Global and Iranian history are both closely intertwined with the lives and destinies of prominent figures. Every one of them has laid a brick on history’s wall, sometimes paying the price with their lives, men and women alike. Women have been especially influential in the past 200 years, writing much of contemporary Iranian history.
In Iran, women have increased public awareness about gender discrimination, raised the profile of and improved women’s rights, fought for literacy among women, and promoted the social status of women by counteracting religious pressures, participating in scientific projects, being involved in politics, influencing music, cinema... And so the list goes on.
This series aims to celebrate these renowned and respected Iranian women. They are women who represent the millions of women that influence their families and societies on a daily basis. Not all of the people profiled in the series are endorsed by IranWire, but their influence and impact cannot be overlooked. The articles are biographical stories that consider the lives of influential women in Iran.
IranWire readers are invited to send in suggestions for how we might expand the series. Contact IranWire via email ([email protected]), on Facebook, or by tweeting us.
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In 2005, Shahla Sherkat was the first Iranian woman to be awarded the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Courage in Journalism Award. Over the past 26 years, Sherkat has strived to promote women’s rights and call attention to women’s issues in the Islamic Republic, despite facing both direct and indirect harassment and constant pressure from the regime.
Shahla Sherkat was born in 1956 in Isfahan and was 11 when her family moved to Tehran. She received a Bachelor’s degree in clinical psychology from Tehran University and a Master’s degree in women’s studies from Allameh Tabatabaei University.
She begun her career in journalism as a reporter and assistant editor for Rah-e Zeinab (Zeinab’s Path), a weekly government-owned women’s magazine edited by Zahra Rahnavard, who is married to Green Movement leader Mir Hossein Mousavi. When she was 25 she was appointed editor-in-chief of Zan-e Emrooz (Today’s Woman). Before the Islamic Revolution, Zan-e Emrooz was the most popular women’s magazine, but the government took full control of it once the Islamic Republic was in place. The magazine became more feminist in focus in content during Sherkat’s 10-year editorship, and eventually the government ordered its closure.
In 1992, Sherkat launched the monthly publication Zanan (Women), which ran for 16 years, publishing a total of 152 issues.
In a press release announcing that Sherkat had won the Courage in Journalism award, the International Women’s Media Foundation wrote that Zanan had consistently covered women’s issues “in a way that Iranian society considers taboo, including articles on divorce laws, prostitution, HIV/AIDS, domestic abuse and maternal custody issues.” In particular, it highlighted an investigative report published in 1998 about the increasing number of HIV/AIDS victims in Iran and criticized the government’s failure to take action to combat the virus. It also celebrated articles that covered the “controversial topic of prostitution in Iran” and gender discrimination in Iranian universities, published in 2003 and 2004 respectively.
Extremist gangs routinely attacked Zanan’s offices throughout the early and mid-1990s, breaking windows, desks and furniture. On one occasion, Sherkat confronted the gangs in the office after they had ransacked it, arguing with them for six hours before they left the premises. She tried to bring charges against the attackers, but the police refused to intervene.
Sherkat was frequently summoned by the Press Court to answer for articles she published, including one written by the 2003 Noble Laureate Shirin Ebadi and a series of articles written by the human rights lawyer Mehrangiz Kar about Islamic laws relating to women.
In January 2001, Tehran’s Revolutionary Court fined and sentenced Sherkat to four months in prison on charges of anti-Islamic activities after she attended a conference held at the Heinrich Boll Institute in Berlin entitled “The Future of Reform in Iran.” Members of the Iranian judiciary considered the conference “harmful to national security” because they viewed it as a plot to overthrow the Islamic regime. Speaking at the conference, Sherkat had said that Islamic dress code should be encouraged instead of being mandatory. She appealed the verdict against her and was not required to serve the prison sentence, but was forced to pay a cash fine. At least 10 other participants in the conference were arrested and sentenced to various prison terms.
When publishing Zanan, Sherkat constantly had to cope with authorities’ constant threats to shut down the magazine. “There are many times when my writers or readers ask me to put something in the magazine and I sit down and measure the costs and the benefits of printing something,” she said in an interview after receiving the Courage in Journalism Award. “Sometimes you print something that is of extreme value, meaning that it has a very positive impact on the reader and that one piece does great work in society. I may decide to do that even if it leads to the closure of the magazine. But there are many times when one measures the costs and benefits and one may see that it may not be worth causing problems for a 10-year-old publication that may live for another 10 years.”
Sherkat was relatively cautious, but eventually she was unable to save the magazine. In 2008, during the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Press Supervisory Board shut down Zanan after 16 years, accused of “presenting a pessimistic picture of the situation for Iranian women.” Sherkat said after the closure that the board had pointed to reports about crimes against or by women that relied on official statistics published by the government.
Fragile Hopes Meet Reality
When Hassan Rouhani was elected president in 2013, human and women’s rights activists and journalists encountered a new wave of optimism. Shahla Sherkat applied for a permit to publish a new monthly called Zanan-Emrooz (Women of Today). The permit was granted and the first issue was published in May 2014. “A new women's magazine hit newsstands in Iran in May, boosting fragile hopes of more freedom for the media and women activists under President Hassan Rouhani,” wrote the BBC.
It did not take long for the hardliners to respond. Farhang News website warned against the "return of the feminists," saying Zanan-e Emrooz carried on the mission set out by Zanan, only under a different name. And the Paydari website said the magazine's release was "another failure by the ministry of culture of [Rouhani's] government.”
According to women’s rights activist Susan Tahmasebi, the Guardian newspaper reported, Sherkat has always been very aware, and wary of, the red lines imposed by the Islamic Republic, especially with regard to women’s issues. But this did not protect her from attacks and criticism. The influential hardliner daily Kayhan, which is run under the supervision of the office of the Supreme Leader, claimed that Sherkat “works on feminist issues with groups opposed to the Islamic establishment.” The Mashregh News website wrote that objections to Zanan-e Emrooz could be attributed to Sherkat’s background and past work. “Because of the influence from feminist movements in the West, religion is being cited as one of the obstacles to the achievement of women’s rights,” the site reported.
Sherkat’s new venture came to an end after only 11 issues and without prior notice. On April 27, 2015, Iran’s Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance ordered the closure of Zanan-e Emrooz. The order followed publication of a series on “white” or common-law marriage, a taboo subject among hardliners in Iran.
“The Supervisory [Press] Board did not give any notice,” Shahla Sherkat told IranWire at the time. In fact, Sherkat said, staff had been not informed at all. Sherkat herself read the news on Tasnim News Agency’s website just as Zanan-e Emrooz was going to press with its twelfth issue.
Tasnim and Mehr News reported that, at its last meeting, the press board had discussed the “promotion of white marriage, which is contrary to religious and national values.” After reviewing Zanan-e Emrooz’s reports on the subject, the board decided that the magazine was guilty of promoting the “phenomenon” in a number of articles. “Based on Paragraph 2, Article 6 of the Islamic Republic’s Press Law, the articles were deemed to be contrary to public morality, and the publication was shut down.” The case was referred to the court, Tasnim reported.
“We did not promote it, nor did we justify it,” the magazine’s Facebook page said. “We just explained it. As it happens, we also reported on the experiences of women who believe that such a relationship sacrifices women rights. Two sociology experts gave their opinion about the imprudent nature of it and the legal section of the magazine warned women against it. This was the whole story. Before the magazine was shut down, nobody asked us about what we had written and why. We were not given a chance to be heard and defend ourselves. Nobody told us that everybody else can talk about this issue except this magazine, which is dedicated to women. Nobody knows where to bring up issues that women face in this society.”
If this editor and journalist’s record and reputation is any indication of what is to come, this is not the last the world will hear from Shahla Sherkat.
This article was originally published in October 2015
Also in the series:
50 Iranian Women you Should Know: Jinous Nemat Mahmoudi
50 Iranian Women you Should Know: Simin Behbahani
50 Iranian Women you Should Know: Forough Farrokhzad
50 Iranian Women you Should Know: Parvin Etesami
50 Iranian Women you Should Know: Farokhru Parsa
50 Iranian Women you Should Know: Jamileh Sadeghi
50 Iranian Women you Should Know: Fatemeh Daneshvar
50 Iranian Women you Should Know: Fatemeh Moghimi
50 Iranian Women you Should Know: Googoosh
50 Iranian Women you Should Know: Sima Bina
50 Iranian Women you Should Know: Tahereh Qurratu'l-Ayn
50 Iranian Women you Should Know: Farah Pahlavi
50 Iranian Women you Should Know: Pardis Sabeti
50 Iranian Women you Should Know: Mahsa Vahdat
50 Iranian Women you Should Know: Maryam Mirzakhani
50 Iranian Women you Should Know: Fatemeh Karroubi
50 Iranian Women you Should Know: Shirin Ebadi
50 Iranian Women you Should Know: Mehrangiz Kar
50 Iranian Women you Should Know: Narges Mohammadi
50 Iranian Women you Should Know: Zahra Rahnavard
50 Iranian Women You Should Known: Leila Hatami
50 Iranian Women You Should Known: Golshifteh Farahani
50 Iranian Women you Should Know: Susan Taslimi
50 Iranian Women you Should Know: The Khomeini Women
50 Iranian Women you Should Know: Nasrin Moazami
50 Iranian Women you Should Know: Masih Alinejad
50 Iranian Women you Should Know: Lily Amir-Arjomand
50 Iranian Women you Should Know: Effat Tejaratchi
50 Iranian Women you Should Know: Tahmineh Milani
50 Iranian Women you Should Know: Minoo Mohraz
50 Iranian Women you Should Know: Bibi Khanoom Astarabadi
50 Iranian Women you Should Know: Nafiseh Koohnavard