She has called Iran’s forthcoming presidential elections a “farce,” has a friend who says the country’s clerical leaders are “clowns,” and is a perpetually caustic critic of the government.
Meet Zahra, the virtual candidate campaigning for Iran’s presidency.
In recent weeks, a “Vote4Zahra” online campaign has been encouraging the masses to “symbolically” pick the comic-strip character as president.
United for Iran, the human rights group behind the comic, has been using Zahra as a tool to draw attention to political and social flaws in the country as it gears up for the vote next month.
The comic became a global phenomenon and was translated into 15 languages after Zahra was launched in 2010 as a heroine in a graphic novel about the violent suppression of dissent during the Green Movement of 2009.
Zahra struggled to find her son Mehdi, who had disappeared during a street protest in 2009, but her search ended at a graveside in “Zahra's Paradise,” the title of the online novel.
Her story mirrored that of many real-life Tehran mothers, and now the authors of “Zahra’s Paradise” and United for Iran have teamed up for a presidential election storyline.
“Zahra in essence is much more real than the current presidential candidates,” Amir Soltani, author of the novel, told Al Arabiya English.
“They can’t even be asked free questions. All questions are controlled by the state media. But with Zahra, more difficult questions can be asked.
“Zahra is the only candidate speaking on behalf of women, the only candidate that can speak out against the supreme leader and the government,” Soltani added.
“Zahra represents fearless critics of Iranian government, many who remain jailed,” said a statement on the Vote4Zahra website, which encourages visitors to check back three times a week for updates on her “campaign trail.”
Visitors are then asked to fill in a form, in which they are asked questions by Zahra, such as “granted that I am a fictional character, would you prefer me to the current candidates? ;)” and “do you believe that I, as a woman, should be able to run for the office of the president?”
She also asks whether visitors agree with her stances on women, political prisoners and education.
Zahra in essence is much more real than the current presidential candidates.Amir Soltani, author of ‘Zahra’s Paradise’
In one of the latest sketches, Zahra’s best friend Miriam, who calls Iran’s clerical leaders “clowns” presiding over a circus, asks: “If a fruit peddler in Tunisia can change the destiny of nations and wake people across the Arab world, why can’t we do the same?”
In another sketch, Miriam urges Zahra to enter the campaign under the slogan “vote for Zahra, fire the clowns,” despite Zahra saying it will not bring her dead son back.
“Zahra represents all of Iran’s grieving families, and like them, she knows that the personal is political,” said Soltani.
“She’s running on a human rights platform. She’s running in the name of her son Mehdi, so that future generations may enjoy the rights denied her son, whose fictional story is based on the real stories of thousands of Iranians.”
The goal of the campaign is to expose a corrupt and exclusive political landscape through satire, said Firuzeh Mahmoudi, director of United for Iran.
“Zahra’s virtual campaign is a symbolic affront to the government practice of disqualifying women from running for president,” Mahmoudi said.
“Despite what everyone felt about the promise of the Iranian Spring being extinguished after 2009, in fact it’s very much alive. Having Zahra run shows that there’s another Iran, which beats in all our lives, where people are equal and lives are cherished,” Soltani said.
The campaign has spread from Iran to Germany, France and Sweden, among other countries, with supporters posting their pictures on the site with Vote4Zahra posters.
The character has also attracted quite a following on social media.
In recent weeks, Zahra’s Twitter account has been sharing her latest comic sketches, announcing Vote4Zahra poll results, and posting news on the presidential election, mostly criticizing the candidates and their manifestos.
“We all know the campaign is symbolic. It’s not going to affect the outcome of the election, but it has drawn the attention of many inside and outside Iran,” said Dr Alireza Nourizadeh,
director of the Center for Arab & Iranian Studies in London.
“In a country where women are saddened when they feel they have better ideas on how to run the country than the male candidates, Zahra is brave to speak out.”
Iran’s Guardian Council ruled last month that women cannot be president. Thirty women initially sought to be included in the race.
Zahra in danger?
Is Zahra in danger after openly criticizing the country’s rulers?
“In the beginning, the government took it as any other comic campaign. Now, it’s getting serious. It seems that everybody is talking about Zahra. Even the presidential candidates are looking at the sketches,” says Nourizadeh.
However, because Zahra is in the international spotlight, Nourizadeh says the virtual candidate is safe – for now.
“The government may do something in one way or another to make it difficult for the Zahra online sketches to continue, but I don’t think they’re stupid enough to do something like hacking the site at the moment.
“All international eyes are on Zahra. They’ll tolerate her for now, but perhaps after the elections they may attempt to stop her,” he added.
The June 14 presidential elections will be Iran’s 11th since the 1979 Islamic revolution.
Among the candidates are nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, former Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati, and Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf - all loyalists to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Mohsen Rezaei, former head of the Revolutionary Guards, and Mohammad Gharazi, a little-known former minister, are also in the race.
Only one of the six candidates is a pro-reform figures: former nuclear negotiator Hassan Rouhani.
“In a sense, [Iranian leaders] are trying to make Iranians a virtual people because they can’t choose their own presidential candidate. It’s not an election, it’s an audition.
"None of them are elected. They were all chosen by the Guardian Council, which isn’t representative of the country, and yet controls the candidacy,” said Soltani.
As for Zahra, the online campaign is expected to continue past the elections, says United for Iran.
“At the moment, Zahra is perhaps the only icon in this election that people will remember,” says Nourizadeh.
“I’m sure we’ll see more of her. She’s the real candidate.”