Fragmented and Feminized
Amir Ebrahimi is an urban sociologist and geographer who has worked
extensively on Tehran, particularly on the southern parts of the
city. She is currently conducting research on women and public space
conducted in february 2001
Tirdad Zolghadr: Tell us about yourself.
Amir Ebrahimi: I finished high school in Iran, and then moved to
Belgium. I graduated from the Royal Conservatory, where I played the
piano, and obtained an diploma in musical history.
was just before the Islamic revolution. It was also the year when
Belgium became the first European country to introduce legislation
against foreigners. Things became difficult - all the Iranians I
knew decided to leave the country. I myself went to Paris, where I
studied sociology, and specialized in urban sociology, and decided
to work on Tehran. Later on, I switched to the department of
geography, where I worked with Bernard Hourcade, a well-known
my DEA diploma, I came back to Tehran to conduct my doctorate
research, but some months later the bombing started, and I preferred
to stay here with my family. Once the war was over, I started to
work with different urban engineering
on various projects in Tehran. Some years later, during the early
90’s, I started my research on the Bahman Cultural Center [BCC],
which had just been founded by the municipality. The Center's first
director, Mr. Behrouz Gharibpour, was very open-minded. I had a
carte blanche, and was allowed to do research on whatever I liked.
So I conducted a survey on the sociology and geography of musical
concerts - classical and folkloric - performed at the BCC, and on
artistic and athletic courses that were on offer. These were very
well attended by the locals, especially by women and by younger
few years later, I did sociological research on the Shahr-e Salem
Center in Shahr-e Rey, on the library and the sports center. I
happened to meet many gypsy women in the swimming and aerobics
classes at the athletic center of Kuy-e 13 Aban in Shahr-e Rey. It
was interesting to find so many similarities between these gypsies
of Shar-e Rey and those in the suburbs of Paris. Gypsies' cultural
roots date back several centuries, to India, but they've managed to
preserve a common way of defining themselves, and of explaining
their way of life. Despite the fact that they barely have any
knowledge of one another.
Shekarloo: Are there gypsies living all over Tehran?
Yes, although they differ according to the part of town they live
in, and the work they do. For example, many gypsies are involved in
smuggling, but those in Shahr-e Rey generally smuggle clothes, which
makes them different to those who live in Khak-e Sefid, many of whom
any case, having gathered a lot of data, I restarted work on my
doctorate dissertation in Paris, which was entitled "The
Sociocultural Integration of South Tehran into the Capital". To
put it simply, using statistics from the period of the revolution
until 1996, I could show that north and south Tehran are much closer
than they used to be in their sociocultural aspects, but have grown
further apart in terms of socioeconomic ones. The economic
differences are much greater than before – we didn't use to have
all these billionaires – and many presuppositions concerning class
structures in Iran have been called into question. For instance,
many of those new millionaires
who moved into large mansions after the revolution were illiterate.
This was due to certain opportunities that existed back then; the
inflation, the war, and it was also linked to all the internal
migration that reshaped the neighborhoods of Tehran.
one shouldn't forget that statistics tend to simplify things, and
things have generally become much more complex. For example, two
people who live in the same neighborhood, and who have the same
university degree, will be placed in the same statistic category.
But according to whether they completed their studies inside or
outside Iran, or before or after the revolution, they're worlds
apart. Tehran has become very fragmented. You can take any tiny part
of society and see these complexities, even within the same family
unit. Nowadays, there's no way to predict what someone's children
will grow up to be: where they'll settle down, what they'll study,
whether they'll be religious, etc.
You're currently doing research on women and public space in Tehran.
I'm interested in how women inhabit public space. People assume that
women in the Islamic Republic are these unfortunate, miserable
creatures, but I'm pretty sure things are quite different.
have been some interesting shifts in terms of public and private
space. Due to inflation, the men now work from early morning until
midnight. They're never home. Those husbands who once claimed that a
woman's place is in the home, and that they had no business going to
the shops, the bank, the government office, now have to eat their
words. All the work that, in the best of cases, used to be shared
between a couple, is now performed by the woman. She's the one who
takes the kids to school, and drives them to all those extra classes
they need to go to, she takes the car to the garage, she deals with
the civil servants, she does the shopping, the banking, etc.
Middle-class housewives are outside all day. Not to mention the
this has encouraged women to start thinking about themselves, and
their identities, and about what they'd like to do with their lives.
More often than not, they come up with two possibilities. They
either pursue their education - by taking private classes or going
back to university - or they join NGOs, or one of those charity
with historical roots in Iran
play an important role in Iran, and have taken on many of the issues
that the government is incapable of addressing, from homelessness,
to children with cancer, to ecological issues. And many of the
members are housewives, who are starting to discover their roles as
citizens. And their impact is enormous. I personally don't see the
future of Iran in politics. I see it in this very silent,
What age range are these women you're talking about?
Between 30 and 50. But you can find many NGOs that are run by
adolescents. I heard there's one called "Mahsa",
incidentally, that offers reading and writing lessons to homeless
kids. You see these teenagers running around Tehran, getting
homeless children to study schoolbooks.
But I find that, precisely among housewives who are now around 40,
and who were of college-age when the universities were shut down
during the cultural revolution, there's a sense of meaninglessness,
of futility, and of having been forced into a position they never
wanted to be in, nor expected. I wonder about the long-lasting
impacts those years have had.
For one thing, that pretty much sums up Iran as a whole. Nobody
expected the revolution to turn out this way, not even the clerics.
The young, which were the one great hope of the Islamic Republic,
have turned into something very unexpected, something noone really
understands. So nobody is happy with the present situation,
including those women you mentioned, who often join NGOs in the hope
of finding fulfillment. Although I don't know whether this
dissatisfaction has to do with living conditions in Iran, or with
life in a contemporary city tout court.
enough, one of the causes of discontent is that people now have
broader minds, and much higher demands and expectations. This is
especially the case for women. You know, the predominance of female
students at the universities has gotten people worried. The
authorities have started encouraging boys to study harder. What
would become of the Islamic Republic if the educated classes were
In your view, what are the differences between north and south
Tehran when it comes to women and public space.
This is one of the things that show how complex Tehran has become,
and how difficult it is to generalize.
live in what we could call a "moral society". Everything
needs to be justified in terms of morals and public virtue. In the
southern and traditional parts of the city, this is an important
part of the social fabric; whenever a young woman leaves her home,
people are watching her. They make it their business to know where
she's going, and what she intends to do there. The anonymity which
characterizes most big cities still doesn't exist in south Tehran.
Many young people from the south of the city have told me they only
feel a sense of anonymity from Enghelab Avenue upwards. That's where
they're confronted with a different type of moral supervision: that
of the State, i.e. the pasdaran [revolutionary guards]. The
government isn't very present in the southern neighborhoods, because
the traditional neighborhood spirit is stronger than any other form
of control, but it has to ensure social control in the north, where
it wouldn't exist otherwise. North Tehranis don't really care where
you're going or why.
Tell us about your research at the BCC.
The interesting thing about the BCC is that northerners who would
never have dreamed of going to the south of the city are suddenly
going to concerts there, and actually mingling with southerners.
picture that everyone has of Tehran, in which the north is
thoroughly rich, culturally active, westernized and modern, whereas
the south is poor, religious, traditional and proletarian – which
is the picture that the Shah preferred, for it was only the north
that ever interested him -
What exactly did the south represent to the Shah?
At the time, the south was basically a dormitory, a residential area
bare of any interest, except for a few run-down cabarets, cafes and
movie theaters. After the revolution, even those were shut down, and
as far as the rest of Tehran was concerned, the south lost
everything it had to offer.
the Shah, the north and south were completely different worlds,
which didn't have any relation to one another. Northern women, for
instance, were usually unveiled, while in the south most women wore
chadors, or barely went out at all – how could you go out in an
environment which was so degraded, where men and women mingled
freely, and so on.
with the revolution, there was indeed a shift in terms of north and
south. The effects of the revolution were very clearly visible in
the city landscape. There was, for one thing, a lot of migration.
The homes that were confiscated, that often belonged to people who
had fled, or who had landed in prison, were handed over to the new
political establishment, and to the mostazefin [i.e. to the
Foundation for the Disinherited, whose declared goal is to
redistribute wealth to the poor, particularly to the families of war
martyrs]. A neighborhood like Farmanieh, for example, which had been
very homogeneous, was suddenly confronted with people who had newly
come to power, and who had left their homes in the south of the city
to come north. There were also poor families that moved into those
enormous mansions, with one room per family.
homogeneity of various areas of the city was shattered, and as a
result, the relations that existed between neighbors were cut off,
and replaced with new relations that were more conflictual in
nature. The northerners were always worried about hiding their
private lives, for fear that the “revolutionaries” would give
them away to the authorities.
the south, something very similar happened, when the war refugees
started moving to Tehran from all over the country, and generally
moved into the southern neighborhoods. Many families which were
traditionally "south Tehran" started moving away, out of
the city, or to the middle-class neighborhoods. They felt the new,
heterogeneous mix of social classes in the south was too much for
The middle classes didn't move as much.
Some of the middle-class areas remained homogeneous, like Shahrak-e
Gharb, in the West, which is upper middle-class, or Tehran Pars, in
the east, which is lower middle-class. But areas like Shemiran or
Jordan became very mixed. And as I said, neighborhood relations
suffered as a result. People would no longer consult each other, or
discuss neighborhood issues.
one also has to take into consideration that the 80s and the 90s
were two fundamentally different periods. The 80s were one
continuous commemoration of the revolution. Social and cultural
pressures - especially on the young and on the women - were such
that, whatever you said, someone would tell you "there's a war
going on, and that's all that counts".
all this was over, and people started looking for something new,
something that would alleviate all this tension, Karbaschi arrived [Karbaschi
was mayor of Tehran for eight years, after being mayor of Isfahan.
He was imprisoned two years ago, following a trial that was widely
considered political, but has since been pardoned]. First thing he
did was to address the aesthetics of the city. He planted greenery
and flowers, and encouraged people to paint the facades of their
shops in bright colors. Then, he dismantled the gates that
surrounded the parks. All the parks (with the exception of the
oldest park, Park-e Shahr) had their gates removed, and suddenly
became genuine public domain. You could go there any time of the day
or night. This was significant, because during the 80s, people had
withdrawn into their homes, which became places of refuge. People
were starting to go out again, and if you pay attention, you can see
that Karbaschi used every little space he could to plant a tree and
a piece of lawn, and place a park bench.
helped people make the first step back into the city, but it wasn't
enough. Especially for the younger generations. So they also built
up the cultural centers, starting with the BCC, which was built with
very little money, on the site where there used to be the
slaughterhouse. The first European concerts ever to be held in the
Islamic Republic was held at the BCC.
They featured Austrian and French musicians,
in the early 90's, it took courage to do this sort of thing, to
start holding international events in this run-down part of town.
At some point, northern concert-goers completely forgot what
part of town they were driving to - and this was one of the biggest
achievements of all. An area that was known for its slaughterhouse
was now known for the best cultural facilities in Iran. This change
of image was a cause for pride for the local inhabitants, who until
then had always been ashamed of their neighborhood. Of course the
northerners and the southerners are still suspicious, but they're
more, for the first time in south Tehran, one can take classes that
only northerners used to have access to - sports, art, and computer
classes – and for a fraction of the price. At one point, I
remember counting over 80 different courses at the BCC. It was the
first time southern kids had the same opportunities as the kids of
north Tehran.. This was especially important in the Islamic Republic,
where "cultural" activities play a big role in your free
the creation of cultural centers like parks and others public spaces
in south Tehran was a question of identity, and this was
particularly true for women and young people. Women of south Tehran
now have the option of spending several hours a week doing something
for themselves. Not as mothers, or spouses, or at the traditional
gatherings between women, but solely for themselves. Even those
families who would never have let their daughters out of the house
at least let them register for Koran classes at the BCC. And
gradually, they start trusting the Center enough to register them
for other classes too, including swimming, language, or computer
new developments have started to redefine the identity of the city.
South Tehran is no longer the dormitory it used to be, and the
city's duality is no longer the same. Highways have been built that
connect the north and south, along with parks and cultural centers
in the south, which actually outnumber those in the north.
city as a whole has become more spread out and fragmented.
Even in terms of spatial coordinates, "north", "south"
and "center" aren't where they used to be twenty years ago.
Yes, and the east and west are growing, too. Particularly the west.
It has become hard to define what you mean by "Tehran".
According to how you define it, Karaj or Islamshahr are now parts of
And according to whom you talk to, Tehran has anything from 3 to 16
I'd say the residential population of Tehran, i.e. those that sleep
in Tehran, amounts to roughly 7.5 million. The daytime population
may be about ten million.
Would you know anything about the Navab project?
It was around for thirty years, but it took someone like Karbaschi
to actually go through with it, to tear down those old neighborhoods,
and build the highway and the housing project in their place. And
again, the project calls into question Tehran's dualistic identity,
for Navab highway connects the southern Qal'eh Morghi highway with
the citywide highway network. Enghelab Avenue no longer cuts Tehran
in half as clearly as it used to.
an interesting project, and an extremely expensive one. It will take
a while before it's completed.
One thing about Tehran is that Tehranis love to bicker about their
city. You'll never find anyone who's proud to be Tehrani, which is
not the case for Isfahanis, for example. And one of the things
people complain about is what they call a lack of identity, Tehran hich
It depends on what part of the city you're talking about. The
northeast of the city, for example, clearly has identity. That's
something you can see during Ashura, when the whole neighborhood
pours into the street, and everywhere it's packed with people. But
then there are areas like Sa'adat Abad, which have a very mixed
social structure, and don't really have an identity yet, and are
little more than ugly. But I couldn’t say Tehran has no identity.
Tehran is a very fragmented and complex city, so it isn't as easy to
attribute a definite identity to it, as one can with Isfahan or
cities like that. Tehran has to be known and reconsidered in terms
of its megapolitan size, and its very high diversity.
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