Dr. Zahra Rahnavnard is married to Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the opposition/reformist presidential candidate at the center of Iran’s current political unrest. She is credited as the architect of her husband’s campaign and for getting out the women’s vote in the June 12, 2009 Iranian presidential election. Note: This interview was conducted pre- Ahmadinejad. It gives fascinating insight into a person who is now one of the most powerful and visible women in Iran.

Diva Zahra Rahnavard was an advisor to former President Khatami, and the former Al-Zahra University prez. A sculptor, feminist, author and dedicated Muslim, she offers a many-pronged perspective on life in Iran, pre-and post revolution (the 1979 revolution, that is). Click below to read what she told Holly about:

The following transcript was translated from Farsi.

Holly: How do you balance being an artist and a politician?

ZR: Well, I was an art student when I entered the world of politics and for a period I left the world of art behind and actively participated in trying to overthrow the Shah’s regime, and after victory I returned to my artwork because in reality my character is an artistic one.

But in case you are asking how can the president’s political adviser be an artist, this is in itself a secret, which reveals that in reality the reformist policies are based on cultural and artistic aspects. And the wave of reform that has begun sweeping over our country in answer to our people’s needs for more liberty and democracy — of course within the boundaries of religious teachings — these reforms have a cultural aspect to them. And because of my artistic character I can approach politics in a more poetic and free way.

Holly: Could you please talk about some of the books you have written? Especially the books you like most of all, and the book Hejab.

ZR: I have written 15 books, but I have more that I am writing now. My books fall into 3 main categories: politics, women and art. I wrote two of my books in the U.S. and sent them to Iran. One is named The Dawn of the Islamic Women and the other is The Message of the Hejab of the Islamic Women. I gave lectures on these two books for students in the U.S. and sent them to Iran. The Shah’s regime was still in power when I wrote these books.

In The Dawn of the Islamic Woman, I was making a new approach towards the character of an Islamic woman and in it, I analyzed the pressures that traditional systems imposed upon women and also the concept of turning a woman into an object (product) which western capitalization had forced upon our women. So in reality I addressed both of these aspects in The Dawn of the Islamic Woman and drew a contrast with a free-spirited character based on a free law that gives equal freedom and status to men and women. But I must say that the contents and viewpoints of this book have just begun receiving attention and discussion by the reform movement.

The Message of the Hejab of the Islamic Woman consisted mainly of letters and notes taken from my U.S. lectures & sent to Iran. (Both of these books were printed illegally at that time, as they didn’t get printing permission.) In this book, too, I was trying to show that an Islamic woman’s hejab has a message to it — a message of freedom, thought, wisdom and of course, faith. And in it, I had noted that it can be of any form and have any color, and there should be no “must” to it besides the fact that it “must” be self-chosen and not forced. The color should be chosen by the person wearing it, based on their likes and dislikes.

Holly: I would like to hear about your campaign for girls and women to wear bright colors in work environments and schools.

ZR: Based on the same book, Hejab, I have always recommended that it is better for girls to wear bright and happy colors. Of course hejab is an Islamic requirement and not something the Iranian government has introduced. It is written in the Qu’ran and observed in the whole world of Islam. It is possible that some people obey it and some don’t, but it is a law. I am not discussing the principle concept of Hejab itself, just the color, which I believe must be bright in color freely chosen.

Here in the University of Al-Zahra I encourage my students to wear any color they want. Some have been responsive and others have disliked the idea and stuck to wearing dark colors. Sometimes I think Iranian women think they look prettier in black! Maybe that’s why even here where I am recommending colors to them and they have a choice, they don’t want to change.

Holly: Could you please explain about any misconceptions — if there are any — that the West has regarding hejab? Also, in a lot of articles you stress on the usage of colors and the need for joy.

ZR: Well, I believe that the interpretations of religion and Islam that exist in Iran are one of the most interesting and intellectual interpretations in the world of Islam regarding women and religion. Of course, we have not yet — or at least I believe that I personally have — reached our expectations from Islam, but I hope that we reach them in this reform movement, and that these are things that the Qu’ran wants from us, not things that we have made up ourselves.

Regarding happiness, activeness and participation in social and cultural activities is an Islamic requirement. But there is a point here that has always intrigued me, and that is that there has never been a mutual understanding between Iran and the West as to what the other is really saying. I think that the West’s understanding of hejab has not been correct and I invite them to come to Iran and see for themselves how Iranian women are participating in everything and progressing and have freedom.

Of course they need more freedom and need to be assigned to more managerial positions. We have advised the president to involve women more in different levels of management. I have also recommended that at least 10 women ministers be elected in the president’s cabinet, and we hope that the reform movement that began four years ago helps us reach our goals of equal rights for men and women.

Holly: How many women cabinet members are there right now?

ZR: At the moment, two.

Holly: What role do the youth play in this reform movement?

ZR: In this reform movement, women and youth are the main concerns, also the intellectuals and scholars. In reality this reform movement reflects the actual needs and demands of the people. It has been organized through Mr. Khatami’s leadership, but the key elements of this movement are intellectuals, students, youth and women.

Holly: What are some of the biggest risks you have taken, and in what areas have they been in, politics or …?

ZR: One of the biggest risks I have taken has been entering the world of religion, because I chose it myself and it was not practiced in my family.That was my first risk When I entered this world, I felt that I had entered a beautiful and superior world I was criticized a lot by my family and friends, but I insisted on following the beautiful Islamic beliefs that I had got to know.

But I must say when we talk about religious beliefs in our country there are at least two different kinds of beliefs. One is the extremely backward-conservative-traditionalist, and the other is innovators that have an intellectual-religious understanding of religion.

My religious beliefs are intellectual-religious beliefs. Because I have seen freedom, beauty and art in religion. And then I realized that an ideal democracy can exist in religion, if we approach it correctly.

Holly: Could you elaborate on that?

ZR: Religion can only be in harmony with democracy when we accept that it rises from the heart of the people. When it rises from the heart and holds love in it, everything will naturally start and end with the people. The important thing is that governments leave people free in choosing religion at their own will.

When they are religious out of their own free will, then they can reach a state of democracy. But if it is forced, then they will not succeed.

Holly: In what ways do you see youth having a conflict with religion?

ZR: Our youth do not have a conflict with religion in their hearts. Their conflicts start when religion is forced upon them from the outside. In general, the Islamic world has a religious structure. If people are left free, they will be religious if it’s not being dictated to them from the outside to walk this way, wear this way, think this way. This causes some problems with the youth. In reality it takes the freedom of thought and character from the youth and that causes problems.

When the youth attend Mr. Khatami’s speeches, they clap, whistle and cheer freely, but in the end they raise their hands to God and pray. They pray because they have been able to clap and whistle freely.

Holly: How do your daughters feel about the political environment you live in?

ZR: My daughters are researchers, one in art and the other in nuclear physics, and one is a student. They have nothing to do with politics, they are young and lively people that prefer to do scientific research or artistic work and they don’t like their mother to be involved in the world of politics. They tell me, ‘You are an artist, so always try to stay in the world of art.’

Holly: Do they see a conflict between art and politics?

ZR: They do not see a conflict because they are not at all a part of the political world. They are simple civilians, they are ordinary people who just want to have an academic or artistic life. My daughters are very faithful to Islam and the revolution. The atmosphere in our family is very complex — art, religion, politics, sports and happiness co-exist.

Holly: What things have changed for women since the Shah’s time?

ZR: Our women have always been good, even before the Islamic government. Well-educated and great-spirited beings who are still the same in the Islamic government. We can’t say that Iranian women during the Shah’s period were not knowledgeable or artistic, they possessed all these qualities. But the Islamic government brought about the conditions for the participation of millions of women in political activities and functioning at high levels in academics.

Before the revolution, less than one-third of them entered the universities. Twenty-three years after the revolution, we see that 60 percent of university admissions are women and this is a great change. Before the revolution, women did not have a presence in the workforce and society. The Islamic revolution brought the majority of women to social scenes, although the intellectuals have always maintained their presence.

But I am not yet personally satisfied, and believe that women need to strive harder to gain more liberties, equality, employment and high managerial positions and a presence in the Cabinet.

Holly: What do you mean when you say women are ahead of the laws written for them?

ZR: Twenty-three years ago when our revolution took place, our women showed that they possess a high level of courage and understanding. They can express their needs, and defend them. They had such progress that they now comprise 60 percent of all university admissions, which I believe clearly shows their perception and intellect. They have also demonstrated that they can defend their country against any danger. During the imposed war, they gave their husbands and children to the cause, and participated themselves too.

Today we have great women movie directors at an international level. In the world of science, we have great women professors. We have women managing high positions. So this shows that women are ahead and the laws and regulations must run a marathon to catch up with them.

When the laws get ahead of women, the chances of equality and freedom and better civil rights and higher managerial positions will increase.

Translator: This one is my own question: It seems that current laws regarding women are more restrictive than before the revolution, and they need to run and catch up with them. Why should these laws have fallen behind so much or have been so backwards so that now we have to try so hard for them to catch up?

ZR: Actually, during the Shah’s regime the laws were behind too and they are the same laws enforced now. Meaning that our civil rights laws towards woman haven’t changed. And that is our point, that woman have evolved while the laws have not. We must make a new approach to women and the laws. And in this regard, we must base our lawmaking both on Islam and the experiences in the modern world, which is what Islam itself has offered us.

This is my main point: that Islam gives the freedom to lawmakers to take new approaches to laws. And this is an important point that we feel must be applied, but unfortunately has not been yet.

Holly: If you could put your finger on the main misunderstanding between the U.S. and Iran , what do you think that would be?

ZR: There are a lot of misunderstandings between the US and Iran — it’s hard for me to choose only one of them. In general, I think our revolution must be comprehended more at an international level. I can only say that I invite all nationalities to come and see Iran and the changes it has gone through and how women participate in everything and see our people’s spirit to understand the situation of our people and the revolution.

A good example would be the eighth presidential election, which people participated in with great enthusiasm and took till 12:00 midnight. Even when the ballot casting time period was over, there were still people who wanted to vote but couldn’t. I think the whole world should see this and realize how much the Iranian people love Islam and the Islamic revolution. But this has not yet been understood by the world. I stress: this new approach to Islam that started with the revolution and has continued up to the present, and the reform movement, is showing itself more today. If the world understands this, a lot of the misunderstandings will be resolved.

In any case we Iranians love all the people in the world, including Americans. We don’t have any problems with the people. When I was in the U.S., I found Americans to be very kind and friendly and in general as a Muslim and follower of a faith, I believe that all God’s people are good.

We have a famous poem that says:” Love turns thorns into flowers” …I am in love with everything that exists in the world, because it all belongs to God. That is in fact my way of life and this is my true belief as an artist.

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