Sixth Edition December 2002 - Azar 1381 
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Women’s Best Friend


School Counselors: Clichéd and Useless?




Tehran: Fragmented and Feminized

Masserat 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 in Tehran.  

Interview conducted in february 2001

Tirdad Zolghadr: Tell us about yourself.

Masserat 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.

This 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 tehranologue.

After 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 consultants, 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 people.

A 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.

Mahsa Shekarloo: Are there gypsies living all over Tehran?

MAE 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 smuggle drugs.

In 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.[1]

However 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.

TZ You're currently doing research on women and public space in Tehran.

MAE 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.

There 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 working women.

And 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 organizations [anjoman-haye kheyriyeh] with historical roots in Iran

NGOs 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, low-profile movement.

MS What age range are these women you're talking about?

MAE 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.

MS 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.

MAE 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.

Funnily 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 all women.

TZ In your view, what are the differences between north and south Tehran when it comes to women and public space.

MAE This is one of the things that show how complex Tehran has become, and how difficult it is to generalize.

We 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.

TZ Tell us about your research at the BCC.

MAE 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.

The 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 -

TZ What exactly did the south represent to the Shah?

MAE 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.

Under 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.

But 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.[2]

The 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.

In 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 them.

MS The middle classes didn't move as much.

MAE 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.

But 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". [3]

When 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.

This 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.[4] They featured Austrian and French musicians,

Back 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 getting closer.

What's 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 time.

So 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 classes.

These 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.

The city as a whole has become more spread out and fragmented.

TZ Even in terms of spatial coordinates, "north", "south" and "center" aren't where they used to be twenty years ago.

MAE 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 Tehran.

TZ And according to whom you talk to, Tehran has anything from 3 to 16 million inhabitants.

MA 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.

TZ Would you know anything about the Navab project?

MAE 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.

It's an interesting project, and an extremely expensive one. It will take a while before it's completed.

TZ 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 hoviati nadare.

MAE 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.

transl.: TZ

some related publications

« Une Révolution et deux jeunesses », Paris, Les Cahiers de l’Orient, 60, quatrième trimestre 2000, (111-123)

2000 « The phases of transition of a dualistic city to a more complex one » in Architecture and Urbanism, 58-59, Tehran, Autumn 2000 (100-113)

1998 “The social and cultural evolution of youth of south of Tehran”, Tehran, Goftogu, 1998, (39-54)

1995 “Influence of Bahman Cultural Center in the social and cultural life of women and youth of Tehran”, Tehran, Goftogu, 1995 (13-23)

1992 “L’image socio-geographique de Teheran en 1986” (socio-geographical image of Tehran in 1986) in Adle, Hourcade ed. Teheran capitale bicentenaire, Paris-Tehran, IFRI, 1992 (267-280)

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