Page last updated at 13:41 GMT, Tuesday, 16 June 2009 14:41 UK

Profile: Zahra Rahnavard

The BBC News website profiles Zahra Rahnavard, wife of defeated Iranian presidential candidate, Mir Hossein Mousavi, and one of the country's most influential women.

Zahra Rahnavard, wife of the leading reformist presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, at a rally in Tehran (7 June 2009)
Ms Rahnavard has been involved in Iranian politics for decades

During campaigning for Iran's presidential election, Zahra Rahnavard, 64, broke with Iranian political tradition by appearing alongside her husband, reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi.

Campaign posters even showed the couple holding hands, which shocked many in a country where wives have never before taken to the podiums with their husbands.

Dressed in a traditional black headscarf, but with daring floral patterns showing underneath, Ms Rahnavard has gone further than just standing alongside her husband.

She has been an active campaigner, making speeches, attending rallies alone and publicly criticising the incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for his treatment of women.

A respected scholar and artist in her own right, Ms Rahnavard has described herself and her husband as "unusual".

"We have the same experience," she told the BBC in an interview shortly before the elections.

"He's a good adviser to me and I'm a good adviser to him."

Throughout her career, she has advocated greater freedom and equality for women.

She has been dubbed Iran's answer to Michelle Obama, but Mrs Rahnavard does not agree with this description.

Mrs Obama is, she says, America's answer to Zahra Rahnavard.

'Pivotal' role

Zahra Rahnavard, who goes by her maiden name, studied for a teaching certificate before going on to gain a masters degree from the Arts faculty at Tehran University.

Mir Hossein Mousavi and his wife Zahra Rahnavard at Tehran airport, Iran (10 June 2009)
Mr Mousavi has said his wife is one of Iran's most enlightened women

She also holds a masters and a doctorate in political science from Azad University and is an accomplished artist, with sculptures on display in several public squares in the capital.

She married Mr Mousavi in the late 1960s and the couple have three daughters.

In the 1970's, Ms Rahnavard was a close acquaintance of dissident intellectual Ali Shariati, and when he was arrested in 1976, she fled to the US.

But she returned to Iran shortly before the 1979 revolution, becoming instrumental in developing many of the new Islamic republic's political, cultural and economic programmes.

She was an adviser to former President Mohammad Khatami during his 1997-2005 terms of office and for most of that time also served as chancellor of the Al Zahra Women's College in Tehran.

She held the influential position for seven years, until Mr Ahmadinejad's election.

Baroness Haleh Afshar, Professor of Politics at York University in the UK, said that throughout her career, Ms Rahnavard has been "pivotal in defending the rights of women" in Iran within an Islamic context.

It has always been in Islam that women have the veil, and it is written in the Koran - tell Muslim women to cover themselves
Zahra Rahnavard

Her political achievements include getting legal recognition of the rights of women to receive wages in return for housework, said Ms Afshar.

Although Ms Rahnavard's position on the role of women is "fundamentally feminist", she is nevertheless "highly critical of the idea of equality in the West", Ms Afshar told BBC's Woman's Hour.

"She says it doesn't respect women's specific attention to children and domesticity," she said.

Ms Rahnavard is also broadly supportive of Iranian laws requiring women to wear headscarves, saying she would not have the right to reverse the law if she were ever president.

"It has always been in Islam that women have the veil, and it is written in the Koran - tell Muslim women to cover themselves," she told the BBC.

When Mr Ahmadinejad used a pre-election debate with Mr Mousavi to cast doubt on the legitimacy of Ms Rahnavard's qualifications, Mr Mousavi responded by saying his wife was one of "the most important and enlightened women of this country".

Ms Rahnavard herself challenged Mr Ahmadinejad over his comments, publicly calling on him to retract them.

And, in the wake of the disputed election results, despite the arrest of several prominent opposition figures and while her husband was in hiding, Ms Rahnavard appeared a rally in support of her husband.

Her decision and ability to do so perhaps suggests her husband's election defeat does not mean the end of Ms Rahnavard's political ambitions.

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