Feb 4, 2004

version #1

Resorting to Privacy

Kianoosh Vahabi

"There is no need for arms, physical violence, material constraints. Just a gaze. An inspecting gaze, a gaze which each individual under its weight will end by interiorizing to the point that he is his own overseer, each individual thus exercising this surveillance over, and against, himself. A superb formula: power exercised continuously and for what turns out to be a minimal cost." (Foucault, 1980: 155)

Space & Privacy

Space in its most general sense covers a wide range of material and non-material realms that pertain to different levels of privacy. The most private space one can ever experience is the non-material space of personal thoughts and conceptions. The chances of being able to intrude into this private sphere have been considerably slim so far, so almost everyone can enjoy this intimacy without any threats. On the other hand, we can assume the outside world to be the arena that is most public in character. One can find intermediate levels of privacy within these two limits.

The formation of all sorts of space, whether public or private, has always been under the influence of the dialectics of power and the tendency to control the private realm. The contradiction between the will of individuals and the governing powers is a global circumstance. All forms of power have the obsession to operate within the furthest possible spatial limits. This will ideally include those pockets of individual private space that might influence the power in any way. But the methods and limits set to this interference have been very diverse throughout political history. Ethics and social norms have always set restrictions to the extent of interference with individual privacy and freedom, and there has always been a negotiation regarding the government’s right to control and survey. The recent changes in US policies, after the increasing fears of terrorism, have provided the government with more extensive rights to intrude into the private sphere, claiming that it is indispensable for national security. Though the United States is widely seen as the haven for personal freedom, this is an example of how people may compromise on their right to privacy, even in a democratic society. But there are far more severe approaches in totalitarian political systems.

The organization of space is basically an architectural activity, and conditions resulting from the tension between power structures and privacy-seeking individuals can arguably be seen in the form of architectural and urban spaces, and the manners they are used. Almost all species tend to allocate certain amounts of space to their natural modes of behavior, defining specific domains according to these. But in the case of human beings, the interaction between public and private spaces is rather more complicated. The boundaries of human domains are a product of an interaction between three different factors: power, culture and technology.

The need to associate with the public versus the need for privacy forms a balance that shapes one’s attitude towards public and private spaces in a city. When the public arena shows a great degree of tolerance for different aspects of individual characters, urban space gains greatly in importance and complexity. If this tolerance is taken to an extreme, only few activities will traditionally remain within private spaces.

Privacy & Human Rights

The notion of privacy has been hard to define, and has been the object of a wide range of analytical approaches (Wacks, 1993). The "archetypal" complaints regarding laws on privacy have been about the "public disclosure of private facts" and the "intrusion upon an individual’s seclusion, solitude or private affairs" (Wacks, 1993: xv).1 Gavison defines privacy as "limited accessibility," with three independent but related components: secrecy (information known about an individual); anonymity (attention paid to an individual); and solitude (physical access to an individual).2 As stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: "No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks on his honor and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks."

Although privacy has been declared a basic human right, there are numerous examples of violations in many countries. The citizens of many communist states have been known to witness perpetual intrusions into their privacy by their respective totalitarian regimes. And in the West, considering the enormous development of communication and information technologies, it is becoming increasingly easy to practice surveillance over individuals, both for governmental and private organizations, for the sake of national security or economic benefits.

The definition of "Human Rights" has been criticized by the Iranian government, arguing that it is advocating Western values and not essentially global ones as accepted by different cultures. Therefore, the right to privacy will also be interpreted in different ways. Though it could be argued that "privacy" and the rights it implies are not clearly defined anywhere, even in the West, the comparison of existing conditions in Iran with those in democratic countries makes it quite obvious that the implemented policies regarding private life are radically different. In Iran, the ambitions of the government to penetrate the private sphere are considerably greater. On the other hand, due to the lack of resources, and the tendency of the population to safeguard their private spaces – be it for traditional or other motives – the government has not always been very successful in this respect.

Intrusion of Power & Definition of "Illegal Act"

The dialogue about risk plays the role equivalent to taboo or sin, but the slope is tilted in the reverse direction, away from protecting the community and in favor of protecting the individual (Douglas, 1992: 28).3

When the concepts of "sin" and "illegality" are combined, governmental power will subsequently be merged with the overwhelming presence of God, and the idea of "surveillance" perfected in a panoptical sense. George Orwell painted a well-known picture of totalitarian powers in his novel 1984. What is referred to as "Big Brother" can be boosted with the intangible presence of a politically defined and propagated concept of "God." In this manner, the surveillance is extended to an ultimate level that is independent of any material means. This effect can be observed within a religious political system, which can be perfectly exemplified in the existing situation in Iran.

Since the definition of an illegal act is quite flexible and shifting in practical terms in Iran, the potential limits of the interference within public and private spheres are completely vague. The application of this method of surveillance is quite practical in the case of traditional sectors of society, which still constitutes the majority. At the same time, the changing demographic situation of a growing number of youths, and the increasing development of access to non-governmental media, which in some cases are not fully controlled by the government, has led to a change.

In ideal democratic conditions, the law is a reflection of what the majority of people consider beneficial for the whole society. So the law will almost completely conform to the preferences of people in general. In this case, the people accept the definitions of illegal acts. Whenever the gap between established social norms and the government’s legal definitions is widened, private space gains in importance. Under these conditions, individuals seek refuge in every possible space which might hide their politically unacceptable behavior.

Panopticon, Surveillance & Power

The automatic functioning of power has always been an intriguing theme for rulers. In ultimate conditions people will automatically act according to inclinations of power because of a constant fear of surveillance. Based on this principle, secret agents, intelligence agencies and recently, hidden cameras, have always been of great interest for powers specifically in totalitarian and non-democratic regimes. The more intangible the method of surveillance is, the more awesome it becomes. The imagination and constant fear of being surveyed in these conditions operates as a self-regulating factor.

Jeremy Bentham, a Utilitarian philosopher and theorist of British legal reform proposed a model prison, known as the "Panopticon," in which due to a clever spatial configuration the design ensured that no prisoner could ever see the "inspector" who conducted surveillance from the privileged central location within the radial configuration. The prisoner could never know when he was being surveyed – a mental uncertainty which in itself would prove to be a crucial disciplinary instrument. This effect would lead to a perpetual sense of being under control, which would result in a condition in which the power is automatically exerted. As Foucault analyzes the Panopticon, the automatic exertion of power is achieved through the fact that it is "visible" and "unverifiable" in this situation.

Contemporary literature concerned with surveillance favors the metaphoric imagery expatiated in George Orwell’s prescient vision of Oceania and, more commonly, Michel Foucault’s abstraction of the panoptic. For Orwell, the future totalitarian state was exemplified by the "telescreen," the "thought police" and categorically selective social monitoring practices. According to him, the constant visibility of Big Brother served as a mechanism of repression oriented towards inducing and maintaining compliance and social order. Foucault, by contrast, understood the visible manifestations of modern surveillance as having been increasingly rendered unnecessary through the normalizing gaze of the disciplines and the constitution of self-regulating subjects. Well beyond a mechanism of repression, panoptic observation involved a productive reflection on the self to the extent that the dispersion of truth claims across a range of social institutions served to generate disciplinary practices and the exercise of power over oneself.4

Privacy in Tehran: A Case Study

In a traditional non-secular context, the ever-present God will have the ultimate power of observation and surveillance. God will have the ultimate power to survey every conceivable location, and no single violation of divine law will be ignored. Traditionally this principle has proved as the most sophisticated and arguably most efficient method of surveillance. According to some people the rate of crimes have been typically low in more traditional regions of Iran, and arguably religious beliefs, which lead to a self-controlling personal mentality, are a major factor in this regard. Aside from that, religious teachings which urge for all believers to "correct" the society at any time have sometimes been misused as a means to violate individual privacy and freedom.

The political model in Iran has been meant to bring about a sort of legitimacy based both on divine and democratic foundations. The legal consequences of this criterion have formed a condition which is almost unique in the world. Even apparently secular and internationally standard regulations such as traffic laws have been argued to be part of religious rules. Religious political power as practiced in Iran is assumed to be the extension of a divine power bestowed on the leader, and the rules and laws are therefore interpreted as divine. Violation of all rules is hence considered to be a transgression with respect to God. So the legitimacy of power when correcting the people is not merely a civil one, but is extended to God’s will. Contradictions of some widely accepted behaviors, which are quite legal in most parts of the world, and Islamic law, which in Iranian political system is the sole result of interpretations of religious teachings by the regime, has been the cause of an ambiguous situation in Iran. The most important aspect of this issue is that the ultimate official interpretation of divine teachings is maintained as the supreme law that can never be subject to any democratic selection or reading.

So in this manner the law will not always be the result of a democratic process and will not essentially be accepted by the majority. The most well-known example of this issue is the dramatic difference between people’s way of dressing in official and non-official spaces. The compulsory official dressing codes, especially in case of women, are rarely respected and followed in non-governmental spaces, and the common manner of dressing is dramatically different in private life. It could be argued that these dualities and differences in public and private features of life in Iran have contributed to the strong tendency to isolate and close private life, a tendency which is translated into public-urban and private-architectural spaces in Tehran. As far as the interference of power and individual privacy is concerned, the duality of legitimating discourse allows the religious governments to have a flexible and almost unlimited right to control private aspects of life, which may also include private architectural spaces. As a result the relative opacity of private space increases in order to safeguard the intimacy and privacy in many cases. Of course it is not factual to study this effect regardless of traditional Iranian culture and architecture which both show a great inclination towards seclusion in private life.

As different means of communication and access to non-governmental media develop steadily in Iran, new attitudes towards different aspects of life take form in the minds of an increasing number of Iranian people.

The urban presence in case of a majority of the young people in Tehran amounts to a perpetual escape from surveillance. Certain spots within the urban and suburban environments are hence considered safe havens for their "illegal" acts. The value of these spots increase due to the mere fact of their relative opacity to surveyors. Coffee shops, restaurants, parks and desolate urban spaces are the preferred places. The relative privacy of a car has also been of interest, and many sexual encounters between men and women take place in cars. One can also witness gatherings and open-air parties taking place in the mountain resorts and suburban areas.

The formation of housing as a private space has also been influenced by the growing demand for private space, mostly on behalf of the young generation. Apart from the general fact that the price of land and real estate has been rocketing during recent years, another factor contributing to the high demand for small dwellings and apartments is an increasing need for independent private space on the part of youth. Some have tried to mix the function of office and personal private space, resulting in an ambiguous condition that is less likely to be subject to surveillance. It is still prestigious and luxurious to own or rent an independent dwelling for almost all young people in Tehran, and the majority has to cope with the problems of life with their families. The different lifestyles of the generations are a source of conflict and quarrel in many families, which leads young people to a confusing situation, in which they attempt to flee both their family homes and the public spaces which are mostly under surveillance. Since many landlords fear the potential legal problems arising from the lifestyle of the youth – sexual relations, drugs and potentially illegal political activities, along with young people’s other general problems – they are very reluctant to lease any property to them.

Surveillance is also associated with sex and gender in Iran. The social presence of women has been more extensively subject to surveillance, compared to that of men. Women have been traditionally more restricted in their social behaviors and outlooks, and these limitations have been imposed on them through cultural and social norms, which are used to control the people in an everyday manner. The combination of political legitimacy and the still-powerful social norms for feminine behavior has led to a condition of heightened surveillance over women.

The official policies to separate men and women in public spaces have eliminated the chance of some social experiences that are not always contradictory to Islamic law. In many cases during the last years this policy has been implemented even in places such as universities, where the risk of any sort of sexual harassment is actually low. Formation of architectural spaces has been also partially influenced by these methods. Circulation spaces have been either doubled or divided into two different zones in some public spaces, allocating separate stairways, corridors or halls to men and women. Though it could be argued that this condition might bring about a higher degree of relative privacy for women, the fact is that many people do not prefer it. Even the companionship of legally accepted couples is influenced by these measures in public spaces and facilities in many cases. The same condition can be seen in the separation of some non-architectural spaces such as interior space of buses, which have also been divided to two separate zones.

Apart from all these examples of interference of power with private aspects of life and their resulting spatial conditions, it is notable that the challenge between power and individuals is an ongoing issue, which has not been solidified into a stable and permanent condition. An ever-increasing number of educated people are gaining access to many sources of information and new technologies, and have been familiarized with many aspects of life in other parts of the world. Therefore their approach towards lifestyle and specifically private life is dramatically changing. This transformation will subsequently cause different practical conditions in terms of the relationship between people and power. It could be argued that as the attitude of individuals towards their civil rights and specifically their right to privacy develops, the balance between the opposing wills of power and people is slightly moving towards a more democratic condition which may result in a new relationship between public and private spaces in architectural and urban environments.

1. Ali Madanipour, Public and Private Spaces of the City (Routledge, 2003), page 41.

2. Public and Private Spaces of the City, page 43.

3. Paulo Vaz and Fernanda Bruno, "Types of Self-Surveillance: from abnormality to individuals 'at risk'": <www.surveillance-and-society.org/journalv1i3.htm>.

4. Sean P. Hier, "Probing the Surveillant Assemblage: on the dialectics of surveillance practices as processes of social control": <www.surveillance-and-society.org/journalv1i3.htm>.

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