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Power of women in Iran's election

Young women in Iman Square, Isfahan
Election fever has brought people out into the streets to support the candidates

by Lyse Doucet
BBC News, Isfahan

"I like to wear colours," declares 26-year-old Golnaz as we sit in a splendid tea room in a 17th century caravanserai. Her elegant orange head scarf falls from the crown of her head and sweeps across her shoulders.

"President Ahmadinejad isn't bothering us about our headscarves during the elections. But if he returns to power, it would be terrible," she moans, her voice rising with emphasis on the last word.

She complains of police raids on gatherings in private homes and hassles over women's dress during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's four years as president of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Her main theme this week, like many young Iranians yearning for an atmosphere of greater liberalism, has been green - the colour of the reformist presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi. Golnaz's tunic is moss green.

Her cousin Sara, a year older, sits next to her wearing a soft shade of lime.

But in Isfahan's magnificent Imam Square, I met a small group of young women, all wearing black, proudly waving their posters of a smiling Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. "We're voting for him," they shout in unison.

Iran's rich history collides with an unprecedented sense of election fever in this, the country's cultural capital.

Iranians bearing election banners, headbands and flags mingle in the grand square adorned with the brilliant Islamic domes and exquisite blue tiles of some of the most stunning religious architecture in the world.

Iran's presidential election is turning into a tight, exciting race between the 52-year-old conservative incumbent and Mr Mousavi, a 67-year-old former Prime Minister who is also an accomplished painter.

Daring move

Black is not the official colour of Mr Ahmedinejad's campaign, but in Iran, women's clothes make a statement.

A long black chador, which means "tent", is the garment preferred by conservative women in a country where women's head scarves and modest clothing are mandatory.

President Ahmadinejad often speaks of women as the heart of this society. He talks of empowering them and makes much of his plan to provide insurance for housewives and share Iran's oil wealth with poorer families.

Zahra Rahnavard campaigning with husband Mir Hossein Mousavi
Husband and wife team Mousavi and Rahnavard has stirred up the campaign

But Mr Mousavi has - for Iran - an unusual political asset; his wife, Zhara Rahnavard.

She is Iran's first top-ranking female university professor and like her husband is a respected painter. Their most daring move as a couple has caused a stir - they hold hands as they campaign together.

In a BBC interview in Tehran, she described politics as art, and her choice of veil - a black chador with a flowery scarf peaking from beneath it - as a "beautiful composition."

Politicians' wives haven't campaigned like this since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. But this is 2009 and women's issues are on the agenda as they've never been before.

"Equality between men and women," is Ms Rahnavard's firm answer when I ask what women's activists are fighting for.

An umbrella organisation of women's organisations is not supporting any candidate. But it is lobbying for change including amendments to the constitution that would affect women, including rights within the family.

For women backing Mr Mousavi, or the other reformist candidate Mehdi Karroubi, they know equality has limits. It is an issue of rights: the right to study what they choose; to have a say if their husband wants to take a second wife; to do jobs they are qualified for.

"I'm a graduate from one of our country's best universities," Sara tells me in Isfahan in a quiet voice tinged with palpable frustration. "But I still can't do everything I want. I can't say everything I want."

Many young Iranians attend University and 65% of them are women.

Trained as an architect, Sara has found she is allowed to design buildings, but supervising her projects on site can be difficult, and sometimes it's forbidden.

Lowering expectations

All four candidates are making promises to women. It makes political sense. Women make up about half the electorate.

They were a key part of a groundswell that brought the reformist President Mohammad Khatami to power in 1997 and saw him re-elected in 2001.

Support of Mir Hossein Mousavi
Women in Tehran have been pushing against the established dress code limits

But he found much of his programme thwarted by conservatives who still held many levers of power in a system where the spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is in charge.

"Our expectations should not be too high," admits Golnaz."Not too much can change."

Ms Rahnavard says head scarves are not on her agenda. "In Islam, women have always worn the veil; it tells them women must cover themselves," she explains, in an interpretation of the Muslim holy book not all Muslims would agree with.

For many years, the dress code was not a priority for Iranian women as they battled on other fronts. But 70% of Iran's population is less than 30 years old.

Young women, particularly in parts of Tehran, are defiantly pushing against the limits with shorter, tighter overcoats and looser head gear.

Shahla Lahiji, Iran's first woman publisher, has been fighting for women's rights for 50 years, even longer than the Islamic Republic.

Asked whether politicians would forget their promises once the campaign ends, she insists: "It's up to us."

And she eyes the generation that follows her. "It's not just that girls are changing, boys are changing too."



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