Women's rights activists say pledges made by rivals of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Friday's election offer new hope for their drive to end what they call institutionalised discrimination against women in Iran.
The position of women has become a prominent issue in campaigning for Iran's presidential vote on Friday, in which moderates seeking political and social change are bidding to deny the hardline incumbent a second four-year term.
The two pro-reform candidates -- former Prime Minister Mirhossein Mousavi and cleric Mehdi Karoubi -- say they would seek to enhance the role of women in the conservative Islamic state if they were elected president.
"Whoever comes to power has to respond to the demands of the women's rights movement," said rights campaigner Sussan Tahmasebi. "We are no longer invisible."
Activists say women in Iran are subject to discrimination that makes them second-class citizens in divorce, inheritance, child custody, legal matters and other aspects of life.
Under Ahmadinejad, there was an attempt to push women back into the "private sphere and promote them as mothers and wives," Tahmasebi said.
Iran says women in the country are better treated than in the West, where it says they are often seen as sex symbols.
Iranian women are able to hold most jobs and, unlike in Saudi Arabia across the Gulf, they can vote and drive.
But activists say dozens of campaigners have been detained since they launched a campaign in 2006 to try and collect one million signatures on a petition demanding greater women's rights. Most of them were released after a few days or weeks.
Western diplomats say such arrests form part of a broader crackdown on dissent under Ahmadinejad, possibly in response to external pressure on Tehran over its nuclear programme.
"Even during the election time are we under pressure," said leading activist Parvin Ardalan, referring to recent arrests.
HIJAB A "PERSONAL MATTER"
Even though the election campaign has been dominated by economic woes including high inflation and unemployment, both Karoubi and Mousavi have also addressed women's situation.
"We have been able to penetrate the discourse of the election with our issues," said Tahmasebi. "I think it is a very hopeful sign."
Karoubi, seen as the most liberal of Ahmadinejad's three opponents, this week said he envisaged having two or three female ministers in his government.
At the same news conference, a female former MP who Karoubi says he would include in his cabinet questioned the way Iran enforces strict Islamic dress code, or "hijab", in comments unlikely to go down well within the Islamic establishment.
Enforcement of moral codes governing women's dress -- which require them to cover their hair and the shape of their bodies -- became more strict after Ahmadinejad swept to power in 2005 pledging to revive the Islamic revolution's values.
"The hijab should be persuasive and not compulsory in nature ... the hijab should be a personal matter," said Jamileh Kadivar, herself wearing a head-to-toe black chador.
Mousavi's wife Zahra Rahnavard has also broken new ground in Iranian politics by actively campaigning for her husband, saying women would win greater influence if her husband was elected.
She has demanded an apology from Ahmadinejad, who questioned her academic qualifications in a televised debate with Mousavi, who is seen as the president's main challenger in the vote.
"Ahmadinejad's attacks on Mousavi's wife have gone down badly," said Ali Ansari of the University of St Andrews in Scotland. "It will be seen by many people as beneath the belt, and it shored up the women's vote."