when asked this week about her role in her husband’s campaign, she stated simply: “I am not Michelle Obama”)."

It's very easy for Westerners to misread the role of women in Iran, given the constant presence of the headscarf; but Iran is not the Taliban: it has long had plenty of women newsreaders on TV, had a woman Vice President (they're ahead of us there), and it looks as if women will be a force in this election. Zahra Rahnavard herself was the first woman University Chancellor.

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