Iran: Women Journalists in Iran and Women in the Iranian Press

Fariba Davoudi Mohajer
Presentation from the Asia Pacific NGO Forum of Beijing +10.
My country—Iran—and many countries in the region are in the grips of the serious peril of patriarchal culture, which takes away innovation and activity from society and obstructs the real participation of women.
This culture of male dominance and superiority has affected all institutions, organizations and layers of society to turn women into the second best gender—in both hidden and overt ways.

A field that has been hit hardest by the impact of this culture in Iran is "women journalists and women in the press". Female journalists are in no way exempt from the general prejudice dealt out to women in all walks of life. The take men have on women has had profound implications for women journalists working in Iranian press.

Female journalists are confronted with the same political, cultural., educational and financial obstacles that all women face; the same traditions, customs, norms and family and tribal restrictions; the same incorrect interpretations of religion which is far from the true Islam.

These religious interpretations differ from Pakistan to Afghanistan, Malaysia to Saudi Arabia. And unfortunately these differences are most evident when it comes to their take on women. These interpretations define the role and responsibilities of women in society and determine what rights she has.

The same interpretations dictate that I, a journalist and political activist, would not be permitted to travel, choose a residence or even divorce without the consent of my husband. The same interpretations draw red lines for women and women journalist and dictate that we do not cross them by breaking the taboos. The same interpretations allow women only superficial participation, which is not real and effective in the macro policymaking of their country.

The wide range of requests of Iranian men and women led to the election of President Mohammad Khatami. As the political atmosphere opened, many newspapers found the opportunity to be published. Many girls were attracted to work and write in these newspapers due to their educational background, interest and ability, outstanding writing talent, high levels of energy, enthusiasm and curiosity and most importantly for them this was a chance to prove themselves.

But never—except for very few instances—did the governing culture allow women to move up towards the posts of manager, editor or director in the media in which they worked. The patriarchal culture governing the media made the growth of women dependant on the decisions of men and drew invisible ceilings to cap the progress of women to ensure that the media's senior management positions would always be out of their reach. As a result women had no say at the decision-making levels and as a consequence the issue of "women in Iran's press" did not get the attention it was due; as the decision for what article to print, where to print it and how was one made exclusively by men.

All our efforts to have a permanent page for women's issues in newspapers were unfruitful. All our efforts for getting permits for publications especially for women were unfruitful, except in a handful of cases which passed through special filters.

All our efforts so we could write what we wanted about women's issues without the final supervision of men did not get us anywhere desirable. The only newspaper that did have a page allocated to women was suspended, and the director of the next newspaper was not willing to allocate a page to the issue.

This is not a desired state to be in when you aim to publicize women's issues and bring it from the sidelines to forefront of the social discussion. Our other aims were to boost the awareness of women through the media, establish a two-way connection with the public and influence public opinion to build norms which redefine the role for women.

I believe that there is a collective decision throughout the world to exclude women from macro decision-making processes; and thus their presence in the most important means in this regards—-namely the media—has been limited. The United Nations can never publicize women's issues without a variety of media. It can never talk about women's rights until it has adopted practical plans for female journalists and how news relating to women should be reflected in the media. Without advertisement tools the United Nations cannot influence public opinion and make the changes required to reestablish the rights of women.

In my country we have the best, most professional and bravest women journalist. Women who have made the most changes with the least facilities. Women who have consistently and constantly written to change backward interpretations and traditional roles. They have been influential in reversing or stopping governmental actions (for example in regards to executions). They have expressed the necessities and have at times forced the bettering of women's conditions.

Today we female journalists write about women ministers, women lawyers, women judges, and honor killings, and try to continue with our work without losing heart. Women journalists, like all other Iranian women, lack four essential elements, which must be analyzed and addressed.

1. Wealth
2. Power
3. Status
4. Information

Without these four elements women will not be able to organize themselves into claiming the rights they are entitled to. Do not keep telling us to believe in ourselves, we do believe in ourselves; but we cannot make significant changes without these four elements. Even if they do give me a permit to publish my newspaper, to do so I must speak with wealthy men. Men who have achieved this wealth by depriving women of economic independence. We must surely discuss ways in which we women can achieve the four essential elements of wealth, power, status and information. If I want to set up a site, publish a brochure or anything like that I will ultimately be overshadowed by a man, and continue moving in a miserable cycle of helplessness.

Women journalists have been racing for many years to reach the men that have effortlessly skipped up the ladder of progress and the manly atmosphere governing Iranian press is one of the most significant problems faced by Iran's female journalists. Also, low wages paid for press activities, which are sometimes uneven between men and women, are also problems faced by women journalists. The usually male editor-in-chief has the last word on every article and these are the things that must change.

A patriarchal environment and culture will resist any drive towards equal rights. Men do not consider progress a right women are entitled to. While the vision of women is deep, precise and delicate men consider politics to be their exclusive realm and thus do not approve of female political journalists. Men believe the arenas of wealth, industry and production are theirs to command and do not allow women to enter into their manly environment. They claim sports for themselves as well, which results in the situation we have today.

Another important factor is that the repeated closing of newspapers, which led to the unemployment of many journalists, had its most profound impact on women and many problems in regards to job security emerged for them.

From the 787 publication permits issued between 1997 and 2000, only 59 were granted to women and only 9 magazines had women directors and many of them were unable to publish due to financial difficulties.

From a total of 1200 journalism cards issued from the Head Press Office, 204 were given to women. From a total of 2232 advertisement permits, only 274 were issued to women. This is while 60% of the people studying these courses at university are female and from the 946 students of the journalism courses offered by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, 554 were male and the remaining 392 were female.

What is certain is that to achieve these goals we require tools, resources and agents of change. We cannot create change unless we have these three elements at hand, and unfortunately we have none.

The agents of change are all men. The officials of political parties and groups, media, press, television and radio managers and directors are all men. Men write our school books and men write the laws. Men pay us our wages; and in short, men hinder our drive towards change.

Female reporters are left behind closed doors as it is considered indecent for women to take part in some meetings for the purpose of reporting. Reporting on sporting venues is for men only and women sport journalists are not even allowed to enter soccer stadiums. Reporting on fields such as crimes and accidents, religious ceremonies (which are largely segregated) and even unions is exclusive to men. It is clear that opportunities have not been equally divided between male and female journalists.

In my opinion, men are seriously worried about the real and unobstructed participation of women and look to them as serious competitors and try to eliminate them by placing a variety of obstacles in their way.

Newspapers that do not offer insurance, or contracts, job security or professional security limit the opportunities for women's progress and gradually eliminate them. Women themselves are granted but a few publication permits and I myself have been waiting for more than five years for a permit to publish a newspaper.

Yes, if I were given a newspaper, I would use it to talk about having the right to divorce, I would write articles about women having the right to the presidency. I would write about how men and women were created and have evolved equally and have equal rights and I would present the issues and thoughts of women. So the best way is for them not to give me a publishing permit, or label me a radical and take away my editorial power to choose my stories.

Women's Employment Situation

Employment of women in the media is largely dependant on her family situation and the opinion of mangers about the role and main responsibilities of women in society. On one hand, the general view is that the primary role and responsibility of women is being mothers and wives. On the other hand, the women who fulfill these two responsibilities do not enjoy the required stability in their employment situation. A married woman who has children usually cannot work fulltime, which means she cannot maintain her employment situation.

Women journalists are worse off compared to women working in other professions. She goes home late and she does not have regular working hours. The house is her second office. When she reaches home she has to write her reports and articles. Her papers are scattered all over the house and her husband and children—in accordance with traditional definitions—want lunch and dinner from a mother who is constantly running between her home and the office, which is scattered throughout the city.

Her needs differ from that of ordinary women and usually the men in her household only except ordinary roles from her. She wants to break away from the rigid restrictions and wants to create new norms and redefine the concepts of herself and women in general; while society and her family do not approve. All this puts her under psychological pressure, the burden of which she must shoulder on her own.

With all these obstacles, female journalists in Iran—with the assistance of men who are conscious of women's issues—have been able to create fundamental changes.

A report from the Public Relations Department of the Women's Cultural and Social Revolution Council shows that from 1863 pieces reflected in the media on women's issues in February 2004 the breakdown of the topics were as follows:

Social perils - 31.6%

General public issues - 15.4%

Cultural - 15.2%

Women in other countries - 12.8%

Women and politics - 7.8%

Women's health - 5.9%

Women's sports - 4.8%

Legal and judicial - 2.5%

Science and research - 2.2%

Education - 1.6%

The Public Relations Department of the Women's Cultural and Social Revolution Council, which is a governmental institution, also announced that 28.1% of the pieces could be classified as positive and 42.4% of die reports were negative and 29.5% were deemed neutral. These reports are indicative of what is going on in society. In October 2003 the newspaper headlines about women's issues were as follows:

Violence and Harassment - 32.5%

Prostitution and Runaways - 22.22%

Murder and Crime - 12.27%

Other Social Perils - 10.61%

Divorce - 9.95%

Theft - 7.3%

Suicide - 4.14%

Addiction - 1%

The highest instances of stories in the same month were as follows:

News related the death of the Canadian journalist Zahra Kazemi - 145

Political - Shirin Ebadi wins the Nobel Peace Prize - 78

Legal and Judicial - The murder of Laleh Saharkhizan, the wife of a soccer-player - 25

Social - Housing loans and assistance granted to single mothers - 17

Social - The city council's plan to eliminate hijab (Islamic covering) in all-girl schools - 11

Crime - The members of the group that smuggled Kyrgyz girls to the United Arab Emirates - 8

Cultural - Feminism - 8

Sport - Women's soccer - 7

Science and Research - Smoking Women - 4

Female Journalists in Iranian Media over the Past Century

Press media started in Iran with the publication of Vaghaye-ol Etefaghiyeh under the management on Mirza Taghi Khan Amir Kabir in 1888. Based on the available information the top officials of all the newspapers, magazines and publications up until the constitutional revolution were men and women had no activity in the press. As in this period women were used only for reproduction, farming and objects of pleasure in the harems.

Then Iran came into contact with western culture and schools for girls were set up as a result. As girls became literate their demands also started getting expressed. In 1909 the first publication specializing on women—named Danesb—was published. This publication was published once every week in eight pages, under the management of Ms. Kahal and was closed after a year due to financial reasons.

Later in 1951 the first illustrated daily publication dedicated to women called Shokufe was stone printed in four pages. Ms. Mozayan-ol Saltaneh, daughter of Seyed Razl Khan Doctor Tabatabaei Semnani, founder and principal of Mo^ayaneh School became the director of this publication.

Ms. Sadighe Dolatabadi, sistet of Haji Mirza Mohammad All Dolatabadi, published Zabau-e Zanan Daily in 1958, three years after the closing of Shokufe. This was the third publication focusing exclusively on women's issues and was published in Isfahan once every fortnight.

Alam-e Nesvan was published under the license of Ms. Navab Safavi by the students and graduates of American schools. Zanan-e Iran was another publication that was published in 1920, but there isn't much information available on it. In 1920 Nameb-e Banooan was published by Shahnaz Azad. In 922Jahan-e Zan was published by Fakhr Afagh Parsa in Mashhad. In 1923 the Society of Nationalist Women published their publication and its editing board was consisted of Fakhr-ol Saltaneh Foruhar, Nour-ol Hoda Mangeneh, and Fakhr Ozma Arghavan. In 1925 Marziyeh Zarabi published Nesvan-e Shargh and later the magazines of Sa'adat, Dokhtaran-e Iran and NourAfshan were published in Bushehr. It is worth mentioning that Shokufe had put forward 12 candidates for the third parliamentary elections and had called upon men to vote for them. This campaign provoked the reaction of the government which closed the publication. Later in 1924 and during the rule of Reza Khan, Aftab-e Shargh was published by Narjes Amozegar and then Zan-e Emrouy was published by Badr-ol Moluk on a weekly basis.

As you can see, Iranian women have a long and proud history of participation in the press, but unfortunately this proud tradition has not continued to this day.