TABRIZ, Iran – Presidential hopeful Mir Hossein Mousavi waited in the wings as his wife warmed up the crowd. Zahra Rahnavard quickly had them roaring in approval — and her husband beaming — as she ticked off her demands for women's rights and other reforms.
"We love you, Rahnavard!" shouted the Tabriz University students, as Mousavi clapped.
While the political power couple is a common fixture in the West, Rahnavard is rewriting the role of political spouse in conservative Iran — and could give a boost to her husband's candidacy in the June 12 presidential election.
With her sharp wit and fluid oratory, Rahnavard has fast become a political draw on her own, as well as an important asset to her husband's campaign as the main pro-reform challenger to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Masoud Heidari, a rights activist, said the country "needs to respond to accumulated demands from women and Rahnavard is playing a deservedly good role in that direction."
She brings a rare mix: the liberal cry to fire up reformers, paired with the revolutionary credentials that bring grudging respect from hard-liners.
Even her outfit gives a nod in both directions — an ultraconservative head-to-toe black chador, with a colorful head scarf peeking out and a bag made by traditional village weavers.
Men and women are like "two wings," she told the Tabriz University crowd at a rally on Tuesday.
"A bird can't fly with one wing or with a broken wing," she said, drawing applause from the mostly student gathering.
The youth vote is considered critical for Mousavi's campaign to overtake Ahmadinejad. Young voters — particularly university students — were the foundation of former President Mohammad Khatami's reform movement during his two terms from 1997 to 2005.
Mousavi, 67, needs to recapture this buzz from students and others who were born long after the 1979 Islamic Republic or were still children during the 1980s when Mousavi was prime minister.
This is where his wife — a 64-year-old grandmother — comes in.
"Rahnavard is reviving hopes that women will get part of their social rights ... Women's rights and freedoms went backward during Ahmadinejad's four years in office. We hope a reformist win will create new hopes for greater freedoms for women," said a supporter, Sima Honarvar.
Rahnavard is not the first high-profile woman in Iranian affairs. Human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 and Masoumeh Ebtekar was a vice president in Khatami's government.
But Rahnavard is the first spouse to take a major campaign role — and promise to keep her public voice if her husband becomes president. By comparison, Khatami's wife was only rarely in the public eye and almost nothing is officially known about Ahmadinejad's wife.
In almost every campaign rally, Rahnavard speaks before her husband.
In Tabriz, 300 miles northwest of Tehran, she questioned why students are imprisoned for expressing their opinions and why liberal-minded professors are forcefully retired.
"It was expected that our universities would be independent. But they are not. Why are students jailed for speaking their minds?" she asked, prompting chants of "political prisoners must be released."
Iran's third-largest city, Tabriz is populated mostly by Iran's Azeri minority. It is Mousavi's hometown, and both he and his wife began their campaign appearance by making a few remarks in the local Azeri-Turkish language before switching to Farsi.
Many supporters waved green flags and banners — Mousavi's campaign color — as she questioned why Islamic authorities have never cleared a woman to run for the presidency.
"Why was not a single woman presidential candidate approved? Why are there no women Cabinet ministers? Why are housewives not covered by insurance?" she asked, referring to demands that women who work inside the home be eligible for unemployment benefits as a way to increase their financial independence.
"This must change. Getting rid of discrimination and demanding equal rights with men is the No. 1 priority for women in Iran," Rahnavard said.
Although women now outnumber men in Iranian universities and have many more liberties than in Saudi Arabia or some other conservative Muslim states — including the right to vote, drive, work alongside men and run for most public offices — rights groups have complained about systematic discrimination.
They cite laws that allow men to block women from working outside the home or traveling on their own outside the country, and give a woman's testimony in Iran's Islamic courts only half the weight of a man's.
Women have also pressed for equal marriage and inheritance rights. In Iran, women need a male guardian's permission to marry, only men have the right to seek divorce and men inherit twice what women do from their parents.
"Rahnavard is a symbol of women's rights. She is inspiring women to stand up and demand their rights from Iran's male-dominated ruling system. We are thirsty for freedom and she is encouraging us to do things we are in need of," said Roya Masoudzadeh, a young Mousavi supporter, as she waved a green flag.
Rahnavard — who took up sculpting and painting after being dismissed by conservatives as dean of Al-Zahra University in Tehran in 2006 — has directly challenged conservatives to change the laws, claiming they don't represent the spirit of the Islamic Revolution.
Her criticism comes with some clout.
During the 1970s, she was part of the movement around Islamist philosopher Ali Shariati, who was one of the main influences of many leaders of the revolution. In the years after the overthrow of the U.S.-backed monarchy, Rahnavard was better known in Tehran political circles than her husband.
Now, her message is inspiring a new generation.
As Rahnavard and her husband left Tuesday's rally — walking hand-in-hand — a young woman student waved a banner that read: "Ahmadinejad's expiry date: June 12."