29 Jun 2020

Urban Experience in Tehran


By Jaleh Jalili

June 2020



Abstract: This essay focuses on how women use and negotiate public spaces in Tehran and how urban developments have shaped and transformed gendered experiences of the public realm. In the past two decades, the development of public spaces and expansion of public transportation and urban infrastructure have significantly changed Tehran. Together, these shifts have made it easier to move across the metropolitan area and new cultural practices and social norms have translated into more mobility in the city. Through observations, survey data, and interviews with users of public spaces, I explore how women use and negotiate public spaces within –and beyond– gender, class, and socio-spatial hierarchies. Moving beyond narratives of a controlling state and restrictive social and cultural norms, the essay shows the nuanced experiences of women as they navigate public spaces and explores some of the ways in which the city and its public spaces work as both prohibitive structures and emancipatory contexts.


Women and Public Spaces

Women’s presence and experiences in public spaces have long interested scholars of gender and urban studies. Highlighting the importance of women’s presence in public, some scholars suggest that male dominance of public spaces (and the public sphere in general) push women into the private realm, creating a cycle where women are generally excluded or have less access to public spaces (and public discourse) in different contexts.[1] In the Islamic world, women’s presence outside the home has been studied in relation to limits and challenges resulting from cultural, religious, and traditional norms.[2] In the case of Iran, discussions have extended to include the state as both a prohibitive and productive force: a paradoxical role that involves limiting and controlling women in public, while in some cases encouraging their social participation, conditioned to following certain codes of conduct and appearance.[3]

Indeed, while across the Islamic world, the dress code for women is usually determined by personal choice or regional and familial traditions and obligations, Iran is one of only two bureaucratic states imposing a certain dress code on all female citizens (and foreign visitors) regardless of their faith, religious beliefs, and age, and enforcing it by a “moral police.”[4] But the restrictions are not limited to the dress code and its enforcement; Rather, they have origins in a narrative in which women are responsible for the so-called “Islamic moral order,” and are expected to be modest and chaste.[5] The result is a lack of condemnation or punishment for mild or even severe forms of sexual harassment or assault, since in this narrative if women wear appropriate clothing and behave as they should, men would not have a reason to assault them. In this sense, women not only have to navigate the limitations posed by a controlling state, but also have to deal with a social context where, generally, men are allowed (and encouraged by the state) to control what women wear and how they behave, and at the same time face almost no consequences if they harass women and catcall in public.

In this context, it is striking that despite state control and social norms, which might restrict and dictate women’s behavior in public, use of many public spaces in Tehran is mostly dominated by women. In particular, users of commercial, cultural, and leisure spaces (as my data demonstrate) are predominantly female. While particular spaces continue to be used mostly by men, either because of their primary function (e.g. bus terminals, work related spaces, certain areas with particular commercial functions such as repair supplies, etc.) or because of gender segregation policies (e.g. sports stadiums), overall the presence of women in public spaces is not ignorable.[6] In the case of my fieldwork sites (as I explain below), the number of women was equal to, and often exceeded, that of men.

This, in part, is a reflection of women’s slim share of the job market (estimated to be only between 13 to 18 percent in recent years), which leaves more time for women to spend in public spaces compared to men who work full-time.[7] But more importantly, this presence is an indicator of broader social and cultural shifts. Being present in public is in itself a boundary crossing (in a historical perspective) from the realm of domestic life, where women traditionally used to belong, to the realm of public life. Thus, although women’s presence in public spaces can be understood as an unintended consequence of state policies and certain economic structures (which exclude or discourage women’s participation in the work force), it cannot be reduced to just that. It is true that higher rates of education, higher age of marriage, and fewer children (all directly or indirectly related to state policies) have made it more likely for women to expand their presence in urban public spaces, but this presence should be understood within a broader context of cultural transformations as well as urban developments. 

Cultural shifts –more modern gender norms (whether perceived as a backlash against state policies, or in line with global transformations), discourses around health and safety, new modes of thinking about family, motherhood, and love, etc. – are rarely isolated from broader social, economic, and political forces.[8] As one example, higher age at the time of first marriage and fewer children, could be discussed as new “cultural practices,” but they are not completely detached from demographic shifts and economic anxieties of a generation that came of age in the aftermath of the 1979 revolution and the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), as part of the largest cohort of the population. Similarly, higher rates of college education reflect both cultural norms (value of girls’ education) and state policies (more universities) that have created greater opportunities for women’s education, and consequently, have resulted in more freedom both during and after college years.[9]

If the small share of the job market gives women more time, and education gives them more freedom, urban development provides resources that encourage both presence in and movement across the city. Not only are women able to spend time outside home, they are also able to leave their neighborhoods fairly easily if they choose to. Expansion of public transportation and infrastructure, creation of new public spaces, and renovations in the older parts of the city have impacted accessibility and use of spaces.[10]

Drawing on data collected as part of a larger project on the uses of public spaces in Tehran, this essay examines the processes and consequences of women’s presence in urban public spaces. The data were collected between 2013 and 2015 and comprise observations, survey data, and interviews in eight public spaces in Tehran, including commercial, cultural, and leisure sites, in the north, center and south of the city. The sampling is purposive, as the respondents were selected form those who were present in public spaces that work beyond neighborhood level – due to their size, location, or urban function – and draw visitors from outside immediate communities. While this approach limits the generalizability of the findings to the whole population, it allows for a closer focus and deeper understanding of women’s experiences in large urban public spaces, often far away from their neighborhoods of residence.

Processes and Consequences

In the following, based on women’s narratives of use of public spaces, I discuss some of the ways in which they navigate socioeconomic hierarchies and how public spaces mediate these processes. I show that broader use of space, both inside but particularly outside one’s neighborhood of residence, has created new social dynamics where gender and class relationships are constantly brought to the fore and reflected upon by women who use these spaces. Furthermore, perceptions and experiences of Tehran are constantly evolving as the city changes, which contribute to how women perceive and negotiate both their geographical and social position within a hierarchical class and gender structure.

Negotiating Gender: Social Participation and Claim Making Processes

Women often talked about use of public space as “easy” and “comfortable.” Although many mentioned street harassments, judgmental or controlling looks, or the “Moral Police,” as difficulties they face, they rarely discussed them as barriers to use of space. Some shared that they might be “selective” when deciding what places to use (both within a public space and in choosing among public spaces across the city). This “selectiveness” often had a gender component. For instance, one interviewee in her 30s explained: “After a while, you’ll learn how to avoid them [Moral Police]. They usually target certain areas. You simply just don’t go there.” Another interviewee, a 24-year-old from a southern neighborhood shared:

The moment you leave the neighborhood, you are free from the judgmental looks. Part of it is of course because of [my neighborhood’s] culture, but in general, wherever you live, as soon as you leave your neighborhood, no one knows you… Even if they stare, or judge, they can take that to their homes – who cares? – they don’t live next door to you.

Many interviewees shared similar experiences about using public spaces outside their residential neighborhoods. Leaving the neighborhood, and the gaze or comments of the “nosy neighbors,” empowers women and relates them to spaces that in the words of an interviewee are “where [they] belong ‘culturally’.” Some participants mentioned that the neighborhoods they lived in had a “lower” culture in regards to women, did not accept women as they were, or did not respect women, especially if they were not “traditional” or “conventional.” Some expressed discomfort with people in their neighborhoods who disapproved of what they would wear or how they would behave. This “lower culture” was also cited as a reason for avoiding public spaces in the neighborhood. Some respondents pointed out that what is a “normal” outfit in “other places” would draw negative attention and criticism in their neighborhoods, yet another reason for leaving the area. Nazli, a 27-year-old female respondent shared:

Men [in my neighborhood] are terrible! They would judge you based on what you wear and catcall or harass, and you won’t feel comfortable around them. I avoid hanging out in the neighborhood […] Whenever I leave the house, I just make sure to exit the neighborhood as soon as I can. I never wear my favorite clothes in the neighborhood.

Changing outfits after leaving the neighborhoods, to avoid judgmental looks and harassment in their local communities, is a common strategy, pointing in particular to a sharp gendered navigation of space. Mina, a 32-year-old interviewee who described her neighborhood as “traditional,” remembered:

Once I bought this red outfit and my [boy] friend wanted to see it. I wore something else on top of it, and when I met him in the car, I took that off. You can’t walk in a red outfit in our neighborhood… Well… You can! But everyone would stare at you.

Although women move in the city to benefit from the anonymity that larger distant public spaces offer, they should not be seen as passive users of public spaces. Indeed, gender negotiations and carving out spaces of “their own” in larger public spaces is part of this new urban experience. Whether consciously or subconsciously, women engage in these processes. The following summary of one of my fieldnotes provides an example of observations and conversations that pointed to such experiences.

A few days before the Iranian New Year, I took the subway to the Bazaar. It was extremely crowded and the slow movement of the crowds from the train to the street had frustrated many. A man in his 50s started complaining about the crowds and asked people, with a loud voice, to move. Then in a lower voice, he said: “all these women, only if they stayed home.” To my surprise, a young woman, maybe in her early 20s replied: “what’s your problem? We have as much right to be here as you do.” The man said, reluctantly: “you only destroy business. Stay home and let men do the work.” The girl said mockingly: “there is no business without us customers. Are you even serious?” and her friend continued: “as if he is a business owner. You’d be in your Mercedes, if you owned a business here, but hey.. you are with us, under the ground!” The man did not respond. Maybe because we had finally made it to the street.

Such instances of engaging in gendered claim making processes were common, often pointing to a set of complicated processes that combine both avoidance and direct confrontations in claiming and using public spaces across the city.

Negotiating Class: Cultural Aspirations and Socioeconomic Limits

Women appreciated how urban developments have facilitated movement in Tehran. Whether in terms of broader consequential opportunities – such as access to jobs or education – or small decisions related to mundane daily life – such as what places to use – women pointed to the subway system, new rapid bus services, and the new highways, as central to their positive experiences. A female college student mentioned that the expansion of the subway system has allowed her to go to a university in the far south of Tehran, while her family moved to their new home in a northern neighborhood. “There is no way my dad would allow me to drive that far to get to school, but with the subway, everything worked out great,” she said. She recounted how her father benefitted from a real estate deal and was able to move the family to a brand-new apartment in a prestigious northern neighborhood at the same time that she got accepted to a recently established private university in Tehran’s southern outskirts.

For Zahra, a participant in her mid-40s from Shahr-e Ray in south of Tehran, both the subway system and new highways meant more access and new experiences. I met her at the Niavaran Cultural Center in the north, as she was waiting in the courtyard for a music performance to start. She explained how she had become more aware of “nice cultural” spaces “all over Tehran” since her daughter started college at the University of Tehran. “She knows all about these events and she takes me with her.” She continued:

I married young and had kids early, so no way I could go to concerts and stuff and it was so hard to go around back then. Now from Shahr-e Ray, where I have always lived, to Niavaran is only 40 minutes, if you avoid traffic and use the new highway.

Movements around the city, which as these examples show occur for different purposes, create a mixed and diverse social landscape. While many do appreciate this new landscape, for others it is a source of anxiety. The spatially organized class structure of Tehran, with the wealthy, educated, and “modern” in the north and a gradual shift to poorer, less educated, and more “traditional” neighborhoods in the south, makes (perceived) class relations more intense, at least in certain public spaces.[11] The north-south divide has become more visible as new and improved public spaces and easier access have brought more people together. For women who might feel “emancipated” in some of these spaces, class negotiations create another context for defining self and engaging with others. Young women from the southern neighborhoods in particular explained how they found it challenging to share where they were from, “since you’d be judged based on that.” Maryam, a 22-year-old from the south explained her struggles when she started college in the northeast: “I just didn’t want to tell anyone, so I wouldn’t talk and I had zero friends.” She eventually moved beyond “these cheap notions of north and south,” and found good friends “even from the north,” but her experience was common:

There was this girl… she told everyone she was from a good neighborhood in the west and she always would get on and off the shuttle at that stop. After a while, I realized that she was from the south and bothered to take a bus to that stop to pretend that she lived there. It was a bit pathetic, but I can see why she did it. Too bad that after a while everyone knew she was lying.

Similar experiences extend to temporary interactions in public spaces. Many southern women expressed disappointment at how they were treated by “people from the north,” and it was not uncommon for respondents from the central or northern neighborhoods to complain about how “their spaces” were now used by “those who do not belong, from the south and from outside Tehran.” Yet, similar to gender dynamics, class relations usually do not result in withdrawal. Although women remain “selective” as mentioned earlier, they try to “adapt” to places where they visit or “appropriate” those spaces to make themselves comfortable. Limits in financial resources do not prevent women, especially younger women, from exploring the city, even if not in the same way that “rich kids do.” Tannaz, a 22-year-old from a southern neighborhood explained: “of course, I cannot shop in this mall [Tandis Mall in Tajrish], but I can get on the subway and make it here to watch [people and shops]. It is so nice, and it’s free!” Bringing snacks to avoid expensive options was a practical way of overcoming financial barriers, but it was also a constant reminder of the divides among social groups within the same public spaces. A participant from the south whom I met in Ab-o-Atash Park said: “sometimes we get tea from that grocery store, but the prices are ridiculous… and don’t even think about the coffee shops!” Another suggested that I could go and talk to “rich kids” in the “nice and expensive food court,” where she and her friends had never eaten, although they visited the park regularly. 

Discussion and Conclusion

Women’s presence in public spaces of Tehran presents an interesting case: it shows the variety of ways in which public spaces mediate gender and class relations and how women negotiate, reinforce, or undermine established social and spatial hierarchies. It also highlights the complicated and sometimes contradictory processes that impact social relations in public spaces, particularly for women, as they negotiate both gender and class dynamics in a rapidly changing spatial context. For instance, crossing spatial boundaries of the neighborhoods that feel suppressive allows for more relaxed forms of self-expression, but as women use easy and cheap access to traverse boundaries of their neighborhoods to escape the more restricting local cultural norms, they (especially those from southern neighborhoods) might feel the stigma of “being from” a specific area or neighborhood and be treated as “those who do not belong” in distant public spaces (in addition to dealing with the Moral Police, which is more vigilant in the north).

Whether to access new opportunities, such as jobs or education, or just to “connect to new experiences,” or to have “freedom,” women appreciate new opportunities for easier movement. Although social boundaries and perceptions of class and gender relations do not disappear with these physical movements across the city, they can be breached by changing spatial location (if only temporarily), even when this is accompanied by a constant awareness of gender and class hierarchies. These hierarchies are perceived and reflected upon in different ways, but especially for younger women, they work more as contexts to define and redefine social relations, rather than barriers that hinder their movement and experiences.

Indeed, the overlapping power structures – gender and class – that put lower class women in a disadvantaged position fail to completely exclude them from public life. Urban development and especially expanding public transportation empower women to go beyond the limits of their residential neighborhoods, even if they are excluded from the job market or other opportunities. They may not be able to afford the commodities (commercial or cultural) that are offered in other parts of the city, but their mere presence indicates their participation in public life in ways that authorities, men, or upper classes cannot control or prevent. They can choose where to go and where to avoid and they do find ways to carve out spaces of being and belonging, while negotiating gender and socioeconomic class status in different ways. For middle and upper class women, some of the same processes apply, although they are often able to leverage their class advantage in use of public spaces and in navigating gender dynamics.

More broadly, although avoiding certain spaces, to minimize interactions with state agents, judgmental public, or harassing men, is part of women’s toolkit in negotiating space, they are rarely passive or “subordinate.” Through both direct and indirect engagements, women often question, challenge, or undermine established power relations, sometimes by merely being present in places where they are deemed as “those who do not belong,” either because of being a woman or coming from a specific neighborhood. As examples in this essay show, women refuse to abide by the power relations that put them in an inferior place on gender or class hierarchies. Simple acts such as leaving a neighborhood, changing outfits, avoiding or visiting certain spaces, and riskier ones such as arguing with an older man –and claiming space – in places that are deemed as belonging to men, highlight both subtle and explicit negotiations of power and autonomy in a restricting social, cultural, and political environment. However, rather than seeing these dynamics as constant struggles, they work as pieces in a broader context of defining new relationships in practices of everyday life, within a rapidly changing metropolitan area.[12] In other words, while in order to use public spaces, women give in to some social norms and state control (e.g. adhering to a dress code or being prohibited from using certain spaces), they do resist and challenge others. To be sure, the balance is different for different women, but the collective outcome is a social landscape where –at least in certain spaces – not only women are not marginalized, but they do dominate space, both in numbers and in setting, defining, and redefining public spaces as places where “they belong.”


Author Bio: Jaleh Jalili is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Sociology at Rice University. She obtained her doctoral degree in sociology from Brandeis University in 2018. Her research interests include urban sociology, space and place, cultural sociology, gender, and inequality. Her work explores how public spaces mediate social relations in rapidly changing urban environments and examines the social, political, and cultural meanings of space. She is a recipient of a dissertation fellowship from the Mellon Foundation and a travel award from the Crown Center for Middle East Studies.