Gender and Urban Space in Tehran

This panel explores the understudied relation and interconnection between gender, sexuality and urban space in the context of Tehran’s historical development over the last 150 years. It applies cutting edge theories from the social sciences, historical research and critical approaches to gender in order to analyze how the public, private and interstitial spaces of the city, in their planning, use, understanding and fabric, have created, reinforced, reflected and challenged public gender relations, morals and sexuality.

As social constructs, gender and space are produced daily by myriads of interactions, practices and ideological interpretations, and it is the aim of this panel to address these in terms of social and material relations, which leave an imprint on urban forms and urban processes. “To think about gender and sexuality in the city”, the urban sociologist Fran Tonkiss proposes, “is to think about the interaction of spatial practice, social difference and symbolic associations in urban contexts”. This panel addresses interrelated topics such as masculinity, homosexuality and heteronormativity, prostitution and state policy, harems and segregation as well as dating and single women. Thus, the panel will bring to light new studies of the contentious politics of gender and space in Tehran from the late 19th century to the present day.


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Shahrinaw, as the red-light district of Tehran in the Pahlavi period (1925-1979), has a significant place in imagining modern history of Iran. It is a site of multiple urban, social, national, and religious myths, with proliferating rumors, stories, and legends around it. Formed around 1921, and shut down after the Islamic revolution in the spring of 1979, the history of the red-light district of Tehran neatly maps the Pahlavi period. Consequently, it contributes to articulation of contested and multiple political temporalities of the 20th century Iran. The story of Lord Curzon’s humiliation and public lashing of sex-workers, which is said to have fostered the formation of Shahrinaw in 1921, the much highlighted role of the residents of Shahrinaw in 1953 coup d’état against Mosaddegh, and the execution of three famous sex-workers after the Islamic revolution in 1979, are all just a few instances of the many ways, in which Shahrinaw’s history contributes to political grand narratives of Iran’s modern history. The history of Shahrinaw in its own right however, is yet to be written.

To this end, this paper looks into the history of Shahrinaw from its inception to its erasure (1921-1979), as a window onto the way in which religious activists and moral crusaders contributed to the formation of moral topography of Tehran. It argues that Shahrinaw is a contested space formed through constant dialogue with state urban planners, mass mobilized petitions, and journalistic efforts, in an era when the religious secular divide was taking shape in Iran. This paper uses government documents including regulations about the residency of sex-workers; petitions against residency of sex-workers in Tehran’s neighborhoods; and government’s census on residents of Shahrinaw. In doing so, it contends that formation of Shahrinaw was an experiment of modernity and an outcome of a dialogue between citizens and the state. This paper further focuses particularly on the formation of affective moral landscape of Tehran and constant redistribution of spaces of faith and intimacy, in an era of relatively fast urbanization, and secularization.

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Since the Iranian Revolution of 1978-9, Tehran’s urban fabric has been reshaped to both reflect and produce the ideals of modern Islamic citizenship that various political actors including the central government, the municipality, and other regulatory authorities would like to see performed by Iranian citizens on urban space.

In this paper I examine how various political actors have articulated diverse and often contradictory visions of modern Islamic citizenship and Islamic public space through the production, transformation and regulation of Tehran’s urban space. Specifically, I focus on how Islamic ideologies and discourses around gender relations and women’s access to the public sphere have been articulated and contested across this urban fabric in the decades since the Islamic Revolution. I consider the Islamic Revolution’s conceptualization of Islamic morality and specifically the gendered notions of heterosexualized Islamic citizenship and public morality that were articulated spatially following the Revolution by examining urban spaces produced during or since the Tehran municipal urban interventions of the 1990’s.

Tehran since 1979 has been marked by a wholesale reconstitution and realignment of the public space along a gender binary model, such that most public institutions are segregated and the morality police regulate spaces that lack a physical architecture of gender dichotomization. Because this process produces Iranian citizens as heterosexuals and takes the pre-emption of heterosexual relations as a central goal of the organization of public space, it encourages homosocial behaviors and renders less noticeable homosexual behaviors. In the paper, I apply a spatial lens and examine how the urban realignment has affected differently gendered, classed, and sexualized Iranian bodies.

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Iranian women had a tumultuous presence in public spaces since the beginning of the century, when Reza Shah Pahlavi ordered women to unveil until the Islamic republic obliged them to veil again. It was only during the reign of Mohammad Reza Shah, where women had some social freedoms and the choice of wearing or not the hijab in Public spaces.
Today despite 35 years of rigid application of the Islamic law through a permanent control of morality and social behaviors in public spaces, it seems that the process of islamization of the society was not enough successful. Today, children of the Revolution, those who have been born after Revolution, and grew up in a paradoxical society, between the perpetual process of Islamization and being exposed to the modernism, gradually have shaped new forms of rebellion and spaces of resistance, which were not expected under the Islamic Republic.
Young generations of women today are highly educated, but mostly jobless, they are connected to the world via the new technology, they are more aware of their rights in public and private spheres; they marry less, divorce more and stay single for longer time. Today there are many young women, who are living alone in Tehran, or cohabiting with their friends, out of the context of the traditional family, a new phenomenon which did not existed until recently in this scale. These young women experience public life and public spaces in a very new way.
This paper is based on (more than) 40 interviews with urban middle class women between 20 and 65 years old who are living alone in Tehran. I will examine how different generations of women experience their everyday life in different public spaces and in different moments of their lives? How they learned /managed / invented different strategies to stay or to (re)enter different public spaces despite multiple limitations imposed by the traditional society or the state and religious authorities.

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This paper will look at the ways in which Nasser al-Din Shah’s harem, or the andaroon of his Golestan Palace, was a central location for negotiations between tradition and modernity during his reign (1848 to 1896). Located in what was at the time the historical core of Tehran and steps away from the Grand Bazaar, the andaroon of Golestan was the site of a unique familial formation that at once reflected certain Islamic traditions, and yet was in many ways informed by and even expanded at the height of Persian engagement with the processes of urban modernization.

Under Nasser al-Din’s reign the Golestan harem, grew both physically and in terms of the number of its residents as compared to the harem of his predecessor Mohamad Shah Qajar who reigned from 1834-1848. This expansion presents an interesting contradiction since this is a period that is generally understood as the emergence of modernity in Iran and since in both European accounts, and Persian nationalist accounts, the harem as an institution is thought to be an outdated and traditional form of kinship that represents Islamic backwardness. As such, its simultaneous expansion in the face of greater contact with Europe and Western modernity presents us with an interesting paradox that I hope to explore.

This paper will focus on the spatial dimensions of Nasser al-Din Shah’s harem, its proximity to the core of an expanding urban locale, and the ways in which different bodies, ideologies and commodities were distributed within and outside of it. I hope to offer new insight about the physical and material organization of this social institution and the ways in which it was controlled, lived in, and subverted.

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It is not long time ago since the introvert male-dominated society, kept its treasure; the goddess of Matbakh (1); behind closed doors of Andarouni (2). Despite some focal points of effective appearance of Iranian women in urban societies in the late 19th century (such as Tobacco Protest in 1891), until the early 20th century, the relations of Iranian woman and urban/public space was predominantly restricted to a veiled presence in the mosques, mourning rites and funeral ceremonies, depicting a sorrowful picture of her in the urban society. Rarely seen in the bazaar, possibly the public bath has been the only social platform, in which women could feel freer to interact, to talk and to meet within the only feminine public space in the city. The city was utterly exploited by men. The city was completely masculine and it, observably, remained masculine!

Due to the socio-economic transformations in early 20th century leading to the Constitutional Revolution (1905-1911), the relationship between women and urban space began to change in Iranian cities. Politically speaking, from the forceful removing of Hijab in 1934 by Reza Shah Pahlavi (which suddenly transformed the image of the veiled city to facing the women wearing miniskirts and high heels in downtown of the Iran’s capital) to the forceful covering of Hijab in Post-Islamic Revolution in 1979, Iranian women experienced a series of top-down political interventions reminding them they are painfully still the “second sex” in the contemporary Iran.

The paper, firstly, discusses the historical transformations of women’s appearance in the urban/public spaces in sociological perspective from the late 19th century to the present day; and secondly, it aims to explore how they; as the female “bodies of walkers” in the city; read this male-written rhetoric in its both formal and semantic expression in Iran's modern urban society (as Michel De Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life gives a metaphorical expression of the city as ‘text’, while the walkers are ‘readers’ of the “city-text”). Thus the sociological nature of this research induces a series of semi-structured interviews with a group of Iranian women on their imaginations, experiences, stories and feelings of being/walking within the urban spaces in Iran’s modern cities.

(1) Kitchen in traditional Iranian architecture.
(2) Purdah; literally inner house where women cannot be seen by men.

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