Khabarnegaran.info-Niki Azad: Local journalist Mahdieh Amiri speaks of the hardships of practicing journalism in the southern Iranian province of Bushehr. Amiri has been working as a journalist in Bushehr for years. Since 2007, she has been the editor-in-chief of a few local websites, biweekly and quarterly magazines. She is now the editor-in-chief of hamooniran.com website and Ava-ye Dashtestan biweekly.
There is series of ceilings for women journalists28 March 2014
Translated by Rasa- Khabarnegaran.info
"I, as the head of social affairs used to take part in the meetings of this council. Captions which related to women were usually received less votes. As a matter of fact, as soon as there was a mention of woman or women in of my proposed captions, most of the members of the council who were men would sneer at them."
Zhila Baniyaghoob is a journalist and an activist for women’s rights. She has worked in the editorials of various newspapers such as Nouroz Newspapers, Va’ghaye Al’etefaghhi, Sarmaye and ... . She was arrested on 20 June 2009 along with her husband, Bahman Ahmadi Amo’ei, during the turmoil that followed the presidential election of 2009 and led to widespread suppression of protests against the outcome of this election. In June 2010 she was sentenced to one year in prison and banned from working with newspapers for 30 years. She was summoned to the enforcement authorities at Evin in September 2012 to spend her one year of custody in prison and was released on 23 June 2013 after completing her sentence from the women section of the Evin prison.
The award for courage in journalism by the International Women’s Media Foundation in 2009 and also the special award for "Freedom of Expression" by Reporters without Borders in 2010 for the weblog "We Are Journalists" was given to Zhila Bani Yaghob. The following interview with Zhila Bani Yaghob is about the conditions of women journalists in Iran and her recently published book.
Ms Baniyaghoob what are the conditions of women journalists in Iran at present?
There has been some improvements in the conditions of women journalists in comparison to the past — I mean the past decade. However, there are still many problems. At the start of 2000s and even before that in 1990s women journalists compared to male journalists in the editorials of most newspapers and magazines were a minority. In particular, they were less represented in political services.
Why were women less represented in political services? What limitations did exist for their presence?
It appears that a political journalist could only be a man. Gradually there has been some openings for women in these arenas. Both because there has been a rise in the number of women journalists in newspapers and also because the number of political correspondents as well as reporters in areas where women were less present has increased.
I remember that in those years the trip by women journalists to other cities or other countries was very much restricted and at times practically impossible. When in 2003 and 2004 I was planning to travel to Afghanistan and Iraq to cover the war, the people in charge of the newspaper where I used to work refused my trip solely because I was a woman. Well, now some of these restrictions have been largely removed. But still, there is a series of glass ceilings for women journalists.
Do you mean there is some kind of gender segregation in newspaper services for women?
If women in the past could seldom become political correspondents, they are now seldom could become the head of a political section in a newspaper. Often women could become the head of a social affair section such as a literary or artistic section but not the head of a sport or political section. Or one could see very few women ever becoming the editors in chief. For now the maximum threshold for the promotion [of women] seems to be the head of sections such as social ones.
Considering that there are limitations and sensitivities in the field of feminist activities in Iran, do these also enter journalistic activity in the field of women?
Yes, we have problems. In Iranian newspapers it is the male discourse which has absolute dominance. I, as a journalist who has worked for years with different newspapers in Iran, have researched this subject very seriously and systematically and have also published articles about it as well. Women journalists inherently face many challenges against the male domination of Iranian newspapers; let alone the difficulties they would face as women in publishing women news.
Have you so far felt that these limitations are being imposed by your male colleagues?
I can refer here to my experience in one of the newspapers. Every day between 5:00 to 5:30 pm we had in the editorial office a meeting called caption council. The members of this council were the editor in chief, his deputy and the heads of other sections. The purpose of the meeting was to finalize the captions for the front page in a rather democratic fashion. As the head of social affairs I used to take part in the meetings of this council. Any caption related to women would receive very few votes. As a matter of fact, as soon as there was any mention of woman or women in a my proposed captions, most of the members of the council who were men would sneer at them and say not again, Zhila has once more put forward the subject of women. News and reports about women would be treated with jokes and laughter and even these would turn into mockery. I always tried to propose captions for the front page which also had the necessary professional and journalistic attraction and elements. But most of the times high valued news in the field of women would lose out to other news who did not even have the necessary elements of a good news and would be voted out [in the council]. It was not just about news, it was also true about pictures for the front page. It was very seldom that a picture of a woman appeared or appears on the front page. It was not just specific to a newspaper. All other newspapers for which I worked, were more or less the same.
To what extent has the ban from journalism imposed on you for thirty years affected your life at a time when most newspapers are closed down or most of them are not really working?
This ban has affected my life significantly; journalism is not just a profession to me for which I have expertise. It is the only profession which I genuinely love. The court has barred me not only from my profession and source of earning but it has banned me from a profession which I like.
Are you facing financial hardship because of this sentence at a time when your husband is still in Jail?
When I objected to my banning and said "this is the only profession which I know and thus you’ve deprived me of my source of earning for living", one of the judges in the appeal court responded by smiling and retorting: "I see; are you very upset that we’ve taken away your source of living. So what?". I was amazed that this judge talks about one’s loss of earning as if one should be proud of it. In the same court session my legal counsel, Ms Farideh Ghierat said that her client has lost her job, her husband is in prison and thus how is she expected to provide for herself and her imprisoned husband?
But none of these objections had any influence. I should also point out that such sentences are even against Iranian domestic laws and there is not such a ban anywhere in the law.
But could such a sentence in the age of Internet and online journalism be seriously considered and make one journalist passive?
Of course the banning itself is painful and constraining for any journalist, however, it cannot make me and other journalist passive; though in the short run it would most certainly impact their lives. In particular, it could have severe financial consequences. But such a sentence could never stop me in the field of journalism.
What was your reaction after your banning for thirty years from journalism? Did you protest?
Once, my sentence was issued by the Revolutionary Court, I explained in a letter to the prosecutor that this sentence could not make me passive and I would like to cite you here that part of my letter which speaks for itself:
Dear Tehran Prosecutor, I live with journalism and not with newspapers! I am not worried about the future of my professional career as I am fully aware that the respectable judge who has sentenced the ban against me has no knowledge of journalism in the past or currently and has no idea about the future developments in journalism and more importantly has no understanding that in today’s world no one could decide about someone’s professional future for the next five, ten or thirty years. As a matter of fact, how could judges know how journalism is likely to be in the next five, ten or twenty years? Maybe those judges who pass such sentences, do not even remember that there were those in the past two or three decades ago who approved of laws which proscribed any citizen from buying a fax machine or prescribed license for anyone wanting to have a telephone number or made it an unrealizable dream for the citizens of this country to acquire a video player. But those who approved of such laws could never have imagined that there would come a day when citizens would be able in their homes to use in place of a fax machine emails to communicate with everywhere in the world and would receive the waves of hundreds of world media by means of small satellite dishes or their computers and then even a cyber army which is financed by billions of tomans and tries to jam these broadcasts or set up filters to stop them would lose out to children or youngsters who would be able to defeat them by coming up with new anti-filters every day. If I and you were still around in the next few years, I shall remind you that just as some judges and statesmen in the past decade had no correct understanding about the waves of satellite media or the world net, so have you no understanding of the future of journalism.
You have won in 2009 the award for courage in journalism by the International Women’s Media Foundation and also the special award for "Freedom of Expression" by Reporters without Borders in 2010; to what extent would you consider these international prizes as something positive?
The least that such prizes could do is that they are very invigorating and heartening at a time when the pressure on journalists such as me becomes overwhelming. Especially sometimes when you are thinking that rather than being appreciated for your efforts as a woman journalist who has endured immense hardships to produce her reports, you are met with the threat of imprisonment or ban from working as a journalist, such awards tell you that there are still those who recognize such efforts and pains. On the other hand, such prizes could draw public attention in Iran and also elsewhere in the world towards issues and difficulties of Iranian journalists.
Your book, "Women in Section 209 of Evin" was published a few months ago by Baran Publications outside Iran. Why did you decide to write this book?
I am a journalist and always look at events from a journalist’s perspective and think about writing about what I see and hear. The same thing happened about my prison experiences. Whenever I have ended up in prison, I have tried from the first moments to record in my memory very attentively whatever I have seen or heard so that I could narrate them after my release. My experience of imprisonment in 2006 was no exception; moreover I have always had great interest in women’s movement in Iran and spent part of my life on it. Naturally, I wanted to record the events surrounding the prison of women activists in 2006 which is one of the watersheds in the struggle of women in recent decades.
Are you saying that you did not write this book to override your 30 year ban from journalism?
Certainly it has had some bearing; as a journalist who is banned from writing I am trying to find ways so that I could continue writing and pass on my writings to my audience.
The book, Women in Section 209 of Evin, was published outside Iran and domestic readers have no access to it; there is no digital copy of this book published yet; so has it been your decision from start to publish a documented report or narrative about a particular historical period in the women’s movement for the audience outside Iran?
I hoped that this book could have first been published in Iran. However, strict censorship in Iran does not allow for such a book to be published in my country. This book was first published in Farsi in Sweden and then its English translation by Leyla Milani was published in the US. Of course, I have heard many times that in the Enghelab Avenue [in Tehran] the Farsi version of this book which is published by Baran Publications is sold as a photocopied version by street pedlars. Anyway, I am happy that this book is finding its way towards its readers in any fashion.
With all those problems which you’ve experienced in these years, your imprisonment as an activist of the women’s movement and a journalist and your thirty-year ban from professional journalism, are you still hoping for better days to come?
I am always hopeful!
Khabarnegaran.info-Niki Azad: How is life for Iranian journalists after prison? Does their attitude toward their journalism – the profession that put them in jail – change? Are they more conservative than before? Or bolder?
Khabarnegaran – Niki Azad: He has been put in jail three times for his journalist writing, though he says that jail has not made him feel disappointed with the profession of journalism.