By Maura Casey
Tuesday, February 27, 2001
In a controversial magazine, a reformist editor pushes the envelope of women's rights by writing about unequal divorce laws, sex and domestic violence. She also is thought to have influenced the strong women's vote in the last election.
(WOMENSENEWS)--The editor of Iran's Zanan magazine, which eschews kitchen tips, documents inequality and unsparingly quotes sexist male lawmakers, has been sentenced to four months in prison on charges of anti-Islamic activities after attending a conference in Berlin. She is appealing.
To Americans, Iran's theocratic insistence that females above the age of 9 be veiled in public indicates that it might be the last place where feminism could find a voice. If it has a place at all it is because of women like editor Shahla Sherkat, whose publication has been called the Iranian Ms. Magazine.
Yet, Iran is a paradox: Women's equality is a distant dream, yet this is one Middle East country where the literacy rate among females is 80 percent and one of the vice presidents is a woman.
Iranian women are commonly university-educated; women drive, hold down careers, vote in droves and are often as strong-minded as Sherkat herself.
Thus, Sherkat has a mature audience for the monthly publication she founded in 1991 out of frustration that mainstream journalism was ignoring serious discussion of women's rights in Iran. With only a staff of five, Sherkat's magazine turns a spotlight on the plight of women in prison, the unequal treatment of women under Iranian law, the difficulties women face in obtaining divorces and even the sexist statements of male parliamentarians.
"I keep careful track of all the unfair things legislators say about women," Sherkat said in an interview several years ago at a U.S. conference for Iranian and U.S. journalists. "And then, when they run for office, I publish all the quotes alongside their pictures so women will know not to vote for them."
Recently, however, Iranian courts have moved to silence this woman. Last month a judge sentenced Sherkat to four months in prison and a fine amounting to $3,000--an astronomical figure in a country where $20 a day is considered an upper-class wage.
Her crime? Last April, Sherkat attended a conference in Berlin on the future of political change in Iran after reformists won a parliamentary election. The charge was anti-Islamic propaganda.
The conference enraged conservatives still in control of Iranian courts. They seized the opportunity to label the conference "un-Islamic," because during the event a woman danced with bare arms and a male protester disrobed. Nine other Iranian moderates who attended the conference, including several journalists, have been sentenced to prison. The sentences range from four months to nine years.
All of them, including Sherkat, have appealed their convictions. Her magazine written in Farsi, continues publishing.
Female journalists are not uncommon in Iran. One of them, Kamelia Entekhabifard, was imprisoned in 1999 for two and a half months after she returned to Iran from the United States and was immediately accused of being a spy. That same year the newspaper for which Entekhabifard was a reporter, Zan (Woman), was closed by ultra-conservatives. Zan was the only daily newspaper devoted to stories about women. It was shut down and has never reopened because it printed a New Year's greeting from the wife of the former Shah of Iran.
Sherkat has been in trouble before, but was not imprisoned. She was taken to court on a few occasions when the subject matter of her magazine nudged the line of what is considered acceptable. Controversial topics have included men getting sex change operations, women in prison, prostitution, polygamy and child abuse. She also interviewed men who beat their wives.
Images that seem very mild can cause great consternation. Once, when the magazine published a woman with her wrists exposed, all the copies of the magazine where confiscated by the authorities.
Yet, even in a country in which religious clerics run much of the government, Sherkat always defended herself and her magazine vigorously, and charges against her were dropped. This time, she was not so successful.
Sherkat's conviction is only the latest sign of Iran's quiet civil war.
Right-wing clerics and their allies have held sway since the Islamic revolution of 1979 when they condemned all things Western and established a government intertwined with Shiite Muslim fundamentalism. But in 1997, in a country where 16-year-olds can vote, 80 percent of the electorate cast ballots to elect moderate Mohammad Khatami as president--in a landslide.
He was the only candidate who campaigned calling for more freedom of speech, greater freedom for women and a relaxation of the government's strict interpretation of Islam. Zanan, Sherkat's magazine, was credited with helping elect Khatami, putting him on the cover and publishing an in-depth interview when the candidate was considered the dark horse in the race.
The other three presidential candidates snubbed Zanan, apparently thinking a woman's publication was of no consequence. Khatami thought about the women's vote. "Who is the boss in your house?" Zanan asked. "Naturally my wife has a more important role than I," he replied in the article.
An overwhelming percentage of women voted for Khatami, joined by a younger generation tired of the strict segregation of the sexes and the crackdowns by "morality" police who forbid people to hold hands in public, dance or listen to Western music.
Since the election, the conservatives, threatened with a genuine loss of power for the first time in two decades, have fought back. In the last 30 months the courts have arrested many journalists and shuttered 30 publications, all of which supported Khatami.
Sherkat and her colleagues who attended the Berlin conference are only the latest casualties of a press crackdown so sweeping that Reporters Without Borders has called Iran "the biggest prison for journalists in the Middle East."
Maura Casey is associate editorial page editor of The Day in New London, Conn. She traveled to Iran in June 1998. Later that same year she arranged and helped host the first conference between American and Iranian women journalists since the 1979 hostage crisis.