Iran. The Silent Revolution That (still) Frightens Power
Marina Forti 23 July 2015

The media has always been the theatre of political clashes; government pressure on news desks has lessened, but there is still that of other powers. In Iran’s peculiar institutional organisation, the judiciary (and state television or the secret services) is a power that the elected president does not control. It may happen that a government might speak of free speech while a judge closes down newspapers or arrests human rights activists. The more a government attempts to implement democratic policies, the more extremist currents attack human rights and freedom of speech, the preferred battleground of the revolutionary “orthodoxy”.

The events surrounding the women’s magazine, however, indicate something new about Iranian society.

When Zanan-e Emruz appeared on newsstands in June 2014, it seemed to be a tangible sign of the Rouhani’s government’s opening-up. The new magazine is in fact a republication of the one founded in 1992 by a brave journalist called Shahla Sherkat. At the time it was called Zanan (“women”) and broke many taboos. In an Iran undergoing mass reconstruction after the long Iran-Iraq war of the eighties, that magazine addressed issues such as equal rights in marriage and divorce, discrimination in the workplace, violence against women, relations between men and women as well as political participation. Films and literature were discussed and articles were published by intellectuals and political activists such as the jurist Mehranguiz Kar, the publisher Shahla Lahiji, film director Rakhshan Bani-Ettemad and many other important personalities in the emerging Iranian women’s movement. Zanan placed women’s issues at the top of its political agenda while also trying to find interlocutors in parliament. It also produced a new generation of female journalists who then changed the media’s panorama.

That initial experience ended in January 2008, the third year of Ahmadinejad’s presidency, when the judiciary closed Zanan, accusing its journalists of portraying the world of women in a “dark light” that “threatened the spiritual, mental and intellectual health of readers and society’s psychological safety.”  It was a sign of the times; many other newspapers linked to reformist currents defeated by Ahmadinejad had already been closed and civil society’s independent organisations were targeted, in particular women’s associations, a famous women’s documentation centre, as were the groups that had promoted the  campaign for “a million signatures” to abrogate family laws discriminating against women.

In the course of the past year a few women’s NGOs have resumed their work, an unequivocal sign of the new atmosphere. Activists well-known in the nineties have been appointed to lead official organisations such as foundations for women and for welfare. The return of the magazine to the newsstands was also a sign, since for six years Sherkat had been requesting authorisation to publish a new magazine following the closure of Zanan.

Instead, censorship has now returned and, although in its second version Zanan-e Emruz had a more social and less political agenda, it was unable to avoid official intervention.

This time the scandal was caused by a special issue published in October 2014, concerning relationships between men and women in a changing society, in particular addressing what is Iran is called a “white marriage”, cohabitation without marriage. The court responsible for the press accused the magazine edited by Shahla Sherkat of “encouraging the anti-social and anti-religious phenomenon known as white marriage.”

Perhaps it is this that reveals to what extent Iranian society has changed. It seems obvious that a moral state should not allow cohabitation that is not sanctified by marriage. What is less obvious, is that this is a widespread phenomenon now, certainly involving a minority, but not that rare. The article addressed by the court (later published by the BBC) said that nowadays young couples choose to live together before deciding eventually on marriage – a phenomenon that was unthinkable even just a few years ago.

Such behaviour is of course opposed (in that report young couples explained they had had to move quite often when asked by neighbours “When are you getting married?”). Such behaviour is also illegal under Iranian law (sexual relations outside marriage come under the laws against fornication and adultery). And yet it happens and not only among the upper classes. Families approve or resign themselves to the phenomenon, just as they are resigned to seeing the young decide not to marry at all and women who live alone following a separation or without marrying at all. According to Ali Akbar Mahzoon, head of the Civil Registry’s Department of Statistics, there are 11 million young people of a marriageable age in Iran who are not married (men aged between 20 and 34, women between 15 and 29), respectively 46% and 48% of men and women in that age bracket do not get married. Divorces are also increasing steeply with 20% of marriages, hence one in five, ending in divorce according to the Iranian government’s Civil Registry, a figure that has tripled in fifteen years.

“White” weddings, divorces, women creating independent lives, are all signs of a silent revolution that has taken place in Iranian society. There are also signs of this change in demographic data.

Iran is a young country, and yet the population is ageing. Two thirds of the 75 million Iranians are under the age of 35, but the age “pyramid” narrows at the bottom (children under five and those aged between five and ten). Fewer and fewer children are born. This means that the population increased significantly between the seventies and the eighties, but then slowed drastically and nowadays the average family has no more than two children, often only one. Between 2006 and 2011 the Iranian population increased by 1.3% a year, a rise comparable to Italy. Fertility rates (the number of children a woman gives birth two in her lifetime) is 1.7%, just a little above the rate in Italy, all data from the last general census of the population, 2011.

This is partly the result of deliberate “reproductive health” policies started in the nineties with great emphasis on family planning and on the health of mothers and children. All reproductive health indicators have improved over the past twenty years. Infant mortality has fallen significantly (from 65 per thousand in 1990 to 22 per thousand in 2011), as have maternal deaths (from 150 to 21 for every 100,000 children born alive), according to data provided by the United Nations Development Programme. This bears witness to an efficient basic health care system, balanced between urban and rural areas as observed by the World Bank in its “overview” of Iran. Furthermore, unlike what one could expect in a country ruled in the name of religious principles, nowadays 73% of Iranian women aged between 15 and 49 uses some form of contraception, and 59% use a modern one (in Italy the corresponding figures are 63 and 41). Data provided by the UNFPA (State of the World Population, 2013).

All this indicates profound social and cultural transformation. Today Iran is a country that is almost three quarters urbanised, where the rural population continues to fall. And it is an educated country. Post-revolution Iran has provided education for everyone, girls and boys, rich and poor, in cities and in the countryside. Among the young, education rates reached 77% in 1995 and 99% in 2009, with basic equality between men and women. University education levels are also very high and the percentage of girls among those newly enrolled is stable at over 60% (in one of his quips, former president Ahmadinejad requested the figures for men).

One of the elements of this silent revolution is precisely university education. State universities are free (even quasi-state ones such as the Free University are not expensive). To enrol one must pass an admission exam that is the same all over the country and therefore a student will be awarded a place in a local university, or another, depending on the marks obtained. Every academic year, tens of thousands of young women and men in the Iranian provinces leave home to go and study in Tehran or in another city that is not their own where they will live in student accommodation. Traditionalist or “westernised” families, whether wealthy or not, even in the most remote provinces, send their daughters and sons to study far away, something once restricted to only to the most upper and very well-educated classes. After graduating, some continue with a PhD, others find a job, at times staying in the city, sharing an apartment with other young people. Post-revolution Iran has created generations of highly-educated, wealthy young people who devour the internet, are great users of social media, integrated in the global world, more or less immersed in religious values, but all with great expectations as far as wellbeing, independent lives and freedom are concerned.

The “calls to order” issued by state religious authorities seem out of tune in this context. It is true that for some time famous representatives of the clergy have been repeating that Iranians must have more children. Some time ago Justice Minister Mustafa Pour Mohammadi (a member of the clergy) said that the rise in divorces is a danger to society and “does not help the Islamic system.”

However, it is not easy to persuade young women that their job is to have children, just as it is impossible to use to law to prevent a marriage from failing – usually due to financial reasons, adultery, or because the man is a drug addict, or an alcoholic, or violent, or because the couple is incompatible, or has divergent aspirations (see the film directed by Asghar Farhadi, entitled ‘A Separation’). In Iran the law only allows husbands the right to ask for a divorce (a wife can only ask for a divorce if she proves her husband has not done his duty in looking after his family, is violent, or has other faults). More and more often, however, couple go to court having agreed to separate.

When Zanan-e Emruz wrote about white marriages, it was only addressing one of modern Iran’s many realities. Even the more traditional newspapers speak of white marriages or divorce or single women, saying, however, that this ruins families and that a divorced woman inevitably “sins”, that a house in which a woman lives alone is a place of perdition. Last November the Supreme Leader himself entered the debate through his spokesman Mohammad Mohammadi Golpayegani, who said that it has become necessary to intervene “with no pity” against the phenomenon of young people living together. “It is shameful for a man and a woman to live together without being married,” he said, “before those choosing this lifestyle destroy a legitimate generation with an illegitimate one.”

Such statements sound like a lost battle, when read in one of the beautiful gardens of Shiraz or Isfahan, filled with groups of excursionists, or when walking through the conservative Yazd or Mashad, or among the young attending high schools and foreign language courses in every city in the provinces, or filling cinemas and internet cafés throughout the country, or moving home when neighbours interfere in their lives The statements sound as if those in power are trying to stop a flowing river with small no-go signs.

For the moment the conservative establishment can only censor the magazine addressing the choices and expectations of young men and women in a changing society, without demonising them. Shahla Sherkat still hopes to resume publication. The court has suspended her publishing authorisation, but it has not revoked it. “I am certain that I will manage to persuade the court that I have not broken any law,” said Sherkat last April. A date for the hearing on the Zanan-e Emruz case has not, however, been established yet. Perhaps, more than white marriages, what frightens those in power is a magazine that curiously investigates society living outside official registers.

Translated by Francesca Simmons



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