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Middle East

Has President Ahmadinejad finally met his match in Mrs Mousavi?

The wife of Iran's moderate opposition leader has ignited Iran's election campaign

She has become one of the most high-profile figures in one of the most exciting Iranian election campaigns – and she is not even running for office. It would be easy to downplay the importance of Zahra Rahnavard as a creation of the Western media seeking an exotic angle. Married to opposition candidate Mirhossein Mousavi, she has even been dubbed Iran's Michelle Obama.

But the 64-year-old academic, artist and grandmother has, in fact, created enough of a stir to rattle the re-election campaign of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And in a country where virtually nothing is known about Mrs Ahmadinejad, she is rewriting the role of political spouse and attracting growing numbers of followers in her own right.

In rally after rally, Mr Mousavi has wheeled out his wife to address the crowds. And Dr Rahnavard does not disappoint, mixing acerbic criticism of the incumbent president with strident, populist calls for greater rights for women and an end to political persecution. Observers note with interest that she is not being censored by Iran's religious establishment despite her often risque pronouncements. Indeed, when Mr Ahmadinejad claimed in the middle of a television debate that her educational qualifications were bogus, he was pointedly and publicly rebuked by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Kha-menei. Dr Rahnavard's response was to threaten to sue. The Iranian president stepped back from such personal attacks for a while, but then, facing another barrage of biting criticism from the popular double act, he snapped again yesterday at his last public pre-election rally, accusing his rivals of Hitler-style smear tactics.

"Such insults and accusations against the government are a return to Hitler's methods, to repeat lies and accusations... until everyone believes those lies," he railed. "No one has the right to insult the president, and they did it. The person who insulted the president should be punished... that punishment is jail."

Dr Rahnavard, a mother of three, took up sculpting and painting after being dismissed as dean of Al-Zahra University in Tehran three years ago. She is not the first woman to play a prominent part in Iranian politics. Masoumeh Ebtekar was a vice-president in the Khatami government and Shirin Ebadi, a human rights lawyer, won the Nobel Peace prize in 2003. But a spouse playing such an up-front role in an election is a novelty.

"This is new, it has never happened before that a wife has played such a part," said Behrouz Samadbeigi, a commentator on current affairs in Tehran. "It sends out the message that this candidate is a multi-faceted human being and tries to plan his professional and private relations in a normal way, without going to excess." Dr Rahnavard insists that nothing can be more natural than the partnership. Men and women are like "two wings" she says. "A bird cannot fly with one wing or with a broken wing." It is undoubtedly the case that this "flight" in the campaign has been hugely beneficial to Mr Mousavi, who is not the most charismatic of speakers, and who has been accused of using a reformist image to hide his hardline past. In fact in the 1980s the Reagan administration branded him "terrorist kingpin".

Dr Rahnavard, meanwhile, continues to draw the crowd, especially the young and female. "Why are there no women presidential candidates or cabinet ministers? Why are housewives not covered by insurance?" she asked at one rally. "Getting rid of discrimination and demanding equal rights is the number one priority for women in Iran. And why are our universities not independent? Why are students jailed for speaking their minds?" Her audience at Tabriz University, applauded rapturously.

This enthusiasm is turning into valuable votes for her husband. "Dr Rahnavard is a symbol of womens' rights. We are thirsty for freedom and she is encouraging us to do things we are in need of. I shall vote for Mousavi because he will bring change," said one young female voter, Roya Masoudzadeh

Mariam Fathali, who believes that being female should not preclude her from following her passion of judo, added: "Mousavi is good with his wife and that's important to me. I've never seen a politician who holds his wife's hand in public." Safia Bakhtiar, an Iranian-American writer and sociologist, warned that Dr Rahnavard has to negotiate a fine line between pushing for female emancipation and not trampling on religious sensitivities. "There are people in powerful positions who are watching all this, antagonising them will be dangerous."

Dr Rahnavard has been careful to present herself as a firm believer in the Islamic revolutions with books such as The Beauty of the Veil. She stressed recently: "I am a follower of the daughter of the Prophet Mohammed, who has the same name as I do. I am no Michelle Obama. I am Zahra Rahnavard."