Since becoming president in 2005, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has become one of the most widely known Iranian politicians. In direct contrast, his wife has been one of the most discreet spouses in Iranian political history. The world got its first glimpse of her in 2005, after she accompanied her husband on a trip to Malaysia. However, she did not speak any words and has hardly ever appeared in front of cameras since then. What was even more mysterious was her identity. She was only referred to as Mrs. Ahmadinejad in the very few reports which mentioned her. Her real identity was strongly protected.
But on January 18, 2009, the world suddenly met Azam Al Sadat Farahi, who until that day was known as Mrs. Ahmadinejad. The encounter was brought about by a letter she wrote on behalf of Gazans to Suzanne Mubarak, the wife of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. In it she wrote:
The people of Gaza have been subjected to aerial, ground and sea attacks and have been living under siege for a long time. Witnessing the bombardment of mosques, hospitals and houses and the mutilation of women and children brings pain to the heart of any human being. …I ask you to do whatever is in your capacity to help the people of Gaza and to help them from the oppression that they are suffering from, so that your name is placed alongside the name of worthy and peace seeking women.
One could doubt whether Mrs. Ahmadinejad’s letter would have any impact, because these days Egypt is trying its best to isolate Iran. This was seen by the fact that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei on several occasions asked for Mubarak’s help. Nothing ever came of it.
Nevertheless, the symbolic value of the letter should not be ignored. Many people around the world believe that Iranian women, especially conservative ones, are confined to the boundaries of the kitchen. This may be true about wives of conservative clergy. However when it comes to non-clergy conservatives, the opposite is true. Quite a few are very vociferous in their political thinking and beliefs.
One of the most notable is Fatemeh Rajabi, the journalist wife of Gholam Hossein Elham, a government spokesman and one of Ahmadinejad’s most trusted confidants. Rajabi sometimes appears in the press more often than her husband. Furthermore, she has openly attacked Rafsanjani’s allies for being corrupt and Ayatollah Khatami for being too liberal and friendly toward the West. She even called for the defrocking of Khatami. Although many male members of Iran’s political elite have done the same, Rajabi is the first female critic in Iran’s post-revolution history to go so far in her criticism of senior politicians. This has earned her several nicknames. One is “Fatti Arreh,” meaning “Fatemeh the hacksaw.” The other is “Shamsi Pahlevoon,” a nickname given to physically rough women in Iran.
Despite the fact that Ahmadinejad’s wife has been camera shy until recently, she too has had a strong influence on her husband. Although the president of Iran is no feminist, compared to other conservatives in Iran he has championed more rights for women. One of them was his public call to allow women to attend soccer matches as spectators. Soon after, he was subjected to fierce criticism from senior clergy from the city of Qom because they saw it as un-Islamic. Ahmadinejad did not back down until he was forced to by Iran’s supreme leader. Furthermore, during his tenure as mayor of Tehran, Ahmadinejad opened many leisure areas for women, including parks and libraries. Although segregation of men and women is frowned upon in the West and by many Iranians, it must be noted that some women in Iran welcome segregation in buses and parks due to problems such as unwanted physical contact and approach by strangers. Right-wing movements have also increased their recruitment of women for their campaigning and demonstrations. A great number of Baseej (people’s militia) who demonstrated against Israel and Egypt were women.
As the Iranian presidential elections near, we are going to hear more from the female members of Iran’s political arena. Their appearance is not solely for the betterment of human kind. Jealousy and self-interest are also at play. It is believed that one of the reasons why Ahmadinejad’s wife wrote to Suzanne Mubarak is because she did not want to be outdone by Zohre Sadeghi, the wife of Ayatollah Khatami (Ahmadinejad’s chief rival), who two days earlier had written a similar letter to the wife of the emir of Qatar.
Conservative clergy may wish to keep Iran’s women quiet and at home. However, it looks like the conservative non-clergy politicians who should back them are actually turning against them.
Sixty percent of Iran’s university graduates are women. It’s only a matter of time before they can slowly claim their deserved place in the government and society of their country.