Backstory: Scheherazade Now Tells Her 1001 Stories as an Iranian Woman. Media Must Amplify Her Voice

A fortnightly column from The Wire's ombudsperson.

In her book, Scheherazade Goes West, that came out in the year 2000, Fatima Mernissi – the Moroccan sociologist who theorised Islamic feminism – used the eponymous protagonist of A Thousand and One Nights to make her argument about the power of Islamic women, constantly portrayed by the west as an oppressed, unthinking figures.

But why did Mernissi deploy this princess from a fabled past who kept her head despite being married to a king who serially killed his wives? She did this by using her mind and relating story after story in order to keep her husband perpetually beguiled and willing to spare her life to hear her next tale.

In her book, Mehernissi argues that Muslim women have never forgotten the Scheherazade lesson that a “woman can rebel by using her brain”.

What we are witnessing in Iran today is an example of how Muslim women are using their mind to break free from a state of suffocation brought on by a patriarchal band of elderly, unelected, clergymen who have over the last 43 years imposed their conception of what constitutes true Islamic behaviour on the citizens of their country, especially on its women. 

Over the years the authorities have been remarkably successful in nipping incipient feminist thought in the bud.

The cover of the 140th issue of the ‘Zanan’ magazine. Photo: Wikipedia/Fair use

In 2008, Zanan (Women), an independent women’s magazine that focused on gender concerns, was shut down by the Islamic Republic’s Press Supervisory Board because it was “publishing information of a morally dubious nature” and “harming the public’s mental health”. 

This ban followed a government campaign launched in the summer of 2007 against women seen to violate the official dress code. Its editor, Shahla Sherkat, was convinced that Iranians needed to be exposed to what she termed as “the problems and needs of women, with the aim of trying to build awareness and find solutions”.

So she persisted and came up with another monthly, Zanan-e-Emruz, in 2014. Once again she faced severe opposition, even having to stand trial in the Press Court for “unIslamic content”. 

To ensure that the female subject is obedient to their writ, the political establishment deploys the services of the morality police (known as the Guidance Patrol, they report to the Supreme Leader himself). Its task is to ensure that any woman stepping out of her home is properly dressed at all times, with hair and body veiled. The immediate trigger for the recent protests was of course the mysterious death of Mahsa Jina Amini, a young Kurdish woman, who was intercepted by the Patrol on September 13 , allegedly roughed up, and later collapsed and died.

Amini’s death appears to have opened a dam of resentment and anger in those who have personally experienced the humiliation and mental torture inflicted by the system.

Also read: Iran Is Seeing the Political Awakening of a Generation

It is not for the first time that Iranian women have rebelled against this forcible and very public repression, but this is certainly the most sustained confrontation they have ever mounted against the political authorities. The crowds on the streets are composed overwhelmingly of women. They are willing to put their bodies on the line and face bullets and cudgels.

They have made bonfires of their veils, scissored their much hidden locks of hair, danced and screamed verboten words like “Death to the dictator!”

A viral photo of a protester in Iran burning her hijab in public. Photo: Twitter.

What we are witnessing then is Scheherazade, bearing the face of an Iranian woman, and relating her 1,001 stories on the streets, university campuses, schools and public squares of her country.

The media should listen and amplify the narrative so that it escapes the walls of homes and the borders of nations; breakthrough the ring fence of fear in the mind. In that sense, there is far more at stake here than just the hijab and how it is to be worn.

But here’s the rub. The Islamic Republic of Iran guarantees press freedom through Article 24 of its Constitution, but like in India, there are  inbuilt disclaimers. In the Indian constitution, the exceptions granted in Article 19 (2) have been used to stymie the suzerainty of Article 19 (1) (a). Iran’s Article 24 states: “Publications and the press have freedom of expression except when it is detrimental to the fundamental principles of Islam or the rights of the public.”

There is, besides, a notorious Press Law, now amended to encompass online publications, that can punish journalists who endanger the republic, spread fake information or offend the “clergy and the Supreme Leader”.

No surprise then that Iran remains among the bottom 10 nations of the world in terms of media freedoms. According to a recent report from the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least 35 journalists have been arrested since these protests began, and women figure in the list. Among those who faced detention was the courageous Nilufer Hamdi, reporting for the Tehran-based Daily Shraq, who was the first to report on Amini as she lay in a coma in her hospital bed and recorded her descent into death. Her reportage was one of the triggers for the subsequent storm. Apart from Hamdi, there several other women journalists too who are today facing the wrath of the state. The Coalition For Women In Journalism reports that Tehran-based reporter Fatemeh Rajabi and photojournalist Yalda Moaiery (who made news by reporting her own arrest on Instagram), are both in jail. Then there is Elahe Mohammadi, whose coverage of Amini’s funeral riled the authorities.

The vice-like grip exercised on mainstream media have driven protestors, especially urban youth, to resort to social media. Yet negotiating the labyrinthine maze of surveillance, censorship and internet shutdowns needs a certain dexterity that most do not have.

Despite this, though, the protests have seen some extremely poignant videos capturing personal pain and trauma in immediate and dramatic ways. The slow, anguished dance of a father who had just lost a daughter; a sister beside her brother’s grave sobbing as she cuts her hair; women hugging with their bodies the freshly dug graves of felled protestors, all these have travelled far and created a global empathy for the protests. In India, powerful petitions in support of the protestors have been submitted by feminist groups. 

It would be naïve to suggest that some of the media coverage is not driven by powerful political, military and corporate interests opposed to Iran.

A September 2022 report from the Rand Corporation provides a glimpse of the US’s manifold strategic interests in them. It reveals that “Over the course of the past year, the United States has sought episodically to give activist elements in the reform movement a fillip… For example, the United States has indicated that it would support elements rising up against the regime. This reflects the recognition that change in Iran would have to come from within.” 

The Iranian media, on their part, have repeatedly cited Tehran’s charge that the US and their media are exploiting the unrest to destabilise Iran and recently foreign nationals were rounded up for allegedly plotting against the country. There have been suspicions voiced that Iranian Kurdish dissidents are involving themselves in these protests since Amini happened to be Kurdish. 

Whether those bonfires of hijabs on the streets would force the Ayatollahs to give up power may be difficult to assess, but the tocsin has been sounded and notice has been served: the right to wear, or not to wear a hijab rests firmly with the wearer; women’s basic freedoms are non-negotiable.

Until this is conceded, Iran’s Scheherazades will continue to tell their stories on the streets. 


War minus the shooting

The battle between Republic and Times Now over accusations that they had fixed the ratings system in order to benefit themselves has now assumed Mahabharata-like proportions given its colourful cast of characters. In terms of duration, though, it has long outstripped the 18-day span of the epic battle. For a full five years and more, the Television Rating Points (TRPs) scam has been raging with passionate vengeance marking the language of those on both sides of the divide. The media observer needs to take note of it for several reasons, not least because of the way these bipartisan concerns are being sold to viewers as breaking news of utmost national importance, with hours of precious air time being expended on the effort. 

More striking however are the strong political overtones that undergird the issue.

Agencies have been weaponised in support of one channel or the other. A 2020 investigation was conducted by the Mumbai Police under the then Maha Vikas Aghadi government, presided over by home minister Anil Deshmukh – currently in jail – into allegations that television channels were inflating their viewership profiles by illegal and corrupt means. Republic and Republic Bharat, along with a couple of Marathi news channels, were then named as the main culprits, leading to the arrest of their owner, the ever voluble and studiedly offensive Arnab Goswami.  

Also read | TRP Scam: WhatsApp Messages Reveal Arnab Goswami’s ‘Collusion’ With Former BARC Chief

It wasn’t long before the Enforcement Directorate (ED) was brought into the picture. If the Mumbai Police was working to a plan presumably hatched by Deshmukh and his government – now displaced from power by the BJP – the ED, which has emerged as the Union government’s favoured battle axe at all times, went on to function as a powerful counterweight. 

A few days ago we got to learn that the ED’s “investigations” have led to the complete exoneration of Republic and its sister Hindi language channel. Any suggestion of them having shopped for TRPs has been firmly rejected. The ED pointed instead to channels like Times Now for allegedly bribing households to boost their ratings. Other channels like India Today and News Nation were also named.

What is the ordinary television news viewer to make of all of this? I would offer four basic conclusions.

One, that all major television channels resort to manipulating viewership data in order to garner the much needed advertisements that keep their operations going. Nobody emerges from this sewer smelling of roses.

Two, that the political establishment’s favourite chorus boy has been greatly strengthened in the process.

Three, and most important, that there are enormous political stakes at play in this battle, some of which cannot even be clearly fathomed at the current moment and which could involve the financial stability of some of the biggest players in television news today.

This, in turn, will ensure that these biggies (my fourth point) will continue to prostrate themselves before the government in power and do its bidding, especially as the country heads for General Election 2024.

Journalists ‘with character’

One is no longer is gobsmacked by orders such as that issued by the Jai Ram Thakur government of Himachal Pradesh, demanding that journalists  wishing to cover the prime minister’s visit to Bilaspur on Dussehra day should first arrange for a “character certificate” which should then be duly handed over to the state CID.

Illustration: Pariplab Chakravarty

A decade ago such an order would have been dismissed as the work of a lunatic perched high in the HP bureaucracy; or someone’s idea of a joke. In fact the order did launch a whole range of satirical memes and tweets which speculated on what would possibly make for a “journalist with the right character” in the eyes of the state.

One tweeter asked: “Character certificates? Who issues such certificates to journalists of all people?” Another even suggested a template: “oh dear hope media persons scramble over each other to get certified as follows: ‘this is to certify that XYZ has been found to be always faithful to power, money and lies, has a track record of nastiness towards Muslims, and is therefore certified as being of good character’”.

Certainly there are many extant models to choose from, including the Chaudharys and Chavhankes. But there is no guarantee that even a journalist with a “character certificate” will remain free from aggravated control and surveillance. Nothing reflects the government’s desire to ring fence the journalist better than the barriers that now block the media’s access to the Central Hall of Parliament.

We don’t know what provoked a change of mind of the HP government on the certificates’ issue. The state’s department of public relations gave nothing away in its placatory note insisting that “All journalists are most welcome to cover Hon’ble Prime Minister’s visit to Himachal Pradesh on October 5th. Himachal Pradesh Police will facilitate their coverage. Any inconvenience is regretted.” 

Could it have been an urgent missive from the PMO, worried that it may affect proper coverage of an important pre-election event? One will never know given the opaqueness that marks the Union government’s functioning today. Whatever the reason, sense finally prevailed. The question is for how long?

News studios cheer on India’s descend into medievalism

If garba venues saw ugly violence raise its head, television news channels certainly played a part in stirring the pot. Manisha Pande, who anchors the zany ‘Newsance’ on Newslaundry, recently tweeted some of the ticker lines that these news shows carried:

“News18 India’s classy ticker: “Kaagaz nahin dikhaayenge, garba mein aayenge?”

Zee News headline: “Mere garbe mein tumhara kya kaam hai”.

Aaj Tak offers “breaking analysis of love jihad” at garba pandals.

Times Now: “Garba bahaana, Hindu betiyaan nishaana? Supreme Court what?!” 

Programmes like these have contributed to the steady ratcheting up of mutual hostility and distrust between Hindus and Muslims during the entire Dussehra season, leading often enough  to riot-like situations. News channels, instead of asking why stone pelting of garba venues occur only in BJP-ruled states, concentrate instead on celebrating the monstrous ways in which the police and district administration punish alleged disruptors of garbas.

At Undhela village in Gujarat’s Kheda district, after local cops randomly rounded up some of these suspects and flogged them publicly in a way that would have done Saudi Arabia proud, we had the anchor of New18 India, Aman Chopra, even tweet that this is a “New form of ‘Dandiya’ by Gujarat Police”. Pain as entertainment?

Also read: As TV Anchors Use Mob Attacks on Sadhus to Fuel Anti-Muslim Hate, Real Dangers Ignored

Important report on Northeast Delhi violence revisits media’s role

Media actors who carry on with their hate programming must know that the eyes of the country and world are on them. They will be judged, sooner or later, on their role in creating an India that has become unrecognisable to itself.

Here is a small excerpt from the Executive Summary on a new report titled, ‘Uncertain Justice: A Citizens Committee Report on the North East Delhi Violence 2020’, conducted by Justice Madan B. Lokur, former Judge of the Supreme Court; Justice A.P. Shah, former Chief Justice of the Madras and Delhi High Courts and former Chairman, Law Commission; Justice R.S. Sodhi, former Judge of the Delhi High Court; Justice Anjana Prakash, former Judge of the Patna High Court and G.K. Pillai, IAS (retired), former Home Secretary, Government of India.

“The vilification of the protests and anti-Muslim hate was amplified by widely viewed television news channels and social media. The Committee conducted an empirical analysis of the messaging of sections of the television media around the CAA and the protests. This focuses on episodes aired in December 2019-February 2020 of primetime shows of the six most viewed television news channels. These were Republic and Times Now (English), and Aaj Tak, Zee News, India TV, and Republic Bharat (Hindi). We also examined relevant posts on various social media platforms. The analysis reveals that the channels’ reportage of events surrounding the CAA framed the issues as “Hindus versus Muslims” with prejudice and suspicion against the Muslim community. These channels concentrated on vilifying anti-CAA protests, fanning unsubstantiated conspiracy theories, and calling for their forcible shutdown.”

Shop owners look at the charred remains of the tyre market in riot affected Gokulpuri area of North East Delhi, March 7, 2020. Photo: PTI

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Steel frame of arrogance?

Madan Mohan Shukla takes note of the arrogance of a senior IAS officer and the manner she snubbed a schoolgirl’s request for sanitary pads in schools (‘Malicious Reporting,’ Claims IAS Officer Caught on Video Equating Plea for Sanitary Pads to Birth Control’, September 29):

“What is wrong with our lumpenised bureaucracy? They take everything as guaranteed and that there would be no questions asked no matter what they do. If ordinary citizens raise their voices, the state’s wrath is sure to fall on them. They confront, head on, hapless people who come to them to seek justice. This is the general rule but there are, of course, exceptions. I have had occasion to praise Dr Roshan Jacob, divisional commissioner, Lucknow, for the way she helped people in distress. But what can one say about Harjot Kaur Bamhrah, a senior IAS officer belonging to the Bihar cadre, who is presently chairperson and MD of the Women and Child Development Corporation, when she publicly mocked a very small demand of a poor schoolgirl who wanted sanitary napkins to be provided to girls like her. How did Harjot Kaur qualify for the prestigious services and how did she come to assume a top post? The incident indicates why IAS officers like her need to undergo proper psychological counseling urgently.”


Give street dogs their due

A response from N. Jayaram:

“I am surprised that The Wire ran a hatchet job against Independent Canine Personages, ‘Opinion: What Explains India’s Privileged Treatment of Street Dogs?’ (September 28).

“Here’s my own unpaid blahg post of 10 years ago, ‘Let independent dogs be’.”

My response: I think both writers should agree to disagree. As for The Wire desk, they can’t be faulted. The piece that offended N. Jayaram was clearly marked as ‘Opinion’. As they say about opinions – everybody has one.

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