Shahla Sherkat | 2005 Courage in Journalism Award
Sherkat founded Zanan because she felt mainstream journalism was ignoring serious coverage of women’s rights in Iran. It was the first independent journal to focus on women’s issues after the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
Sherkat has worked as a journalist for 26 years. Before becoming editorial director of Zan-e Rouz, she worked in the publishing department for the production company Kanoon-e Parvaresh Fekri from 1980 – 1982. Before that, from 1979 – 1980, she was the assistant editor of Rah-e Zeynab (Zeynab’s Path), a weekly government-owned women’s magazine.
Sherkat publishes Zanan in a very restrictive and difficult climate. Beginning with the election of Mohammad Khatami as president in 1997, some media outlets began to cover corruption and malfeasance. Still, conservatives tightly control Iran’s judiciary and legislatures. They frequently use their power to close pro-reform publications. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Iranian courts have closed more than 100 publications, most of them pro-reform, since 2000.
According to Zanan editor Roza Eftekhari, a 2005 Nieman Fellow, feminism in Iran has carried a negative stigma and, as a result, many publications stay away from covering topics that may be considered “feminist.”
“Zanan remains the one journal in Iran to speak with great courage on issues of feminism and women’s rights,” said Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East Program for the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars in Washington, DC.
Zanan consistently covers 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 1998, an issue of Zanan featured an investigative report on the increasing number of HIV/AIDS victims in Iran and a critique of government inaction on the disease. Another story, published in 2003, covered the controversial topic of prostitution in Iran. And a story published in 2004 touched upon gender discrimination within Iranian universities.
Zanan also faces continuing financial difficulties because Sherkat is the magazine’s sole owner and, as such, is chiefly responsible for finding funding for the magazine. (Most revenue comes from advertisements for women’s cosmetics and other products.)
Zanan’s offices were attacked by fundamentalist gangs during the early and mid-1990s. During this time, Zanan’s office was in the same building as a reformist magazine, Kian. Sherkat says that the gangs were prompted to attack the magazines because they felt the magazines were creating a movement against the government. The gangs broke the publication’s windows, desks and furniture. Sherkat caught the gangs in the office after they had damaged the place and argued with them for six hours before they left. She tried to bring charges against the attackers after the incident, but police refused to intervene. To protect the magazine today, there are no signs or other indicators that identify Zanan’s, headquarters from the outside streets.
Authorities have also cracked down on Sherkat and her writers with threats of imprisonment. As editorial director, Sherkat is liable for the content of the magazine. She is frequently summoned to Iran’s Press Court to defend specific articles, including an article by 2003 Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi and a controversial series of articles about Islamic law and women that were written by women’s rights lawyer Mehrangiz Kar and Islamic cleric Mohsen Saidzadeh. Charges brought against Sherkat for publishing these pieces were eventually dropped.
In 1987, Sherkat was summoned to court when she published a story about a girl at a Caspian beach who was beaten and arrested by police for not completely covering her hair. She was later exonerated.
In January 2001, Sherkat was fined and sentenced to prison for four months by Tehran’s Revolutionary Court 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.” During the conference discussions on the future of political change in the country took place. Members of the Iranian judiciary got word of the conference and considered it “harmful to national security” because they viewed it as a plot to overthrow the Iranian Islamic regime. At the conference Sherkat said that Islamic dress code should be encouraged instead of mandatory. She appealed and was not required to serve the prison sentence, but was forced to pay a fine equivalent to two-month’s salary.
Sherkat holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Tehran University and a certificate in journalism from Keyhan Institute, also in Tehran. Since 2002, she has been working towards her master’s degree in women’s studies from Allameh Tabatabai University in Tehran. Sherkat was born on March 30, 1956, in Isfahan, Iran.
Shahla Sherkat is the first Courage in Journalism Award winner from Iran, followed by Jila Baniyaghoob (2009) and Parisa Hafezi (2011).