Who are the Women Behind the Men Running Iran?

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First ladies don't really exist in Iran. The various leaders who have governed the country since the 1979 Islamic Revolution have been married, of course — we just don't know anything about their wives. Being deeply
TIME's Tehran correspondent examines what daily life is really like in Iran

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• Silencing the Voices of Dissent
Inside the forced shutdown of Iran's most popular reformist paper, Shargh


• Who are the Women Behind the Men Running Iran?
First ladies are usually kept in hiding, but one outspoken wife is causing big problems for Ahmadinejad


• The Backlash Against Iran's Role in Lebanon
The notion that Iranian dollars are going to Lebanese Shi`ites is fueling animosity between the Persian community and the Arab world


traditional Muslim men, Iran's rulers consider it more honorable to keep their wives out of the public sphere. To this day, no one has any idea what Mrs. Ayatullah Khomeini looked like, or whether Mrs. Ahmadinejad, the wife of the current president, has attended college. The cloistering of official spouses only inflames people's curiosity.

Last week, the first lady deficit came up as I was drinking tea with my female relatives, an absence so far unnoticed by the men in my family. Women, it seems, are looking to first ladies as a reflection of the state of women in general. They want to know how official wives handle the challenges all women face today, from handling work and family to deciding whether to send kids abroad for university. Bored by rehashing 30-year-old details about Farah Diba, the Shah of Iran's very public wife (her patronage of the arts, her various cosmetic surgeries), my aunts speculated about Mrs. Ahmadinejad. Did she work? Read books besides the Koran? Stay at home mincing vegetables? I told them she taught at a girls' school, but this vague factoid — which I learned from a source close to one of Ahmadinejad's vice presidents but has not been confirmed elsewhere — didn't satisfy them much.

But the dearth of official spouses is what makes it so thrilling when one finally makes an appearance. On Tuesday, when I found the government speaker's wife splashed across the morning newspaper, I called everyone I knew. We may never meet Mrs. Ahmadinejad, but for now we are consoled by the political scandal caused by Fatemeh Rajabi, the wife of Ahmadinejad's spokesman and chief of staff. Mrs. Rajabi, it turns out, is a regular contributor to the most extremist publications in the country, a hardline pundit who argues that Islam and democracy are incompatible.

She catapulted herself onto the headlines by taking issue with the recent trip of former president Mohammad Khatami to the United States. The offense was so great in her eyes, such a shameful capitulation to the "Great Satan," that she publicly called for Khatami to be defrocked. The term sounds antique, but in a theocracy it amounts to impeachment or removal from public life. Mrs. Rajabi is an Ahmadinejad loyalist who has recently published a book entitled Ahmadinejad: Miracle of the Third Millennium, whose cover features the president against a backdrop of a flash of light amidst a cloudy sky. Moderates were incensed at the attack on Khatami, and lashed back, calling Mrs. Rajabi rude, profane, and irrelevant. The furor has led newspapers and dominated debate here all week, from policy circles to dinner tables.

The political fallout has been bad for the president and especially another spokesman Gholam Hossein Elham, who had proposed before the furor that those who insult the government be "dealt with" legally. At his last press conference, reporters grilled Elham on the freedom of speech, and whether the government only reserved the right for its supporters. But the scandal has been titillating for thousands of Iranian women, myself included, who want to know more about the women behind the men running the country. Politicians shouldn't be judged by their personal lives, but if the president or his closest advisors were married to religious zealots who believed in political violence, you would probably want to know.

What we've found out about Mrs. Rajabi is disturbing: that she believes Ahmadinejad is a divine miracle, that she is intolerant and linked to political groups who would govern Iran with 7th century mores. Left to our own speculation, we assumed the wives of this administration were traditional housewives, harmless women who cooked for their families and enjoyed religious rituals. A generous-hearted friend of mine even hypothesized that on the inside, they were probably not unlike us. Sure, they wear a lot more black and don't go to cafés, she said, but deep down they probably just care about creating a healthy, stable society that's good for their kids. Now we know a little better.