Azam Taleghani obituary: a defiant would-be president of Iran

At the age of 74 she had to be helped up the stairs of Iran’s interior ministry to register as a presidential candidate

Azam Taleghani: “It was in prison that I realised women don’t have their organisations, and that something ought to be done about this.”  Photograph: New York Times

Azam Taleghani: “It was in prison that I realised women don’t have their organisations, and that something ought to be done about this.” Photograph: New York Times

 

Azam Taleghani

Born: 1943

Died: November 1st, 2019

Azam Taleghani, a dissident politician and women’s rights activist who repeatedly fought to become the first female presidential candidate in Iranian history and each time was denied, died on November 1st in Tehran. She was 76.

Taleghani had been admitted to Pars Hospital with a brain disorder and died there, her brother Mohammadreza Taleghani said in a statement.

Taleghani was best known for her recurrent attempts to run for the presidency. In stipulating the qualifications for the office the Islamic Republic of Iran’s constitution, though mostly written in Persian, uses an Arabic phrase that could be read as “men of politics”. Taleghani made it her mission to challenge this reading, asserting that it meant something closer to “political personalities” and that it could thus include women.

Taleghani, who had been elected to the first parliament assembled after the Iranian Revolution in 1979, registered as a presidential candidate in 1997, 2001, 2005, 2009 and 2017. However each time, the Guardian Council, the body of clerics and jurists that decides who is qualified to run, threw out her candidacy.

She refused to give up. In her last attempt, at age 74, she had to be helped up the stairs of the interior ministry to register.

“I will register to run for president for as long as I am alive,” she said.

It wasn’t just her gender that made Taleghani a thorn in the side of the establishment. Espousing a progressive brand of revolutionary Islamism, she was a staunch ally of reformists and an inspiration to a generation of female politicians who tried to work within the narrow range of tolerated politics in the Islamic Republic.

“She was a militant woman who always stood with the people,” said Masoumeh Ebtekar, a current vice-president who is best remembered in the US as “Sister Mary,” the English-speaking spokeswoman for the Iranian students who took American diplomats hostage in 1979. (The American news media gave her the nickname because her head scarf resembled a nun’s habit)> She called Taleghani “a legend of resistance and devotion”.

Progressive cleric

Azam Taleghani was born in 1943 in Tehran to Ayatollah Mahmoud Taleghani, a politically active progressive cleric, and his second wife Tooran Taleghani.

Unlike many Shiite clerics of his day, Ayatollah Taleghani had supported Mohammad Mossadeq, the democratically-elected prime minister who was overthrown in an American-backed coup in 1953 that gave more power to the shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, an American ally. In the years afterward the ayatollah remained an opponent of the shah and was continually harassed and imprisoned.

At 16, Taleghani married Morteza Eghtesad, who would become a provincial governor after the 1979 revolution. But marriage did not mean a domestic life. Ayatollah Taleghani had insisted that his daughters be educated, and Azam emerged as his most politically engaged child. By the time she finished high school she was a mother of two but also a political activist.

In 1961, Ayatollah Taleghani joined a group of mostly lay comrades of Mossadeq, who was under house arrest, to found a new organisation, the Freedom Movement of Iran. Its most charismatic ideologue was the young activist Ali Shariati, whose eclectic brand of left-wing Islamism was opposed by most clerics but embraced by Ayatollah Taleghani. He gave a copy of Shariati’s magnum opus, Islamology, to his daughter Azam.

To the end of her life Azam Taleghani remained committed to this strain of Islamic politics. Her diverse influences included Persian translations of the Italian novelist Ignazio Silone’s 1930s anti-fascist work Vino e Pane (Bread and Wine) and Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo.

Teaching jobs

In 1972, she and her twin sisters Tayebe and Tahere founded the Alayi Foundation, which provided a middle school for girls in Tehran and became a hub for opponents of the shah, many of whom were given jobs teaching there.

Taleghani was studying Persian literature in Tehran’s teachers’ college in 1975 when she was arrested, in part because of her activities at the foundation.

Convicted by a military court and given a life sentence, she was sent to the notorious Evin prison in Tehran. Two of her brothers suffered the same fate, all part of a pressure campaign by the shah against their father. The imprisonment of not just his sons but his daughter as well was considered a grave insult to him as a leading Shiite ayatollah.

Taleghani and hundreds of other political prisoners were released in late 1978 as a concession by the government in the face of the building revolutionary movement. However, her time in prison had given her a new cause.

“It was in prison that I realised women don’t have their organisations, and that something ought to be done about this,” she said.

After the revolution she was repeatedly stymied in her attempts to found women’s organisations. Although she had written the bylaws for what became the Islamic Women’s Institute of Iran in late 1978, it could not be established until 1983. Her efforts to found a political party for women took even longer: it was not until 1992 that her Society for Women of the Islamic Revolution was allowed to form.

Revolution

After the success of the revolution, acolytes of the new regime’s leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, excluded other revolutionaries from power, including members of Ayatollah Taleghani’s Freedom Movement Party. (Ayatollah Taleghani died in September 1979 at 69.)

Azam Taleghani was nevertheless elected to the first post-revolutionary parliament – one of only four women to gain seats – on a ticket made up of supporters of President Abolhassan Banisadr, an ally of the Freedom party. (Banisadr would be impeached and sacked in 1981.)

Taleghani’s husband died in 2017. She is survived by four children, her nine siblings, two half-sisters and two half-brothers.

– New York Times