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It is highly unusual for the wife of an Iranian leader to promote her own views, even more so if she is married to a hardline member of the Islamic republic.
But Jamileh-Sadat Alamolhoda, a 58-year-old author and academic whose husband is President Ebrahim Raisi, has already confounded the traditional image in Iran of a woman in her position.
“I’m a teacher and I’m focused on philosophical theories,” Alamolhoda told the Financial Times from her office in Tehran’s state-run Shahid Beheshti University. “I’ve been doing this for a long time, but it feels now like I have a platform, by chance, and that my activities are visible.”
Alamolhoda, a professor of educational philosophy who also heads the university’s science and technology research institute, married Raisi four decades ago, raising two daughters with him while studying for her PhD, teaching and writing eight books.
The position of “first lady” is embedded in the political culture of the US, but it has never been a feature of Iran’s male-dominated landscape.
The wives of Iran’s previous presidents were rarely seen in public and did not seek to influence politics and policy. None had Alamolhoda’s education or professional background.
Her breaks with tradition include promoting her views on the role of women and the importance of education, giving interviews to foreign media when accompanying her husband on official trips, including to the UN in New York, and writing to the wives of European leaders asking them to use their influence to stop the war in Gaza.
“Please ask your husband to condemn the killings of defenceless Palestinian children and women and to act immediately to establish peace,” she wrote last month.
Alamolhoda’s public role since Raisi was elected president in 2021 has provoked scrutiny in Iran, although she insisted she never did anything “without consulting my husband, as all couples do”.
But that has not satisfied her critics, mostly ultraconservatives, who have called for her to stay out of politics. “Hold back your wife,” Jalil Mohebbi, a hardline cleric, wrote on X last month.
Alamolhoda’s defenders, who include reformist politicians, say she is using her voice for good in a role that has been untapped in the more than four decades since the Islamic revolution.
“Her image is actually helping Raisi’s not to look too hardline,” said Mohammad-Ali Abtahi, a reformist former vice-president, who praised her for taking “positive steps in a very radical and destructive atmosphere”.
A key issue roiling Iran today is the hijab law that governs how women should cover their hair and body in public. The issue was thrust to the forefront with the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini last year after her arrest for allegedly failing to properly observe the Islamic dress code.
This sparked some of the biggest street demonstrations under the Islamic republic, with many women, particularly the young, going a step further by defying the rules and going out without covering their hair.
Asked if Iran should retain the hijab law, Alamolhoda said the problem was the cult of fashion and consumerism, not Islamic dress code. The hijab should not be used as “a weapon for those who want to show their hostility to the Islamic republic”, she said.
“The philosophy of the hijab is that . . . women should lead society towards excellence,” she said. “A lady who dances beautifully on a stage . . . is seducing rather than guiding. The Islamic republic supports a path that limits anything that leads to seduction, and supports anything that helps society’s growth.”
The protest movement, she said, had been led by Iran’s enemies abroad. “Those who came to the streets came with their smartphones while being guided [from elsewhere] where to go and who to hit.”
Alamolhoda cuts a different figure to some of the better-known regional rulers’ wives such as Asma al-Assad of Syria or Queen Rania of Jordan. Her top-to-toe black chador is a visible sign of her rejection of the western style embraced by many Iranian women, particularly those who joined the protests.
Her father is Ahmad Alamolhoda, a hardline cleric best known for banning live music and barring women from cycling in the holy city of Mashhad, where he hails from. Yet she insisted that her family never stood in the way of her ambitions.
“It’s a wrong presumption to think the clergy opposes education for their daughters,” she said.
Women have been largely sidelined in politics during Iran’s modern history, although Alamolhoda is not the first leader’s spouse to draw comment.
Queen Farah, the wife of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, also broke the mould in the decades before the 1979 revolution by pushing the boundaries of tradition.
She and her husband embodied a type of western-style modernity and glamour that was unprecedented in Iran. Yet their opulent lifestyle also helped turn ordinary Iranians against them, and they were driven into exile.
Much of Alamolhoda’s published work, outlined in the likes of The Feminine Art of Living and Islamic Theory of Education, centre on issues around womanhood and how to apply religious teachings to education.
For her, the “essence” of a woman was reduced if they focused on “chasing power and wealth” rather than the more important issues, such as strong family and emotional relations. For those who embraced or aspired to a western lifestyle “the price of their independence has been a downgrading of their femininity to one of superficial attractions”, Alamolhoda said.
She stressed the need to keep alive traditional values such as ethical living, all the more so because the world was at a “historic juncture”.
“A lack of morality will lead to the destruction of the environment, culture, civilisation and humanity,” she said. “Moral corruption and debauchery can destroy the human race sooner than an atomic bomb.”
Source » ft