(The New Republic) | February 17
Abbas Milani

Iran finds its Nelson Mandela.

Traditional Iranian husbands, the sort found in the highest ranks of the Islamic Republic, sometimes refer to their wives as “the house.” For them, this is not just an expression of their understanding of gender relations. It is viewed as a necessary euphemism, vital protection for a woman’s honor. The mere uttering of her name, after all, might compromise her chastity.

It is telling, therefore, that Mir Hossein Mousavi courted and eventually married Zahra Rahnavard. When they met, in 1969, Rahnavard was already an acclaimed pioneer in the field of Islamic feminism, as well as a sculptor and critic and all-around star of the intellectual scene that throbbed in Tehran at that time. But it was her political theories that vaulted her farthest: Rahnavard proffered the kind of critique of patriarchy percolating in the Western academy at the time. Yet she didn’t join her sisters in the West in launching an all-out assault on tradition. Yes, Islam has misogynistic elements, she argued in her speeches. But those misogynistic elements are not necessarily native to Islam. They only prevail because of the male domination of the faith.

For Mousavi, the choice of Rahnavard as his bride was particularly daring–and reveals much about him. Men of his generation, particularly those with a religious proclivity, rarely married assertive intellectuals, let alone intellectuals with greater stature and more impressive curricula vitae. Throughout his career, friends and foes have referred to him as “the husband of Zahra Rahnavard.”

Zahra Rahnavard’s husband, of course, has emerged as the towering figure of the Iranian democratic movement–the man whose campaign inspired so much hope and whose thwarted election has unleashed an unprecedented wave of protest. Yet, for all his centrality to these events, he remains essentially a fuzzy figure in most press accounts.

At first glance, his long career is a riddle: How could he possibly represent the forces for liberalism and democracy when he served as such a loyal foot soldier in Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution? During his eight years as prime minister, back in the 1980s, the regime committed terrible atrocities. It was involved in a brutal military conflict–an eight-year war that Iran prolonged needlessly.

But, even without this history, Mousavi would be enigmatic.

Read the full piece in The New Republic.