She’s in her sixties; wears floral head scarves and oversized, pink-rimmed glasses; waves her finger in speeches a la Bill Clinton; and speaks in a forceful manner that commands attention, especially when she says – as she did the other day – “I will not relax until I teach him a lesson.”
The “he” in this case is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s president, and the “she” is Zahra Rahnavard, the wife of presidential runner-up Mir Hussein Moussavi. No matter what happens in the recount of votes in Iran’s presidential election, the last two months of campaigning have changed the country’s political landscape – especially for women. Rahnavard was the first woman since the Khomeini revolution to lead a high-profile campaign in public. Though she was not a candidate herself, her fiery speeches galvanized scores of people (both men and women), who’ve continued to put pressure on Iran’s clerical rulers to change the announced outcome of last Friday’s vote.
Rahnavard joins Iranian Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi, whom I’ve interviewed twice, as symbols of Iran’s transformation in this, the 30th year since Khomeini instigated a movement that shrouded Iran’s women behind dark chadors. When I interviewed Ebadi in 2006, she told me that political progress is slow in Iran, and that people had put too many expectations on her (and others) to single-handedly change the country. “Iranian culture likes heroes,” she told me. “And, of course, people like (to have) a hero capable of solving their problems overnight, but obviously that’s not possible. Ever since I won the Nobel Prize, I’ve been telling people that this approach to heroes is not correct. I myself don’t believe in it. And actually, this is precisely what pushes certain governments to become dictatorial.”
The subject of Iranian women is the focus of a new book, “Sexual Politics in Modern Iran,” by scholar Janet Afary, who examines Iran’s many contradictions – including the fact that Iranian women have both benefited from and been repressed by Iran’s post-revolutionary system. (The latest edition of The New York Review of Books profiles “Sexual Politics in Modern Iran” and two other new books on the country.) Iranian women are subject to restrictive marriage and divorce laws, but they are on equal footing with men in the classroom – women comprise the majority of college students in Iran, and have a reported literary rate of 95 percent. Afary says that Rahnavard is herself a paradox – a former president of Iran’s al-Zahra University who wore mini skirts in her youth, but who came to a more conservative embrace of religion and culture. Still, Rahnavard has – like Ebadi – advocated for laws that would ease the restrictions put on Iranian women, such as the legal mandate that they wear head scarves.
Rahnavard’s artsy scarves are another form of protest. Before the election, U.S. analysts were taking to calling her “the Michele Obama of Iran” – an analogy that Rahnavard rebuffed, saying, “I am not Iran’s Michelle Obama. I am Zahra, the follower of Fatimah Zahra (daughter of the Muslim prophet Muhammed). I respect all women who are active.”
Rahnavard’s activism won’t lessen in the wake of last Friday’s election. Like her husband, she has pledged to do everything she can to change Iran from the bottom up.
Like this post on the Iranian election aftermath? Check out these other posts from True/Slant contributors:
Phil Zabriskie: ‘Winds of Tehran Part II’
Mark Drapeau: How the Iranian Elections Turned “CNN Fail” Into a Media Success
Joshua Kucera: What if Twitter is leading us all astray in Iran?
Ethan Porter: Obama engages by not engaging
Marc Herman: How Iran ‘Jams’ Election News
Kate Klonick: This is no green revolution
Ryan Sager: Iran: Knowing Nothing