In Other Words

Iranian Women Please Stand Up

Zanan, April 2005, Tehran

In the summer of 1993, I arranged to meet Shahla Sherkat, the editor of a new monthly women’s magazine, in her modest editorial offices. Sherkat had launched Zanan, which means "Women," only a year earlier. What I found when I arrived were smashed windows and overturned furniture. The night before, vigilantes had attacked the magazine's offices in Tehran. With glass everywhere, we sat on the steps leading from the terrace to a small garden. Sherkat seemed unflustered. The vigilante attack, she told me, was part of the struggle she wages every day to keep Zanan alive.

Sherkat was born to a traditional, middle-class family and was only in her early 20s when the Iranian Revolution began. Prior to working at Zanan, she was the editor of a woman's magazine, Zan-e Ruz, or "Today's Woman." The magazine was published by the Kayhan group, which, after the revolution, gradually became a mouthpiece for conservative clerics. Kayhan's shift to the right did not sit well with Sherkat. Nor did her ardent support for women's rights endear her to the publishers. In 1991, after eight years at Zan-e Ruz, she was dismissed.

Despite strict censorship and little funding, Sherkat soon launched Zanan. Intended as a bridge between pre- and post-revolution Iranian women, the magazine is a reformist vehicle that speaks for liberal-minded Islamists and secularists. It's a personal and unabashedly feminist mission for Sherkat, who once sold her cell phone to help pay the salaries of the women on her staff. Zanan has run articles on the latest theories of feminism in the West, the unjust treatment of women in Islamic societies, and the significance for Iranians of international conventions on human rights and the rights of women and children. It has published stories on violence against women, women running single-family households, legalizing abortion, the spread of AIDS, and the plight of runaway girls. Zanan, of course, has also devoted space to prominent Iranian women, such as Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi.

By consistently tackling taboo subjects, the magazine pushes the limits of what is possible. The editors' bravery has not gone unnoticed -- or unpunished. Over the years, Sherkat has frequently gone to court to defend her publication and its writers. In one notable incident in the early days of the magazine, she invited Mehrangiz Kar, a secular female lawyer, and Mohsen Saidzadeh, a young liberal cleric, to contribute to a controversial series of articles about the impact of women on Iranian family and civil law. Kar was later jailed for several months for her activism, and Saidzadeh served time for his essay. Afterward, Kar went into exile and Saidzadeh stopped writing altogether. Zanan somehow escaped retribution.

Not all articles in Zanan incite such strong reactions. The glossy has published stories about Iran's first woman pilot, its first female cab driver, and the country's first woman racing car ace. Sherkat also makes sure to elicit a wide variety of opinions. The magazine has sponsored roundtable discussions between men and women representing both secular and traditional points of view. It sets aside a page for men to voice their opinion of women's roles and rights. And each year, it publishes a report card on both the achievements and shortcomings of female parliamentarians.

Sherkat boldly courts controversy with a fearlessness that led the International Women's Media Foundation to honor her with a Courage in Journalism award in May. That courage was on full display in Zanan's April cover story, which featured the young journalist Massih Ali Nejad. The intrepid reporter had recently written about an unpublicized raise that government officials had quietly adopted for themselves. Consequently, her press credentials were revoked, and she was almost beaten up by a conservative member of parliament. But Zanan's cover showed an uncowed Ali Nejad bursting in laughter, even showing a wisp of hair.

When I visited Zanan's offices this August, Sherkat and her staff were again bracing themselves for tough times. As always, Zanan was strapped for cash. And with the election of the conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president in July, the magazine's staff expects to be in the government's cross hairs again soon. Still, Sherkat seemed unfazed -- just as when I met her in the magazine's rampaged offices a dozen years ago. "I am always hopeful," she says. "In journalism, nothing is impossible."

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