In a taxi on her way to a grass-roots political meeting, parliamentary candidate Fatema Haqiqat-Jou is draped from head to toe in a black chador, as anonymous as any Iranian woman following the stringent Islamic dress code.
But at a town-hall meeting, la John McCain, she turns into a populist firebrand, brandishing a brown leather handbag with the same oomph that Britain's Margaret Thatcher once did.
Ms. Haqiqat-Jou is one of 513 women, among 6,083 candidates, running for a seat in parliament. Women, like her, and young voters are a growing and formidable political power base in Iranian politics. Analysts here say their support is key to breaking the grip of conservative clerics, and to bolstering the popular reform agenda of President Mohamad Khatami.
As the youngest female candidate, Haqiqat-Jou confidently represents both facets of this vanguard and offers a unique window on one of the most vigorous democratic power struggles in the Middle East.
Her message is simple, but aptly illustrates the profound changes sweeping across Iran: The Islamic Revolution has been hi-jacked by self-serving clerics, she says; only voting for reform can re-establish its promise of freedom and democracy.
"I am happy to be among you, people of Tehran," she begins, quietly implying that her conservative opponents don't take the time to mingle among the people. She explains the mechanics of voting, and why it is so important.
She promises the women in the audience, all but their faces shrouded in black, that she will work toward equal rights for women - as promised by the Islamic holy book, the Koran - and for youth programs.
"They believe the people's role is unimportant, but I believe it is the people who can decide," Haqiqat-Jou tells the 200 women, with a few men milling in the back. Later, the women file out, and Haqiqat-Jou stands before some 250 rapt men.
"This is not my idea, but that of Ayatollah Khomeini," she says, pausing with the microphone to adjust her chador reverently, as she invokes the leader of the 1979 revolution. "We are going toward the goals of the Islamic Republic: independence and freedom; but today the framework has changed."
In two rounds of voting, which begin Friday, reformists are likely to take control of the 290-seat parliament, or Majlis, diplomats and analysts here say, which will further weaken Iran's embattled clerical dictatorship. Promising a civil society, the rule of law, and a loosening of restrictions on women and youth, President Khatami set the changes in motion with a 70 percent landslide victory in 1997.
But despite such shows of discontent toward hardliners, Khatami's plans have been slowed by the conservative hold on parliament, the judiciary, and security services. Confident reformists note that the election process coincides with Iran's New Year, during which Iranians zealously clean their houses.
Still, there are warnings that such optimism may be premature, and could provoke a backlash from hardliners and their militant allies such as Ansar e-Hizbullah, who used violence in the past.
"A few years ago, some said the Islamic Republic was not capable of reform, but now they say it is irreversible," says an Iranian analyst who asked not to be named. "It's true that conservatives have been shocked that public opinion is against them, but it has been driven home the hard way, by elections and the media. I can't imagine that Hizbullah will go home and watch TV without a fight - that would be too good to be true."
Still, both sides recognize the importance of balance, says a senior Western diplomat in Tehran. "There is a tacit agreement not to raise the stakes too much," he says. "People want political change, but they are not going to go on the street to fight for it. And the old guard don't want to be put in a position where they feel they must use force."
A "counter coup" such as annulling the results - if conservatives were "really humiliated, and feel their backs are against the wall"- could elicit a dangerous response on the streets, and is therefore unlikely.
"It is ironic how the old guard is holding back now," the diplomat adds, "because they remember well how those tactics worked when they were the revolutionaries."
That hasn't kept the conservative camp from taking advantage of the legal means at their disposal. With 70 percent of the population of 65 million under the age of 30 - and youth and women spearheading Khatami's popular support - the voting age was recently raised from 15 years to 16.
The conservative Guardian's Council, which screens all candidates, kicked out some 10 percent of the candidates - most of them Khatami supporters - for not being sufficiently Islamic. None of the big names were approved.
Struck from the list was former senior official Abdullah Nouri, a popular politician, newspaper editor, and parliamentary candidate who won more votes than any other in a Tehran vote last February, but who was recently imprisoned for heresy.
Still, so many reform candidates were approved of the 6,083 total, that reform leaders are now rushing to give lists of preferred candidates, so that the reform vote is not diluted. Adding to conservative chances, the new threshold for victory has been dropped from 33 percent of the vote to 25 percent.
Haqiqat-Jou, a doctoral candidate at the University of Tehran, is on the main list of the Islamic Iran Participation Front, and so may have a good shot at a seat in parliament. Her background as a vocational-counselling teacher has given her an unusual window on the strata of Iranian society - which she says is perfect for a politician.
But she is taking nothing for granted, and was happy to speak at the restaurant in south Tehran, which is seen as a conservative bastion.
Her youth draws more interest than her gender, Haqiqat-Jou says, adding that in political terms, she considers Iranian women to be as "progressive" as American ones - albeit with only a recent awakening to their potential power.
Still, shaking hands between men and women is forbidden in Iran, so politicians working the crowds at election time - especially female candidates - learn to "press the flesh" in other ways.
"You must communicate with people, by talking and listening to them," Haqiqat-Jou explains. "Your body language is more important than shaking hands."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society