Urban Space and the Production of Gender in Modern Iran

Image from the animated art work ‘Line 1’ by Niyaz Azadikhah, Iran

Image from the animated art work ‘Line 1’ by Niyaz Azadikhah, Iran

What does an Islamic urban space look like? This question has dogged intellectuals and authorities in Muslim-majority lands for centuries, but in recent decades has acquired a renewed sense of urgency amid the emergence of modernising Islamist political movements.

These latter groups have not only articulated new visions of the public sphere, mass politics, and economy, they have also increasingly found themselves in positions of authority to shape the cities, regions and lands in which they work. As these groups have found themselves in control, the revolutionary mandate (and widespread protest slogan) to imagine a politics “neither East nor West, but Islamic” has taken on new meanings, forcing leaderslong focused narrowly on legal or constitutional change to recognise the more diffuse and institutional nature of power, and how much the production of space is a part of it.

In Iran, distinct understandings of urban space have emerged amid the institutionalisation and bureaucratisation of the Revolution of 1979. The Iranian urban fabric has been reshaped to both reflect and produce ideals of modern Islamic citizenship. These changes can be seen most markedly in the capital, Tehran, a metropolitan area of around fourteen million that has emerged as a laboratory for the rest of the country in urban planning.

Since the Revolution, the city has been marked by a wholesale reconstitution and realignment of the public space along a gender binary model, such that many public institutions are segregated in some way and the morality police regulate spaces that lack a physical architecture of gender dichotomisation (like parks and streets).

The period directly following the Revolution is often considered the moment of revolutionary excess, when the private sphere took over the public arena. The enforcement of rules of morality in public space, for example, was a virtual extension of the family’s control of individuals’ bodies in the public domain. This period is also the time when this conceptualisation of the private sphere invaded the sacred space of home.

That being said, the implementation of gender segregation had the perhaps unexpected effect of dramatically increasing the participation of women from more conservative backgrounds in public space in Iran. Prior to the Revolution, many more religious families imposed widespread restrictions on women that prevented them from accessing the right to study, work, and take part in society more broadly. However, women from these backgrounds took an active part in the 1979 Revolution and leaders like Ayatollah Khomeini encouraged their presence. Following the Revolution’s victory, even as many legal rights were rolled back, women’s presence in all spheres of public life skyrocketed.

For example, in 1979 only about one-quarter of one percent of Iranian women attended university. Only two decades later, this figure would skyrocket to nearly 50%, and today is closer to 60%. One major factor was the fact that many families who would previously have prevented daughters from accessing education, allowed them to attend post-1979. Because of the government’s encouragement as a result of the idea that Islam guaranteed women’s right to education, families that once prevented their daughters from attending university because they thought it was “un-Islamic” no longer did so. The percentage of professional working women has also increased significantly in this period.

That being said, this “Islamisation” of public space marginalised women from more secular backgrounds. It included, for example, the implementation of dress code regulations like mandatory hijab and the circulation of morality police that severely infringed on women’s right to dress and live freely. But its effects were generally contradictory, helping secure economic rights for many women while simultaneously disadvantaging many other women in terms of social rights.

Initiated with the Revolution, the changes to urban space in terms of Islamisation as well as gender segregation continued throughout the 1980s, although by the end of the decade and the beginning of the 1990s, they began to definitively lose their monopoly.

After the war against Iraq came to a close in 1988, a different vision of Iranian space emerged as the process of reconstruction advanced in the 1990s. This vision was best exemplified by the policies of Tehran’s mayor Gholamhossein Karbaschi. His approach to urban planning shifted focus to the nurturing of a public sphere that was at once Islamic, but also institutionalised the growing presence of women in public space.

Although his reforms did not explicitly target women, their effects were deeply gendered. Karbaschi is primarily noted for the mass greening of Tehran that began under his rule, as authorities started taking over vacant lots across the city and building parks, no matter how big or small, in every neighbourhood.

These parks became the launching pads for the creation of a wide variety of public spaces, such as cultural centres, libraries, and other educational institutions that increasingly began to serve as “third places” for women, who found themselves actively participating in public life, but still informally restricted from traditionally male sites of leisure like cafes (although mixed- gender cafes catering to the middle class exploded during this period, equivalents for the working class did not).

Karbaschi’s approach imagined citizens of the Islamic Republic as an ungendered composite, and he saw his role as fostering participation and access to public space. This was quite different from the dominant approach to planning in the 1980s, which saw Iranians through the lens of the gender binary and imagined mixed public space to be fraught with the potential for heterosexual interaction. Today, these approaches exist in a state of recurring tension in Iran, as the Karbaschi approach to planning has become dominant within the bureaucracy of Iranian cities while the morality police — who are under the control of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance — continue to police public space in accordancewith the approach developed in the 1980s.

To close, I will end with an anecdote from a park that highlights the uneasy coexistence of these two approaches. The local municipalities within Tehran regularly organise concerts and other gatherings in local public parks (built during the Karbaschi era), particularly during the summer. Attending one such gathering on a summer evening a few years ago, I saw a crowd of around one hundred people composed primarily of families sitting on plastic chairs as children danced in front of them beside the stage, where a singer used an electronic keyboard to play “folk music” from different regions of Iran. Dozens of onlookers gathered around the area to watch the scene, nodding along to the music as the heat of summer slowly cooled as a gentle breeze came down from the hills.

Further afield sat mixed groups of young people in the grass, crowds of elderly resting on benches, and occasional groups of Afghan workers in the furthest corners of the park. The standing spectators occasionally swayed to the beat, and some of the parents tried to entice their children to join those dancing around in front by teaching them the motions.

The male singer leading the display, however, walked a fine line between enthusiastically enjoining children to come to the front while occasionally reminding parents with quick but explicit asides that those who were not children should remain seated during the performance, gently reminding all those present to uphold standards of Islamic morality befitting citizens of the Islamic Republic. The spectre of mixed-gender dancing, particularly given the groups of teenagers watching the scene with bemused expressions on their faces, haunted the performance.

Members of the crowd recognised the fine line between a municipality-sponsored performance that celebrated “national culture,” and sought not to recognise any gendered divisions in the crowd, and the very real existence of morality police, who might break up the scene. The adults taking part in the festival knew that if an over-zealous morality policeman or woman tried to break up the scene, they would be the ones punished for taking part in the festival, while the municipality employees would most likely slink away in the hopes that a mid-level bureaucrat who organised the event would take the hit.

That day no morality police decided to wander the park to take a look at the festival. A few nights later, however, while I was sitting with a female cousin at a later hour, they did stop by. This time they checked IDs, asked questions, and scared the mixed groups of teenagers and the male Afghan workers from the corners of the park. That night, the “daughter of my paternal uncle” linkage was too distant for the policeman’s comfort, who subscribed to the view that even cousin relationships were fraught with the potential for heterosexuality, and we only managed to escape being rounded up after offering up a story that configured me as a Los Angeles Iranian ignorant of the dynamics of public space in Iran.

The tensions between these differently gendered approaches to crafting Islamic public space — to say nothing of the class and national anxieties shared by the morality policy and middle class Iranians vis-à-vis the presence of Afghan workers in the park — play out every day and every night in Tehran parks.

Adapted from an original article in The Funambulist - republished in Issue 3 of Women in Islam (2017)