Nazanin Shahrokni, Women in Place: The Politics of Gender Segregation in Iran (Oakland: University of California Press, 2020).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Nazanin Shahrokni (NS): Women in Place constitutes the intertwinement of the personal, the political, and the professional for me.

I begin the book by describing a scene from 1995, which I experienced personally: the opening ceremony of the Students’ Sports Olympiad, which took place in Isfahan, Iran, one of the first times when male and female students were allowed in the very same stadium together, albeit in separate sections. This was a formative experience for me, because living these events brought home an apparent “paradox” that permeates my book. Back then, in the 1990s when timid steps towards an opening with regards to the “place” of women in Iran were taking place, interestingly, the very same female officials who had invested in opening up doors for us, young women, were also the ones who were monitoring and restricting this new experience of “freedom.” Such officials disciplined any attempt to cross the boundaries of what they considered congruent with “Islamic propriety.” We could participate in the Olympiad as sportswomen, but we were constantly reminded that this participation was conditional, precarious, and any deviation from established expectations in terms of our behavior was going to have consequences—expulsion from the games or disqualification. Beyond the ambivalence of these officials, in our daily lives we also encountered other paradoxes, exposing the struggles between different sectors of the state and their distinct policies. In parks, for example, we were renting out bikes from the municipality, only to cycle under signs that reminded us that cycling was prohibited for women. On a personal level, Women in Place stems from this paradoxical existence, this state of living in ambiguity and my personal and intellectual need to process it, to make sense of it.

But the book also represents for me a political endeavor. It reflects my dismay when confronting tropes of discussing the Iranian woman, in both journalistic and scholarly accounts, in the United States and elsewhere, where women and their agency are either absent and constantly erased, or are acknowledged within the narrow framework of heroic efforts and militancy. A whole array of life experiences is lost and missing from discourses. The lives Iranian women have lived are much more complex than the ones prescribed for them by the Islamic Republic and perceived by foreign observers; their reality has been reduced to a monochrome and monotone existence. I wanted to challenge this trend by animating their lives.

Finally, on a professional level, studies of the Iranian state, with the exception of a few, have mainly focused on its repressive capacity and on its attempt to disable undesired effects. I have always believed that when we underestimate the complexity of mechanisms of power, we do so at our own peril. I wanted to explore other facets of state power in Iran that are not, at least overtly, repressive, other facets that aim at enabling desired effects. Instances—and there are many of these—when the state manages to transform disgruntlement to acceptance of, or even participation in its projects, when power is consolidated not through force but through consent, are also important. Women in Place attempts to capture the multifacetedness of the state, the competition among factions and fractions within its institutions, and the opportunity structures that these produce for various groups of women to mobilize, or to negotiate and challenge state projects.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

NS: Women in Place is premised on a critical ethnography that provides snippets of women’s lives in Tehran. The book takes us on a historical tour of the post-revolutionary city by examining three illustrative sites of gender segregation: on city buses; inside the Mothers’ Paradise, the first of several women-only parks in the city; and outside the closed doors of Freedom Sports Stadium, where women are banned from attending men’s sports matches. It asks questions such as, what is the story of gender segregation policies in post-revolutionary 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?

Through these case studies, the book charts the ways women navigate through the multitude of restrictions, opportunities, and the continually evolving segregation that the regime affords them. However, it also looks at how experts and politicians develop policy and how the state establishes itself and retains its role as the ultimate arbiter of gender boundaries by regulating women’s presence in public spaces and by mobilizing and redefining gender segregation. Here, I engage with and contribute to studies of postrevolutionary states and societies. I use gender segregation policies as a window into the transformations of, and contradictions within the Iranian state, as well as the changes in Iranian society over the past four decades.

I demonstrate that, over several decades, attempts to Islamize public spaces through solidifying gender difference and drawing physical and visible gender boundaries, has been a complex process driven at different moments by different combinations of ideological imperatives, the quest for legitimation, and practical exigencies. As such, what we call Islamization has had no clear sense of direction, other than an undefined commitment to constructing Islamic spaces through segregation. Drawing on the critical literature on city making and space making, I argue that constructing the Islamic city had no blueprint; rather, it was the product of trial and error and was often wedded to different governance imperatives and political and economic calculations.

Finally, my book constitutes a contribution to feminist geography. By putting Iran on the radar, it seeks to nuance the discussions on gender segregation, decouple them from Islam, and integrate them to broader technologies of power which redefine both masculinities and femininities and their relationship with place, as well as Islam and the “Islamic.” Women in Place prompts the reader to critically reflect and decouple physical segregation from social exclusion, to look at the multiplicities of ways in which women “populate” and reterritorialize gender segregated spaces.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

NS: This is my first book. It builds pretty much on my decade-long work with Zanan Magazine in Iran, where I observed, documented, and narrated shifts in the place of women in public and domestic space and formulated a host of questions that found their way into Women in Place. It also relates to my master’s work at Allameh Tabataba’i University in Tehran, and the interest I developed in the ways that the election of women city councilors transforms the power dynamics both at home and in the councils. I have always been interested in the urban governance/gender nexus. But for my book I decided to focus on how policies are made, implemented, lived, and transformed. I wanted to explore what becomes of these gender segregated spaces, how they are given meaning and purpose by the state, society and those who live in them and use them. After all, spaces are not always what policy makers intended them to be; one needs to also situate these spaces and the works of urban planners and councilors in the broader context of national and international politics. I should stress here that Women in Place adopts an approach that challenges methodological nationalism. As I argue, the dynamics the book examines are of course pertaining to Iranian society and state, yet they cannot be fully or adequately grasped without examining processes and actors outside Iran’s boundaries.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

NS: As the product of academic research, this book is addressed to academics—those interested in Iran in general, but also those who work on gender policies and urban politics, and of course researchers and teachers whose work touches on gender segregation. But my aspiration from the outset was for the book to talk to a broader readership—journalists and other opinion leaders, and also the broader Middle East, whose “knowledge” of Iran and the position of women there rests on facile and comfortably accepted assumptions that make policy makers and the public susceptible to dubious political agendas. The argument of the book is deliberately deployed through stories derived from ethnographic research. I chose stories as a medium, because I am hoping that the non-academic, general public, as well, will find the book both amusing and, more importantly, illuminating.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

NS: I am currently working on a multi-country project on gender and mobility in the city, bringing global discourses of sexual harassment and their local renditions and contextualization in dialogue. This choice to move “away” from Iran was prompted by the realization that I want my work to challenge ways of seeing the latter as exceptional and to break the walls of regional studies by looking at “women only” spaces in other times and national settings. Having said that, when it comes to Iran, I will remain fascinated by the opening and closure of spaces, by what, in the book, I call flexible sexism. That is when the exigencies of domestic and international political and economic circumstances require the state not to rigidly police gender boundaries, when the interests of the state align closely with women’s needs and interests. I am working on a few articles that examine, through various case studies, what this flexible sexism engenders, but also what it endangers.


Excerpt from the book

Boundaries in Motion: Sisters, Citizens, and Consumers Get on the Bus (p. 34)

A bus is a mobile space, an ideology in motion. It moves from one neighborhood to the other, day after day, week after week, year after year. It is the same bus, but never the same space. Three decades ago, during the 1980s, the bus’s interior was reshaped by a metal bar that divided it into two separate sections, signifying an Islamic public order. At that time women were conceived of merely as potential passengers, and not even ones deserving of equal space on the bus. They were relegated to the smaller section at the bus’s back, while men took the more spacious front. Then, during the 2000s, the buses no longer represented a male space with token seats for women in the back. Women were allotted an equal, although still separate, bus space. On regular buses they still sat at the back; on BRT buses, however, they rode in front. For a short period of time they were also given the chance to steer the big wheel and drive the bus in and around the city. Today, the bus is the same bus, still divided, but what it signifies has changed; women’s public presence, once considered an interruption of or an exception to public order, has become an integrated part of it, one requiring recognition and accommodation.

How do we grasp the shifting contours of this space, the shifting reality of the metal bar that once signified an unequal distribution of bus space? How and why did the gender organization of the bus space—and the city it traverses—change over time? To answer these questions, we must look at the processes through which the project of bus segregation has been implemented. Far from being simply a practice of exclusion easily intelligible as an expression of the static patriarchy of the Islamic state, gender-segregated busing has changed with shifts in the sociopolitical context.

[…] (p. 44-45)

Quantitative developments brought with them qualitative transformations. As women rode the buses in increasing numbers and made their way around the city, a new notion of femininity emerged, one that was no longer associated with domesticity and that demanded recognition in the city. That small section at the back of the bus had made women’s rides religiously pure and physically safe, encouraging them to lay claim to it as a space of their own. The (segregated) bus space shifted from being a feminine space to a “feminist” space; as women developed a sense of entitlement to their (separate) section on the bus, the metal bar came to embody the unjust distribution of bus space, prompting them to demand a larger share of the bus space and, perhaps more important, equal access to it.

“From the back seat in Iran,” wrote Elaine Sciolino for the New York Times on April 23, 1992, “murmurs of unrest could be heard.” The complaints expressed in letters to the editor of Zan-e Rooz were no longer about the unwarranted and illegitimate physical contact with “brothers,” but about men crossing the boundaries and taking over women’s seats. Women passengers were no longer primarily concerned with men treating them as passive targets of daily harassment but with their entitlement to a space that was at first denied to them and later only conditionally theirs.

[…] Happy and Healthy in Mothers’ Paradise: Women-Only Parks and the Expansion of the State (p. 60)

Mr. Mostafavi, a senior official at Tehran Municipality, explained:

When we decided to open women-only parks, we were thinking of housewives stuck in small apartments all day, putting up with their children, cooking and cleaning. This could make women get depressed, anxious, and impatient. So when the poor husband returns from work, she has no patience and would easily pick on him or start a quarrel.

The motivation for opening women-only parks, as Mr. Mostafavi’s statements indicate, was to create “angels of the home” (McDowell 1999, 75–80), under whose wings men could rest in peace. Nevertheless, some of the discussions generated inside and about the park extended to the private spaces of homes, transforming the power dynamics within them and thus disrupting the “peace.” Azam, a fifty nine-year-old housewife, explained to me that several of her neighbors had circulated a petition opposing the designation of “the best park in the neighborhood” exclusively to women:

That night our dinner turned into something like the presidential debates you see on TV. We were discussing the petition. My husband was upset because he used to go to this park in the mornings. My two sons, twenty and twenty-eight, took their father’s side. I told them: “Would you like to have a depressed crippled mother at home? Or would you rather I go out, get some fresh air, walk a bit, inhale some oxygen and live longer?” I told them you have the whole city to yourself. Leave this park for me.

Echoing Virginia Woolf, who argued in 1929 that for a woman’s creativity and freedom to flourish, she should have “a room of her own,” this Iranian Woolf demanded not a room, but a park of one’s own, or her share of the city.

[…] (p. 62)

Whereas after the revolution the state viewed women’s outdoor exercise as a moral problem, today, not only does it coordinate women’s group exercises in mixed parks, but it also provides women with a green space of their own in the form of women-only parks. In order to better make sense of the nature of and reasons for this change, one needs to pay attention to a host of factors that are often ignored in the analysis of the complex and continually evolving relationship between women, state, and society in Iran. Tehran’s rapid urbanization has had a significant impact on the change of focus and emphasis of state policies and priorities, as has the state’s increasing concern about its continued legitimacy in the eyes of a disaffected citizenry. Other significant factors that should not be overlooked are the ongoing spread of a technocratic discourse on health and the increasingly important role of the municipality as a unit of governance and a locus for mobilization and articulation of demands and grievances. Rather than interpret the reopening of space for women as the state’s capitulation to civil society, in this chapter I examine how the park’s success reflects a structural deepening of the state at the municipal and submunicipal levels, as well as a maturing of the state’s productive capacity to enable desired behaviors and practices among its citizens by redrawing the gender boundary.

Re-placing Women, Remaking the State: Gender, Islam, and the Politics of Place Making (p. 114)

With reference to gender segregation, the narratives in this book show that it has been transformed from a means of imposing an Islamic lifestyle to a means of enabling a lifestyle that can be deemed Islamic. Through the narratives we see how gender segregation was once used as a moralizing tool, only to be reframed more recently as a quality-of-life-enhancing measure. It is in this light that, I suggest, one should see and make sense of what I refer to as an inclusive regime of gender segregation: the various initiatives to provide women with more comfortable and safe rides on the city buses, create exclusive, women-friendly exercise spaces in the city’s parks, or secure women’s sections inside the sports stadiums.

By the same token, the various initiatives undertaken by the state and local government have acquired the quality and rationality of services (which retain an Islamic dimension or an association with Islam). So in a way, reading the travails of gender segregation through the narratives unfolding in this book can provide clues to how to read Islam and the Islamic in Iran and beyond: as mediated through the imperatives of governance and statehood. The Islamic character of the state (and its local, urban manifestations), aside from its dependence on processes of experimentation and invention, has had to reconcile diverse imperatives, such as technocratic exigencies, pragmatic considerations regarding the viability of the state, and international influences and conditionalities, and to accommodate and adopt novel forms of governance, most notably the neoliberal model and the role of the market in it.

[…] (p. 123)

Women occupy an untenable space governed by religious, market, and state imperatives and framed by competing discourses. These imperatives and discourses are disabling and enabling, and women live in this in-between-ness, in spaces where their bodies are simultaneously constricted (because, for instance, their movements are limited within certain spaces) and expanded (because, for example, women-only spaces are subjected to lesser degrees of surveillance). They have little choice but to adjust their movements to these imperatives but can also mobilize the latter to their benefit and attempt to influence the drawing of the contours of their movements. The case studies offer several examples of how women have lived in the “margins” while at the same time mobilizing their very marginality and reterritorializing it, transforming it from a handicap to a resource.