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Iranian Elections 2009: A New Spring?

From the stone carving adorning the War Museum in Tehran, two women, chadors wrapped tightly around them, stare grimly ahead. Their lips are contorted into determined frowns. One wields a rifle.

Nearby at Tandiz shopping centre, carefully manicured young girls browse for the latest designer handbags, their hair swept into barely-covered pompadours that defy both gravity and the law.

In both the Western media and in the Islamic Republic's official imagery and rhetoric, the depiction of Iranian women tends to vacillate between these two poles - the austere revolutionary and the authority-flouting fashionista. Each represents a particular political agenda and its (generally male) advocates.

But Iranian women have a political agenda of their own that is defined neither by the Western media obsession with the ‘sexification' of Islamic attire in Iran, or the Iranian government's strict codes of propriety. In the lead up to the presidential election on June 12th, this agenda is coming to the fore and emerging as a powerful force for change.

In a recent talk on Iranian politics at the British Museum, Iranian anthropologist Ziba Mir-Hosseini noted that although the 1979 Islamic Revolution dealt a devastating blow to women's legal rights, women quickly gained ground in a number of other spheres. Their experience participating in the Revolution emboldened them to demand a greater role in political life and generated a heightened sense of gender awareness, forming the basis of what has become a dynamic and vibrant women's movement.

The movement is unique in that it has seen substantial cooperation between both religious and secular women, a rift that has long divided Iranian society.  Last month for example, Iranian women of all political and social stripes formed the Women's Movement Coalition to demand that the new administration amend four articles in the constitution relating to gender equality.

The centrality of women to the Iranian political sphere is manifest; all three challengers to incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have made overtures to women in the hopes of securing their votes, from conservative contender Mohsen Rezai's promise to offer Iranian women ‘key positions' in his administration to reformist Mehdi Karroubi's pledge to appoint at least one female cabinet minister. Women are a particularly key constituency for the reformist camp, whose ringleader Mohammad Khatami was swept to power in 1997 after receiving 65 percent of the female population's vote.

Though Karroubi has proclaimed himself to be ‘one of the most enlightened people with regards to women's rights', it is the wife of Karroubi's reformist rival Mir Hossein Moussavi who has emerged as the champion of women's rights in this presidential election.

Zahra Rahnavard defies easy categorization. She is a former revolutionary, an artist, a writer, a women's rights activist, a professor, and a devout Muslim whose Facebook page declares, "my chador is my flag of freedom and belief."  But Dr. Rahnavard does personify the kind of intellectual described in a recent article by Nobel Prize Laureate Shirin Ebadi, who has "proven that Islam is not opposed to the concept of human rights".  Indeed, Rahnavard is using her influence as an aspiring first lady to champion gender equality - unprecedented in the history of Iranian presidential elections.

Rahnavard has demanded greater social freedoms for Iranian women, emphasized their need for increased educational and employment opportunities, and cited the ratification of the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) as one of her husband's main goals. In most of Moussavi's public appearances, his wife speaks before him. Never before has a presidential candidate's wife achieved such public visibility, or generated such a flurry of media attention.

Accordingly, women's issues feature prominently in Moussavi's campaign; he has pledged to submit a new bill in parliament to review legislation that is discriminatory toward women, has declared his solidarity with female prisoners, and called for an end to the arbitrary arrest of women activists.

But one question looms large over the upcoming election: can meaningful transformation take place in a polity were the decisions of a popularly elected parliament can be overturned by deeply conservative and unaccountable clerical bodies? The inability of former president Mohammad Khatami to achieve his platform of reform and liberalization convinced some Iranians that the extant system simply does not work.

In a recent visit to Iran, I interviewed Tahereh*, a prominent women's rights activist also working for Moussavi's camp. Like Rahnavard, she combines her deep faith with a steely determination to achieve gender equality. Her commitment has spanned over 30 years and has included distinguished careers as a lawyer, journalist, and educator, travelling to rural parts of the country to teach women about their constitutional rights.

For Tahereh, this election matters - despite the institutional constraints on change that have frustrated many Iranians. She bleakly described the impact of Ahmadinejad's term on Iranian women, telling me that religious organizations became much more aggressive toward women, curtailed their ability to mobilize, and limited the ability of women's groups to achieve their goals. The recent imprisonment of six members of the One Million Signatures campaign for gender equality is testimony to hostile atmosphere created by Ahmadinejad's time in office. The victory of a president that is responsive to women's political demands will almost certainly mitigate some of these worrying trends.

Across the spectrum, the women I spoke to were confident about their future; with over a century of activism behind them, Iranian women are no strangers to overcoming seemingly insurmountable political challenges. They have survived and subverted both secular and religious attempts' to impose strict models of ‘proper' conduct and to limit their  rights. Ultimately, whatever the election results, they will continue to do so.


*name changed to protect anonymity


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