Shahla Sherkhat
Julie Costanzo

Shahla Sherkat, founder and publisher of Zanan (Women) magazine, walks a careful line — tightrope, she calls it — between compliance and defiance.

Unlike in many offices and other private spaces where women shirk the chador, she and all of her staff are fully veiled, faithfully following the government-regulated dress code. On the other hand, Zanan continually tests the political waters with its edgy coverage of everything from reform politics to domestic abuse to sex. And Shahla herself is appealing a four-month prison sentence for charges lodged by the revolutionary court for “anti-Islamic behavior” after she attended a conference in Berlin and asserted that the Islamic dress code should be encouraged rather than mandatory.

She started Zanan in the early 90s with five people; now there’s a very dedicated, mostly young staff of 20. The monthly magazine enjoys brisk newsstand sales, and a recent survey revealed that each magazine purchased was read by at least six people — including a significant number of men.

While many controversial publications are summarily shut down by the government, Zanan has survived for a decade by taking on dicey topics with a delicate touch. The magazine, which regularly tackles political issues, also is credited with turning out the women’s vote for President Mohammed Khatami.

Deciding just how far to push the envelope is an art, Shahla says, and a daily dilemma.

“There are many times when my writers or readers ask me to put something in the magazine and I sit down and measure the costs and the benefits of printing something,” she says. “Sometimes you print something that is of extreme value, meaning that it has a very positive impact on the reader and that one piece does great work in society. I may decide to do that even if it leads to the closure of the magazine. But there are many times that when one measures the costs and benefits and one may see that it may not be worth causing problems for a 10-year-old publication that may live for another 10 years.”

From the Interview

“Women are active on many social and political levels… And it is not something that the government granted them, but rather it is the demands of the women themselves that forced the government and society to let the woman into these realms.”

“In any publication, some articles on sensitive subjects may be against the law and the publications may be shut down. But in my opinion, the freedom in Iranian press is totally different from in the past, and I think the press has much more freedom.”

“Journalism in the developing countries is like a tightrope act: if you put your foot one millimeter to one side or the other you fall down.”

“I think we can raise many of the issues in the newspapers and publications but only if we know how to present it so we can say what we want and not cross any existing lines and sensitivities in society. This is an art form for a journalist.”

Coordinates: Iran

Shahla Sherkat

gritty publisher


Tehran, Iran

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