As a trained radiologist, Roya Karimi-Majd’s job at the public hospital in Mashhad, Iran’s second largest city, was to look for fractures and breaks in patients’ bones.
People from all walks of life, including many vulnerable women who had been abused or abandoned with their children, came through her examination room. In addition to their physical injuries, Karimi-Majd discovered deep cleavages in society that her liberal, middle-class upbringing had not exposed her to.
“I would have never become a journalist if I hadn’t worked at the hospital,” she said. “I heard all of these stories from the patients, such sad stories, and I knew I had to tell them. I knew that people’s souls needed my help more than their bodies.”
Now, 23 years later, Karimi-Majd is the host of Other Voices, a weekly ten-minute radio magazine broadcast by Radio Farda focusing on women’s lives in Iran. In the six years the show has been on the air, Karimi-Majd has dealt frankly and openly about the problems Iranian women face, which she says are either ignored or diminished as private family matters rather than socially important issues by Iranian state media.
A recent installment of Other Voices addressed gender inequality in government employment, including in sensitive contexts, like ambulance and other emergency services, where the mostly male personnel are prohibited by strict cultural mores from touching women patients. Other installments have dealt with child abuse, domestic violence, and women’s autonomy over their bodies.
If an issue is generating a lot of audience feedback, Karimi-Majd will host some installments as a call-in show or roundtable discussion to maximize the opportunity for listeners to participate directly.
Ahead of Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s recent visit to Iran, journalist and Radio Farda contributor Masih Alinejad wrote an open letter asking the minister to “stand up for Western values” by eschewing the head scarf during her visit, which the she did not do. Karimi-Majd dedicated an episode of Other Voices to a discussion of successful and unsuccessful tactics for raising international awareness about internal resistance to enforced veiling in Iran.
In a program dealing with female genital mutilation (FGM), a rare but still extant practice in rural provinces in Iran, three women who had been subjected to FGM told their stories on the air. The stories shocked listeners, many of whom wrote to Karimi-Majd on social media or
e-mail that they were not aware FGM was still practiced in parts of the country.
“Once in a while we have an uplifting story about a successful Iranian woman,” she said. “But this doesn’t mean much for our listeners because these successful women have all left Iran. It’s more important that our radio broadcasts can reach rural women and that we talk about what is affecting them.”
Few Options For Women…
Other Voices is part of a dwindling ensemble of media platforms dedicated to women’s issues in Iran. Zanan-e Emrooz (Women of Today), the only prominent print magazine focusing on women’s rights in Iran, was closed in April by the country's Press Oversight Committee for its coverage of “white marriages,” a term used for cohabitation outside of marriage. The magazine’s history of reporting on women’s rights was cited by other pro-government news outlets as justification of the closure.
Shahla Sherkat, prominent Iranian feminist writer and founder of Zanan women's magazine.
“I have not been formally served with the notice of the decision. I read about the ban on my publication in the news,” Shahla Sherkat, managing editor of Zanan-e Emrooz, said in an interview with International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.
Though current President Hassan Rohani’s reform platform had raised hopes for improvements in women’s status in Iran, analysts say hardliners are waging a campaign to force him to backpedal on his pledges to relax cultural restrictions and increase press freedom.
Before leaving Iran as a result of pressure from intelligence officials, Karimi-Majd had worked for many years for the predecessor to Zanan-e Emrooz, a magazine called simply Zanan (Women). The publication approached women’s issues from an Islamic perspective, but took a progressive stance on women’s rights. Zanan was closed by authorities in 2008, but allowed to reopen under its new name in 2014, with the understanding that the editors would be more discrete in their choice of topics and moderate in their support of women’s rights, according to Karimi-Majd. She says she supported the compromise, as it was better than the alternative, which was to have no women’s magazines dealing with substantive issues at all.
But it seems Zanan-e Emrooz was still not moderate enough for the state censors.
In light of the closing of of Zanan-e Emrooz, Karimi-Majd says the fight to let Iranian women’s voices be heard is now as important as ever, and she vows to continue look beyond the surface of Iranian society and expose what lies beneath.