Jila Baniyaghoob

Iranian Women’s Center, Iran.

By Peggy Simpson

Jila Baniyaghoob became a journalist in 1979, at age 11, when she published a short story about children and poverty in Keyhan, a major daily newspaper. She wrote during the start of Iran’s fundamentalist Islamic Revolution. Many of the teachers who encouraged her talent in writing were politically engaged against the conservatives who took over the country. Some were arrested and persecuted for their political views.

Baniyagbhoob never forgot this. It was an early building block for her career of covering politics and the economic factors implicit in the fundamentalists’ control of society and, ultimately, her coverage of stories the fundamentalists wanted left alone, such as legal and economic discrimination against women.

Decades later, when she was arrested and put in Evin prison in Tehran in June 2006 after covering a women’s rights protest, her interrogators scolded her for her schoolgirl activism.

The International Women’s Media Foundation named Baniyaghoob a Courage in Journalism Award winner for 2009.

Baniyaghoob has been put in prison four times, the latest in June after the government responded to the protests over the disputed 2009 presidential elections with sweeping arrests of reformers and dissidents. It is not clear why Baniyaghoob and her economics reporter husband, Bahman Ahmadi Amoyee, were arrested. She was released on August 19, but he remained in prison as of mid-September.

Baniyaghoob, 39, has been a reporter for 18 years and has worked for more than 10 reform newspapers, nearly all of them shut down by the government.

She covered the student pro-democracy demonstrations in 1999, when paramilitary forces stormed student dormitories, injuring dozens of students and killing one. In 2000, her investigative stories on infected vaccines being sold by Iran’s biggest drug manufacturer led to a recall of that vaccine. She also has covered wars throughout the Middle East.

Baniyaghoob became a pioneering reporter about the burgeoning women’s rights movement. She was arrested repeatedly for covering women’s protest marches, but her stories became a major conduit for information about gender inequality.

Baniyaghoob became a founder of the One Million Signatures Campaign for Equality, a grassroots movement that brought together secular and religious women to seek changes in the laws that discriminate against women.

Recently, the group targeted the Ahmadinejad government’s Family Bill because of the impact it would have on women. Its features, for instance, would have included liberalization of the existing laws on polygamy.

Fundamentalists wanted to lift a provision giving first wives the power to agree before their husband takes a second wife. The women of the One Million Signatures Campaign took to the Web sites and the streets and lobbied politicians. They headed off the proposal.

Nayereh Tohidi, professor and chair of Gender and Women’s Studies at California State University in Northridge, credits Baniyaghoob’s “courage and leadership skills” for the “mobilization of all journalistic connections she had in support of a large and diverse coalition” against the Family Bill.

The years of grassroots organizing by women, plus their growing sophistication about the need to educate and lobby politicians of all persuasions about their cause, contributed to the dynamic of the 2009 presidential election.

“Ultimately, you saw the increasing impact of this on the presidential election,” said Farideh Farhi, a professor of Iranian domestic policies who lives in Hawaii and who was arrested with Baniyaghoob after a women’s rights march in 2006.

The 2009 election has been a breakthrough, Farhi said. “It is very clear this is not going to die. People have found their voices and have become connected to each other.”

The election “in a sense shows the success of this movement,” she said. “And I’m pretty sure that will have a lasting impact.”

This life of writing about discrimination against women comes at a cost, however. “Jila has lost her secure jobs as a journalist and is still under persecution because she has not been intimidated by the repressive authorities and has continued to speak the truth, report on students and women’s activities against all the odds and against all the threats,” Tohidi said.

In 2004, Baniyaghoob began a Web site called Kanoon Zanan Irani (Iranian Women’s Center). The site features content about inequality in laws affecting women, alerts women to proposed new restrictions, and new liaisons between women from different parts of society. It provides a venue for women inside and outside Iran to share their thoughts and ideas about women’s place in Iran today. It also carries reports on working class and poor women as well as ethnic minorities living in central cities and in the far provinces.

The Web site is an invaluable resource for women and reform-minded men, and the government has tried repeatedly to shut it down.

The women’s rights activism and the cutting- edge stories by Baniyaghoob have angered the fundamentalists running Iran, including the conservative clerics.

Some say that the women dissidents have had an impact on President Ahmadinejad. After he claimed he had won reelection, he named three women to his cabinet, something unheard of since before the 1979 Islamic revolution when the tide began to turn against women.

What happens next remains unclear. This could be a last hurrah for the hardliners and, if so, then the moderate clerics and other political figures will start to speak out against them with more force. The opposite also could occur,with the government increasing its efforts to shut down all protests, silence all disparate voices.

That may not be possible, however, partly because of people like Jila Baniyaghoob.

Peggy Simpson is a freelancer based in Washington, D.C.

Jila Baniyaghoob is the second Courage in Journalism Award winner from Iran, following Shahla Sherkat (2005). Parisa Hafezi from Iran won the 2011 award.

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