Pages from the new issue of the Iranian magazine Zanan-e Emruz.
Credit: Arash Ashurnia
(WOMENSENEWS)–Shahla Sherkat, the award-winning journalist and one of the pioneers of the women’s rights movement in Iran, is re-launching on May 29 her feminist magazine shut down by hardliners in 2008 after 16 years in operation. The magazine will reopen under the banner Zanan-e Emruz or “Today’s Women,” available in print and online.
This unveiling comes at a most critical juncture, emblematic of an era of political in-fighting and ideological schisms in a leadership structure split between hardliners who continue to cling to antiquated notions and moderate factions who appear more amenable to granting more social freedoms.
The magazine is reviving at a time when a myriad of free-flowing photographs are being posted online by hijab-free women in Iran as part of the “Stealthy Freedoms of Iranian Women” campaign. This bold stance against an enforced dress code, created by London-based Iranian journalist Masih Alinejad, has been rapidly gaining momentum with over 350,000 followers on its Facebook page alone.
This demonstration of women’s determination to break a ruling patriarchal cycle helps make Sherkat’s re-emergence on the journalistic landscape after a six-year absence a defining moment.
For nearly two decades, Sherkat, who had mastered the art of survival, courageously deviated from the normative print media with a unique brand of journalism to cover a vast array of controversial topics, including some that criticized the Islamic Constitution.
Through vivid and exquisite prose, the magazine portrayed the bitter realities of everyday life for Iranian woman. Articles such as “Female Students Behind Invisible Fences,” “Women’s Issues Do Not Have Priority” and “Why Don’t Women Get Paid as Much as Men” highlighted the biases of an Islamic state. While features, including “Article 1133 of the Constitution: A Man Can Divorce His Wife Anytime He Wants,” “Feminists Do Not Have a Place in Tehran’s Municipality” and “Man: Partner or Boss?,” contested the premise of patriarchal laws in Iranian society.
Zanan’s modernist interpretation of gender issues challenged Islamic codes of conduct by demonstrating the ambiguous nature of Quranic verses, thus rendering the text open for debate. For example, the law recognizes a man’s right to take up to four wives as long as he is able to treat them all in an equal manner. In principle this undertaking is highly inconceivable, if not impossible for any ordinary man to have the ability to treat all four wives in exactly the same manner. This liberating medium was employed as a blueprint to expose manipulated “truths” and renegotiate a life of confinement authenticated by male-driven authority.
Onslaught of Allegations
Sherkat frequently faced an onslaught of allegations by Iran’s Press Court including her questioning of an enforced religious dress code.
On Jan. 28, 2008, the magazine finally fell prey to the conservative climate of the era of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-2013). The Press Supervisory Board of Iran, backed by the Ministry of Culture, shut down Zanan for “endangering the spiritual, mental and intellectual health of its readers, and threatening psychological security by deliberately offering a dark picture of the Islamic Republic.”
On many occasions, while she was publishing the magazine, Sherkat spoke of her daily struggle and the dilemmas associated with running a feminist publication in this environment: “There are many times when my writers ask me to put something in the magazine, and I sit down and measure the costs and benefits of printing something,” she said during an interview with PBS in 2007. “Sometimes you print something that is of extreme value, meaning that it has a very positive impact on the reader, and that one piece does great work in society. I may even decide to do that, even if it leads to the closure of the magazine.”
Since the demise of Zanan, Sherkat, who accepted a position as head of advertising for Samsung Corporation in Iran, kept hoping to make a comeback. In 2010, the divorced mother of two girls candidly spoke about her loss, comparing the magazine to one of her children. She told the Neiman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University: “Every day I arrive at work but a piece of the puzzle of my being has been lost. It has been two years since they have taken from our family my 16-year-old daughter Zanan. I have walked up and down many stairs and corridors to find my lost one. But have not had any success.”
Today, Sherkat’s new act reflects her passion and altruistic mission for advancing the rights of women in Iran. The pages of Zanan-e Emruz are vividly brought to life with a potpourri of passionate and inspirational pieces, including “Why Is It that Men are Unaware of their Violence and Aggression Towards Women?” and “Women’s Absence from the Sports Arena.” They showcase the harrowing and often disturbing circumstances facing women handicapped by legalized restraints.
Candid interviews with renowned women’s rights activists in Iran, coverage of international women’s issues and a variety of articles, including “Women’s Voices in the Iranian Parliament Are Not Heard,” “The Injustice Faced by Female Factory Workers in Iran” and “Unemployment Among Women Is Twice as Much as Men,” shed much needed light on an ongoing affliction.
The future of Iran is hidden in a convoluted landscape. But what appears certain is that, despite all barricades, women’s activism is resurging. And, in this respect, Sherkat has once again indisputably proven that neither she nor the objectives of women’s rights will be silenced.
Nina Ansary,Ph.D., is the author of the forthcoming book“The Jewels of Allah.” She serves on the Middle East Institute Advisory Board at Columbia University and is an active member of various organizations dedicated to public policy, education, charitable and gender-related causes. For more information, visit: www.ninaansary.com.