Iran's fledgling feminists run for daylight Many feel freer to protest, even as tougher laws loom
BY JOHN DONNELLY Knight Ridder News Service
TEHRAN, Iran -- ``Love,'' proclaims the cover of Iran's leading women's magazine, ``is banned here.''
The declaration brought a smile to Shahla Sherkat's lips. As editor of Zanan, with a circulation of more than 100,000, Sherkat relished the idea of challenging religious authorities by discussing the issue of illicit love.
``Love is a taboo subject in Iran,'' she said, sitting in her office underneath a photo of a young woman removing a veil from her mouth. Draped in the traditional Iranian black cape called the chador, Sherkat boldly explained: ``You can't talk about love in films, literature or in public. That's why we write about it.''
Still, for women in Iran these days, challenge is one thing, change another.
Nearly 20 years ago, the Islamic Revolution ushered in restrictive new laws, including many that affected women. But last year's election of moderate President Mohammed Khatami has sparked a heated debate over women's rights, and women are lining up on all sides of the issue.
Some are allied with Iran's religious establishment, which is fighting what it sees as the challenge to its authority. In fact, religious conservatives recently proposed two more restrictive laws regarding women.
The first calls for hospitals to treat women and men separately and only by doctors of the same sex.
The second, which already has passed in general form, would allow Iran's parliament to censor photographs or articles it believes depicts women in an ``un-Islamic'' light. Zanan's June issue on love probably would be a prime candidate for such censorship. But the battle over details of the media legislation will not be resolved for several weeks.
Many Iranian women, like legislator Manijeh Nobakht, support that legislation.
``For seven months, we studied all the articles of women in the press and we found problems with more than 90 percent of these articles,'' said Nobakht, who introduced the bill. ``We also found that in most cases the use of women's pictures was to attract attention and sell newspapers.''
Such photographs, according to Nobakht and other conservative women, are examples of the West's degrading commercial exploitation of women.
Moderates believe the media legislation will be gutted during parliamentary debate. But if so, the message still has been sent: Khatami's election guarantees no new rights for women.
Farzenieh Entzarmadhi, a book publisher, warns that Iran's liberal women are provoking religious authorities into passing more restrictive laws.
``There is a difference between men and women, and if you have respect for that difference, you should not create these problems,'' she said. ``These women fighting for their own rights don't see where this is all going to end up.''
Entzarmadhi, for example, supports the government's demand that women wear Islamic dress in public, covering hair, arms and legs. She said Islamic dress guarantees women respect as they walk down Tehran streets. And, she argued, Islamic dress has greatly reduced sexual harassment as women pursue higher education and compete in politics and the workplace.
Without the dress code, Entzarmadhi said, liberal morals would seep into the culture, weakening families and enticing men to view women as little more than sex objects.
Like Entzarmadhi, many Iranian women favor Islamic dress, especially since the chador and even head scarves were banned under the late Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. But other women, encouraged by Khatami's victory, want to end the restrictive dress for women.
Said a 21-year-old woman as she entered an upscale Tehran apartment, removing her scarf and coat to reveal long black hair and a low-cut black dress: ``I'm hoping someday that I can wear a miniskirt in Iran. It's not that I need to wear a miniskirt. It's that I want the choice.
``I think what we'll see in the future are new models of the chador, maybe shorter, or maybe only the head scarf will remain. Right now, I cannot bike, I cannot run in these black coats. I would love to bike and run.''
The chador, some young women say, is being challenged in subtler, quieter ways, most notably with sports. Recently, the country's sports federation approved women playing soccer and polo. And it's hard not to notice the recent insurgence of women exercising in Tehran parks.
Early one recent morning at National Park, dozens of women in long black coats did jumping jacks or ran around the tree-shaded sidewalks.
``When you run with a chador, you are making a point that says, `Look at how ridiculous this is to wear long clothes and a head scarf on a hot summer day,' '' said one 27-year-old woman who asked not to be identified.
At the same park, women in Islamic dress batted volleyballs, swatted badminton birdies and smacked table-tennis balls, scoring points against male opponents. A year ago, the sight would have turned heads; until recently, men and women weren't allowed to play sports together.
At the same time, some women complain that Khatami's election has brought too few substantive improvements, notably in legal rights such as divorce. It is still far easier for a man to initiate a divorce than for a woman.
``Unfortunately, Mr. Khatami's powers are limited here,'' said Mehranguiz Kar, a prominent Iranian woman. ``It's not his fault. He is not the head of the parliament; he is not the head of the religious powers.''
Young women from Western-oriented families say they enjoy more freedom than a year ago. Khatami's election, they believe, is the reason the Morals Police -- who roam neighborhoods looking for unchaperoned, unmarried couples -- are backing off. Unmarried couples may meet in public under some circumstances, but not alone in a car, for instance.
Now, young women say, it's a little safer to meet a boyfriend in a park unescorted. And they are less fearful about applying makeup before going to secretive parties -- although no savvy woman forgets to bring chewing gum (to disguise alcohol on the breath), or eyedrops, to reduce redness.
``We used to have checkpoints along the road at night, and police asking if we were related to our boyfriends,'' said one 20-year-old woman who has been arrested twice for riding in taxis with young men.
More than a year ago, she was sentenced to 30 lashes on her back for one offense, although ``I paid them about $30 so they wouldn't whip me so hard.''
Until recently, it would have been unthinkable for a magazine such as Zanan to talk about love in a cover story.
Love is allowed ``only after marriage'' in Iran, editor Sherkat explained. ``Otherwise, it is not accepted for two unmarried people to fall in love.''
Expects a battle
After her boldness in challenging authorities, Sherkat anticipates trouble. ``We will have to pay some price for the article,'' she said. The worst-case scenario is the government shutting down the magazine. But Sherkat said she won't close without a fight.
``Let's just say if they close us down,'' she said without a trace of a smile this time, ``we have a series of photographs and articles that we've been saving for the last issue.''