Women in Place: The Politics of Gender Segregation in Iran

Women in Place: The Politics of Gender Segregation in Iran

by Nazanin Shahrokni

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While much has been written about the impact of the 1979 Islamic revolution on life in Iran, discussions about the everyday life of Iranian women have been glaringly missing. Women in Place offers a gripping inquiry into gender segregation policies and women’s rights in contemporary Iran. Author Nazanin Shahrokni takes us onto gender-segregated buses, inside a women-only park, and outside the closed doors of stadiums where women are banned from attending men’s soccer matches. The Islamic character of the state, she demonstrates, has had to coexist, fuse, and compete with technocratic imperatives, pragmatic considerations regarding the viability of the state, international influences, and global trends. Through a retelling of the past four decades of state policy regulating gender boundaries, Women in Place challenges notions of the Iranian state as overly unitary, ideological, and isolated from social forces and pushes us to contemplate the changing place of women in a social order shaped by capitalism, state-sanctioned Islamism, and debates about women’s rights. Shahrokni throws into sharp relief the ways in which the state strives to constantly regulate and contain women’s bodies and movements within the boundaries of the “proper” but simultaneously invests in and claims credit for their expanded access to public spaces.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520304284
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 12/24/2019
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 176
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Nazanin Shahrokni is Assistant Professor of Gender and Globalization at the London School of Economics. Prior to establishing an academic career, she worked as a journalist for Zanan, a feminist monthly in Tehran, Iran.

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The Politics of Gender Segregation in Iran

Long before it was concerned about Iran's possible access to the nuclear bomb, the Western media was concerned about the "chador bomb," Ayatollah Khomeini's call for women in Iran to wear the chador, the long black garment that covers the whole body, leaving only the face exposed (Jaynes 1979). The 1979 Islamic revolution was described as returning women to a shrouded life; "like a pearl in its shell," as the revolutionary slogan went, the woman was coated layer upon layer, shrouded not just by her veil but by walls, fences, and curtains installed across Tehran, and the rest of the country, as part of the state's gender segregation plan.

Upholding the Islamic identity of the state and inculcating that identity into society required prescribing and scrutinizing women's and men's bodily presentation. Whereas men were expected to refrain from certain practices such as wearing ties, short sleeves, and short pants, the focus on women's appearance carried additional weight, and transgression carried different connotations; women were positioned as the bearers of a redefined Islamic morality, and as such the possibility of a lapse necessitated protecting their chastity; "like cotton and fire," goes the proverb, "men and women should be kept separated," or else they could burn in a moment of unbridled attraction. To prevent the "sin," the mixing of unrelated men and women, it was the woman's body that was more thoroughly inspected. Women had to pass through checkpoints installed at the entrances of universities, shopping malls, airports, theaters, and government buildings (Sciolino 1992). Stationed at each was a guard representing the state, her eyes scanning women's bodies in search of the "inappropriate": a few strands of hair sticking out of a scarf, the faded stains of lipstick, the broken traces of eyeliner, the color and length of the dress; every part, every gesture, my interviewees recalled, was scrutinized. Women who failed to pass the propriety test would be denied entry. These transformations were all part of the newly formed state's attempt to revolutionize the city, establishing an Islamic public order through the "moral purification" of public spaces and the institutionalization of "modesty." As the capital of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Tehran was to be transformed into an "Islamic city."

Although much has been written about the 1979 Islamic revolution and its impact on life in Iran, the spatial policies and practices of the now forty-year-old regime remain curiously understudied. Women in Place is about the twists and turns of state policies regarding women's access to public spaces and what these changes signify in terms of state power. Through this approach, gender segregation provides a window into the transformations of and internal contradictions within the Iranian state and the changes in Iranian society over the past four decades.

Tehran in 2008, when I began conducting my fieldwork, was by all accounts very different from the Tehran of the 1980s. If the city were a movie, I would have said it had made a genre shift. In the Western media, Iran was now presented as Janus-faced: there it was, the Islamic Republic, included in the "axis of evil," posing a menacing threat to the world with its nuclear program, and there they were, the women of Iran, posing a menacing threat to the Islamic Republic from within. Women were pitted against the state, both perceived to be engaged in a zero-sum game, the gains of one interpreted as the loss of the other. Women's bodies had once again come under the scrutiny of Western observers, who, like the government guards at the checkpoints, were searching for the "inappropriate"— length and color of scarves, slit overcoats, lipstick, nail polish, heel heights — only to label every "inappropriate" gesture "resistance," a sign of the state's fading authority, of its failing grip over women. The "romance of resistance," to use Lila Abu-Lughod's (1990) phrase, took journalists and scholars alike to the "hidden" corners of Tehran. A new topography of Tehran, a veritable "city of lies" as Navai calls it (2014), extended from the "high-end coffee shops," where young women were smoking and mingling with young men (Erdbrink 2011), to the parties in the basements of villas in north Tehran — where "passionate uprisings" had been stirred up and Iranian youth danced, drank, and engaged in "unconventional" sexual activities (Mahdavi 2009) — and the "underground" world, where segregation was breached and "pleasures banned by the ayatollahs" could be freely explored (Khatib 2014).

But the truth is that one did not need to go all the way to the underground to find change. On the ground, too, change was tangible. In Tehran, the wearing of chadors had (mostly) decreased. Women in colorful coats and scarves had become increasingly visible and vocal, public and mobile. They were "conquering enclosed public spaces," as Masserat Amir-Ebrahimi (2006) astutely points out. The conservatives in Iran attributed this trend to a "creeping liberalism." In a similar line of argumentation, scholars and journalists residing outside Iran attributed these transformations to the reformists coming to power in 1996, the overall loosening of social control in the postwar era, and the "mellowing down" of the clerics (Sciolino 2003).

Wearing of chadors had mostly gone down — true. But new walls were going up. Gender-segregated spaces were rapidly expanding. The roads and the rides were becoming increasingly segregated as newly launched women-only buses and taxis were providing women with exclusive rides across the city (Banakar and Payvar 2015). Away from the crowded streets, women could now spend their leisure time in one of the many women-only parks and entertainment hubs that were launched in Tehran and around the country to provide women with the incentive to exercise and take care of their health. And as Reuters reported, in May 2007 the city of Karaj, west of Tehran, saw the opening of the country's first women-only Internet café, with the conservative Mehr News Agency publicizing the fact that women could now "enjoy high-speed Internet and free computer lessons" from an all-female staff (Reuters, May 21, 2007). There were several women-only cafés and restaurants where women could get together with female friends and spend their money on food and drinks. In 2010 the state-owned Melli Bank opened its first women-only branch, alleging that this would make it easier for women to handle their own money. Women-only businesses, encouraged by the state, were recognized as "the most lucrative spaces for income" and have continued to flourish in recent years (Bahramitash 2013). A reporter from the Iranian News Agency (IRNA, June 18, 2011) could not conceal his astonishment when describing the first women-only carwash, which was launched in northwest Tehran. At this carwash, an all-female staff provided various services for the customers. While the cars were being washed, the customers were directed to a waiting room, where they were served drinks and were offered psychological and self-help tips.

Despite these developments, Tehran City Council member Elaheh Rastgoo stated in an interview in 2014 that Tehran's city spaces were still not optimal for women's use. Among her suggestions was to increase the number of women-only spaces across the city — in effect to create a city within the city, a city of women. And indeed, as she was uttering these words, Tehran Municipality was already launching the women's city complexes (Shahrbanu), gigantic entertainment hubs organized in and around women-only parks.

As women became more public and visible and developed a sense of entitlement to city spaces and services, the state pursued a new gender segregation regime in the form of an expansion of women-only spaces. Some have argued that these attempts by the state to expand or reinforce gender segregation, which coincided with the coming to power of the conservatives and the eight-year presidency of Mahmood Ahmadinejad between 2005 and 2013, represent a conservative backlash against reformists' liberalism. These concerns and controversies reached a peak when Ahmadinejad appointed Marzieh Vahid Dastjerdi, a conservative female politician and gynecologist who was considered the mastermind of gender-segregated health care, as the minister of health (Shahrokni 2009). In these accounts, the "renewed" interest in gender segregation and other "restrictive" policies during the 2000s is interpreted as the conservatives' way of getting back at the reformist faction. As a result, gender segregation is associated with conservatism and is presented as an exclusionary policy aimed at limiting women's presence and movement in public spaces and the public sphere, taking back the hard-won spaces to which women had come to feel entitled. However, none of these accounts addresses or explains the fact that gender segregation has remained a priority of the state agenda since 1979 and has been pursued under various administrations regardless of their ideological underpinnings.

What is the story of gender segregation policies in postrevolutionary Iran? How do various administrations justify their creation and expansion? Who uses gender-segregated spaces, and what meanings do they assign to them? And what does the transformation of gender-segregated spaces show us about the changing modalities of state power in Iran?

Women in Place offers a historicized and contextualized reading of gender-segregated spaces in Iran and seeks to answer these questions as it takes us on a historical tour of postrevolutionary Tehran by examining three illustrative sites of gender segregation: on city buses (chapter 2); inside the Mothers' Paradise, the first of the four women-only parks in the city (chapter 3); and outside the closed doors of Freedom Sports Stadium, where women are banned from attending men's sports matches (chapter 4). Through these case studies, the book examines how the state establishes itself and retains its role as the ultimate arbiter of gender boundaries by regulating women's presence in public spaces. The tangibility and visibility of gender segregation practices have made the setting of gender boundaries central to the Islamic Republic's self-image and, effectively, authority; the state has thus attempted to solidify gender difference over several decades by creating physical and visible boundaries across the city. This drawing of gender boundaries was driven by ideological imperatives, the quest for legitimation, and practical exigencies and had no clear sense of direction, other than an undefined commitment to constructing Islamic spaces through segregation. In this not unambiguous process, Iranian women's increased public presence — even though partially enabled by state policy — has posed a challenge to state authority. The following chapters argue that the unsettling of the gender order caused by shifts in Iran's social, political, and economic environment prompted the Islamic state to develop a new regime of gender segregation, including strategies that would be flexible enough to address the need for women's increased use of public space while never relinquishing the state's authority as regulator.

As the case studies in this book indicate, in order for the state to address diverse and often conflicting interests, it had to adapt its policies to a shifting sociopolitical landscape. Thus, I contend, gender-segregated spaces shifted from functioning as spaces of exclusion aimed at restricting women's movements in the city to spaces of inclusion allegedly to facilitate their presence in urban public spaces. The shift from one regime of gender segregation to the other reflects, and is enabled by, a shift in the state's mode of regulation from prohibition — the disabling of undesired effects — to provision, the enabling of desired effects. The movement from prohibition to provision, I demonstrate, is accompanied by a discursive shift from protecting women's virtue and chastity in the name of Islamic morality to protecting women's rights and safety in the name of secular liberal citizenship.

Although the form and intensity of gender domination have varied over time, I argue that the changing balance in the state's modes of regulation — from prohibition to provision — is managed through the discourse of protection and is consistently accompanied by the characterization of the state as protector (Brown 1992, 3; Young 2003). This concept of protection, however, is not immutable but socially and historically defined. Indeed, the Islamic Republic, in its early stages, had already transformed the traditional Islamic notion of male guardianship into state protection and thus had effectively appropriated it. In subsequent years the impact of social change — in the form of an expanding middle class and the emergence of a client/consumer mentality (Alamdari 2005; Harris 2017; Keshavarzian 2007) — as well as the development of a bureaucratic logic, coupled with a liberal state understanding of protection as service provision rather than benevolent patronage, prompted further transformations. Thus, in order to tease out the complexity of policy change in Iran, a more nuanced reading of the abovementioned processes is required. Protection, I suggest, is flexible enough to accommodate multiple discursive regimes, including Islamic morality and liberal rights, thereby allowing the state to assert its authority in changing local and global contexts.

This book challenges the practice of reification of gender segregation by pointing out the differential degrees of prohibition and provision in the context of different regimes of gender segregation. Whereas gender segregation refers to a host of diverse modes of administering and ordering physical and social space and the position of gendered subjects therein, and while gender boundaries shift and remain open to contestation, the state's practice of that segregation acquires its unity at the level of representation, a representation that dissimulates the diversity of its forms and meanings. The constant (yet unsystematic and often wayward) partitioning of city spaces along gender lines, the habitual movement of bodies within these gendered spaces, and the state's endless (yet mostly futile) surveillance and supervision of these movements all help (re)create the idea and image of an Islamic city divided along gender lines. Therefore, I argue that the Islamic state is the producer of a gender-segregated spatial order, but at the same time it relies on that order to invent itself as precisely that: an Islamic state.

When it is regarded in this way, as a fluid and adaptable constant, gender segregation becomes a lens through which to view the broader workings of power and politics. But before delving into the case studies and what they tell us about the Islamic Republic, I look back at the longer history of how gender segregation has been practiced in Iran and consider the set of challenges the newly established revolutionary state faced when it tried to transform a practice that was historically upheld by society into a state project.


Under the Qajar dynasty (1796–1925), gender segregation and the occultation of women from the public eye were indicators of wealth, dignity, and status (Najmabadi 2005, 153). While poor women and men mingled in city streets, wealthy women often had the bazaar merchant, the clothier, and the hairdresser come to them. They would also frequently be given exclusive access to select public baths and the streets leading to them at specific times (Khatib-Chahidi 1981; Varmaghani, Hossein, and Shani 2016). An affluent woman's place was at home, and even the home was divided into the inviolable private space of women (andarooni) and the semipublic space of men (birooni) (Hosseini et al. 2015). As Middle East historians have shown, the "depraved" classes did not have the means or the resources to compartmentalize their cramped households and replicate the deportment of the well-to-do (Boudagh and Ghaemmaghami 2011).

For much of the nineteenth century public spaces remained men's territories, though toward the end of the Qajar dynasty women's confinement within the private space was for the first time problematized (Najmabadi 1991), and attempts were made to transform the public order by carving out women-only spaces, such as girls' schools, women-only theaters, and women's presses. For example, in narrating the history of theater and cinema in Iran, Masood Mehrabi (1989) describes how during the nineteenth century young (male) Iranian students and diplomats who had been in Europe and had become infatuated with its cinematography decided upon their return to Iran to open private theaters to show European motion pictures. A few of these men — Ardashes Badmagerian (Ardeshir Khan), an Armenian Iranian merchant, together with Khanbaba Motazedi, the French-trained Iranian film entrepreneur, and Colonel Alinaqi Vasiri, a renowned musicologist and composer — paved the way for women's entrance into cinemas by opening Cinema Khorshid, Iran's first women-only theater in 1917 (Naficy 2012), an initiative that was to be emulated by the opening of many more such theaters. These women-only spaces, women's presses and reading circles in particular, contributed to the formation of a vibrant female public sphere, parallel to but not yet integrated with the male public sphere (Brookshaw 2013, 2014; McElrone 2005).


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Copyright © 2020 Nazanin Shahrokni.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations vii

Preface and Acknowledgments ix

1 The Politics of Gender Segregation in Iran 1

2 Boundaries in Motion: Sisters, Citizens, and Consumers Get on the Bus 30

3 Happy and Healthy in Mothers' Paradise: Women-Only Parks and the Expansion of the State 57

4 Soccer Goals and Political Points: The Gendered Politics of Stadium Access 81

5 Re-placing Women, Remaking the State: Gender, Islam, and the Politics of Place Making 109

Notes 127

References 135

Index 151

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