Iran has always been a country where the written word matters: from the laws of Persian King Cyrus the Great, which are now recognized as the world’s first declaration of human rights; to the poems of Háfez and Saadi, which brought mysticism to Islam; to the impassioned writings of Ayatollah Khomeini, which led to the establishment of an Islamic republic.
It’s no wonder, then, that as Iran struggles with the nature and the future of its Islamic identity, a vital and powerful mass media has risen to echo and shape societal sentiments. What might surprise Westerners, though, is that despite the ubiquity of veils in Iran, female journalists and a vibrant women’s press are inspiring activism, pushing clergy to be more open, and encouraging political reform.
Women and youth are “the two most powerful political groups in Iran today,” says journalist Parastoo Dokouhaki, who works for Zanan, the country’s largest-selling women’s magazine. “Without us [reform-minded President Mohammad] Khatami would not have been elected.”
Out of context, the topics magazines like Zanan and Farzaneh, a quarterly journal launched by feminists in 1993, choose to champion appear inconsequential. What seem like innocuous stories about makeup or fashion or dating, however, are actually acts of subversion. In Iran, “the chador [a full-length dark gown and veil] is the most visual symbol of our state,” says Azar Bahrami, an attorney in Tehran who specializes in media law. “And challenging how women look is artfully challenging the state.”
Prompting institutional change with cultural coverage works, in part, because the same things Persia was famous for in ancient times—carpets, gardens, poetry, Shiraz wine—still betray a society that, deep down, thrives on beauty and sensory pleasure. Women’s magazines regularly exploit the latent desire for art, celebration, and style in order to produce a secular, even antireligious mood in Iran.
Women journalists and commentators take their cues from recent history as well. Until the Islamic revolution that deposed the pro-Western shah in 1979, Iranian women, in contrast to their Arab neighbors, were relatively independent. In the mid-19th century, Iranian women were free to pursue an education and run their own businesses. The country’s first women’s magazine, Danish, was published in 1910, and some 30 women journalists had joined the media by 1915.
During the 1920s, with the support of Reza Shah (the last shah’s father), women intellectuals such as Fakher Afagh-i Parsa, who ran the magazine Jahan-e Zanan, helped turn the country into one of the region’s most liberal. In 1935 Reza Shah created the national Women’s Council, and by 1952 Iranian President Mohammed Mossadeq had given women access to maternity leave and disability benefits. The last shah, who deposed Mossadeq in a CIA-backed coup in 1953, gave women even more liberties, including the right to vote.
When the mullahs took over in 1979, though, patriarchal laws were strengthened, which weakened women’s standing in marriage, divorce proceedings, inheritance disputes, and politics. Mehrangiz Kar, who writes a Zanan column titled “Amuzesh-e haqh-e zan” (Lessons on Women’s Rights), says the Quran is now so conservatively interpreted that a woman who wants to get a job or leave the country must first get her husband’s permission. And women adulterers can be punished with death, even though men can have up to four spouses and any number of “temporary” wives.
“If we scream the loudest, it’s because we are in the most pain,” exclaims Bahrami, who has used the country’s quasi-independent courts to help numerous female journalists fight government censors. “Now we are determined to get back what we lost.”
Dissent is a delicate business these days, though, as clerics wield their power ruthlessly and capriciously. So Zanan and other women’s magazines have chosen to chip away at Iran’s conservative establishment rather than confront it head on. 'We’re not challenging people directly,” Dokouhaki says. “We’re challenging closed-mindedness.”
Some conservatives have been fighting back by using the same subtle tactics. Clerics in the holy city of Qom, for instance, publish a magazine called Payam-e-Zan, which is critical of female reformists and is sold as a “women’s” magazine despite not having a single female editor.
Other members of the establishment are more direct, trumping up charges against women journalists and the activists they inspire. The orthodox Guardian Council, headed by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has barred several women, inspired to take action by Mehrangiz Kar’s column in Zanan, from running for office. The Jameah newspaper’s license was revoked after it published color photographs of peasant women harvesting wheat; a judge ruled that Islam forbids publishing photographs of women. Jaleh Oskoui, editor of Panjshanbeh-ha, was arrested because her tabloid paper wrote about a play deemed offensive to Islam. Even the powerful women’s daily, Zan, was closed because it ran a controversial cartoon. The sketch showed a couple being robbed at gunpoint, with the husband trying to convince the gunman to shoot his wife instead of him, since that crime would carry a lighter sentence.
And even though more and more Iranian women are trying to run for office, open businesses, or go to school (six out of ten graduate students are female), women’s magazines are finding that some of their fiercest opponents are female—a sign that the pendulum may have to swing even further to the right before true reform can be achieved.
Recently, the Zeinab Society, a caucus of conservative women in Iran’s parliament, has been pushing to toughen restrictions on what women can wear and to ban the fraternizing of single men and women. In response, Zanan, which publishes an annual report on the role of women in public affairs, has written an exposé on how the group is secretly funded by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
“Such abuse only makes us stronger,” says Bahrami. “It’s proof that now it’s them who are scared of us, not us of them.”