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I'm no Michelle Obama, says Iran's aspiring First Lady

world Updated: Jun 12, 2009 03:57 IST

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The wife of a moderate Iranian presidential candidate, Mirhossein Mousavi, dismissed comparisons with US First Lady Michelle Obama but pledged to play a prominent role improving women's rights in the Islamic Republic.

Zahra Rahnavard has broken new ground in Iranian politics by actively campaigning for her husband, former prime minister Mirhossein Mousavi, and on Sunday went a step further by summoning journalists to a news conference.

She demanded an apology from hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who questioned her academic qualifications in a televised debate with Mousavi, and said women will win greater influence if her husband is elected on Friday.

"I am not Michelle Obama. I am Zahra Rahnavard," said the 61-year-old grandmother and professor, whose supporters believe she could become a pioneering 'first lady' of Iran. "But I do respect all women activists wherever they are in the world."

Rahnavard said Mousavi would appoint women to senior positions across government, and frequently used the plural "we" when speaking about how his policies would be implemented.

"He has envisioned at least two or three ministerial posts for women ... (and) various deputy ministers and ambassadors in addition to advisers and director generals," she said.

She played down a suggestion that conservatives who control Iran's parliament and judiciary might limit her role, and said Mousavi would review the cases of women political prisoners.

"We will reconsider their cases. I can assure you freedom of expression will be a priority," she said, wearing a black chador brightened by a floral-patterned headscarf.

Ahmadinejad's wife is rarely seen in public.

Main challenger

Mousavi, who served as prime minister during Iran's 1980-88 war with neighboring Iraq, is seen as Ahmadinejad's main challenger. He has accused the president of squandering a surge in oil revenues and advocates better ties with the West, but rejects demands that Tehran halt sensitive nuclear work.

While his long years away from the political stage mean few young voters can remember his premiership, his wife's prominent campaigning has helped keep him in the spotlight and on Sunday she urged wavering voters to back him.

"You should know that if you do not step forward those who spread lies, make cases against others ... waste the country's reserves, who would want women to stay at home and not go to schools or work, will take over ...

"If you stay away from the (political) scene, then again this destructive team will come to power."

Rahnavard accused Ahmadinejad of lying about her academic record during his televised debate with Mousavi on Wednesday, and threatened to file a lawsuit against him unless he apologized within 24 hours.

"Those who raise accusations against me despite the legitimacy of my academic credentials are trying to impede the progress of Iranian women," she said.