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Iran Election Rally Signals Change

Associated Press Writer
Tuesday February 15 4:00 PM ET

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) - In a rare show of public gaiety in Islamic Iran, thousands of young Iranians clasped hands and danced to Westernized music on Tuesday at an election rally for a reformist candidate. (Related photo feature here)

Dancing in public places, even in sexually segregated groups as occurred Tuesday, is virtually unheard of in Iran. The event showed how many young Iranians yearn for public freedom in a country where nearly every aspect of life is dictated by Islamic laws.

Social freedoms form the bedrock of the campaign by reformist candidates in Friday's elections for the 290-member parliament, or Majlis. Pitted against the reformists, who are backed by moderate President Mohammad Khatami, are conservatives who want to maintain the strict Islamic rule imposed after the 1979 Islamic revolution brought the clergy to power.

During Tuesday's election rally, a band began playing Farsi-language pop songs after a brief speech by Faezeh Hashemi, a female reformist candidate.

As the tempo got faster, about 5,000 young people - in separate groups of males and females - swayed to the music, held hands, raised their arms in the air and waved them to and fro.

Some conservative voters who turned up for the rally at the Shiroudi basketball arena in central Tehran were shocked by the singing and dancing.

``This is not proper according to our Islamic culture. It is un-Islamic for young girls and boys to be dancing together. I am afraid taboos will be broken if this liberal type of campaign continues,'' said Taqi Alizadeh, a hard-line supporter.

Fearing the music would invite a crackdown by police, who are under the control of hard-liners, the organizers of Tuesday's rally asked the musicians to leave after about 30 minutes. Although public concerts are not banned, dancing is.

If it were up to the reformists, Iranian women would be able to ride bicycles freely in the streets and venture outdoors without the obligatory head-to-toe covering, or hijab - activities conservatives condemn as un-Islamic.

Speaking to reporters after the rally, Hashemi said women ``have to break this taboo and start riding bicycles in public.''

Hashemi, the daughter of Iran's former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, even went so far as to say the Islamic hijab should not be obligatory.

``I personally like the hijab, but I don't see the logic in obliging people to wear the hijab. Women should decide whether or not to wear it,'' she said.

At stake in Friday's election are issues beyond women's wardrobes and their mode of transport.

The hard-liners have proposed a law that would allow the arrest of journalists who write articles deemed critical of the ruling clerics. Currently only newspaper managers have been arrested and jailed for publishing offending articles. Several newspapers also have been closed.

The proposed law will be voted on by the new parliament, which convenes in June.

Reformists have vowed to defeat the bill and scrap special clerical courts they contend favor clerics in their disputes with ordinary Iranians. The courts have also been used to quell criticism of the ruling clergy.

``If I get elected I will vote against the proposed press restrictions and for greater freedom of the press,'' reformist candidate Jamileh Kadivar said.

But even with a clear majority, reformists will not be able to make all the changes they are promising.

Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has the final say on all matters. He can veto the president, and controls the army, judiciary, and the state-run radio and television.

But the hard-liners are also worried by the popularity of Khatami, who since his landslide election in 1997, has allowed greater press and social freedoms.


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