A secularist woman with a politically independent streak seems an odd choice for an Islamist party to support in Tajikistan's upcoming presidential race.
But for the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT), Oinihol Bobonazarova offers an opportunity for victory in what is widely seen as an unwinnable election on November 6.
Bobonazarova, a human rights lawyer and activist, was tapped early this month
to represent the United Reformist Forces, a merger that brings together the IRPT, the Social Democratic Party, and several nongovernmental groups and influential political players in the opposition.
The IRPT later confirmed its backing for Bobonazarova during a party congress, surprising observers who had watched the party groom its own potential candidates for years.
In choosing Bobonazarova, the IRPT rankled party traditionalists
-- including mullahs and other religious figures who now face the uncomfortable task of calling on their followers to back a secularist outsider. But IRPT leaders insist they have made the right decision.
In a country with no record of democratic elections in the past two decades, the IRPT is under no illusion of seeing its nominee in the presidential office. While he has yet to formally enter the race, it is all but certain that long-serving President Emomali Rahmon will retain his seat.
IRPT head Muhiddin Kabiri
Instead, the IRPT leadership, in rallying behind a prominent female pro-democracy activist, appears to be looking to long-term future benefits.
"We might lose the election, but we can use this opportunity to send out our message," IRPT leader Muhiddin Kabiri said.
"We need to tell people who we are," he added. "There are many rumors surrounding our party. Some mistrust us, and have certain suspicions. Some use the party's Islamic name against us, spreading rumors that we would seek to create an Islamic state in Tajikistan if we won the election."
The idea behind supporting Bobonazarova, Kabiri explained, is "to show people inside and outside the country that the IRPT is a moderate party that accepts the idea of women running for president, that we are ready to work with other democratic forces outside the party."
As the sole officially registered Islamic party in Central Asia, the IRPT frequently finds itself accused of having ties to religious extremism, and is treated with suspicion by secular forces.
Rajab Mirzo, a Tajik journalist-turned-politician, says the party's decision to back Bobonazarova could help the IRPT transform its image. "Kabiri himself comes across as a modern man," Mirzo says. "He is cleanly shaven, and wears a suit, and putting forward a secular woman's candidacy will further boost that particular image."
Hoji Akbar Turajonzoda, an influential religious figure in Tajikistan and a former member of the IRPT leadership, says Bobonazarova's candidacy was the best possible choice for the IRPT and the United Reformist Forces as a whole. "I strongly believe that the leader of the Islamic party should not be a contender for the presidency because such a move would lead to allegations that they use [religion] to seek high posts and create an Islamic state," he says.
Turajonzoda points out that, in addition, male opposition leaders are more vulnerable to trumped-up criminal allegations, noting that it is not uncommon for government opponents to find themselves behind bars during politically heated seasons.
Two cases in the run-up to the November election have fueled allegations that Tajik authorities take out potential political rivals.
In May, Zayd Saidov, a leading opposition figure and businessman, was arrested
on charges of financial fraud and polygamy. Saidov has dismissed the charges as politically motivated.
In December, Umarali Quvatov -- the relatively unknown leader of the opposition movement Group24 -- was arrested in Dubai
at the request of Tajik authorities. Quvatov, a wealthy businessman, faces fraud charges. Quvatov supporters have said the charges are groundless.
The authorities, Turajonzoda suggests, would have a difficult time going after Bobonazarova because she has a clean image and has no past involvement in business dealings.
A lawyer by profession, Bobonazarova is best known for her advocacy of human rights and her work with Western institutions such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Open Society Foundations.
"What charges would you find against a human rights lawyer?" Turajonzoda asks.