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The most powerful woman in Iran

The death of Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has brought to the fore the story of the power and influence of Effat Marashi, his wife.

TEHRAN, Iran — Spouses of politicians rarely take center stage on Iran’s political scene and, for the most part, remain entirely out of the public eye. Few Iranians know very much about their presidents' wives, including their names. Effat Marashi, however, is an exception.

The wife of the late Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was born into a prominent clerical family. One year younger than her husband, she married Rafsanjani in 1959 at the age of 23, when the future two-time president of Iran was a young seminary student. Marashi would later become one of the most political and high-profile wives of an Iranian president.

Marashi wrote in her memoir, “Step by Step with the Cedar,” “I, Effat Marashi, am the wife of the devoted scholar, pious cleric, famous Iranian politician who was schooled in the discipline of the Household of the Prophet [Muhammad], a noble and honorable human being, his eminence Ayatollah Sheikh Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. The dear people of Iran mostly know of me because of two incidents. The first incident was in 1979, when I played a part in protecting my husband, who was miraculously saved, from an assassination attempt. The second incident is related to the 2009 presidential elections and the unfortunate incidents that took place following those elections. Certain sentences uttered by me while I was casting my vote at the Jamaran Prayer Hall were published by the media outlets and used as an excuse by the hard-liners to attack my husband and children.”

The assassination attempt took place in September 1979, a few months after the Islamic Revolution. Members of the militant group Furqan, at the time engaged in a series of attacks on revolutionary leaders, entered Rafsanjani’s home and tried to shoot him. Marashi confronted the gunmen and jumped in front of her husband, resulting in the bullets hitting his abdomen instead of his head. Her confrontation with the attackers, which Rafsanjani himself describes in his memoirs, resulted in them fleeing and Rafsanjani escaping death. Marashi's influential role in her husband’s political life and her bravery during the attempt on his life are laid out in Rafsanjani’s memoirs, in which he also discusses their disagreements on some political issues.

Marashi’s strength as a woman in Iranian political life, albeit most influentially behind the scenes, appears to have influenced her daughters, who are as politically active as her sons Mohsen and Mehdi and have never lived in the shadow of men. Indeed, Faezeh and Fatemeh have been even more politically active than their brothers, perhaps evidence of the absence of a stridently patriarchal atmosphere in the Rafsanjani household. It would not be surprising if Marashi were the one responsible for such an environment in her home.

The comments Marashi made in connection with the controversial 2009 presidential elections, which ushered Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power for a second term, raised her profile. While casting her vote, Marashi told reporters, “If the elections are rigged, people should take to the streets.” Media outlets critical of Rafsanjani cited her comments in trying to paint the widespread post-election unrest as having been organized in advance by supporters of presidential candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, former Reformist President Mohammad Khatami and, of course, Rafsanjani.

A figure close to the Rafsanjani family who spoke to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity said, “Mrs. Marashi is an unseen and hidden character who played a great role in Rafsanjani’s success. She is the one who kept Mr. Rafsanjani going all these years. More importantly, she is a member of the Marashi dynasty herself, a well-known Shiite clerical family.”

The source added, “During the crisis concerning [the cleric Hassan] Lahouti [Eshkevari], when some of his children were arrested after being accused of collaborating with the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq [MEK], Mrs. Marashi showed strength and managed the crisis from within the Abode [of the then-supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini].”

Lahouti, a revolutionary activist, had had connections with the MEK during the time of the shah. Although he parted ways with the MEK, he was suspected of having maintained connections with the group through his son Vahid, who was a member and was executed in 1981 after the MEK had become a sworn enemy of the Islamic Republic. Rafsanjani’s daughters were married to Lahouti’s sons Hamid and Said, so his arrest and subsequent death, reportedly from a heart attack in Evin prison on Oct. 29, 1981, caused a crisis for the Rafsanjani family given their familial ties.

After Rafsanjani's sudden death last month, Marashi again became a focus of attention, with Iranian media outlets examining the role she had played in Rafsanjani’s political life. Some of her statements and personal writings were published online, mainly concerning her extreme sadness at the loss of her husband.

The Marashis, apart from being a noted clerical family, are also prominent in Iranian politics. Her brother, Hossein Marashi, served two terms as a lawmaker and is currently the spokesman for the central council of the Executives of Construction, a Reformist party.

Given Effat Marashi’s half a century of experience at Rafsanjani's side, some analysts have speculated that she might become more active in politics in the coming years. Another source close to the Rafsanjani family who spoke to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity said, however, “Mrs. Marashi is almost 82 years old, and I think it is unlikely that she has any plans to take the political stage. Also, she has always had enough courage to honestly express her own opinions. Ayatollah Hashemi was never a barrier for her [expressing herself], and thus there is no reason to think that with his death she will now have more opportunities to be politically active.”

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