One of the more amazing and less-noticed aspects of the Iranian election drama is the leading role played by women. In fact, two women have come to symbolize the opposition to an unjust regime.
The most gripping symbol is Neda Agha-Sultan. The lovely 26-year-old philosophy student, known to Iranians simply as Neda, was shot dead by a militiaman on Saturday. A horrifying amateur video of her death has been circulating globally and within Iran via YouTube. The clip shows Neda lying on the ground, her jeans-clad legs spread out, her eyes rolling back, as blood oozes out of her nose and mouth and bystanders scream.
Neda’s death has become a powerful symbol because of her innocence. She was standing by her professor’s car, which was caught in traffic, when she was targeted by a regime thug on a nearby roof. Her death has aroused special outrage in a Shiite Muslim society that reveres those martyred while struggling for justice.
But Neda has also become a symbol of the courageous role played by women in the election campaign and its aftermath — and the role they will continue to play as this drama unfolds.
Women flooded the streets during pre-election rallies, and they did so again during post-election protests. These women were of all ages, some fully covered in traditional clothing, others in jeans and tight jackets.
The women’s vote was no doubt essential to opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi (whose total tally is unknown, because the regime apparently set the final result without bothering to count the votes, and it banned election monitors). Women played a key role in the landslide victories of the last reformist Iranian president, Mohammad Khatami, in 1997 and 2001. Given Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s reversal of the social and economic gains women chalked up under Khatami, we can assume they voted heavily for the opposition. (Many women sat out the vote in 2005, when candidates on both sides seemed lackluster and no one believed Ahmadinejad would win.)
The second symbol of women’s crucial role in the opposition is Mousavi’s wife, Zahra Rahnavard. Indeed, some Iranians believe Rahnavard was more important to the voting than her husband. She caused a sensation during the run-up to the election by campaigning with Mousavi, which was unprecedented, and openly holding hands with him as photographers snapped their picture.
Rahnavard pledged that her husband would end discrimination, release women activists from jail, and ensure that women are no longer treated as second-class citizens. She also promised that women would be appointed to the cabinet for the first time, and would be named deputy ministers and ambassadors.
Ahmadinejad apparently considered Rahnavard such a threat that he leveled false charges that her academic degrees were fraudulent. In rebutting his charges, she boldly accused the president of lying, humiliating women, and debasing his office.
Rahnavard’s biography is emblematic of the complexities and contradictions of women in Iranian society. She is a prominent artist, writer and academic, with a master’s degree in the arts and a doctorate in politics. She is also a religious Muslim who wears full black cover (with a bright-print wimple under her black hejab).
Rahnavard doesn’t support a counter-revolution, but she clearly wants to change the status of women. Her promises galvanized women’s support for the uncharismatic Mousavi.
No wonder: The hardline Ahmadinejad had introduced legislation to make polygamy easier. He also made it harder for Iranian women — who make up around 65 percent of university graduates — to get promotions to senior positions. He let religious police loose again to harass women who let their hair show or wear form-fitting jackets. His failed economic policies harmed poor women with families. And his government arrested the leaders of a grassroots campaign to gather one million signatures for the repeal of laws discriminating against women.
The regime may keep Ahmadinejad in power, but it cannot erase women’s memories of Rahnavard’s pledges or the video of Neda’s murder. Nor can it overcome the women’s vote without massive fraud that undermines its legitimacy. In this election, Iranian women have come into their own.