The gag is tightened
Saeed Kamali Dehghan on censorship in Iran
Sunday January 6, 2008
As a literary journalist in Iran, I have often wondered why the country's greed for literature abruptly ended when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took office in 2005.
There was a time when great Persian poets such as Hafez, Rumi or Khayyam were present in people's daily lives, permeating their speech even in the very rural regions, but now books scarcely figure in a country once recognised by its literature. Today, you are unlikely to see signs of literary life in Iran. Writers face immense challenges in getting their works read. Crackdowns imposed by Ahmadinejad's government have plunged publishing into crisis.
'They [the governmental authorities] have not only made the publishers stop working, but also have put writers in a situation in which they have no inclination to write,' says Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, author of the Persian 10-volume bestseller Kelydar, who refuses to give his next book to a publisher as a protest against the government's clampdown.
After the 1979 Islamic revolution, the government imposed strict rules on book publishing. Since then, the Ministry of Culture has been charged to vet all books before publication, mainly for erotic and religious transgressions. All books, including fiction, are required to conform to Islamic law.
Iranian literature showed brief signs of resurgence during the cultural thaw that took place when Mohammad Khatami became President in 1997. Khatami created a more open cultural atmosphere by allowing a huge number of books to be published. But the literary spring of Khatami's era was fleeting.
A new regime of censorship began when Ahmadinejad took office. The cultural ministry imposed rules requiring renewed permits for previously published books. As a result, many books have been deemed unsuitable for publication or reprinting.
Many world classics, contemporary novels and dozens of international bestsellers have been banned, including a Farsi translation of Dostoevsky's masterpiece The Gambler, Tracy Chevalier's bestseller Girl With a Pearl Earring, William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying and some books by Virginia Woolf, Marguerite Duras, Dan Brown and Woody Allen.
Recently, when the conservative website Tabnak drew attention to the plot of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Memories of My Melancholy Whores, the Farsi translation of the book was banned, despite having gained permission from Ahmadinejad's cultural ministry some months earlier.
The crackdown includes Persian books, too. The Cock, a novel written by Ebrahim Golestan, a renowned Iranian writer and film-maker based in Britain, is banned even though it had previously been granted permission by the ministry of Khatami's rule.
Moreover, almost all books by Sadeq Hedayat, the internationally renowned author of The Blind Owl, have been refused publication. The tortuous process of getting official approval for publication is another reason why Iranian writers are becoming reluctant to publish new works.
'It's almost nine months since my translation of Kurt Vonnegut's A Man Without a Country was given to the ministry. Since then we have had no response,' says Mojtaba Pourmohsen, whose interview with Saghi Ghahraman, an Iranian lesbian poet based in Canada, published in Shargh Daily, became an excuse for the government to close down the most prominent reformist paper of the country. 'I'm too tired now. I have no energy to go on with literature in Iran.
'There is nothing in Kurt Vonnegut's book that needs censorship,' he adds, claiming that the ministry grants permission apparently arbitrarily. Pourmohsen's own collection of poems, One Man Tango, has also been waiting to get official approval for the past six months.
Lengthy waits are not the only problem for Iranian writers. The novelist Yaghoub Yadali was recently illegally imprisoned for 40 days by the government for several passages from his novel Mores of Unrest, a book which had ministry permission. He was eventually charged with dissemination of falsehood and sentenced to three months' imprisonment, as well as being required to write three mandatory articles. This led to an outcry among many Iranian writers, who believe that the government is invading the imagination.
Reza Ghassemi, an important Iranian novelist based in France, recently published his new novel, The Abracadabra Murmured by Lambs, on the internet in a free ebook PDF format instead of facing government censorship and the formal permission procedure. His enovel has been reviewed and welcomed by the huge Iranian blog community much more warmly than if it had been published on paper.
Iranian Journalists Protest Increasing Government Censorship
A crackdown on already limited press freedom inside Iran has been condemned by the Tehran based Association of Iranian Journalists (AOIJ) this week. Jane Green reports for CODIR.
May 29, 2007
The proposed restrictions have taken the form of letters to Iranian newspapers and press agencies from the powerful National Security Council (NSC) asking them to refrain from publishing articles on certain topics. Such a request, widely seen as an ‘offer that cannot be refused' has outraged the AOIJ who already regard restrictions upon reporting in the Islamic Republic as too tight.
Journalists are stating that the demand of the NSC to the press to refrain from covering articles on public security, increasing energy prices, inflation and negotiations with the United States will completely emasculate the press inside Iran. The NSC letter also asks the press to refrain from covering "other issues" thereby giving it carte blanche to impose a blanket censorship on public discussion of key areas of public concern.
As the AOIJ's declaration states
"The aforementioned issues are among the country's most important and significant issues. It is unclear what is meant by the profession of journalism and freedom of press in the Islamic Republic, if the press has to refrain from freely reporting about such issues."
The declaration of the AOIJ states that the position of the NSC is in effect asking editors "to comply with illegal demands" and points out that Article 4 of the current press law states that
'No governmental or non-governmental official is allowed to apply pressure to the press to publish an article or to attempt to control or censor the press.'
If the current restrictions are imposed it is clear that Article 4 will be honoured more in its breach than its observance. The intervention of the NSC follows a pattern of the tightening of restrictions on the press in the Islamic Republic which the AOIJ claims are undermining its profession and the free exchange of public debate and ideas. For example, when the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) referred Iran's nuclear case to the United Nations Security Council, the NSC instructed the press to refrain from publishing articles that were critical of the country's nuclear policies.
However, it is clear that the scope of issues recently mentioned by the National Security Council is much broader and includes many aspects of the public's daily life. It is no coincidence that the common factor among all of these issues is that they are areas in which the press has been critical of government policy in recent months. This further tightening of press freedom in Iran is widely seen as an attempt to choke off the bad publicity which the government has been receiving due to its unpopular domestic and international policies.
The AOIJ sees the latest move as an attack upon fundamental press freedoms and is calling for the defence of Article 4 of the press law as a minimum response to the NSC's position. Without even such basic rights many journalists believe that the NSC is taking away their right to criticise government policy. With free and objective reporting in peril around the globe, at a time when accurate information is vital, it is imperative that the Association of Iranian Journalists is supported in its efforts to halt the advance of the Iranian government onto the already limited freedom of expression the press is allowed.
Bestsellers banned in new Iranian censorship purge
Robert Tait in Tehran
Friday November 17, 2006
• Publishing industry in crisis as books blacklisted
• Minister ends relaxed attitude to western culture
Dozens of literary masterpieces and international bestsellers have been banned in Iran in a dramatic rise in censorship that has plunged the country's publishing industry into crisis.
Companies that once specialised in popular fiction and other money-spinners are being restricted to academic texts under a cultural freeze instigated by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Several thousand new and previously published works have been blacklisted by Iran's culture and Islamic guidance ministry, which vets all books.
Newly banned books include Farsi translations of Tracy Chevalier's best-seller Girl With a Pearl Earring and Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, the latter for upsetting clerics within Iran's tiny Christian community. Chevalier's novel has completed six print runs in Iran and earned hefty profits for its local publisher, Cheshme.
Another publishing house has been banned from selling a successful series of books featuring lyrics by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Doors, Black Sabbath, Queen and Guns n' Roses. Stores were told to remove the books or face closure. Permission was subsequently denied for the publisher to reprint.
The crackdown also covers classics, such as William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, and scores of works by Iranian authors.
Publication rights have been withdrawn for The Cock, a novel by Ebrahim Golestan, an Iranian writer based in Britain, and for all works by Sadegh Hedayat, a pre-revolutionary novelist and commentator whose books are renowned in several European countries. Some Iranian writers have vowed to withhold future books for publication.
Some bans are being imposed under fresh rules requiring renewed permits for previously published works. Crisis talks between Iran's publishing union and the culture ministry have failed to ease the situation. "We have books on psychology, history, politics and folklore which have been sitting for nine months and still no answer," a senior executive with Cheshme told the Guardian.
The clampdown has been headed by the hardline culture minister, Mohammed Hossein Saffar Harandi, a former revolutionary guard and close ally of Mr Ahmadinejad. It follows a relative thaw during the eight-year presidency of Mr Ahmadinejad's reformist predecessor, Mohammed Khatami.
One publisher said yesterday: "Culture ministry officials told us that during the reformist period the government went to excess and permitted books which ruined the atmosphere."
Opening Iran's national book week festival this week, Mr Saffar Harandi said a tougher line was needed to stop publishers from serving a "poisoned dish to the young generation". He said some books deliberately gave Iranians a sense of inferiority and encouraged them to be lackeys of the west.
"We have complaints against those who see books as only a market and are acting as assistants for evil," he said. "Sometimes the humiliation of Iranian youth is implied or suggested in the books. Sometimes the media transmits the concept that we Muslims and easterners lack proper means and, therefore, we should stretch our hands towards others."
His comments followed the publication of a parliamentary report that attacked Mr Khatami's presidency for creating what it said was a climate encouraging immoral behaviour, sex before marriage, mockery of religious traditions and secularism. One of the report's authors, Javad Aryianmanesh, vice-chairman of the parliamentary culture committeea said: "Due to cultural indulgence necessary supervision over artistic and cultural works did not take place."
However, publishers say many books are being banned arbitrarily. "We had adapted to the previous policy but now that is annulled and they are imposing their own personal taste," said Mohammed Ali Jafarieh, head of the Sales publishing house. "Publishers are being hurt. We rely on multiple print runs to make a profit but if these are being denied we cannot make any money."
The rise in book censorship mirrors repression in other spheres. In September the reformist newspaper Shargh was closed after publishing a cartoon depicting President George Bush, disguised as a horse, debating with a donkey under a halo, widely seen as representing Mr Ahmadinejad. The publishers launched a replacement newspaper, Rouzegar, but it was ordered to close after five days.
Shirin Ebadi's New Book Published
Shirin Ebadi, courageous human rights lawyer in Iran and Nobel Peace Prizewinner, has just published her book Iran Awakening, full price ?12-99. This gives a vivid account of how she has found the courage to fight for human rights in Iran, and of the changes in Iran from the US led coup that toppled the elected president and replaced him with the much-resented Shah, toppled in his turn by the revolution that resulted in the theocracy of ayatollahs and mullahs now ruling Iran. Shirin sees hope of change in the young generation, especially of educated young women, now in the majority in universities; and nothing but disaster from any more meddling by the West. 'Iran Awakening' is publlished by Rider. Read an interview with Shirin Ebadi
Shirin Ebadi has lived through three different eras in Iran: the western-backed monarchy of the shah, the Islamic republic of Ayatollah Khomeini, and the confrontational regime of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And as a champion of women's rights, she has been a thorn in the side of all three. She tells Stuart Jeffries how she overcame death threats to become the clerics' 'worst nightmare'
Friday June 2, 2006
A few years ago, Shirin Ebadi went on a skiing holiday. "Skiing being a sport that requires many layers of clothing," the Nobel peace prize-winning human rights lawyer notes wryly in her new memoir, "it was deemed marginally acceptable by the government." She and her daughters waved off husband Javad on to the men's bus near their home in Tehran, and then climbed aboard the women's bus heading to the same destination. It wasn't long after Ayatollah Khomeini's death.
At a checkpoint, a guard called Ebadi and her daughters off the bus, alarmed to learn that they planned to stay at the ski resort for a few days. "You need your parents' permission to sleep out overnight," the guard told her. Ebadi was then 45, and Iran's Islamic revolution not yet in its teens. The guard decided to phone Ebadi's mother. Ebadi dialled and passed over the phone; her mother gave her permission, and the guard let them go.
Compared with other humiliations faced by Iranian women that Ebadi describes in her book, the skiing incident is nearly laughable. It doesn't come close to the fact that in court, the testimony of two women is equivalent to that of one man. Or that a man can divorce without giving reasons, though for women it is extremely hard to get a divorce at all. Nor is it comparable to the murder threats, jail terms and other harassments that this small woman has endured for defending the human rights of her downtrodden countrymen and women (she writes at one point: "When I planned vacations, I would find myself looking at the map and wondering, 'Hmm ... would it be easier for me to be assassinated here or there?' "). The skiing story is now a family joke. When she got back home from the trip, her mother said that next time the guards called asking for permission she would say no.
But there is a paradox. While what she calls Iran's Islamic morality police were making women's lives, in Ebadi's words, "fraught with uncertainty", the number of women going to Iran's universities was rising exponentially, to the point where female students now outnumber men. Iranian women were braining up even as patriarchal clerics sought to keep them down. How could this be, I ask Ebadi? She gives me the slightest of knowing smiles and says: "Under the shah's regime [which fell to Ayatollah Khomeini's 1979 Islamic revolution], traditional males wouldn't allow their wives and daughters to go to university because they thought if men and women worked together that would bring ill fame on them. After the revolution, this issue was taken out of the hands of bullying families because the theocracy segregated classes. They could no longer cling to spurious claims about how education corrupts."
But equal access to education does not translate into gender equality in jobs. Women's unemployment in Iran is three times higher than men's. One result of this disparity is that suicide among women has risen sharply since the revolution, often in the form of self-immolation. "This tragic exhibitionism, I'm convinced, is women's way of forcing their community to confront the cruelty of their oppression."
Ebadi writes about this paradox powerfully. Allowing women into higher education (while the Taliban in Afghanistan forbade women to read) "instilled something in Iranian women that will, in the long run, I believe, transform Iran: a visceral consciousness of their oppression."
This visceral consciousness, she argues, has been piqued by the recently elected President Ahmadinejad. Under him, she says, censorship has become more intense. "I would like to refer to one instance that happened under President Ahmadinejad," she says, and describes what happened on March 8 this year in Tehran, when some women met in a public space to discuss what she calls "many unjustified discriminations". "Without any reason the police attacked them and exposed them to beatings and assaults." Some of these women have since contacted Ebadi and she has made a legal complaint against the police for the attack.
Ebadi was relatively lucky for an Iranian woman. She was born in 1947 to a non-traditional Muslim family which treated her and her brother equally and encouraged her to go to college. The result was that she became, aged 23, Iran's first woman judge. Then she was a careerist; she has since lost a career but found a mission, namely, to use her legal skills to fight the Islamic republic that she once supported but has oppressed women so contemptibly that she turned against it. Shirin Ebadi's is an extraordinary journey, the kind that we rarely hear about in the west.
Her mother did not wear the hijab: "Her family was not so traditional as to insist that their girls cover their hair." But Ebadi's mother witnessed the banning of the hijab in Iran as part of a modernisation programme by Reza Shah, who became king of Iran in 1926. Half a century later, she and her daughter would witness the Islamic republic make the hijab compulsory, and Shirin would be repeatedly arrested for "bad hejabi", ie wearing incorrect Islamic dress. "Time and again our rulers have acted out their political agenda on the frontier of women's bodies," she says. "Women should be free to dress as they want. Men should not decide."
Her father was a lawyer who had risen to become deputy minister of agriculture under prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh (whom she describes as being to Iranian independence what Mahatma Gandhi was to India's struggle for freedom from British rule), but he lost his job after his boss was toppled in the US-backed 1953 coup that brought Reza Shah back to power. The US and Britain were enraged by Mossadegh's decision to nationalise Iranian oil. As a result, the CIA installed a friend on the Peacock throne. Ebadi writes angrily: "In a neat four days, the ailing, adored prime minister was hiding in a cellar and the venal young shah was restored to power, famously thanking Kermit Roosevelt: 'I owe my throne to God, my people, my army, and to you.' It was a profoundly humiliating moment for Iranians, who watched the United States intervene in their politics as if their country were some annexed backwater, its leader to be installed or deposed at the whim of an American president and his CIA advisers."
"I have always wished that instead of possessing oil, Iran possessed water," says Ebadi. "Then the westerners would have left us alone." Does she feel bitter when she visits Britain because it too played a big role in destabilising Mossadegh? "It is only natural. I do feel bitter. But not towards the British people. Towards the British government."
Ebadi's career as a judge came to an end shortly after Ayatollah Khomeini seized power in 1979. "In a cruel bureaucratic shuffle, I was appointed secretary of the same court I had once presided over as a judge," she writes. She was told that Islam forbids women to serve as judges. Later, she was even banned from practising law.
These reverses were especially bitter for Ebadi because, like many leftwing intellectuals, she had been a supporter of the coup against the shah, hoping for a democratic renewal through Khomeini. In her book, she recalls heeding his call for Iranians to go to their roofs one night and chant "Allahu Akbar" (God is greatest). Filled with revolutionary fervour, she chanted until she was hoarse. "The gorgeous, hymnal air of these lofted cries hung over the stilled city," she writes, "so spiritually enchanting that even my stolid, cynical friends were moved."
A few years later, the Islamic republic whose founding she had supported so ardently would put her on a death list and throw her into solitary confinement. How can she bear to stay in Iran? "I am an Iranian," she replies, staring me down. "I must live in Iran. If someone has got a mother who is very old or ill, do they leave them in the street to die, or do they take her home until she recovers? I feel my country is ailing in the same way." When I suggest that her country's ailments have been made worse by the west - by the toppling of Mossadegh, by the arming of Saddam Hussein with state-of-the-art weaponry during the Iran-Iraq war - she readily agrees.
Ebadi stayed and endured grim times. Her brother-in-law was executed on unfounded suspicions of conspiring to assist Saddam Hussein's invasion and the authorities cruelly refused the family the right to publicly mourn his death. In 2000, looking through official papers for a court case, she found the following sentence in the transcript of a conversation between a government minister and a member of a death squad: "The next person to be killed is Shirin Ebadi."
She has survived, becoming what has been described as "the worst nightmare of Iran's hardline clerics". From the early 1990s, she was allowed to establish a pro-bono law practice and started taking cases that exposed injustices in revolutionary Iran's legal system.
One grotesque case involved the rape and murder of 11-year-old Leila Fathi by three men. One man confessed and then committed suicide in prison, but two other suspects were found guilty and sentenced to death. Ebadi took the case to expose the injustice of so-called "blood money" in Iran.
In Iran, if a man kills someone, he has to pay compensation to the victim's family. But, under Iran's Islamic penal code, the blood price of a woman is half a man's. In murder cases, the victim's family can either demand the death penalty or blood money. If the family demands the death penalty, they have to pay the relevant blood money to the executed person's family. In the Leila Fathi case, her family had to pay two sets of blood money to the two murderers' families (amounting to about $18,000) in order to secure their executions, but were to receive in return only half of one of the men's blood money - the "blood money" for their murdered daughter. They couldn't afford justice.
Despite Ebadi's defence, which argued that it was unjust for a girl to be raped and murdered and unjust that the victims were being victimised further by the law, the two men remain unpunished because the girl's family have been unable to raise the money necessary, despite selling their house and trying to sell their kidneys. Why did the family want their daughter's killers executed? "They could not return to their village stained by the shame of Leila's rape," explains Ebadi in her book. "Family honour rests on the virtue of women, and nothing less than the perpetrators' execution could ease their shame." In this case, as in several others, Ebadi failed to win, but drew attention to a justice system that produced perverse results. She pointed out that the concept of enforcing blood money provisions for criminal punishments was unique to Iran. In other Islamic countries that use sharia law as a basis for the legal code, blood money compensation is allowed only in compensation and inheritance cases, not for criminal sentences.
In other high-profile cases, Ebadi has represented the family of a dissident intellectual murdered by intelligence officials, the family of a murdered student, and worked on many child-abuse cases. In 2000, she was put in solitary confinement for three weeks for revealing a tape in which a former vigilante confessed that members of his group had planned to assassinate two reformist ministers. She refuses to be cowed by threats on her life or of imprisonment. She told one interviewer: "Fear is an instinct like hunger and we all know it. I have learned not to let fear prevent me from doing what I should do."
Ebadi says cases like these have not dented her Islamic faith: "I am against patriarchy, not Islam." Throughout the interview she maintains her commitment to human rights, especially those of women. But are human rights compatible with sharia law or Islamic penal codes? "Yes," she says, "but like any other religion, Islam has different interpretations. In Christianity one church allows homosexuals to get married, while another will not. It's similar with Islam: in Saudi Arabia women can't even drive; in Indonesia, Bangladesh and Pakistan they have been political leaders." She believes Islam is a religion of peace and equality.
In 2003 she was awarded the Nobel peace prize, beating the bookies' favourite Pope John Paul II. Former President Khatami petulantly said that the award was "not important and is political", but 10,000 people greeted her at Tehran's airport - the biggest crowd to gather there since Ayatollah Khomeini's return from exile in 1979. His granddaughter was in the crowd, and even put a wreath of orchids around Ebadi's neck.
She remains a controversial figure in Iran and one unafraid of criticising the new president. What does she think of Ahmadinejad? Is he right to suggest that Israel should be wiped off the face of the planet, for example? " Iran has no intention of invading or attacking Israel," she replies. "Even if they did have the intention, they couldn't do it." She thinks his words are just rhetoric.
Is her president right to develop nuclear technology? "Iran claims that it wants to make peaceful use of nuclear technology, but the world does not accept Iran's claim. The solution is to establish an advanced democracy in Iran because then the people would not allow the government to abuse its power. So long as decisions are taken behind closed doors, the world will not trust Iran."
Where could this democracy come from? In the book's epilogue Ebadi has this thought: "The Iranian revolution has produced its own opposition, not least a nation of educated, conscious women who are agitating for their rights. They must be given the chance to fight their own fights, to transform their country uninterrupted."
The insistence on Iranian self-determination has been a constant theme in her political thought. Asked whether the US should invade to destroy Iran's nuclear facilities, she replies: "I hope there will be no attack. Iranians have many political complaints against their government, but if it came under attack they would fall behind the government."
She believes the invasion of Iraq was counterproductive and argues that the British and Americans should withdraw immediately. "I have an Iraqi friend who tells me that under Saddam, if you didn't interfere in politics, you could leave home in the morning and expect to come home in the evening. Now he leaves home in the morning with no guarantee he will return."
Next year Ebadi turns 60, but says she has no plans to retire, not least because there is so much human rights work for her to do in the Islamic republic whose creation she once yearned for.
Does she recognise the Shirin Ebadi who stood on the rooftop chanting in support of Khomeini's revolution in 1979, or is she a distant figure now? "She's not distant at all. The slogans then were Freedom and Democracy and Independence. Unfortunately, we were not able to implement those slogans, but I am still interested in trying to make them a reality"
Iran Awakening is published by Rider, price £12.99. Shirin Ebadi speaks at the Hay festival tomorrow.