Caught in the Middle

Women and Press Freedom in Iran

by Persheng Vaziri | published February 16, 2001

Women will be a key constituency in Iran's upcoming May presidential election, which is widely regarded as a referendum on the "reform" movement symbolized by President Mohammad Khatami. Though women voters can be found across the Iranian political spectrum, one group—women journalists—will continue to support Khatami, should he declare his candidacy. During the remarkable press boom that followed Khatami's election in 1997, job opportunities for female writers multiplied. The reformist press was a bright spot for women in Iran's otherwise stagnant economy, where the few available jobs usually go to men.

In the spring of 2000, conservative forces, led by the judiciary and the armed forces, set in motion a series of trials that has led to the closing down of about 30 newspapers and magazines. In its last session, the predominantly conservative Fifth Majles (Parliament) of Iran passed a law that significantly curbed freedom of the press. The press and the people of Iran were hopeful that this law would quickly be turned around by the Sixth Majles, which is a predominantly moderate body including many self-proclaimed reformists. In early August 2000, the newly elected representatives moved to repeal the restrictive press law, but the Ayatollah Khameneii—successor to Khomeini as Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution—intervened to stop the change. Since then, the status of the reformist press has been frozen, and with it the activity of the once thriving newspaper kiosks, enthusiastic young journalists and eager public who followed events closely in the pages of reformist papers. Khatami, in order to keep peace, and due to his limited executive power, has failed to effectively reverse press restrictions and has only occasionally voiced objections to newspaper closings. The mass closure of newspapers and magazines threw many reporters out of work, and a large percentage of them are women. Young women journalists, fearing intensified restrictions on press and other freedoms, and that they may lose their careers for good, oppose the resurgence of the conservatives.

Women in the Job Market

Since the beginning of the Islamic Revolution, the representation of women in higher learning and the job market has improved, contrary to Western stereotypes. It is likely that families felt their daughters would be safer studying and working in the new, more consciously Islamic society. A study that compared the numbers of women in the job market in 1977 and 1987 showed that female participation in the labor force had decreased from 11 percent to 8 percent, but that the quality of women's occupations had gone up. Fewer women held jobs in secretarial fields, and the number of women professionals -- doctors, journalists and others -- had increased. Ironically, even greater tolerance for women in the public sphere under Khatami has coincided with an economic downturn that has negatively affected job opportunities for women. The downturn, exacerbated by the newspaper closures, has hit women journalists particularly hard. Today statistics demonstrate that although 54 percent of entrants to universities in Iran are women and about half of journalism students are women, most don't enter the job market. Hossein Ghandi, a well-known reporter for the reformist press, commented that in his class of 24 students, only eight were women. Of those, only two have remained in the field of journalism, and they have not advanced according to their merits.

Press Focus on Women

As women's political activity alongside men increased after the revolution, publications focusing on women's issues sprang up to answer the increased demand. Zan-e Rooz (Today's Woman), a government women's magazine which dates to 1964, shifted from being a Western-style gossip sheet to a publication dedicated to exploring the rights of women in the framework of Islam. Its editorial board and reporters have been almost exclusively female. Ten years ago, when it adopted a narrower Islamic point of view, several of its chief editors left to start their own magazines. Shahla Sherkat's Zanan magazine has treated women's rights since 1991. Razieh Gerami started a monthly magazine to deal with legal issues pertaining to women in 1997. In July 1998, Fa'ezeh Hashemi, daughter of former president Ali Hashemi-Rafsanjani and former member of parliament, launched Zan, the first-ever women's newspaper in Iran. Five other magazines are devoted to women's issues. Only a couple&mdashlike Pyam-e Zan, published by the theological school at Qom—have a conservative Islamic orientation.

But the conservative backlash targeted the newly vibrant women's press. The Women's Commission of the Fifth Majles—in which a record 14 women held seats—ratified a law in July 1998 that aimed to prevent the press from printing features on women, as a way of halting the lively debate on women's rights. Fa'ezeh Hashemi and other reformists opposed the bill to no avail. But so far the law has been impossible to implement without more aggressive action. In April 1999, the Revolutionary Court ordered the closure of Zan on the spurious pretext that it had printed an announcement from the exiled former empress, and a cartoon critical of women's freedoms under Islam. (The full text of the empress's announcement had earlier appeared in a conservative paper.)

Women Writers Out of Work

For women journalists at reformist papers, the transition to new jobs in their chosen field has been particularly difficult. Many have remained unemployed, because in Islamic Iran the prevalent assumption is that women are supported by their husbands or fathers. The new restrictive press law makes it illegal for journalists who once worked in the banned papers to work in newly established newspapers. In the best cases, the unemployed journalists are doing research for government or private institutions, publishing house magazines for Iranian companies or writing books.

A few have fared better than the rest. Prizewinning journalist Jila Bani Yaghoub, 29, started her career with the large government papers. When she worked at the municipal daily Hamshahri, she irked her superiors and colleagues by insisting that her byline be placed under her articles. Later she wrote for a number of reformist papers. Bani Yaghoub describes the atmosphere of the reformist papers as "vibrant and busy...with as many women working as men," even in management. "Whereas the government papers had a 'government office' atmosphere, the reformist papers were more like what we saw and admired in 'All the President's Men.'" Bani Yaghoub notes how the reform press attracted readers by including more photographs, catchy titles and crediting their contributing journalists. The conservative papers have reluctantly started to use some of these same tactics. Bani Yaghoub is now writing a book called "The Journalists" about the unemployed journalists of the banned papers. Many of her informants, especially women, feel that they will never be able to repeat the activities they were involved in before the round of press closures.

In 1999, Minou Badiyi, 40, was dismissed from Keyhan, a venerable daily, for her liberal views. She quickly joined the editorial board of one of the new reformist papers. Even though the reformist papers employ more women, says Badiyi, the general trend in Iran is still very discriminatory against women, especially at the higher management levels. Most of her male contemporaries now hold key publishing jobs, but most women she knew as a younger journalist left the field in mid-career. Even Zan, the women's newspaper that briefly circulated at the height of the reformist press boom and employed many women, selected men for key positions, including editor-in-chief.

Still With Khatami

Aspiring young women professionals are caught in the middle of the complex and constantly shifting battles between "reformists" and "conservatives" in contemporary Iran. But in a society where being a good mother is considered the ultimate role of a woman, and where most of the newspapers have been shut down by conservative forces, women journalists remain optimistic about the future. They feel that the conservative backlash is only a temporary setback for a population that is 65 percent under the age of 25, eager to be connected with the international community and anxious to live in a democratic nation. Despite the inability of the reform movement to protect Iran's hard-won press freedoms, female journalists continue to support Khatami in large numbers, because voting for the alternative conservative candidates may mean losing many of their social and political rights.

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