Women's use of public space in Muslim society: Case study Chizar neighborhood, Tehran, Iran
by Saba Jaberolansar
Gendered space goes back thousands of years in Muslim societies. The public realm in Muslim society is historically gender segregated, although this is changing now. There is a misconception in the Western world about women's use of public space and its influence on society in Tehran, Iran. While many think that religious political rule and influence on society overshadows women's freedom, I believe that it has helped foster a stronger, more resilient feminist culture in the society of Tehran. Women’s daily use of public space is guided by family values, and women's-only public spaces were designed to provide an option for women to integrate. Muslim culture is deeply rooted in the division of roles between male and female figures, especially within the family unit. The man is traditionally the breadwinner and the woman, the housekeeper. However, because of the recent shift in culture, women are becoming more comfortable using public space, and slowly making the city their own again, as they would for political protests. In pre-Islamic revolution Tehran, the streets would fill up with women gathering in groups and expressing their political views. In 2009, the green movement, in support of the opposition political party, brought millions of women back to the streets of Tehran in solidarity.
Public vs private space in Muslim society
Public and private space have great differences in Muslim societies based on gender segregation and how each group uses the space. What is most important are the social ties between people. It’s not just about what happens in those spaces, but who appears in public spaces that is important. Traditionally, public spaces were made for the male figure, as the belief was that only men had reason to be outside of the house on a daily basis. Women were linked to private, indoor spaces where they would be safe. There was a power struggle as women would only go out if in the company of a mahram, which is a male figure that is blood related or married into the family unit. It was frowned upon to walk alongside a na-mahram in public, which was a male figure unrelated to the family.
Public buildings and public spaces in strict Muslim societies must be gender segregated by law. This influences the architectural design and use of the space. For example, public government buildings have separate aisles for ladies and gents, and public spaces have designated days and times in which only women can visit.
Religious buildings are gender segregated based on religious rules, however, public recreational spaces like parks, swimming pools and traditional hamams, or baths, are segregated based on time of use. Typically, ladies are allowed during daytime hours, and men in the evening. Public spaces can also be separated by the permitted and prohibited functions of the space. Political discussion or social commentary cannot be voiced in public, so people take their conversations indoors. The rise of coffee shop culture is providing opportunity for gender integration and safe private space for political discussion. Shopping malls are another space that give the public an opportunity to interact freely with less police surveillance.
Women’s use of public space in a Muslim society
Islamic religious ideologies are tightly woven into the socio-cultural uses of public space. This manifests itself in the way women use public spaces around Tehran. In the early 80s in post-revolutionary Iran, there were laws intended to segregate women and men on the streets of Tehran by allowing women only to walk on one side of the street. Today, things are not as extreme, and there is no official law limiting women's use of public space. However there are hidden social connotations about the way women should behave in these spaces.
For the more progressive generation, the hejab, or veil, policy is the main factor in deciding which public space to use. The options for walking comfortably in mixed-gender groups is also limited. Shopping malls have become a great way to come together and meet families, friends and acquaintances. Malls are a successful form of privately owned public space in Tehran and other major cities in Iran, and are places where the public can feel less threatened by the police force.
Women controlled spaces in Tehran are essentially the ones that have been politically predetermined by law. They are defined by the religious leaders who decide what is beneficial for women, not through a participatory design process. In 2008, Tehran Municipality started designing female-only parks around the city to promote public safety and women's health through outdoor activity. At first, the public loved it solely because women were allowed to dress freely within the confines of this park. Over the years women-only parks have become less and less popular as they only give the illusion of public space to users. The segregation of women in these spaces is something that is imposed upon them through the male-dominated government design services. While women can be comfortable in these segregated parks, it defeats the purpose of being an inclusive, democratic public space, as rules remain on who can and cannot appear.
Case study: Chizar neighborhood space in Tehran
Iran is a complex example of how women interact in public spaces. Through the many layers of political rule and religious influence, the culture has morphed into a representation of traditional Islamic beliefs mixed with modern progressive ideals. Chizar district in northern Tehran is a place that manifests this contradiction well. The main neighborhood space is set around Neda Square with a religious Islamic shrine and convenience stores. It is a middle-income neighborhood and has a strong Islamic identity. What makes it unique is the untouched historic fabric that has an opportunity for urban revival. As opposed to bigger urban squares, Neda square in Chizar allows for more safe and intimate levels of interaction between the different families. The way women use public space is also tied to socio-economics. For example, if the family can afford it, they hire help to purchase the groceries rather than the women of the house leaving for it.
In 2010, University of Tehran undergraduate architecture students proposed a plan to activate the square and make it more pedestrian friendly and accessible to women and children by designing green pathways and new street furnishings. In their paper studying Neda Square, Rezazadeh and Mohammadi found that women used the space in a functional way for transit and shopping. They found that despite a nearby religious shrine, which would traditionally lead to a more male-dominated space, Neda Square is actually a female-controlled space. This made the square more inclusive and flexible for not only necessary activities, but also optional social ones. Women’s needs for social encounters in space show the importance of their presence in public places. In traditionally Islamic countries there is still a cultural emphasis on the role of women at home and their influence on family as the smallest social unit in society.
Empowerment of women through public spaces
So what kind of spaces do women really want in Tehran? In 2017, the concept of food trucks started on a cobblestone street in Tehran called 30 Tir Street Food Market, next to Moallem Park in central Tehran. This is a first for Tehran where women can feel more comfortable to hang out, even though it is a street space. Streets have never been a culturally appropriate space for women to spend their time, and with new street markets and activities popping up around the city, it is positively affecting the culture.
Another example of a successful public space is the recently constructed Tabiat Bridge. Designed by Leila Araghian, a young female architect from Tehran University, the bridge was built in 2014 and quickly earned public trust to become a representation of female empowerment in the design industry.
Neighborhood scale spaces can play a significant role in social engagement and contribute to place identity. "These spaces could have influence on spiritual and physical health of women and could increase their sense of belonging and sense of place." There is a considerable difference between activity patterns of single and married women in neighborhood open space based on individual characteristics like free time and number of children. Women's presence in neighborhood space is mainly for necessary daily activities, however it fosters an ethic of care in the culture of the neighborhood. Religiously gendered space might be socially limiting on a larger scale, however on a neighborhood level these spaces provide women with the opportunity to comfortably participate in society on a daily basis.
The paradox of Tehran city is the deep traditional faith facing the wild modernity globalization brings. Where the interaction of people is just as complex as the place, and even more so as a woman. But that is what brings female empowerment and representation in public space--the daily struggle of resistance. Tehran's public spaces are proof that minority groups matter, and it is up to the people themselves to be responsible for their own rights to the city.
Header image by Amy Pearson, Dezeen 2016
Bagheri, Nazgol. "Mapping Women in Tehran's Public Spaces: A Geo-visualization Perspective." Gender, Place & Culture: A Journal of Feminist Geography, Vol. 21, No. 10, 2014, pp. 1285-1301.
Mazumdar, Shampa and Mazumdar Sanjoy. "Rethinking Public and Private Space: Religion and Women in Muslim Society." Journal of Architectural and Planning Research, Vol. 18, No. 4 (Winter, 2001), pp. 302-324.
Rezazadeh, R. and Mohammadi, M. "Responsive Urban Space to Special Need Groups (Women), Case Study: Chizar Neighborhood Space, Tehran, Iran." International Journal of Architectural Engineering & Urban Planning, Vol. 23, Nos. 1 & 2, June & December 2013, pp. 64-73.
'The Iranian Artists Picturing Their Cities' Mimi Kirk, Oct 16, 2017, https://www.citylab.com/life/2017/10/the-iranian-artists-picturing-their-cities/542877/
'We hate the headscarf': can women find freedom in Tehran's female-only parks?' Renate van der Zee, Aug 9, 2017 https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2017/aug/09/women-only-parks-tehran-iran-segregated- outside-spaces
'Iranian women fight on the frontlines of protest' The Associated Press, June 2009. http://www.nbcnews.com/id/31531225/ns/world_news-mideast_n_africa/t/iranian-women-fight- frontlines-protest/#.WjoWjlWnHIU
'Tabiat Bridge creates new public space for pedestrians in Tehran' Amy Frearson, 8 April 2016 https://www.dezeen.com/2016/04/08/leila-araghian-tabiat-bridge-diba-tensile-architecture- public-space-pedestrian-tehran-iran/
Tarkhasi, Masoume, Chizar: Analysis and Urban Space Design, University of Tehran, 2010.