Pulling Back the Veil

In Iran, the women’s press stirs controversy and encourages reform


| March-April 2005



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Image by Flickr user: Amir Farshad Ebrahimi / Creative Commons

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.