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At rallies, a chador-enshrouded asset

Wife plays key role for hopeful in race with Ahmadinejad

Iranian presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, with his wife, Zahra Rahnavard, during a rally in Tabriz. Rahnavard has become a key political asset, particularly among students. Iranian presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, with his wife, Zahra Rahnavard, during a rally in Tabriz. Rahnavard has become a key political asset, particularly among students. (Hasan Sarbakhshian/Associated Press)
By Ali Akbar Dareini
Associated Press / May 28, 2009
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TABRIZ, Iran - Presidential hopeful Mir Hossein Mousavi waited in the wings as his wife warmed up the crowd. Zahra Rahnavard quickly had them roaring in approval - and her husband beaming - as she ticked off her demands for women's rights and other reforms.

"We love you, Rahnavard!" shouted the Tabriz University students, as Mousavi clapped.

While the political power couple is a common fixture in the West, Rahnavard is rewriting the role of political spouse in conservative Iran - and could give a boost to her husband's candidacy in the June 12 presidential election.

With her sharp wit and fluid oratory, Rahnavard has fast become a political draw on her own, as well as an important asset to her husband's campaign as the main pro-reform challenger to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Masoud Heidari, a rights activist, said the country "needs to respond to accumulated demands from women and Rahnavard is playing a deservedly good role in that direction."

She brings a rare mix: the liberal cry to fire up reformers, paired with the revolutionary credentials that bring grudging respect from hard-liners.

Even her outfit gives a nod in both directions - an ultraconservative head-to-toe black chador, with a colorful head scarf peeking out and a bag made by traditional village weavers.

Men and women are like "two wings," she told the Tabriz University crowd at a rally on Tuesday.

"A bird can't fly with one wing or with a broken wing," she said, drawing applause from the mostly student gathering.

The youth vote is considered critical for Mousavi's campaign to overtake Ahmadinejad. Young voters were the foundation of former President Mohammad Khatami's reform movement during his two terms from 1997 to 2005.

Mousavi, 67, needs to recapture this buzz from students and others who were born long after the 1979 Islamic Republic or were still children during the 1980s, when Mousavi was prime minister.

This is where his wife - a 64-year-old grandmother - comes in.

"Rahnavard is reviving hopes that women will get part of their social rights. . . . Women's rights and freedoms went backward during Ahmadinejad's four years in office," said a supporter, Sima Honarvar.

Although women now outnumber men in Iranian universities and have many more liberties than in some Muslim states - including the right to vote, drive, work alongside men, and run for most public offices - rights groups have complained about systematic discrimination.

Rahnavard is not the first high-profile woman in Iranian affairs. Human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 and Masoumeh Ebtekar was a vice president in Khatami's government.

But Rahnavard is the first spouse to take a major campaign role.

At almost every campaign rally, Rahnavard speaks before her husband.

"Getting rid of discrimination and demanding equal rights with men is the No. 1 priority for women in Iran," she said at her warmup speech in Tabriz.