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Shahla Lahiji: Iran’s First Female Publisher | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Tehran, Asharq Al-Awsat- The story of Iran’s first female publisher, Shahla Lahiji, is like a novel itself that has been published by her publishing house, Roshangaran [Persian for the Enlightened]. She was born and raised as a child under the Shah. As a child, Iran was in its revolutionary atmosphere and male and female youth exchanged books by Dr. Ali Shariati on revolutionary Islam and democracy – ideas that transformed Islam from a religion practiced at mosques to a national and political liberation movement. Male and female youth from all political currents—nationalistic, religious, liberal and leftist, circulated and sang revolutionary songs on the streets in preparation for the return of Ayatollah Khomeini. The revolution took place and a lot changed. Women suffered the most. According to Shahla Lahiji, she responded by founding a publishing house and joined the Iranian feminist movement. Interviewed by Asharq Al Awsat at her office in downtown Tehran, she gave a brief account of her life.

“I was brought up in an open minded household. My mother was among Iran’s fifth class of female students to complete study at a modern school and was among the first women who joined the public service, working in a post office about 75 years ago. My father was educated in Europe. I was lucky to have grown up in such an environment. Not only did my family avoid gender-discrimination, but they also gave women more privileges than males, who were in the service of females. Growing up in our household, I thought the whole world was just the same. However, when I went out into society, I saw it was different. I have loved writing since I was a child and I made it my career. When I turned 16, I was the youngest member of Iran’s women writers association. In 1979, I left Shiraz for Tehran with my husband and children. With the events of the Iranian revolution, I had begun to be part of cultural life in the capital. The revolution began with songs. Everyone was optimistic and everyone on the street sang and debated. We were full of hope. Students and women were highly active politically. The Iranian revolution took place against the backdrop of revolutionary movements in Latin America and Palestine. The atmosphere was revolutionary. A year after the revolution, authorities made some decisions. The youth and college students were active and voiced opposition to those decisions and criticized the government. The authorities, however, banned political parties and activities. Opposition figures were sent to prison, barred from work and pursued.

There was a scary atmosphere in Tehran, and people began to wonder what was going on. Unfortunately, women were the first victims of the revolution. Liberal intellectuals and others did not oppose the measures taken against women and later themselves fell victims to similar actions that restricted freedoms and rights. Some conservative clerics regarded women as sinners who should be covered up and kept out of public life. The earliest laws were anti-women, banning them from studying subjects such as chemical engineering, technological disciplines and archeology and preventing them from assuming key government positions or working in television. Many women were dismissed from their jobs, and nursery schools were closed to compel women to quit their jobs. The child custody law was passed giving men custody of children at a very early age, and the age of marriage for women was lowered to 9 years. In short, pressures were exercised against women in society. We women knew that the pressures we experienced would be endured by others at a later stage. However, intellectuals and student organizations made a grave mistake by not concerning themselves with the injustice against women at an earlier stage of the revolution. I wonder why those intellectuals did not think their turn was to come after women. In that climate, it occurred to me to found a publishing house and I started writing. I was the first woman to found and own a publishing house in Iran. I started with a small capital that consisted of contributions from friends and a bank loan. I did not like to burden my husband or to depend on him financially. My friends granted me loans to establish the publishing house. I started with 50,000 Iranian tomans [each toman consists of 10 Iranian Riyals) (US $900), which was enough to publish one book. Books were small to reduce expenses. We were first located in a downtown Tehran building. Someone lodged a complaint against us and the police came and threw us out onto the streets. We relocated to a cellar opposite a foul toilet. I tried to make the place a little better, placing pictures, flowers and carpets around. I can remember a young man who wanted to publish a book that I rejected on account of low quality, advising him to read more. He came to the office and threatened to kill me if I did not publish the book, then he backed down and said: ‘I will leave you to die from the stink.’ It was a difficult beginning, but I always said to myself this is temporary and that things will get better. During the war with Iraq, attention turned away from internal issues to the enemy attacking us. There was a shortage in paper at that time, and publishing was very difficult. I could not afford buying from the free market because of the high prices and this continues till now. The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance is the main source of paper for publishers and any book has first to be vetted and passed by it. No book shall be printed or distributed without permission from the ministry. I can remember a book published by Roshangaran entitled “Women in Pursuit of Emancipation”, for which I had to modify the introduction six times to obtain paper from the ministry, which had its reservations about the book. It would give me the paper only if I changed some points in the book that it had not agreed with. Over one long year we published only one book. It was a difficult beginning. What encouraged me to continue was my belief that a principal duty of a publisher was to discover young voices that expressed what was new in society.

I remember that one day a colleague came and gave me a manuscript of a book of short stories. He asked me to read the manuscript and said that the author was waiting for my response. I read the first story of the book and called the author for a meeting in Roshangaran because I liked the work. What is interesting is that the first story that I liked was banned by the ministry but the author is one of the best female writers in Iran. Her name is Mahbouba Mir Qadiri. I told her that she should write a novel and she said she could not. I told her to try and eventually, she wrote a novel and gave it to me to read. I made some critical comments and sent it back to her and she re-sent it after making some changes. I published her first novel entitled “And…the Others,” which won the best book award in Iran. It was her first novel. What I want to say is that I do not follow the market trend. I believe that one duty of publishers is to improve the public taste rather than follow the market and sacrifice talents in favor of this market. We have this problem concerning women issues because we know that reading this form of literature or type of books is not popular. Nevertheless, it is our social and cultural duty. We have to find gifted people who have no opportunity to publish their books and grant them this opportunity. Not everyone is willing to pay for something that is not guaranteed to sell or bring in profit. We are interested in talents, and our experience tells us that there always comes a day when the books we publish are a success. This year we have been rewarded and Mahbouba Mir Qadiri’s book received the best book award. We follow the same approach—the theme rather than the market, in our translations. For example, when I first thought of translating Czech writer Milan Kundera’s works into Persian, I knew exactly what I was about. When we translate some work, we make slight changes to the text, removing the parts that we know will be cut. In Kundera’s book, for instance, I knew that so many sections would be deleted and wondered whether to publish the book despite all the deleted parts, informing the reader that the book was censored and that sections were removed, and marking these expurgations from the original work with dots — because I believe this was the reader’s right — or not to publish at all. As a publisher, there was always an internal conflict whether to publish a censored book or not to try to publish a book that I know will be censored. Sometimes my answer is that a censored book is better than nothing at all. Censorship poses a problem for the publishing industry in Iran, and to publish any book, we have to obtain permission from the ministry that we take to a printing press to print. Without this permission we cannot print, and otherwise both the printing press and publishing house would be penalized and the book confiscated. These practices violate the Iranian constitution and the principles of the freedom of publishing. For example, the ministry sent us a list of the sentences and paragraphs to be deleted from a new book that we want to publish. The instructions were to delete line 16 on page 10, lines 15-16 on page 11 and so on. Sometimes entire paragraphs or pages are omitted. This happened to one book. The ministry sends a list of paragraphs and sentences it wants to be deleted without signing the request because they know it is illegal. They do not give us any material evidence to go to court for violation of law. But I began to compile evidence and took the case to court about several books. I took examples of the paragraphs and pages that were requested to be deleted. My case is that all such correspondence is illegal. According to the Iranian constitution, only the judiciary is allowed to ban books from being published and it has to give reasons for this. The ministry rejects books being published without giving reasons. This does not fall within the ministry’s jurisdiction because it is an executive body rather than a neutral judicial body. Anything that is called a book is subject to censorship in Iran. It does not matter whether it is 40, 400 or 4,000 pages. If it is called a book, it has to go to the ministry. It is paradoxical that the ministry exercises censorship pursuant to people rather than the law, because there is no such law that allows it to exercise censorship.

If we have a reformist minister, as the case was under former President Mohammad Khatami, things are much better. If we have a conservative government, the ministry exercises strict censorship. For example, in Iran we cannot publish a book that advocates Communism but can publish one that explains Communism and principal Communist ideas. A reformist minister would permit publishing such a book, but a conservative minister would reject the same book. With regard to publishing texts on sexual relations, the constitution allows these texts if they help to understand the meaning of a book. In other words, they should not be sensational and should be important to understand the general meaning of a book. Once again, however, they censor such sections. For example, a kiss has to be deleted from any book today.

There are other publishers that translate Arabic books such as those written by Naguib Mahfouz but they also are subject to censorship in Iran. Therefore, our translation and publishing of foreign books face problems, and it is clear that stories and novels suffer the most. We have no other solution but to select the novels that have the least problems. For example, Chilean writer Isabel Allende and Milan Kondera have many interpretations of love relations and publishing their works is difficult in Iran; however, it is better than Iranian writers who cannot mention male-female relations in their novels because of censorship.

When Gothenburg Book Fair 2006 chose me for the publishing award, they asked me: ‘How do you explain male-female relation in your books?’ I replied, ‘We are angels. We don’t have relations,’ meaning that in Iran, we have multi-level censorship of all forms of literary writing first by the writers themselves, secondly by publishers because they do not want their books to be banned, and thirdly according to the personal taste of the ministry officials. We have only translated three books in Roshangaran so far. Iran is not a member of the Intellectual Property Protection Agreement (IPPA), and therefore as a publishing house I do not have intellectual property rights and no one can buy my intellectual rights. Even if we, as a publishing house, buy the publishing rights of a given book to translate and publish, then another publishing house in Iran translated and published it, Roshangaran cannot do anything because Iran does not have laws against this. It is absurd. We have to join the IPPA if we want to be part of the global publishing industry. This year I met the Italian writer Umberto Eco, who said that one of his books was published in Iran without his permission or his publisher’s permission, laughingly adding that a copy of the Persian translation of his book was not even sent to him. I call this ‘plagiarism’. This is one problem of the publishing industry in Iran. Iran is not ready yet to join the IPPA, because if we signed the agreement, the ministry would not be able to continue censorship the way it does now. Pursuant to the IPPA, a signatory government shall not practice censorship or remove a section from a foreign author’s work, because this is a part of the intellectual property rights. The government now argues that it is not ready to pay the intellectual property rights to writers and publishers because many foreign works are not appropriate for the Iranian society. However, we know this is not the reason but rather an excuse to proceed with censorship of published works. Iran is a good market for foreign books, and there is a passion to read. Many books are reprinted, sometimes between eight and ten times or over.

The publishing industry takes up most, but not all of my time. I’m an active member and the spokesperson of the campaign to change the discriminatory laws against women in Iran. Through this campaign, we want to explore the possibilities of change in Iranian society—this is the main goal. If we say that a million people put their names and addresses and signed as part of the campaign, this practically means that we have approximately another 5 million who do not want to put their names down probably out of fear or as a precaution. Not only do women face conservative men but also conservative women. It was female MPs who proposed a draft law to set a maximum quota of 50 percent for women in universities. A while ago one of them said the government should pay for women who bear children. This is not new; Hitler adopted this in Germany when he was in power. The more children you have, the better you are as a citizen in society but do not approach politics or work or join political parties; just stay home and have children.

The problem is that the pressure generated by words cannot alone solve problems, and there must be financial capabilities. When I was younger, I said that marriage, child custody and divorce laws in Iran had to be changed. But now, with 40 years of experience (I’m now 64 years old), I say that economic freedom is more important. Associated with this is the right of women to work, because without this, all other rights, if any, are worthless. For example, not all women enjoy economic independence so it is useless to obtain the right of divorce if they cannot work like men and support themselves. The right of divorce would be an advantage for the rich only not for everyone. They would not be able to maintain child custody. In Iran we have non-governmental organizations, but we also have others that pretend to be civil organizations. I call them GO’s [governmental organizations] because they were established by the government as civil organizations. Some of them are free, but many do not have the chance to work freely and independently. The government establishes them and allocates their budgets. When you ask the government about how many NGOs there are in Iran, it says that there are 1,000 NGOs, while the truth is that many of these were founded by the government. During the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, which was attended by some so-called Iranian NGOs, a Chinese official asked, ‘Do you have problems in Iran?’ ‘No, we don’t have problems,’ they replied. ‘Why are you here then?’ He asked.

When some authority affiliates or a reliable person wants to found an organization called ‘Muslim Women’s Freedom’ or another named ‘Female Quran Readers,’ it is permissible. If you want to establish an NGO for cancer patients, child protection or liver patients or a cooperative society for carpet weaving in a village, they will give you a license. Also, religious minorities in Iran are allowed to set up NGO’s provided that they do not engage in any political activity. We have Jewish, Armenian, Zoroastrian and Christian organizations. Authorized independent organizations are environmentally active or green parties. We have only one independent women’s organization, ‘Women’s Cultural Association,’ which has caused many problems for authorities so far. For example, it was behind the campaign to change Iranian laws.

Work in publishing has its joys and dealing in politics has its own consequences. I was sent to Evin prison for two months, including one month in solitary confinement for participating in the Berlin conference in 2005. Within a couple of days I was used to prison. After the first month, I was moved to a cell with an Iranian female activist and intellectual who had also been to the Berlin conference.

I work for approximately 20 hours a day between office and home. My husband died years ago, and my children live in America. I wake up at 5:30am and work until 1am or 2am next day. I sleep for around 3 hours a day and that is enough for me. I have never liked sleep much. I do not like eating either. In fact I like tea more than anything else. I go to Roshangaran at 8am, and usually go to the ministry every morning to enquire about my books and whether they were approved or if there have been objections or to submit a new text that I want to publish or to challenge a decision that the ministry has made. I have to go everyday because I have many books there and I quarrel with the officials there. Some of the officers say that when I go there, the officials get upset and when I am gone, there is a sigh of relief. They fear me at the ministry because of my long publishing experience and because of my height and sharp tongue!

I travel frequently but not for more than a week because I have a lot of work at the publishing house. I have to do my work myself, particularly quarreling with the ministry. Reading literature is my hobby. I also write poetry, but what appeals more to me are good quality novels. Even if I go to bed at 1 or 2am, I cannot get to sleep without reading. I spend all my money on books. I like movies but do not go to the cinema because I have no time. I just watch movies at home. I like intelligent movies. I like all types of music. I begin my weekend [Friday] by listening to music. I have two sons who are living in America. They always ask me why I would not go to live with them and I say to them, ‘Can you really see me preparing food and waiting for you to come home? I have my life and you have yours. As long as I can do my work, I will not leave my country.’ I am happy and optimistic. I am well-known here, but not because I won international awards. I think my key advantage is that people trust me and Roshangaran. It is not an advantage that all publishing houses enjoy. People come and ask: ‘How many books did you publish this month? Send them to us.’ But there are those who do not want these ideas to develop. A few years ago, Roshangarana was burnt down by a Molotov cocktail. A group of youths came and hurled the bomb. Thank God it was late and no workers were in the building at the time. I asked neighbors whether they saw anyone or anything suspicious and they said no. The police asked whether I suspected anyone in particular to which I replied no. Then a policeman asked why there weren’t any iron railings around the building. I said that this is a publishing house not a bank. No one was arrested or held accountable. However, we rebuilt everything and continued work. Today we have 14 workers and a branch opposite Tehran University, a main book market. We can continue. We probably do not make a lot of profit but we are in a good position. When I entered the publishing industry in Iran, I was the only woman. Now there are about 400 publishing houses owned and run by women, and this is a big number. When there were 10 publishing houses owned by women, I brought them together and said it is time to have our own association, therefore we established the women publishers association, which now includes 60 female publishers and is one of the most powerful civil organizations in Iran. From this career, I say, ‘I’m a publisher and this is a good career for women and an independent career. It honors me to be a publisher.’ I’m optimistic about the future because it is difficult to stop the pressure for advancement. You can stop a river from flowing downstream, but you cannot cause it to flow upstream.”