Asharq Al-Awsat, Tehran – A slim and reserved women, Shahla Sherkat, the Editor-in-Chief of the monthly ‘Zanan’ magazine, Iran’s most important women’s journal, has often been described as a ‘watchful tiger’. When it comes to ‘Zanan’ she moves with vision and does not try to break any taboos in tradition or cross any red lines in an Eastern, Islamic country like Iran – unless she is obliged to do so.
Sherkat spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat about the magazine and the women’s movement in Iran. Following is the text of the interview conducted in the offices of ‘Zanan’ magazine in downtown Tehran:
Q: One of the most famous ‘Zanan’ covers is the one of ‘the ugly dog that got kicked out of the seventh parliament: we have freedom before going into press but not after’. Are there taboos that you have not tackled in ‘Zanan’?
A: In Iran, like many other developing countries there are many taboos and restrictions. I think the art of journalism in developing countries is knowing when, where and how to draw them out of the bottle. Usually we try to say what we want at the appropriate time and place. Journalism in Iran is like walking a tightrope; if your balance falters you could fall.
For example, a phenomenon like prostitution when raised for public discussion without an occasion could lead to accusations that ‘Zanan’ is corrupting minds and stirring up controversy in public opinion. However, when we at ‘Zanan’ start to notice that it is a growing phenomenon, we begin to prepare an extensive and comprehensive article and when the conditions are suitable for its publication we publish it. This is what happened when the serial killer was arrested in Mashhad after confessing to the murder of many prostitutes in the city.
Child custody is another example of an issue that has resulted in considerable complaints among Iranian women. A child, whether a boy or girl, lives with his/her father in the case of divorce – regardless of the father’s eligibility for custody. If we were to approach this matter at the wrong time and without sufficient awareness, then the government could interpret it as ‘Zanan’ speaking against the rules and regulations of Islam. However should the situation present itself where an incompetent father wins custody of the children and it is revealed that he has mistreated or harmed them, we publish an extensive report on this issue in addition to a legal analysis. This gives us an issue that we are able to defend in the future, and that is, that children can be harmed when in their father’s custody. We must make our voices heard and say that there are laws that we have problems with.
Q: ‘Zanan’s’ cover stories indicate that you have indeed dealt with a multitude of sensitive issues.
A: We have number of cover stories that have addressed many sensitive issues. There was one with a girl carrying a cup of coffee in a coffee shop, which we published when the authorities had banned women from working in cafes. Later, and because of objections, they allowed women to resume their work.
One of our covers featured the serial killer who had murdered several prostitutes in Mashhad. He used to bring them back to his house and strangle them with their headscarves. This is an example of the issues I refer to when I say that the appropriate climate and suitable background must be available to discuss the subject. The headline for the story was: ‘Sinful Women… Innocent Man’, and the main idea of the article is that we must go back to the root of the matter to find out what drove these women to [prostitution] and to not let someone just kill them like that. Thank God this man has been executed.
There was another cover story by a journalist who was working for ‘Etemad-e-Melli’ (National Trust) newspaper, the editor of which is Sayyed Mehdi Kerroubi. The story of this newspaper is that it was covering the parliamentary elections for Etemad-e-Melli party but was expelled from the current parliament and banned from ever entering it after publishing the monthly salary, bonuses and gifts that one MP was receiving. The cover story headline was ‘the ugly dog got kicked out of the seventh parliament’ and it is a pun on an Iranian folkloric story about the oppression of an ugly dog. We also had a cover story about an Iranian actress who appeared on a tape with a companion and the tape had been leaked on the Internet. The article said that anyone who had watched or shared the video is guilty of rape.
We also had a cover story on the subject of the ban imposed on women to enter football stadiums with men; the headline was ‘Freedom: Where Can We Scream?’ We also had a picture of two women carrying a sign that said, “Tehran Stadium Has a Capacity of 100,000 (people)’ with a strikethrough going through it so that the phrase read: ‘Tehran Stadium Has a Capacity of 100,000 (men)’.
Naturally we also had a cover feature on Sherin Ebadi upon her return to Iran after she won the Nobel Prize (this milestone was not covered by Iran’s conservative press).
Q: There are a number of issues confronting Iranian women; there are economic conditions, the right to work, in addition to social issues such as poverty and crime. There is also the matter of changing the prevalent outlook – what are ‘Zanan’s’ priorities? And has the Ministry of [Islamic] Guidance censored any of the magazine articles?
A: Usually we address all issues that are related to women, especially contemporary issues in Iranian society. Some of the women’s issues are related to the cultural aspects of society and others to the legal. We cover the events and developments that take place and which are related to women’s issues. Usually we do not submit our articles or ideas for stories to the Ministry of Guidance or any other authority to tell us which subjects are allowed to be published. The truth is we have the freedom to publish but do not have freedom after publication. After the articles are published, the authors of the stories that are not approved of are not confronted by the Ministry of Guidance but by the Press Court, which in turn considers a court case against them. The publisher or whoever is responsible for the publication is asked, ‘why did you publish this article?’ We have been served a lot of court cases.
Q: So the Ministry of Guidance does not monitor ‘Zanan’s’ content before its publication?
A: No, that does not happen. This is interesting because the Ministry of Guidance reads manuscripts from all the different publishing houses before they are printed and made into books but they do not implement the same thing on magazines.
Q: What are ‘Zanan’s’ sources of funding, and do you accept any financial support from any party?
A: We do not receive any financial support from anyone. We finance ourselves through sales, advertisements and subscriptions.
Q: What is your monthly circulation?
A: On average about 40,000 copies per issue but it is not really easy to determine our distribution. It depends on the social and political situation and the story headlines and the cover’s appeal; the distribution figures could rise and fall.
Q: What is your view on the press law, and has it caused any problems for ‘Zanan”?
A: There are a lot of problems with Iran’s press law in my opinion. First and foremost is if someone wanted to publish a newspaper or magazine, he/she must first obtain a license from the authorities before being granted a license [to publish]. There is also the problem of resorting to an article in the constitution that is related to crime and is implemented on criminals and thieves. It is not related to journalism and publishing in any way and yet is used to punish those responsible for the publication of the newspaper [disapproved of].
The other problem is that many newspapers and magazines in Iran are closed down simply for publishing an article or caricature that the authorities disapprove of. And not only the person responsible for the publication is punished, no, everyone is punished. There are various classes who earn their livelihood from journalism and they have families. They too lose their jobs because they work in a newspaper that has been shut down.
Q: Does the phenomenon of the closing down of newspapers affiliated to the reformist movement concern you, and if so, does it oblige you to practice a form of self-censorship?
A: Yes. That is what happens. In any case, we are obligated to monitor ourselves and as such, we decide not to publish some articles or change the content of others so as to prevent our publications from getting closed down – that is the worst thing. Changing some words or paragraphs is quite bad but closing down the magazine is much worse and it is what we are working to avoid. Not only do I read the articles in ‘Zanan’, I also read the advertisements to make sure that nothing crosses the red line of the set rules and regulations.
Q: ‘Zanan’ has a reputation for being the strongest women’s magazine in Iran and you are deemed the most powerful editor-in-chief, what are the obstacles that you face?
A: The most difficult thing is related to the content of the magazine. The truth is the traditional view that surrounds women and their issues stems from a particular understanding of religion. For example, some believe that not all women’s issues should be addressed in newspapers and magazines. When we put them forward they complain. If the issue we are addressing is about laws related to women, they say ‘why have you spoken against the Shariah laws? Or, ‘why are you discussing sexual relations?’ In fact there are pressures on us when it comes to these issues and we cannot speak openly about them.
In terms of financial obstacles, ‘Zanan’ is under tremendous pressure. No one backs us financially. The Ministry of Guidance arrives once or twice to give us paper to print the magazine and it still charges us for it but at a slightly cheaper price than the duty free market. It doesn’t really offer anything to facilitate the situation for Iranian journalists, provisions that are available to journalists in other countries, such as reducing the telephone, electricity and communications bills and the office rent.
The other problem we face is that actors, actresses and film directors, for example, are able to travel easily to foreign countries and are able to receive prizes from abroad – but journalists are subjected to considerable restrictions in this domain and do not receive any international awards. This makes our situation worse. Day after day wages rise, the price of paper increases by double or more and the office rent is climbing. All this puts us in an incredibly compromising financial situation. I have had to sell my mobile phone and car to cover the expenses. I have also had to sell my house.
Q: What is your current financial situation?
A: Sometimes the situation is good and other times it’s not. But I cannot bear the thought of ‘Zanan’ closing down. As long as the authorities do not close it down, I won’t be the one to do so. If I were to close the magazine down I would feel as though I had buried my son alive.
Q: I saw some men working in the magazine; do you employ a lot of male journalists in ‘Zanan’?
A: We only have three men working in the magazine; the majority is women for a number of reasons: first, it’s natural for women to better understand women’s problems and thus they are able to write better articles and analyses than the men. The second reason is that I personally prefer to hire women because they have less job opportunities than the men so it is better to give these positions to them.
Q: How many women’s magazines are there in Iran, and what is the difference between them and ‘Zanan’?
A: The number of magazines geared towards women in Iran could be counted on both hands – they are less than 10 in total. There are different kinds of women’s magazines: The first type is those that target women who have a basic education and can only read and write. These magazines are concerned with cooking and sewing or addressing some psychological problems amongst women. The second type is magazines that address family problems (violence, rape and poverty) and they tackle these problems in a superficial and sensationalist manner; what we call ‘yellow journalism’. They would usually publish a picture of a beautiful child, two or three years old, wearing makeup, or other images that have the tried-and-tested attraction features. These magazines attract ordinary people who buy them.
We at ‘Zanan’ try to approach issues differently; our headlines and articles require readers who at least hold a degree. Most of our readers hold high degrees and are integrated into the labor market or have their own businesses. Twenty five percent of ‘Zanan’s’ readers are men. It can be said that ‘Zanan’ is the most serious women’s magazine.
Q: Who are your competitors in the market?
A: Some of the magazines are affiliated to the conservative wing they have their issues and their readership, but I cannot call them competitors. They definitely work very hard. One is called ‘Beh Mazan’ (Women’s Message) and it is affiliated to the Hawza al Ilmiya [religious seminary] in Qom. There was another serious magazine, ‘Huquq Zanan’ (Women’s Rights) but it is no longer published.
Some of the reformist newspapers dedicate pages to women or include women’s supplements within the paper. They publish very serious issues related to women. Those are our most significant competitors.
Q: You are among the group of women advocating the ‘one million signatures’ campaign, how did it start? And can ‘Zanan’ be classified as secular feminist or Islamic feminist [approach]?
A: The ‘one million signatures’ campaign began with the congregation of female activists in Haft’eh Teer Square in downtown Tehran where they were demanding the amendment of the laws that discriminated against women. The police arrived and arrested some of them – it was a violent scene. Following that, we decided to start this campaign to change the laws. In terms of ‘Zanan’s’ affiliations, we in the Iranian society are used to being skeptical with regards to intentions and at ‘Zanan’ we try to fight this. I do not believe in the division of women. Calling this reformist, and that secular and this religious or conservative, for example, does not help. We have complex and interrelated problems and it is best for us that no divisions are made. We are all trying to focus on the goals that aim towards consolidating women’s rights. In the future when we resolve these problems we will have enough time to divide ourselves into numerous groups.
I think the reason behind our strength and the fact that our movement is effective and has a bigger impact is because we have a variety of different views without being divided.
Q: Are the conditions in your home inconsistent with your work?
A: I am divorced.
Q: Is it difficult to be a divorcee in Iran?
A: Previously it used to be a difficult thing but now many women are divorced in Iran or are seeking divorce so it has become quite natural.
Q: Do you think the reasons behind the increased rates of divorce in Iran are social or economic?
A: There are many reasons. My master’s dissertation, which I discussed a few weeks ago, was about divorce. In Iran divorce law is one sided, the husband can divorce his wife at any time he wishes. Contrastingly, women can only get a divorce under one condition: if it is provided for in the marriage contract as a stipulation. It is a broad and complicated issue; however briefly I will say that we have problems and those include the relations between young men and women before marriage; it is not easy in Iran for them to mingle and become well-acquainted before marriage. Our government and our families do not accept that and as such, people get married without knowing one another.
Another problem is that women are considered second-class citizens; after marriage men want to possess the women and the women who are capable of working and are well educated feel that the traditional familial life place great restrictions on them. The division of labor in the house is done the traditional way, which means that most or all of the housework is done by the women even if they are working as well.
There is also the problem of perceiving women as vessels to bear children and to serve their husband and homes only. The new generation of Iranian women cannot tolerate these ideas or practices and so they demand divorce. Many women do not seek divorce for economic reasons, because they cannot support themselves.
Q: What is your assessment of Ahmadinejad’s government, and are you optimistic or pessimistic about future reforms in Iran?
A: This government tends to terminate the social and personal freedoms of women. Women’s freedoms are being restricted. Regarding the future, I am always optimistic about the future. If I am not optimistic about Iran’s government then I am optimistic about it its people – especially the women. I believe that women are moving under the skin, or underground, step-by-step and in an organized manner. That is why they are not very visible to the eye but it is an effective movement. I always say that the women’s movement is advancing but silently, without a sound. This is why I am optimistic; no force can stop this movement. Perhaps some areas may lag but it cannot be stopped and will not retreat.