Wives Play Bigger Role In Iran's Presidential Election

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Iranians vote in a presidential election Friday in which the hardline incumbent is seeking a second term. Sussan Tahmasebi, a women's rights activist in Tehran, talks with Steve Inskeep about the participation of the candidates' wives in the election, and the overall activity of Iranian women in this election.


When Iran votes for a president tomorrow, some candidates will count on the votes of women. Conservative president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is seeking reelection. His leading opponent has campaigned with his wife by his side, a move seen as promising more freedom for women. In Tehran, NPR's Mike Shuster has been watching the opposition draw massive crowds into streets that are normally tightly controlled.

MIKE SHUSTER: There is no police presence at all. In effect, the local government has lost control of the streets in Tehran and other cities as well. The police are not in evidence. And essentially it's the young people and women who have taken over Tehran and are demonstrating and are in favor of change in Iran.

INSKEEP: The women in those crowds are of intense interest to Sussan Tahmasebi. She's a women's rights activist we heard on NPR's WEEKEND EDITION a few days ago. Now she is back in the Islamic Republic where women are required to covered their hair, but have increasingly uncovered their opinions.

SUSSAN TAHMASEBI: Women have had a very strong presence in the campaign rallies. This is the first time that presidential candidates have actually addressed women's rights within their platform. And this is significant because in the past they've given lip service to women and said that women hold a high position within Iranian society, within our cultural and religious beliefs, but they've never gone so far as to really outline their plan for women, their policies for women.

INSKEEP: Okay, well if we took a President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and compared him with his leading challenger, Mir Hossein Mousavi, what is one thing that the two candidates seem to differ on sharply when it comes to the role for women?

TAHMASEBI: Well, President Ahmadinejad has been rather silent, and his past policies have really worked to try to relegate and push women back into the home. And in recent weeks, his advisor on women's issues has taken a very negative stance towards women's rights and basically, in her last press conference, she said that if you want to have equality between men and women, then you should probably vote for a reformist candidate. Mousavi has outlined someā€¦

INSKEEP: Wait, meaning that Ahmadinejad's administration calculates that a lot of Iranians do not want equality between men and women if they're going to speak like that?

TAHMASEBI: No, I think it's really more of an ideological difference in the way that they see women. I think within the Islamic Republic, always, the issue of women's rights has really been framed in the context of equity as opposed to equality, meaning that men and women have different roles, they have different responsibilities and therefore they should have different rights. But in this presidential campaign, we're seeing the use of the term equality as opposed to equity. And this signifies that the women's movement has actually been very effective in the last several years.

INSKEEP: Mir Hossein Mousavi, who is one of the leading, maybe the leading opposition candidate, has had his wife, if I'm not mistaken, introduce him at rallies, she speaks at rallies. Have you had an opportunity since your return to see her role in one of these events and what does she say?

TAHMASEBI: Actually, I haven't seen her, but I've followed it closely. You know, she's a very popular figure. She's an intellectual. She was the head of an all-female university. And she's added quite a bit of hype to the campaign. I think more than what she says, it's the fact that she's present alongside her husband and really giving this image that they are equal, that, you know, women should not be relegated to the home, that they can stand next to their husband as they campaign for office and they can take positions on issues, so it's a positive development.

INSKEEP: Sussan Tahmasebi is a women's rights activist in Iran. Thanks very much.

TAHMASEBI: Thank you very much for inviting me.

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