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THE

FIRST LADIES OF IRAN



A COMPARATIVE ANALYSIS OF FIRST LADY ROLES IN THE U.S. AND IRAN

CATRIONA LAW
Law

Introduction

In the United States the wife of the president, more commonly known as the first lady,

plays an important role. While not explicitly spelled out, she is a role model for young women as

she conducts herself with poise and attempts to push social agendas to benefit the American

people without any real legislative power. However, such a position does not formally exist in

Iran. Throughout this paper I will discuss why Iran does not have the role of the first lady and

how the wives of Iranian presidents after the Iranian Revolution (1979) are portrayed. This paper

will also serve as a comparative analysis between first ladies in Iran and the United States. The

importance of this analysis lies in the fact that there is very little existing literature on the wives

of Iranian presidents, but through news articles, speeches and photographs this position can be

explored.

The role of the first lady

For this research, I chose to analyze the wives of the Iranian president instead of the

Supreme Leader. This choice was based off the president being an elected institution similar to

that of the United States and wives of Iranian presidents being more visible than those of the

Supreme Leader. The importance of analyzing the wife of an elected official lies in the fact that

people more easily identify with the president and look to the family members as role models

similar to in the United States. In the following paragraphs, when mentioning the first lady of

Iran this is a reference to the presidents wife.

Although the date remains inexact, the term first lady originated in the United States

(Sigourney). Around the world, the title first lady is colloquially and sometimes officially used

for the wives of leaders who are both the head of state and head of government (First Lady).

For this reason, it is understandable why the wife of the Iranian president does not hold an

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official first lady position because Irans governmental system is separated between a president

and Supreme Leader, the latter of which holds the majority of the power. In the U.S., the role has

evolved over the years as each wife makes it her own. Her chief responsibility is hostess of the

White House, meaning she is there to entertain guests and represent the president. For this

reason, she usually does not have an outside job. First Ladies have always been public figures,

but since 1980 have transformed in to what Lisa Burns calls political interlopers (Burns).

These women championed change and improvement to social causes such as: literacy, drug

awareness, healthcare, womens rights, military families and childhood obesity, but even more so

than their predecessors causing national results (The First Ladies). In comparison, first ladies

in Iran are hardly seen or heard. They do support social causes, but not to the extent of their

American counterparts.

As far as public images go, President Ahmadinejads wife, Azam Farahi, actually has

made herself more heard than most. While she did not campaign one cause during her tenure as

first lady like is common with U.S. first ladies, there are two separate, recorded instances of her

speaking out against hunger. The first is when a letter she sent to the first lady of Egypt, Suzanne

Mubarak, became public. At the time the population of Gaza was suffering of hunger. She wrote,

You could ask your husband and his administration to prevent the intensification of the

humanitarian catastrophe by opening the way for aiding Palestines people (Irans Phantom

First Lady Comes Out). Following this, she attended a United Nations Food and Agriculture

Organization (UNFAO) summit in Rome. She joined a meeting for first ladies of Non-Aligned

Movement states (NAM) led by Mubarak with the topic of conversation being hunger and

poverty around the world. In her speech, she listed how Iran ensures food security for its entire

people based on religious teachings and again called on Mubarak to aid the people of Gaza (Full

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Text of Speech). Additionally, Farahi represented Iran as it hosted the first International

Conference of Women Scientists from the Islamic World. She most likely gave a speech at the

welcoming ceremony because she attended college for mechanical engineering and taught

physics and chemistry at the high school level (Irans First Lady makes a rare public

appearance). She discussed her intersecting religious beliefs with science. She said, the key of

realizing the goal of creation is to seek knowledge (Intl Muslim women scientists). This

event encouraged good education services for women and reducing poverty. In a similar fashion

to a U.S. first lady, Ahmadinejads wife accompanied him on his first trip to Lebanon. With the

first lady of Lebanon, she visited classrooms and talked to students (First Lady of Iran in

Lebanon). Sahebeth Arabi, wife of current president Rouhani, conducted her own charity work

as she aided in the construction of ten new kindergartens (Sahebeth Arabi was responsible). In

a duty that resembles then first lady Hilary Clintons position on a special task force for

healthcare, Zohreh Sadeghi was appointed by her husband, President Khatami, to oversee a

special committee designed to address the needs of rural women (First Ladies,Vakil).

The first ladies of Iran do in fact honor the most essential part of the job, being a hostess.

Instances of state dinners and parties have been recorded across administrations. Sahebeth Arabi

threw a party in honor of international womens day at a palace formally belonging to

Mohammad Reza Shah. It was a womens only party attended by Iranians and foreigners, but

reportedly Islamic laws including dress codes were obeyed. The event was in the news as critics

framed Rouhani and his family as living in luxury while the rest of Iran economically suffers

(Lavish party lands). While this is indeed bad press for the first family, it is not dissimilar to

accusations that the U.S. first family faces. It is notable that despite the hidden image the first

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lady holds, she is, in fact, in the press, which if used right gives her a platform to inspire social

change.

Effat Marashi, President Rafsanjanis wife, may have actually become more well-known

after her husband left office. She is famous for shouting at berating reporters in 2009 during the

re-election of Ahmadinejad, If the elections are rigged, people should take to the streets

(Jafari). Additionally, she is well known for saving her husbands life during an assassination

attempt in 1979 (Jafari). While, Marashi did not take a huge political activist role as first lady,

she instilled in her children, especially her daughters, the importance of political activism

(Jafari). Effat Marashi is characterized as a Nancy Reagan type, supporting and ushering her

husband through political turmoil. Nancy Reagan played a behind the scenes role in her

husbands political success, similar to Marashi, but Reagan held a more public role as first lady.

The model woman

During her speech at the NAM meeting in Rome, Azam Farahi spoke in a notable way.

When delivering, she did not stand up at the front of the room or at her seat like some. Instead,

she spoke while seated, clad in her black chador (Qu). The appearance of a first lady is one of the

most important symbols she holds. In most countries, the way a first lady dresses represents the

model for women in society. U.S. first ladies dress with class, many outfits are even very similar

in style to their predecessors (see Item 1). Sometimes, the style or the label are them silently

drawing attention to social issues like in the case of Michelle Obama. According to Robin

Givhan of the Daily Beast, As the country debated immigration reform, her [Michelle Obamas]

clothes by high-profile designers such as Narciso Rodriguez or Sophie Theallet reminded us of

how important immigrants are to seventh avenue, (Givhan). In every photograph, the first ladies

of Iran are covered almost completely in black chadors. While they sit behind their husband or

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next to other first ladies, their message echoes that this is how the law wants you to dress (see

Item 2 and 3).

Azam Farahi, who is characterized as being very traditional, told a group of women in a

city in South Khorasan that women are not properly wearing the hijab (Ahmadinejads wife

disapproves). While she did not explicitly say it, she was calling for change. In doing so, she

formally stated her position on how women in Iran should dress. Author and correspondent

Elaine Sciolino cites two separate instances where she talked to Effat Marashi and Zohreh

Sadeghi. She asked both women what the stance is on how a foreign woman must cover in Iran.

These answers, which were not widely circulated, offer only slight but notable differences.

According to Sciolino Marashi responds, If it were up to me, I wouldnt have forced you [to

wear a scarf]. Non-Muslim women can go out any way they want in our religion. They should

dress just the way they always dress. After the interviewer asked if she may go scarf-less in

Iran, Marashi answered, You may, but you wouldnt (Sciolino). Effat Marashis responses to

these questions show that she understands the official stance of the religion, but also the

government. In a different manner, Zohreh Sadeghi answered the same question, Our culture

requires the scarf. Usually it is unacceptable for foreign women to wear hats (Sciolino).

Sadeghi takes a hard stance on the issue, recognizing the blending of religion and culture that is

the Islamic Republic of Iran. Based on their presence and lack of press, it is not obvious that

these two first ladies differ, even slightly, on this matter.

A possible future for first ladies

When their husbands campaign for the presidency, wives in Iran usually are not right by

their side. They do not make speeches at rallies or are headliners at separate events from their

husbands. When women campaign with their husbands, like in the U.S., they are not first ladies

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yet, but they are showing what kind of first lady they will be. The 2009 presidential elections in

Iran showcased a change in this trend. Presidential candidate, Mir Hossein Mousavi, welcomed

his wife, Zahra Rahnavard, to the campaign trail. At the time Rahnavard was actually better

known than her husband, helping to oust the shah, chancellor of Tehrans Alzahra University,

political advisor to Khatami are just a few items on her resume that paint her as a strong female

compatriot (Dehghanpisheh). Nicknamed the Iranian Michelle Obama by supporters,

Rahnavard attended nearly every rally with her husband and at most gave rousing speeches about

womens rights (Dehghanpisheh). Dr. Rahnavard is still a traditionalist. She dons her black

chador like other first ladies and prominent figures, but she wears a floral hijab underneath and

calls out lines such as, Why do they want to turn women into housewives? (Dehghanpisheh).

Rahnavard did not get her chance to be first lady, but it would have been interesting to see how

she would have taken on the role. This change in campaigning had begun to play out as the start

of something new in Iran, but the following two election cycles have come up short. Both

elections saw more wives present, but not in any sense campaigning (Iran Presidential

Elections).

Conclusion

No formal role of first lady exists in Iran, but nonetheless the wives of Iranian

presidents have played a role consistent with a low-key first lady. Like U.S. first ladies, they host

events, attend international summits, accompany their husbands on publicized trips, and make

speeches when necessary. The first ladies of Iran are less individual in how they dress, but in the

same way as U.S. first ladies, they represent the ideal female costume. While not an official role,

the people of Iran still look to the first family similar to that of the United States. While the

evidence from present campaigns suggest the opposite, in the coming years, it is my prediction

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that first ladies in Iran will become more visible and, perhaps, outspoken. It would be

advantageous for upcoming first ladies to take advantage of the press they get and start

discussions on social and political topics, similar to how U.S. first ladies attach themselves to a

cause. While not attributing to as much political change as other women in Iran, the first ladies

of Iran are not dramatically different from those of the United States.

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Item 1 Five U.S. first ladies (Jackson).

Item 2 Azam Farahi with wives of Lebanese politicians.

Item 3 Hashemi Rafsanjani and his wife Effat Marashi.

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Works Cited

"Ahmadinejad's wife disapproves of lax observation of hijab." Tehran Times, Tehran Times
Daily Newspaper, 28 Oct. 2011, www.tehrantimes.com/news/305324/Ahmadinejad-s-
wife-disapproves-of-lax-observation-of-hijab. Accessed 14 May 2017.

The Associated Press. "Iran's first lady speaks up on eve of world-hunger summit in Rome." The
Seattle Times, The Seattle Times Company, 16 Nov. 2009, www.seattletimes.com/nation-
world/irans-first-lady-speaks-up-on-eve-of-world-hunger-summit-in-rome/. Accessed 28
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Azam Farahi with wives of Lebanese politicians. 14 Oct. 2010. Huffington Post,
TheHuffingtonPost.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/shirin-sadeghi/look-at-ahmadinejads-
wife_b_763297.html. Accessed 15 May 2017.

Burns, Lisa M. First Ladies and the Fourth Estate: Press Framing of Presidential
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Hassanzadeh, Mohammad. Hashemi Rafsanjani and his wife, Effat Marashi. Wikimedia
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