Global and Iranian history are both closely intertwined with the lives and destinies of prominent figures. Every one of them has laid a brick on history’s wall, sometimes paying the price with their lives, men and women alike. Women have been especially influential in the past 200 years, writing much of contemporary Iranian history.
In Iran, women have increased public awareness about gender discrimination, raised the profile of and improved women’s rights, fought for literacy among women, and promoted the social status of women by counteracting religious pressures, participating in scientific projects, being involved in politics, influencing music, cinema… And so the list goes on.
This series aims to celebrate these renowned and respected Iranian women. They are women who represent the millions of women that influence their families and societies on a daily basis. Not all of the people profiled in the series are endorsed by IranWire, but their influence and impact cannot be overlooked. The articles are biographical stories that consider the lives of influential women in Iran.
In 2009, Foreign Policy magazine described Zahra Rahnavard as “charismatic,” while the Los Angeles Times compared her to Hillary Clinton for being the “driving force behind her husband’s political career.” Despite this, since the disputed presidential election of 2009, she and her husband — former reformist presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi — have remained under house arrest.
Rahnavard was born in August 1945 in Lorestan province and named Zohreh Kazemi. Her family were political but secular. Her father, Sadegh Kazemi, was first a university professor and a colonel in the army under the shah but then became a dissident after the revolution of 1979. One of her mother’s cousins was Navab Safavi, the founder of “Fedayeen of Islam,” which was a group that claimed responsibility for the assassination of a number of leading intellectual and political figures during the time of the shah.
Rahnavard was interested in the arts and sculpture and received a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree in Art and Architecture from the University of Tehran. In 1969, she came to know Mir Hossein Mousavi and Ali Shariati when they came to see her sculpture exhibition. Shariati, who died in 1977 — two years before the Islamic Revolution — is considered to be “the Islamic Revolution’s ideologue.” Rahnavard began attending his lectures, who also attended the lectures. That same year, they were married and she started wearing the hejab and studying the Koran. She also wrote a book about the hejab, which could only be published after the revolution.
In 1977, Rahnavard and her husband left for the United States, where they became involved in anti-Shah activities. Then after the revolution, Mousavi joined the Islamic Republic Party and was appointed editor-in-chief of the party’s newspaper. In August 1981, he was named foreign minister and then in October, he was appointed prime minister by Ayatollah Khomeini. He remained prime minister during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war.
It was during those years that Zahra Rahnavard earned her Master’s degree and a PhD in political science from the Islamic Azad University. At the same time, she became the editor-in-chief of Ettela’at Banovan, a women’s magazine, and was a member of the committee that oversaw school textbooks about the arts.
Several years later, in 1996, she rejoined the political scene by participating in a campaign to elect reformist presidential candidate Mohammad Khatami. A year after his election, Khatami chose Rahnavard as one of his political advisors. However, in 1998 she was made chancellor of Al-Zahra University – an all-female, state-run university in Tehran that required students to wear the chador. She was the ever first woman to get the job, which she held for eight years until Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became president in 1998.
Ten years later, when the election of 2009 was drawing closer and her husband established himself as a candidate, Rahnavard returned to politics despite her initial reluctance. Dressed in colorful headscarves and wearing traces of makeup, she appeared alongside Mir Hossein Mousavi at public rallies, sometimes even holding his hand. This was unprecedented in the Islamic Republic where politicians’ wives tended to remain out of the public eye. During rallies and interviews, she discussed equal rights for men and women. “This was despite her criticism of the West’s idea of equality in that it fails to ‘respect women’s specific need to pay attention to children and domesticity,’” says Haleh Afshar, a Professor of Politics at York University in the UK.
When Ahmadinejad was declared winner of the 2009 election, Tehran and several other cities were engulfed in widespread demonstrations. Protesters were killed and many others were arrested and jailed. Then a few months later, Rahnavard and Mousavi were placed under house arrest, a punishment that they continue to endure today.
“Know that this blood will bear fruit and the reward for the heavy price paid by young people will be the dawn of freedom and democracy,” Rahnavard said before she was banned from having contact with the outside world.
Rahnavard has written a number of books and some of her sculptures remain on display in public areas across Tehran. Despite the election of moderate President Hassan Rouhani in 2013, the couple’s house arrest remains a bone of contention among political factions in the Islamic Republic.