Feb 4, 2004

version #1

Public Spaces in Enclosure

Masserat Amir Ebrahimi

In Iran, the relation between power/authority and public space has undergone many transformations and changes. For long, the authority of the monarchy (government) over the people, the old over the young, men over women, parents over children, etc, was certain and indisputable. The authority/power had a classification impact on the whole society and had found a geographical form and definition. Tehran, as the administrative, economical, cultural and educational center had a special resoluteness and authority over the rest of the country, and within Tehran itself, the north and the rich neighborhoods had the same privilege over the deprived southern neighborhoods. Tehran was two separate cities with two different societies and cultures. Some invisible but perceptibly quite thick walls separated different cultural, social and economical spaces of the city, controlling and regulating the entry of the people to different spaces. Thus, the kind and the quality of presence of the people in public spaces of the city had recognizable signs of class discrimination throughout the society.

The impact that the Islamic Revolution had on the social and urban structure of Tehran and other large cities of Iran is undeniable in all respects. One of the first manifestations of the Revolution was the alteration of "public space" to "a space for the public." As the protests began, Tehrani citizens took possession of their whole city and breached the class and space bans. "Revolution Street" [the new name for what was formerly called Shah Reza street], as a symbolic axis that divided the city into two northern and southern halves and was the location of Tehran University and many bookstores, and was also considered as the symbolic space of the new middle class, became the first space for confrontations [with the Shah’s regime] and then for the first meetings of different social classes. The beginning of the Revolution was at the same time the beginning of the death of the old authority and the birth of a new one which, despite its freshness, was based on tradition and religion. The new authority, which was essentially different from the one in the Shah’s time, became increasingly powerful in the society during the Iran-Iraq war.

What made the new authority distinct from the previous one was indeed its lack of locality concerning geography, space and class. The new authority, having formed on the basis of religious and revolutionary bans, had indeed no particular and classifiable social position as it had in the past, and thus it could emerge in all social classes and urban places and spaces. So, what changed the face of the city in the public spaces at the beginning of the Revolution was in fact the replacement of the type of authority. The new authority quickly found an objective crystallization and showed itself in the appearance and norms of the society. Despite their undeniable role in the Revolution, women, earlier than others, came under the new patriarchal authority with its revolutionary modifier and covering, and the kind and quality of their presence in public spaces underwent an essential change. Soon, the new form and nature of the presence of women in public spaces became a norm of the Islamic society. Thereafter, not only the appearance of the people, but also their way of behavior in public spaces were under new rules which, this time, were based on traditional, religious and revolutionary thoughts. The new social norms, as the controlling power of the new sovereignty, gained extensive prevalence in public spaces and determined a new pattern for the presence of women and men in the city.

Thus, in the social spaces of Iran, the quality of people's presence in public spaces came into a close relation with power, a relation that was typically new. This relation, after the Islamic Revolution, came about mainly in regard to the sex and age of the people. Consequently, women and young people were more distinctly influenced by the new authority. However, because of the complexity of the social relations in Iranian society, the authority, despite its initial power and force, was subjected to a continual change that was primarily caused by the phenomenon of simultaneity in different spaces and times. The simultaneities occurred due to the sovereignty of the authority in a society that had an intense tendency toward globalization and adaptation to the patterns of the developed and modern world, and thus they appeared mainly in the large and modern spaces of the cities, especially in Tehran. For years (particularly before Mr. Khatami was elected as president in 1998), large squares of Tehran such as the Vanak or Vali-Asr squares, in certain situations (e.g. at occasions when revolutionary guards decided to control the public spaces for religious, social, cultural and security reasons), were capable of suddenly changing into large enclosed spaces under the traditional rules and regulations of enclosed interior/exterior2 spaces, despite being spatially open and extensive and belonging to today’s world. A large and crowded square of the city would suddenly change into a place in which any appearance, behavior and presence had to follow a pattern consisting of bans and permissions. Such conflicting simultaneities in urban spaces were able to intensively change the function and even the identity of the place and space for a certain time, involving the society in more duality or multiplicity and contradiction. Therefore, what seems interesting in the urban society of Tehran in these years is the transience and temporary nature of place/space, which causes different places to find variable meanings in different situations, without having a functional identity throughout time.

The temporary nature and multiplicity of space/time often pertain to places that have more urban and modern characteristics because traditional neighborhoods, almost always, have a recognized concept and function and a fixed identity. In such neighborhoods women and young people are controlled by the inhabitants who have a continuous presence and follow certain behavioral and external codes, whereas in more crowded and modern neighborhoods, because of the extensiveness of the spaces and anonymity of the people, there is no possibility of cultural and social control for the inhabitants. So, the emergence of the simultaneity phenomenon relates for the most part to the social, cultural and economic structure of the urban places and spaces. For many, the characteristic of transience and temporariness of space and place is a sign of the establishment of modernity in the society, because in that case, social relations, like space, would be in a "becoming" mode rather than a "being" one. These two traits, which appear in postmodern thoughts as the temporary nature of the identity, are also applicable to the society and space in Tehran. But here, the temporary nature and change of function of the place, like the identity of people in public spaces, relates to the tough transitory stage of the revolution and the simultaneity of certain stages: application of behavioral patterns and Islamic/traditional dress in a city formed on the basis of a modern and up-to-date lifestyle. This experience gains a special significance in regard to the manner of women’s presence in social spaces and somehow becomes a constant transition from tradition to modernity/postmodernity, from the interior space to the vast space of the universal metropolis. But in the particular case of Tehran, the reverse course is even more interesting: the sudden and temporary change of the boundless space of the universal metropolis into the enclosed space of the old interiors.

Dislocating the Enclosed Space of the Interior

Enclosure of women’s space and the rule of "interior" codes are still prevalent in many old neighborhoods and traditional families. In most of the old neighborhoods, the alleys and blind alleys are located along the houses and somehow provide a space for transition from the enclosed space of home to the vast space of the city. In such neighborhoods, the neighbors, relatives and inhabitants themselves are in charge of controlling behavior, manner of presence, and even the manner of association of the women and young people. Therefore, if we perceive the traditional neighborhood as a kind of interior, then we can assume the vast space of the city as the exterior, i.e., the free space, the masculine space, a space for work, a space for anonymity. In the crowded streets and squares of the capital one enters the free space of a city in which thousands of anonymous people rapidly pass by without even glancing at each other. Local control is almost impossible in such large urban centers and thus the anonymity and multitude of the people bring about freedom in "the kinds of existence and presence." However, despite such freedom in vast urban spaces, at certain times, public or semi-public spaces – streets, parks, and crowded squares of the capital – can also suddenly change into closed interior spaces with intertwined networks of enclosed spaces, bringing about bans and different codes of behavior and appearance for "the kind of being and the quality of presence" of women and young people, suddenly limiting and "enclosing" the free and open space of the city for them.

After the Revolution, this caused the concept of interior as the controlled space (not feminine space) to be reconstructed in different forms in the daily life of Iranian women. The prevalence of new ways of life and generalization of urban culture beside the rule of the Islamic morality caused the enclosed and controlled spaces such as the interiors (homes) to lose their particular locational concept and gain mobility in space and repeatability in time and place rather than having a particular local position or being bound to a physical border. With the increasing entry of women in the urban spaces and public domains, which contradicted the traditional viewpoints that disapproved extensive presence of women in public fields, the interior and controlled space also acquired the capability of shifting from home to neighborhood and then to large urban spaces at certain times. That capability not only materialized in the public spaces of the cities but also somehow influenced the manner and the form of the presence of women in city environments. In the first decade after the Revolution, the prevalence of black in women’s hijab (whether compulsory or optional) suggested in the best way the definition of the mobility of interior in space. Just in the same way as the tall walls of old neighborhoods along the alleys are stretched repeatedly and monotonously to protect the identity of the home and the interior (the woman’s position), so the remarkable homogeneity of the presence of black-covered women in public spaces of the city protected them from the sight, recognition and even imagination of the passers-by. So, the important functions of hijab were de-escalation of visibility of women, establishment of homogeneity, concealment of diversity and difference, and direction of the society toward unity. The invisibility of women under the black chadors or hijabs is, on the one hand, aimed at establishment of a social unity model as well as evasion from diversity in Islamic traditional society, and, on the other hand, tantamount to the dislocation and mobility of women’s interior and enclosed space. Such dislocation of the enclosed space is quite similar to the mechanism that Michel Foucault mentions, in another way, as the swarming of disciplinary mechanisms in eighteenth-century France.

"While, on the one hand, the disciplinary establishments increase, their mechanisms have a certain tendency to become 'de-institutionalized', to emerge from the closed fortresses in which they once functioned and to circulate in a 'free' state; the massive, compact disciplines are broken down into flexible methods of control, which may be transferred and adapted."3

Similarly, in Iran, the dislocation of the interior means delocalization of the discipline of the enclosed interior, spreading it into the large urban society. Application of the disciplinary mechanisms for homogeneity of people’s presence – particularly women’s presence – in public spaces was, until recently, one of the strongest visual experiences of foreign tourists or Iranians who were revisiting their country after a long time. They were immediately impressed by the lack of colorfulness and the saturation of the urban spaces with the black color of the women’s coverings. After the Revolution, particularly in the recent decade, with the increased presence of women and young girls in educational and professional fields, which were often under the control of traditional attitudes, black and thoroughly dark clothing was recognized as women’s formal apparel. In this way, with the increased and at times uninvited presence of women in the urban spaces, places that were previously exclusive to men adopted new definitions, which rendered the previous order, rules and regulations null. So, to prevent the atmosphere from feminization, it required that women’s presence – a physical one – be controlled as much as possible. Therefore, to re-establish the masculine order and Islamic morality in the city, application of a new discipline quite different from the one that governed public spaces in the Shah’s time was needed.

Such a discipline had to be applied primarily to the bodies and appearance of people, especially women, to establish the new order in the society and to control the people. For that purpose, the body had to be turned into a fence to prevent any manifestations and desires of the individual so that he/she becomes a prototypical image with his/her manner and appearance totally conforming to the accepted prototype of the Islamic society. The motto "Hijab is immunity not limitation," renders the whole meaning of hijab in its new form. It indicates that on the one hand hijab, like a protective fence and a high wall, would secure and protect women against "strangers," on the other hand it would make their presence possible in the universal urban space – here, a masculine, traditional and religious one. Foucault puts disciplinary enclosure and homogeneity of places (here, bodies) another way: "Discipline sometimes requires enclosure, the specification of a place heterogeneous to all others and closed in upon itself. It is the protected space of disciplinary monotony."4 In Iran, application of discipline, which would enclose women in open urban spaces, was performed first through generalization of hijab and then was followed by limitation of choice of colors, i.e. homogeneity.

Even today, despite the variety in models and colors of women’s clothing in urban spaces, black is still the dominant color in official environments. In fact, the black color of women’s clothing is the best apparatus for the homogenization of the environment and omission of the "otherness" [of women] in masculine spaces. However, black is not only an imposed color in masculine (official) environments, rather, many women wear it in urban spaces as a strategy for concealing themselves from the others’ looks and to increase their quiet but active presence in masculine society. Thus, in a short time, the superficial homogenization policy, which was applied to the society as the best apparatus for controlling of Islamic morals and the quality of people's presence, particularly women, paradoxically increased women’s presence in different domains of the society and various pubic spaces. Since diversity and difference in a society that tends toward homogeneity would attract others’ attention and would expose one’s individuality and exclude one from others, in order for women to have an extensive presence in the public and often masculine spaces of the city, they somehow had to have an absent presence in the society, a presence that could not be seen or felt. Women’s tendency toward being invisible in public spaces indicates, more than any other thing, their feeling of insecurity in the city and their awareness of the violation of interior rules. In the Islamic morality-based society, for many girls and young women, being seen is considered as being subjected to judgment by others, and attracting dangers.

Thus, visibility in Iranian urban spaces finds dual and contradictory meanings. If, in Western societies, visibility of people brings about public security in urban spaces, for many Iranian women and young people it is equal to insecurity and being subjected to constant control by others. This controlling look is the same apparatus that Foucault refers to, in his account of the architecture of the "all-seeing" prison, Bentham’s Panopticon, as the controlling instrument of a huge prison with only one jailer.5 The "all-seeing" prisons have a special architecture (which was later used in schools, training centers, hospitals and asylums) that would enable the supervisor to simultaneously observe all the occupants from a central tower without being seen. Thus, the visibility of an individual and his awareness of the existence of authority and the possible presence of an observer result in his/her constant obligation to comply with the discipline. Foucault mentions the correlation between the insecurity and visibility of the individual in his account of the effect of the panoptic architecture on the inmates:

"Hence the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary… Bentham laid down the principle that power should be visible and unverifiable. Visible: the inmate will constantly have before his eyes the tall outline of the central tower from which he is spied upon. Unverifiable: the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so."6

In the space of large Iranian cities, women live with the same feeling of continual but secret control. Therefore, the experience of wearing black is in fact the paradoxical experience of a kind of freedom along with acceptance of enclosure and discipline. To be disciplined and homogeneous to others allows the individual to be less subjected to others’ sight and consequently free in his/her territory. But, on the other hand, the dominance of the color black and the homogeneity of women, as well as the lack of superficial social-cultural identity of the individuals, tends to distort the identity boundaries and cause a lot of social problems. Prototyping and homogeneity has therefore caused new tensions and distorted many social definitions and signs that were intended for the readability of the society. Because of the fading of the identity signs in urban spaces, many moral deviations, particularly those of women, went unseen due to the invisibility. Thus, the lack of diverse outward models and instead, the mere presence of a dual dress pattern (chador/manteau+scarf)7 – which nevertheless have their own values – along with the lack of freedom of choice in clothing due to family, social, cultural, place and time requirements, all caused women to change their appearances quite easily on certain occasions to adapt to the environment, acquiring a defined identity which would facilitate and justify their presence in that particular place. For some, the unchallenged power of the rule of "appearance" in public spaces gradually became a means of concealing the identity or changing it on required occasions. In public spaces, the new identity strategy "causes the individual to adopt different identity strategies in his/her different social associations and, in fact, to deny his/her real capability (identity) in public spaces."8

Concealment of identity in urban spaces is, on the other hand, indicative of the feeling of insecurity in the society. But here the insecurity that women feel in public spaces of the city because of their otherness is not exactly of the same nature as in Western societies, rather it originates from the moral and traditional roots peculiar to patriarchal societies. Such a feeling of insecurity, although much diminished in recent years – unfortunately being replaced with the kind of feeling of insecurity prevailing in large urban societies of the West – has not yet much affected the manner of presence of women in the cities in particular places and times.

The Role of Time in the Enclosure of Space

"The degree to which we can move between countries, or walk about the streets at night, or venture out of hotels in foreign cities, is not just influenced by ‘capital.’ Survey after survey has shown how women’s mobility, for instance, is restricted – in a thousand different ways, from physical violence to being ogled at or made to feel quite simply ‘out of place’ – not by capital but by men."9

The moral conventions and norms prevailing in Iranian urban spaces have caused our public spaces to have a relatively high security compared to many European countries. The rate of homicide, crime and rape is still much lower in Tehran than most of the large European and American cities. But culturally, there is no such security in our female and male mentality. For many of our women, their solitary presence in the streets and public spaces late at night would not cause a real danger, rather, it would unconsciously be considered as a violation of the interior rules, one that deserves punishment. In other words, for women, fear of presence in public spaces, out of prescribed time and place, is due to the constancy of the rules of traditional thought and the interior space of the streets rather than the physical, financial or sexual insecurity that exist in Western public spaces. Furthermore, the alteration of outward and moral definitions has often caused the recognizability of right and wrong to be based on taste, expedience and culture, which can easily endanger the security and citizenship of women and even men. Here, there are still few women who dare to walk in crowded streets and safe neighborhoods at night without a male relative, while it is quite usual for women in European cities – at least in safe neighborhoods and crowded streets. The reality is that here, thousand-year-old patterns are still governing the spaces of our cities.

The cultural value weight of night has increased even more after the Revolution and has limited a lot of activities of women. Cultural prejudices have caused any solitary presence of women, with any appearance, in the space of night to be considered as a violation of the norms of a territory that has become the private property of men. The presence of a woman in many public spaces at night would be bearable only in two ways: in the street with a man who is considered to be a close male relative according to Islamic morals, or a male companion or "patron" from the viewpoint of the other people, or, in the enclosed space of a car if she is not with such a prescribed man. In other words, a large city like Tehran where thousands of women drive in its streets and frequent its different spaces in daylight without any feeling of fear or annoyance, would change, with the fall of night, into an enclosed space in which their presence would be considered as a negative act according to the interior rules.

Exit from the Interior

Iranian women, in urban spaces, have to cope with a complex pattern that is an odd mixture of modern life and restrictive traditional/cultural imagery. Limitations and cultural prescriptions against women in social spaces and public fields have discouraged them from fully benefiting from their situation, so that they tend to exclude themselves as "strangers" and deny their needs as far as possible. Although this is being diminished nowadays, civil behavior and the manner of presence of women in the city indicate that difference or otherness (among women, young people, and all those who do not conform to the prescribed patterns) is not yet accepted easily in the Iranian society. That is particularly evident in the case of Afghan refugees and vagrants in Tehran. That is to say, from long ago, in the eyes of the public, those two groups have been and still are responsible for most of the offenses and crimes in the urban space. Perhaps the cause of this prejudice could be sought in their difference of appearance and, consequently, their visibility compared to other citizens. For a better understanding of women’s position in the public spaces of society from the official and traditional point of view, we can consider, as an example, the traditional place of women in public religious lectures and even conferences and university classes. After the Islamic Revolution, in most of the gatherings, women and men sit separately. In most cases men take the best center and front seats while women sit at the rear rows, edges and places with almost no visibility. In the same way, in some of the university classes women sit at the rear, men sit in front. The interesting point is the positive reaction of many women to this arrangement as a tacit and agreed-upon principle. That is because marginality is equal to invisibility and, consequently, to retaining security/freedom in the interior space.

Marginality of women and the tendency toward excluding them (compulsory and optional) from public domains for different reasons (and even at times with physical and sexual violence) is not a phenomenon peculiar to Iran. In Western societies too, women are still seeking their civil rights and still have a more or less marginal position in public, political, economic and social domains. However, the difference between the Iranian society and Western societies is that in Iran, although women, more than ever – and in cases like higher education,10 at the same pace as Western women – have entered public domains, the preventive walls, restrictions and marginality are still quite clearly, visibly and persistently there. Whereas in the West, many women have stood against such marginality and the order of society is increasingly tending toward admittance of the differences.

Therefore, today, to enter the public field visibly, Iranian women are trying in different ways and by emphasizing on their "being" and femininity, to show their different presence. The breaking of custom by young girls concerning their appearance, the acquisition of political power by women who endorse their otherness and the necessity of revision of the attitudes toward women, the presence of Shirin Ebadi without Islamic hijab in the Nobel Prize ceremony, all indicate that Iranian women are determined to find their real position in the society and the public fields in Iran and in the world. If, over a period of time, the absent presence and invisibility of women resulted in their quiet but constant gains of power in different socio-political and cultural fields, today, more than ever, the whole public domain belongs to all citizens with their different presence, i.e., women, men, children and old people. Past is the time of fenced cities and enclosed interior spaces in the era of globalization and of the dominance of the Internet in different fields.

Massarat Amir-Ebrahimi, is an Urban Sociologist and Ph.D. in Geography of Development.

1. A version of this article was first published in Architecture and Urban Planning (April 2002, Tehran).

2. Interior space can be signified by different and numerous definitions and functions. Sometimes it may refer to feminine spaces where the creation of space is done by social organization and feminine order. Sometimes it may refer to the power that forms this space from outside by masculine authority, which lays the whole movements, the way of being, and even eating, dressing and associations of the woman under the control of the man of the house. Architecturally, Iranian/Islamic old and traditional houses consisted of two exterior and interior parts. The interior was a private space allocated to women where no strangers were entitled to enter. But the exterior, which included the public spaces of the house such as the courtyard and drawing room, was the masculine part where women’s entry required observation of Islamic dress and moral codes.

3. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (Penguin Books Ltd, 1977), 211.

4. Ibid., 141.

5. Many thinkers have used Foucault's Discipline and Punish in their studies on the control of people in different spaces. Among them is the following article in which the writer describes how the idea and the prevailing method of control in all-seeing prisons are used in today’s modern societies and public fields. In a lot of Western countries, particularly in the US, people are controlled by an invisible power through exploitation of the information gathered from people’s social insurance cards or credit cards. See: Matt Hannah, "Imperfect Panopticism: Envisioning the Construction of Normal Lives," in U. Strohmayer and G. Benko, eds., Space and Social Theory (Blackwell, 1997).

6. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, p. 201.

7. Chador, as a traditional overall garment, hides the woman from head to toe. It is usually traditional women’s choice (regardless of their financial status). Although in government jobs and from the government’s viewpoint chador is a prior preference, women working in governmental (administrative, educational) environments use manteau and veil (a large scarf that completely covers head and shoulders down to the chest) as an alternative. But modern women and women who work in the private sector have chosen manteau and scarf as a kind of modern hijab. Since Khatami’s election as president, more and more modern women and young girls have tended toward various colors and latest fashions and thus diversified the space of the city while maintaining the general concept of hijab.

8. Mojtaba Sadrian, "The Action of Wound, a Polyform on Identity," FarhangeTose-é (April 2001, Tehran), p. 27.

9. Doreen Massey, Space, Place and Gender (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 1994), p. 148.

10. The number of female students who entered Iran universities since 1998 amounts to more than 50% of the whole student population. In the current year it was 63% of the total entry to Iranian universities.

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