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Sheena Shirani: What it's really like to be a female TV anchor in Iran

Shirani made claims of alleged harassment and sexism in her workplace after fleeing Iran with her young son. She spoke to the Independent from a secret location about the reality of maintaining a high-profile role in a society where women are deliberately disempowered  


Heather Saul
Saturday 30 April 2016 16:53 BST
Sheena Shirani left Iran after speaking out about her treatment
Sheena Shirani left Iran after speaking out about her treatment

Up until three months ago, Sheena Shirani was a prominent journalist living in Iran, where she worked as a newscaster at the state-funded, English-speaking Press TV news network.

Ms Shirani made headlines globally earlier this year when she spoke out about the sexual harassment she had allegedly experienced while at Press TV. Her claims reverberated around the world, resulting in Press TV releasing a statement in Persian confirming the suspension of two men. It did not identify who the men were.

In her role as an anchor, Ms Shirani found herself exposed to criticism from a society where a woman’s position is expected to be one focused on submission, domesticity and servitude to the family.

She was also a divorced single mother in a country where oppressive laws ensure women remain firmly under the control of the men in their family. For women, studying and even leaving the country can require the permission of their spouse.

Living independently and without any support, she needed a job and an income in order to provide for her son. And despite being the sole carer of her child, she still had no legal rights over him as a mother and couldn’t even get him a passport without her ex-husband’s permission. Iranian law gives all legal rights to the father after their children turn seven.

Ms Shirani’s experience as a female anchor inside an Iranian network changed over her nine years with the network. Press TV was initially broadcast for Western audiences, and Ms Shirani said the management had taken a more liberal attitude. She was pleased to find that she could wear make-up on camera and dress in colourful clothes.

But over time, Ms Shirani found she was being asked to observe increasingly conservative rules about her appearance. Despite conforming, she said she still found herself the victim of harassment. It also didn’t stop her getting fined portions of her salary for wearing “excessive” make-up and “inappropriate” clothing on air, she claimed.

The Independent spoke to Ms Shirani about her experiences as a woman working in Iranian TV and about wider issues of harassment, sexism and subjugation affecting women across Iran.

Can you explain what it is really like to be a woman working in a high-profile role on television in Iran?

Being a woman means you will still be strongly discriminated against. In a country where women are forced to wear the hijab (the strict Islamic dress code for women) and have very little to say, when it comes to any of their basic rights – their right to work, their right to receive an education, their right to marry a man of their desire without the consent of a male guardian, their right to dress as they wish, their right to believe in whatever they choose to believe in, holding a high-profile job on television means having to deal with all sorts of prejudices and injustices on a regular basis. Why? Because you, as a woman whose role is better fulfilled as being a submissive wife and a self-sacrificing mother at home, are not only crossing those ideological boundaries by taking on a more active social life and pursuing a career, you are entering the lion's den by being in the spotlight.

Being the face of a TV channel means all eyes are on you. The way you walk, talk, your mannerisms, your interactions with men, your attire, your private lifestyle and every minute detail of your life comes under scrutiny. Every aspect of your life comes under scrutiny. Even when you are abiding by the rules and regulations, there are always men who find it hard to respect you in a professional manner and you continue to be looked down upon because the majority of society believes that a woman should be confined to her housekeeping role and that being in the forefront of society is not meant for her. True, women are more and more visible within Iranian society, but if you take a closer look, you see a less feminine picture of these women.

What barriers did you face when trying to becoming a TV broadcaster? You said you didn’t even have a contract. Are women treated less well than men in the workplace?

Finding a prominent job in Iran is a heinous task for the majority of Iranians, regardless of their gender. Unfortunately, your education and qualifications don't really play as much of a role as the people you are linked to within the system. And, obviously, with the patriarchal social structure that oppresses and dominates women, being a single mum was an outright disadvantage. My only advantage was my English literacy and the fact that I was raised in Scotland.

I suffered from all sorts of cultural, social and legal discrimination as a single mother living in Iran. I worked as a teacher, translator and interpreter before finding a job with the IRIB’s English-speaking radio service and later joining Press TV, and throughout all these years, even the rights and benefits that, according to the Iranian Constitution and law, I was entitled to have were often denied to me. I worked for Press TV for nine years without having a contract, health insurance, government pension, annual leave or paid sick leave. I constantly ran the risk of being made redundant, and to me, a divorced woman who was single-handedly looking after myself and my son, losing my job and my only source of income would mean my family and I would be hurting. I worked four night shifts in a row to be able to juggle responsibilities at home and work, and being sexually objectified and harassed at my workplace was the last thing I needed.

What made you decide to finally speak out about harassment?

I realised there is no authority, no legal body, no human rights organisation, absolutely no-one in my country that can save me from having to cope with sexual harassment on a regular basis. I would talk to my female co-workers and friends and they would tell me they go through the same ordeals and that I need to get married and have a man protect me. I would talk to authorities and men in higher positions of power and they would question me and my mannerisms for what befalls me. [They would say] ‘You should dress more modestly. Don’t smile. Don’t laugh. Don’t talk to men. Men are weak by nature. They can’t control themselves. You’ll only shame yourself if you talk about issues of such nature.’ Plus, opening up to these men and confiding in them only opened the doors for them to do the exact same thing. I had done everything within my power to conform, to comply and to fit into Iranian society. I had no social life. My friends no longer recognised me. I hardly recognised myself. I had turned into what society wanted from me and yet I was being sexualised every single night.

What happened in the office was the last straw. I was afraid of the reaction I would receive. I was afraid of not being believed. I was also aware that had I stayed there for any longer, I would have actually been giving the man the green light to do anything he wants with me. I had witnessed other instances of women being sexually harassed and being reprimanded or sacked for speaking to their bosses about it. I had absolutely no choice but to quit my job. I went public with my story so that other women could find the courage and strength within themselves to do the same. No woman deserves to be sexually objectified.

Why do you think those who allegedly harassed you behaved like this?

Sexual harassment in public places is a ubiquitous reality of everyday life for Iranian women. In fact, it has become so habitual that most women don’t bother to bring it up anymore, unless there is a special instance of outright groping, for instance.

What gave the men the audacity and right to behave the way they did was the fact that they feared no consequences. I needed my job. I was doomed to stay in Iran because I didn’t have custody of my son and I hadn’t been able to get him a passport. I was vulnerable being a single mother who was not receiving any kind of financial support or aid from anyone. They knew they had the support and backing of the elite. Why not abuse power, when there are no consequences for doing wrong?

Do you think the men who allegedly harassed you would have ever been suspended if you had not gone public, and will any serious action be taken?

Definitely not. These men were improved in rank because of their power and associations with the Islamic Republic. These men are powerful in Iran. Press TV has taken a number of drastic measures under the radar, but if believed I had the slightest chance of seeing justice served in my own country, I would have sued many men in power. They are only examples of how many men in my country have been programmed to treat women. You can't punish two men who were taught that it's OK to abuse their power and sexually objectify women without looking at what turns these men into monsters in the first place. There are plenty of sick monsters that Iran's domestic policies have created throughout the years. The men who harassed me are pretty much the victims of the sick ideology that they've been exposed to.

Is your alleged experience of sexual harassment something many of the women you know in the industry, or in any workplace, have faced as well?

I was a journalist and even though not much attention was given to domestic issues at Press TV, I’ve heard the stories of many different Iranian women. I don't mean to demonise all Iranian men because that is hardly the case. But why is it happening on such an enormous scale? That’s what needs to be addressed.

Segregating girls and boys from a very young age, limiting their contacts and their interactions, not allowing them to socialise, enforcing the hijab on women, giving men absolute power over women, and many of the policies that the Iranian regime has adopted have all led to what we are seeing now. There are many instances of women being sexually harassed within their families, on the streets, in universities and in their workplaces, and as long as women are slut-shamed and blamed and no one raises this issue, the problem will not be addressed and resolved.

Can you tell me what it was like to be forced to wear a hijab on television?

I understand that many workplaces have dress codes, particularly workplaces in industries in which image is highly valued. I had no problem understanding that and respecting it. I had turned into what Press TV had wanted from me: loose black manteaus – the jacket worn by Iranian women instead of chador, long scarves, flat shoes. My make-up was done by the make-up artists hired by the channel. I had absolutely no say when it came to how I look, yet I was still being harassed on a regular basis. It’s humiliating to have cameramen, sound men, content advisors, directors, all these different kinds of men you are working with, giving themselves the right to talk to you about your body, to point to your chest and tell you that you need to fix your scarf, that your neck is showing, that your hair can be seen. It is painful to be stared at, to be told by men that you have to change your outfit because it is too tight around the waist area, the chest area. It's disgusting to feel the piercing eyes of men looking for your breasts under your thick clothing without even the slightest pretence of hiding. I wasn’t breaching any of the rules. I was doing as I was told. I was on camera, and what I was wearing was seen by the world. I was covered from head to toe, however, none of that saved me from being sexually harassed regularly.

How strict was state TV about you wearing a hijab?

I first started my journalistic career at the state’s English-speaking radio service as a presenter. I can describe the treatment I received by the female security guards at the entrance gates of the IRIB headquarters as nasty, derogatory and horrible. I remember them preventing me from entering the campus and almost missing live broadcasts for wearing a thin eyeliner or having the slightest make-up on. They spoke with profound vulgarity when addressing you. “WHERE DO YOU THINK YOU’RE GOING LIKE THAT? Pull your scarf forward and wipe off that lipstick!”

When I was first asked to do a camera test for Press TV, I was actually surprised that it was done in a far less conservative environment. In fact, they sent me all the way back home after my first camera test to change into a more bright and colourful outfit. They also told me that it would be alright for me to put make-up on. I was told they wanted it to appeal to Western audiences. I was overjoyed. Female presenters at Press TV were not obliged to adhere to the [same] strict and rigid dress code of local female presenters. The entire building was allocated outside the IRIB campus, so that foreign nationals working for the station would not be harassed by the guards.

However, a year after the launch of the channel, things changed drastically. Press TV started being broadcast in Iran. Security guards were lined up at the doors of the building to monitor entrances and exits. The dress code that was initially in place kept getting harsher and stricter. Many foreign nationals working for the station left as a result of the rigid rules and limitations. More and more conservatives and hardliners were hired by the channel and Press TV went from what you would call a more liberal working environment to a completely closed one. I was caught up in the midst of all these changes, and even though I was dancing to their every whim, I was still being strongly discriminated against. I was fined for having long eyelashes, for wearing high heels, for wearing a ring. The list just goes on and on.

What kind of reaction have you had since the recordings became public? Are people supporting you?

There were mixed reactions after I published the voice recording on my Facebook page. Many of my former colleagues reached out to express their support and encouraged me to speak out for them and to be their voice. Many Iranians expressed their admiration for what I had done. Many women from across the world, who identified with me, contacted me to share their personal experiences of sexual harassment and abuse. But, there were also those who laid the blame at my door. There were comments by women of my own country suggesting I was the culprit in this incident. Many Press TV viewers also felt the necessity to bash me and tell me to be silent.

Do you think you will ever be able to return to Iran?

No, unless the current regime changes. I received numerous threats after my story went viral. Press TV’s official statement said that the audio file was made with the help of "people opposing the Iranian system with political motives" while also suggesting that the case was "suspicious" because I had not lodged a criminal complaint. That statement, in itself, implies they are alleging that I've been conspiring against the country’s national interests, which is equivalent to treason, and we all know what repercussions that can have for me. I have also received numerous hate messages by supporters of the regime who told me I deserve to be stoned to death and accused me of being a foreign agent who had infiltrated into Press TV in order to embarrass it at some later point.

What are the biggest problems facing women in Iran now? How are they treated in society?

Women in Iran have been trying to attain rights equal to men for many years. As it is today, they can only benefit from their most basic rights under the authority of a man in their family, such as their father or husband. Hijab is one of the ideological pillars of the country, and it's been compulsory for all Iranian women since 1979. It's not just a piece of clothing when you take into account the various forms of harassment, abuse and discrimination that Iranian women undergo on a daily basis for not observing the proper hijab. It's not something that can be taken lightly when you understand the limitations and deprivations Iranian women face in relation to their careers, education, public services and participation in cultural or recreational spaces if they violate hijab laws. It becomes a means of oppression. It is only one of the many schemes that the Islamic Republic has devised to control not only the bodies but the lives of Iranian women and exclude them from full participation in society, relegating them to their homes. Contrary to what the religious figureheads in Iran claim, the hijab cannot and will not stop men from assaulting women. Women are constantly admonished; they must observe a modest dress and cover themselves up. Society has instructed women to keep a low profile, not to talk too much, not to laugh, to mind their own business and to stay silent in the face of sexual assault and discrimination. Why? To "protect" us.

Yet what we are in fact seeing is that these restrictions have not only helped protect us from being sexualised and objectified, but they have created scores and scores of sick sexual monsters. Even if the only part of a woman's body that shows is her shadow, deviants will sexualise and fetishise it.

Not only have they enslaved women, they have also enslaved men by telling them that they have no control over their primitive sexual urges.

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