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Children’s literature and censorship in Iran

Vi har vært så heldige at vi har fått lov til å publisere teksten fra Zohreh Ghaenis innlegg under vårt seminar om sensur, selvsensur og om sorg i barnelitteraturen på Nasjonalbiblioteket 14. september 2017. Ghaeni er direktør for The Institute for The Research on The History of Children’s Literature i Iran, og leder også prosjektet Read with me.

Before starting my talk, I would like to express my gratitude to the Norwegian Institute for children’s books for having me here.

Governments have always used censorship as a tool to control society through ideological or political filters. In the West today, censorship is a topic of discussion mostly among authors, educators, librarians and children’s literature experts who decide which books should be available to children in libraries or schools.  This censorship is mostly based on educational and pedagogical theories. Of course, criteria have changed a lot over time as the status of children in societies and educational attitudes and theories about children’s books have evolved.

In Iran, the censorship of children’s literature is a completely a different debate, whether before or after the 1979 revolution. The governments both awards and censors books. Since its first printing house opened more than 150 years’ children’s books have been promoted and suppressed simultaneously.

In the Constitutional era considered Iran’s age of Enlightenment, although there was no government authority charged with censorship, the intellectual reformists imposed criteria on children’s books that were based on their pedagogical views. Most of these intellectuals who were educated in France, were inspired by the educational system of the European countries, and opposed Iran’s traditional, old-fashioned, educational system. They first tried to keep the folktales used as textbooks in traditional schools (Maktabkhaneh) from children and promoted European fables and tales like Aesop’s or Lafontaine’s Fables.

Mohammad Hossein Foroughi(Zaka-olmolk) the chief editor of Tarbiat newsletter, Iran’s first non-governmental, independent newspaper, wrote in 1897: “These folktale books are not proper for our children. They spoil our children’s minds. They include insults and absurd words. The classic Iranian literature is too complicated for them, but we cannot substitute the love stories which are retold by illiterate people.” 1

The 19th-century journalist, educator and writer, Mirza Taghi Kashani criticized folktales and called stories about beasts, goblins and giants: “…full of nonsense to decay and deceive the children. “2

There is no evidence of imposing censorship law before the early 20th century , except a document that reveals Eatemadolsaltaneh one of the Nasereldin Shah’ advisor ( one of the Qajar king- 1870) was educated in France and  informed the king about an existing a censorship office in Europe. But the first censorship law in Iran was passed in 1907. It targeted only publications that questioned religious beliefs. This law stayed unchanged through the Pahlavi era, until 1957 when the Iranian Intelligence service pushed through new restrictions focused on political and social issues.

More than 150 children’s books were banned from publication in 1960s, because of: literary, political and social, religious and pedagogical reasons. 3 Some of these stories were about the kings and his family and depicted them as devils. During this time, even folktales from Iran and other countries were banned if they had villains. But the censorship was not limited to this content.

Some of the censorship was an effect of the Cold War. Some authors who wrote about freedom and democracy were suspected of belonging to leftist groups, and the government put more pressure on them than on more conservative, religious, writers. All stories interpreted as anti-monarchy or agitating against the government, were censored. Some children’s writers resorted to employing metaphors and allegories in their stories to avoid censorship and get published. One of these first allegorical stories was The Little Black Fish by Samad Behrangi. The story, which follows a little fish as he leaves home for the bigger world, was used to convey the left’s ideas and beliefs. During this time, some children’s writers influenced by Behrangi wrote a considerable number of allegorical stories which were actually far from literature. Most of these works were low quality books with provocative themes. The censorship office responded by banning many of these books and they were published until the eve of the revolution.

Censorship after the Islamic Revolution can be divided into different periods. In the first three years after the revolution, no authority controlled what was produced. This meant the children’s book market became filled by those so-called “revolutionary” children’s books.

Most state and private publishing houses stopped operation during these early years of the revolution. The biggest publisher among them was Kannon (Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults), which was founded by the Shah’s wife, Farah Pahlavi.

For the 10 years of the Iran-Iraq War very little children’s literature was produced. Most of the writers, illustrators and translators were not active and some were immigrated or escaped from Iran. Of the few children’s books published, most were about the war. In this period, because American and European children’s books were regarded as Western products, the translation of children’s books stopped as well.

After the war, in the 1990s, Iranian society experienced a more moderate political climate and a comparatively open atmosphere. Society was ready to move from the revolution toward the secularization. Children’s publishing houses started to publish translated children’s books in a wider range of subjects. But publishers still had red lines they could not cross.

In 1994 the supreme council of Cultural Revolution approved the designation of a group to control and monitor the content of children’s books. A five-member board, whose members are chosen by the Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance submits books to the Council for Public Culture for approval. Board members are to be authors of children’s books and experts in literature and Islam. A board member, Mohammad Reza Sarshar, mentioned in an interview: those who were against censorship at that time were “liberal» and believed in anarchism. They wanted to promote their ideology through their cultural products.4

Most of the books censored during these years touch on religious and ideological beliefs, like promoting Christianity, depicted the consumption of alcohol, showed unveiled women and girls, discussed relationships between girls and boys or were stories about single parent families. Most children’s authors who knew these red lines practiced self-censorship. They assume they cannot not refer to sexuality, mention certain bodily function, criticize authority figures or address controversial social issues.

This classic government censorship is an obstacle to the cultural promotion. The very simple controls imposed in Iran before and after revolution tell only part of the story in Iran.

Children’s book markets are really controlled in many different ways before and after actual publication.

Translated books are subject to censorship too. Some publishers and translators focus on less controversial issues to guarantee success in escaping filters. Because not all publishers respect international copyright laws, editors exclude parts of texts and illustrations thought to be found unacceptable by the censorship office. Nevertheless, the recent cultural exchanges between Iran and European countries have helped change cultural activities in Iran. Many publishers have started to buy copyrights and some translators are deliberately crossing those red lines drawn by the authorities.

In the last few years, there has been a discourse on the boundaries of children’s book censorship among intellectuals. The subject of censorship is a challenging debate between two groups. On one side are those who believe in censorship and controlling the content of children’s books. They contend that because children cannot choose proper books themselves, if experts don’t control what is published, children’s rights would be violated. On the other side of the debate are those who believe censorship does nothing to protect children. These critics point to the authorities approving the publication of countless children’s books that promote or depict violence while many quality books are either ignored or banned.

Iran has gone through many changes in the four decades after the revolution. Attitudes toward children have evolved. Parents, especially in the middle-class, educators and librarians shed much of their didactic views. And most importantly, children and young adults are not the same 30 or 40 years ago. These children of the modern world, don’t accept whatever is dictated to them. I believe nothing happens overnight. The strength of people’s demands is decisive in creating change.

On the other hand, the state-independent publishing houses have started interacting with the outside world. The strengthening relationship between these Iranian children’s book publishing houses and peers in Europe and democratic countries, empower them to stand up to the pressures and obstacles. Our message to the world is: democracy is not generated only by governments, but flourishes by meaningful intercultural exchanges among nations. We can pull back the boundaries of censorship for children’s book by making powerful ties between children’s book societies and publishing houses in the East and West.

1 Mohammad . H. Mohammadi & Zohreh Ghaeni. The History of children’s literature in Iran. Vol. 3, p.256.
2 Mohammad . H. Mohammadi & Zohreh Ghaeni. The History of children’s literature in Iran. Vol. 3, p.257.
3 Fariborz Khosravi. Censorship in the second period of Pahlavi era, Tehran: The Islamic National Library, 2002.
4 Pajoohesh nameh (Research magazine) on children’s literature, Winter 1998, No.15,p.41.