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How Women’s Presence in Tehran’s Public Spaces Compares to Shariʿa Prescriptions, Old Tehran and Contemporary Tehran

In: Hawwa
Authors:
Fatemeh Salarvandian Department of Geography and Urban Planning, Faculty of Geography, University of Tehran Tehran Iran

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Seyed Ali Hosseini Department of Tourism Management, Faculty of Management & Accounting, Allameh Tabatabaʾi University Tehran Iran

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Muhammad Jafar Ashkevari Department of History and civilization of the Islamic Nations, Faculty of Humanities, University of Zanjan Zanjan Iran

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Seyed Mohammad Hosseini Department of political Geography, Faculty of Geography, University of Tehran Tehran Iran

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Ahmand Pourahmad Department of Geography and Urban Planning, Faculty of Geography, University of Tehran Tehran Iran

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Abstract

In Islamic cities, the shariʿa determines to what extent women are allowed to attend public spaces. This article addresses women’s public attendance in Tehran, in both the classical and modern periods, and compares this with the prescriptions of the shariʿa. Our exploration of the Qurʾan, hadiths, the practices of religious scholars, and the descriptions of women’s status in travelogues suggests two distinct views, the first of which prohibits any kind of public appearance and considers home to be the best place for women. The second view holds that women can enter public spaces, but with some preconditions. Amidst the complexity of religion, society, culture, and politics, two shariʿa tenets have not changed significantly over time: veiling and sex segregation. Some female spheres outside the home have vanished as others have emerged. As a result of these shifts, the one notable change has been that women appear more frequently in public.

Abstract

In Islamic cities, the shariʿa determines to what extent women are allowed to attend public spaces. This article addresses women’s public attendance in Tehran, in both the classical and modern periods, and compares this with the prescriptions of the shariʿa. Our exploration of the Qurʾan, hadiths, the practices of religious scholars, and the descriptions of women’s status in travelogues suggests two distinct views, the first of which prohibits any kind of public appearance and considers home to be the best place for women. The second view holds that women can enter public spaces, but with some preconditions. Amidst the complexity of religion, society, culture, and politics, two shariʿa tenets have not changed significantly over time: veiling and sex segregation. Some female spheres outside the home have vanished as others have emerged. As a result of these shifts, the one notable change has been that women appear more frequently in public.

Introduction

Religions such as Islam, Hinduism, and Judaism put a strong emphasis on place.1 Islam is known as an urban religion that emphasizes the implementation of Islamic laws stipulating the separation of public and private spaces and the segregation of men and women.2 These stipulations characterize a special space called “the Islamic city,” which is different from other cities,3 and which reflects shariʿa laws in its architecture, in its types of social relations, and in the type and extent of its citizens’ presence in public spaces.4 In this Islamic city, women are affected more than any other group, and you can know a Muslim woman through understanding Islam or shariʿa.5 Islam accepts the presence of women in the urban public domain, subject to certain requirements, such as that she must wear the hijab and should be otherwise appropriately covered, and that the public space ought to be separate from the private.

An increasing number of Muslim women live in urban areas, leading to concerns about the manner and extent to which women are allowed to attend public spaces.6 As an Islamic society, Iran and its urban public spaces have been influenced by Islamic regulations since the arrival of Islam in this country in 650 AD. Based on the latest census, over 70% of Muslims, who comprise 99.4% of Iran’s population, live in cities.7 And although 74.3% of Iranian women live in cities,8 women may have a more limited access to the public domains, and these spaces may be treated as a male domain9. . According to the Global Gender Gap Report, Iran ranked 139 among 144 countries for gender euality.10 Nonetheless, the pattern of Iranian women’s accommodation in urban public spaces has become slightly less restrictive, with many additional zones carved out for women in male-dominated spaces. Even though some shariʿa prescriptions have remained unchanged, some gendered spheres have disappeared, while others have emerged. Sometimes, women have had a limited presence outside of the house; at other times, they have appeared in public more frequently.

This article outlines the pattern of women’s presence in public spaces, based on the shariʿa laws. It recognizes that Shiʿi Islam offers multiple, often contradictory viewpoints on women’s public presence, and then compares these patterns with what has happened In the classical and modern periods in Tehran.

Literature Review

Islam defines public and private spaces differently than does Western culture.11 An Islamic conceptualization categorizes people into two groups, mahram (immediate family members, those who are prohibited from intermarrying) and na-mahram (marriageable kin and unrelated persons). Based on this conceptualization, public spaces are defined as places outside the home where there is a high chance of meeting na-mahram persons. Private spaces, on the other hand, are the insides of houses, which are domestic, private places, with a less important status. In these private spaces, women are not legally required to wear the hijab.12 However, when na-mahram people are present, such domestic spaces are redefined as public or private, carving out a “public” space within the house, which otherwise would be considered the private realm of women.13

According to Kostof, public spaces in Islamic cities include streets, bazaars, squares, mosques, and cemeteries.14 Such spaces are governed by the shariʿa, meaning that people in these spaces are required to follow the commands of God and the prophet Muhammad. Such commands and orders are categorized into two groups, the first of which comprises those orders and decrees that are unchangeable, and which usually come from the Qurʾan or Islamic traditions, including from the prophet Muhammad’s teachings and practices,15 as well as from those of the Shiʿi Imams or descendants of the Prophet in the Shiʿi faith.

The second group comprises those laws and customs that are based on the Qurʾan and sunna or that are associated with them but may, however, vary from time to time.16 Where the Qurʾan and sunna had left a question unanswered, and in response to the need to re-evaluate legal ceremonies so that they were appropriate to contemporary circumstances, religious scholars devised ijtihād to interpret the shariʿa and Islamic and legislative orders.17

According to the shariʿa, God has categorized the duties of mankind according to five degrees of approval, wājib (obligatory; required to be done), mustaḥabb (recommended; not necessary but, if done, there will be a reward for that), makrūh (abominated; not forbidden, but it is better not to be done), mubāḥ (permissible; neither forbidden nor allowed), and ḥarām (forbidden; strictly prohibited).18

The presence of women in public domains is defined on the same basis and is allowed under certain conditions based on Islamic law and shariʿa. Such conditions include wearing the proper hijab and behaving modestly,19 avoiding mixing with men, observing the principle of gender segregation,20 and obtaining permission from the authoritative confidant man, who can be their spouse, father, or brother.21 Women are required to obey these rules, whether in the “private” spaces of the home or in “public” spaces in the neighbourhood or city. Costello points out that the emphasis in Iran on the privacy of home and family means that different guests are served in different parts of the same house.22 Visiting men are welcomed in the outer rooms. Geremeraad believes that such conditions have conceptualized not a public space, but a semi-public one, for women.23 The literature shows that women differ in their attitude to these commands. Some believe they make their presence more secure, providing conditions for their greater presence,24 while others believe that these commands impede women’s equal access to public spaces.25

Women’s public presence in Iran has changed over time. In some periods and places, women have had more freedom to enter public spaces; in others, they have enjoyed only a limited presence outside the house due to reasons such as internal political changes, pressure from international organizations,26 socio-economic changes (e.g., the advent of modernity), and different demographic/sociocultural conditions (e.g., ethnic characteristics27 ). What is certain, though, is that their share of public spaces has consistently been much lower than men’s.28 Nevertheless, Muslim women have always found ways of interacting and communicating with the public by creating mostly feminine public spaces.

Mazumdar and Mazumdar believe that it has been difficult for women to enter into men’s public spaces but that the notion that the public space has always been exclusively reserved for men should be reconsidered because public spaces in Muslim communities differ from those of Western societies—in Muslim communities, women have their own special public spaces, into which it is far more difficult for men to enter than it is for women to enter into men’s public spaces.29 Some commentators, such as Amir-Ebrahimi, even believe that, even though women were removed from many public spaces in Iran after the 1979 revolution, Islamic laws in regards to the presence of women in public spaces helped many traditional women—who previously had appeared less frequently in the community—enter the public domain and demand their political, social, and cultural rights differently.30 Notwithstanding the various studies on gender and public spaces,31 the extent to which the reality of women’s public presence in Tehran maps onto the vast prescriptions found within shariʿa law is a subject that has been considered less frequently. The article comprises three parts, the first of which reviews the Islamic instructions contained in the Qurʾan, the authentic hadith books of the Shiʿa and the Sunnis, and the traditional narratives of the religious scholars about the extent to which women are allowed to attend public spaces. The views of Islam about women’s attendance at mosques, streets, squares, markets, and cemeteries are also reviewed in this section, which is based on Kostof’s definition of the most important public spaces of Islamic cities.32

The second part reviews women’s presence in different periods in Old Tehran,33 through studying outstanding and enriched historical texts such as travelogues, diaries, biographies, and ethnographies as they reflect women’s status in different political and cultural eras.

Lastly, the third part reflects women’s attendance in public places in the contemporary era, from the Pahlavi period (1925–79) to the present.

Women in Public Spaces Based on the Shariʿa

Mosques

Mosques are among the most important public spaces in Islam, representing the most distinctive features of Islamic cities compared to other cities. Mosques, at the dawn of Islam, were places not only for prayer but also for people and rulers to gather for political and social consultations. They were also used for the teaching of Islamic law and science.34

The Qurʾan does not explicitly permit or forbid women from mosques for prayer. The hadiths, traditions, and fatwas that comment on this issue may be divided into three categories. One group comprises traditions, narratives, and religious authorities that prohibit the presence of women in mosques and other religious spaces, and which introduce home as the best place for women to pray.35 They narrate from the prophet Muhammad that “the reward for praying women at home is equal to that of mass prayers.”36 Elsewhere, the sixth Imam is quoted as saying, “The best mosque for women is their homes.”37 Traditions in Sunni hadiths—such as “The woman’s prayer at her home is superior to her prayer in the mosque”—also emphasize that women should pray at home.38

The second group permits women to enter religious spaces and mosques, but only on certain conditions. Based on the Qurʾan and hadiths, some contemporary Shiʿi jurisprudents have considered conditions such as that women must wear the hijab and that women must be prevented from mixing with men.39 Also, in the Sunni tradition, there are some narratives about the observance of some criteria for women’s entering mosques. As an example, women are recommended not to stop on their way to the mosque and not to use cosmetics and perfumes.40

The third group comprises hadiths, traditions, and fatwas of contemporary religious authorities (marja), which actively encourage women to attend mosque and ask men to allow them to do so.41 Some narratives have even stated, “You should not prevent women from going to mosques at night.”42 Concerning the presence of women at Friday prayers and at those of Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, some jurists believe that women can attend but that they are not obliged to do so.43 Traditions and narratives indicate that, under the prophet Muhammad, women participated in prayers of different ceremonies.44

Mosques were also the most important environments for education at the time of the prophet Muhammad, so that the separation of women and men in educational settings was also respected,45 and a special door for women, the bāb al-nisāʾ, was created in mosques.46 Sometimes, the Prophet’s and his associates’ houses served as places of education. People went to the houses of the Prophet’s daughter and wives to learn the laws of shariʿa and all other kinds of knowledge. In such cases, curtains were hung between the people and the Prophet’s wives, so that nobody could see them. Other narrations have stated that the prophet Muhammad dedicated a day to the training of women in the mosque,47 although Muḥammad al-Bāqir (the fifth Imam of the Twelver branch of Shiʿi Islam, d. 114/732 or 117/735) is quoted as saying, “If teaching science requires mixing with na-mahram men without observing the religious limits, it is not allowed.”48

Roads and Streets

Islamic regulations on the presence of women on roads and streets further emphasize the non-mixing of women and men. One hadith from the prophet Muhammad advises, “When leaving the mosque, women should go on the sides and men should move from the middle of the alley.”49 Another hadith, from Imām al-Bāqir, says, “Women should not move from the middle of public passages and crowded and busy places, but they should walk slowly through routes that are neither too secluded nor too crowded.”50

Bazaars

Bazaars are also among the public spaces in Islamic cities where it is difficult to prevent the mixing of women and men. For this reason, Islamic law recognizes the market as a masculine space, to which women are advised not to go, except to buy the necessaries. The prophet Muhammad is quoted as saying, “The best places in the view of God are the mosques and the worst places are the markets.”51 According to Ḥurr al-Āmilī, “Your women go to the market, while they will be confronted with infidels.”52 In addition, according to contemporary Shiʿi jurists, a woman should obtain her husband’s permission to go to the market.53 However, it is emphasized that women are already permitted to leave the house if they intend to perform some obligatory and necessary works, and women are not required to obtain permission from their male relatives.

Cemeteries

Cemeteries are other public spaces over which there were controversies between the Shiʿi and Sunni jurisprudential texts, in the early years of Islam, about the presence of women at funerals or about women visiting relatives’ graves. Some narratives strongly repudiate the presence of women at mourning and funeral ceremonies, and some consider it makrūh. Sunni scholars narrate from Umm al-Atiya, “The Prophet advised us not to attend funerals but did not forbid us.”54 Another narration from the prophet Muhammad warns, “May God curse women who visit graves.”55 However, according to another narration, Fāṭima, the daughter of the prophet Muhammad, visited graves of martyrs every Saturday morning and asked God for mercy and forgiveness.56 In addition, ʿAʾisha, the wife of the Prophet, visited her brother’s grave.57 Ḥurr al-ʿĀmilī interprets the traditions of prohibition as an abomination and believes that women are permitted to participate in such assemblies.58 In general, visiting graves is recommended for men and is permissible for women, provided that they do not cry out, wail, behave hysterically, or respect graves too much, which can cause mischief.59 Besides, Shiʿi religious authorities in Iran, such as Mūsavi Khomeini, believed that women are not restricted from visiting graveyards.60 However, Makarem Shirazi, another religious scholar in Tehran, believes that it would be better if they don’t do so during their menstruation.61

Overall, there is no single interpretation of shariʿa regarding women’s presence in public spaces. However, based on an overview of hadiths and narratives, it can be inferred that they either did not allow women’s presence in public spaces or insisted that they observe certain requirements, such as wearing the hijab, not mixing with men, and obtaining the prior permission of their husbands or other male relatives.

Women in the Public Spaces of Old Tehran

The conditions experienced by women in Old Tehran were not significantly different from those of other parts of Iran, except for some cities.62 Muslim women in Old Tehran were regarded as incapable and were prevented from engaging in any social activity. Accordingly, they had less presence in public than Iranian women who followed other religions, such as Zoroastrians, and even Muslim women in rural areas.63 According to Polak, women often spent their time in harems, private spaces where household members lived, and andaroons (a Persian term meaning “inside”). The andaroon was considered a sacred place, untouched by Iranian men. An Iranian husband never called his wife by her first name in public, calling her only “the mother of the child.”64

In Old Tehran, Islamic regulations influenced how women used to attend public domains. As Colliverrice writes in her diary, “Women who go to the mosque should sit behind a curtain separating them from men. If they want to say prayers they had better do it inside their house. Besides, unlike men, women are not allowed to say prayers in public places such as streets, markets, and sidewalks.”65 Women’s participation in mourning ceremonies for the dead, usually held in mosques, was also made possible by observing gender segregation norms. About funerals, Colliverrice writes, “Only men lead the deceased body to the cemetery, although watching the women sitting in the yard or in the middle of the road, moaning and crying, and disturbing their hair, is horrible.”66

Religious Spaces

The Ḥusayniyya

One of the religious spaces in Old Tehran, and in some other large cities, was the Ḥusayniyya.67 In this space, the taʿziya was performed, commemorating ʿAshuraʾ. Women were allowed to attend the ceremony. For example, D’Alamani writes, “Urban women rush to the venue with a determination to visit the ceremony; at one of these events, the number of women was 1,000.”68 Polak points out that all the roles in taʿziya were played by men, even the role of the female characters.69 Nāṣir al-Dīn Shāh (r. 1264–1313/1848–96) built a Ḥusayniyya for the occasion of this ceremony, which came to be known as the Dolat Ḥusayniyya. It had three entrances, one for men, one for women, and a third for the shah’s harem and other government officials.70 Serena writes in his travelogue, “Entering the Husayniyah is open to the public…. Women have a special place; of whatever social and economic class they may be.”71

Cemeteries and Holy Shrines

Cemeteries and holy shrines were among the other spaces where people spent their holidays and leisure time, and were considered places of entertainment for the people of Tehran.72 As Shahri writes, “Women, in groups of four or five, went to graveyards for their fate or for heavenly rewards (because they envisaged the pilgrimage of the graves as an act with future heavenly rewards) or went to graveyards for fun and entertainment.”73 As Polak also points out, “Going to the graves of Imam Zadeh74 is one of the most popular hobbies for women.”75

Drouville presents a vivid and accurate description of the presence of women in cemeteries:

One of the major recreations of Iranian women is visiting graveyards, they go there because for them graveyards are regarded as a club and a place for having fun and meeting, and they usually spend their Thursday nights there, smoking hookahs, drinking, cracking nuts, and talking. The ceremony usually begins at three or four o’clock in the afternoon and continues until sunset.76

The Bazaar

Regarding the bazaar, Drouville writes, “Iranian women leave their homes wearing a very big cloth that goes down the ground, which they call it ‘Chador’. The women cover the Chador with the strips sewn to the head and neck and cover their faces with a cloak called ‘Roo-band.’”77 Colliverrice notes:

If a woman desires to go to the market, she will rarely go alone. It is commonplace to see the stagecoaches, standing at the entrance of shops, while Khaje Sarai [manager of the caravanserai] is sitting at the special place of the Kalske chi [coachman], and five or six women getting out of the coach with full hijab, smiling and chatting.78

Nevertheless, Polak believed that Iranian women enjoyed considerable freedom to leave the house: “Middle-class women go to the market and physicians alone, anonymously, and wealthy women visit relatives using a horse and in the company of entourages. Behind them rides the ‘Gis Sefid’ [the old female adviser; lit. white-haired], while one of the servants is holding the bridle of the horse in his hand.”79 Also, according to Wills, there were no limitations on women from going shopping together.80 Sheil, the British plenipotentiary’s wife during Nāṣir al-Dīn Shāh’s reign, writes in her diary, “Iranian women are using their freedom outside their houses much more than us, and they do not have different restrictions like us. By covering their whole body and face, they even alienate their closest acquaintances. And so, from whatever group and community they may be, they are able to do whatever they want when they need it.”81

On the Street

The customs governing the presence of women on the street were very similar to those regulating their presence in the markets. As Colliverrice writes:

Except for the Royal family ladies, all women who wear Roo-band can freely go wherever they want unless their husbands or mothers-in-laws are strict. Sometimes you can see the Roo-band wearing women, in groups of two or three moving on the main roads. They are likely to go to a garden to spend the day or to go to a graveyard for a friend or kinship that has just passed away. Maybe they are going to or coming back from the public bath. With a huge bundle of clothes on their heads, maybe they are going to or coming back from a river, where they can wash the clothes of the family.82

According to custom, men and women in Old Tehran were prohibited from appearing together in public and from travelling together on carriages; instead, they travelled separately, by special vehicle or carriage, or on mules or horses.83 As Colliverrice notes, “When a man and woman appear together in the street, the man always steps in front, and sometimes it’s seen that he is talking to a woman moving behind him.”84 As Polak points out, “Whenever a woman’s hijab is inadvertently removed from her face in the street, it is customary that the man in front of her should turn his face, so the woman can rearrange and tidy up her hijab.”85 According to D’Alamani, European women who appeared on the streets without hijab aroused public curiosity, and people even sympathized with them.86

In Old Tehran, ladies from families who had one, travelled around town by coach, its glass hung with a black cloth. The coachman had always to look down, with his eyes closed, turning his back to the ladies. A number of valets and companions, both riding and on foot, followed them. These people were responsible for making people look back at the streets, shouting, “Go away, go blind,” to prevent the ladies from being seen by na-mahram men.87 Such alerts made people escape from the streets. Hearing this sign, if people happened to enter an alley with a dead end, they were obliged either to continue to its end or to stand still and turn their backs to the ladies. Returning the gaze of the shah’s women and courtiers was considered insulting and would incur heavy punishment.88

Educational Spaces

Concerning women’s entrance into educational spaces, it is often said that until the Iranian Constitutional Revolution (1905–11), girls’ primary education was carried out at homes by private teachers or at homeschools by female teachers (molla bajis). However, most women were illiterate.89 Nevertheless, Polak writes:

Teaching girls in the earlier times was totally considered unnecessary. They are not allowed to attend public schools. From the age of eight, they keep them out of the curious eyes of passers-by. At age nine, girls can only go to school with hijab. Less affluent families are waiting for the girls to turn ten or elevens that they can make them marry.90

Although modern schools were established in Tehran from the first years of Muẓaffar al-Dīn Shāh’s (r. 1896–1907) reign, girls were excluded until the Constitutional Revolution. Most families were reluctant to send their daughters to these schools, even though girls’ schools were organized by some religious missionaries in Tehran.91

Leisure Spaces

Public Baths

Public baths also facilitated women leaving their homes and creating social networks outside the family. Going to the baths was one of the most exciting events in the lives of Iranian women of all classes. In addition to the weekly or monthly baths, women also took baths for special occasions, such as an engagement party or wedding ceremony, or in preparation for New Year celebrations.92 While bathing was just a brief shower for men, as something of a necessity, for women the baths were a place to spend their time from morning to night, talking, eating, singing, and dancing.

Usually, there were two connected bathrooms for men and women. The men’s bathroom led to a public passage, and the women’s bathroom to some special alleys covered with roofs, so that women were not exposed to intruders, and to prevent their voices from being heard by na-mahrams. Where there were too many customers for them to be divided safely into two groups, male and female, a second type of baths was built, at a distance from crowded areas, which men attended from dawn until sunrise, and women at other times.93

Coffee Shops (Coffee House/ qahva-ḵāna)

Although women enjoyed access to an array of public spaces in Old Tehran, they were prohibited from entering a number of others. One of these was the traditional coffee shop. According to Madam Dieulafoy, all tea houses in Tehran were for men to relax, talk, and mix in94. As Colliverrice also notes, “The most important thing on a trip is a cup of tea. There are many coffee houses on the way where you can buy some tea or smoke hookah. If they do the woman a favor, let her sit in a desolate place outside the coffee house and drink tea.”95

The chelo-kababi

One of the new spaces in Old Tehran towards the end of the Qajar period (1193–1344/1779–1925) was the chelo-kababi (a place where customers could buy and eat kebab).96 According to Shahri, women were deprived of this food because there was no place for them in the shops. Since the religious authorities had forbidden the presence of women in male communities (with such an emphasis that they were not even entitled to a separate space), even if a poor woman was starving in the market, she could eat chelo-kabab only if her husband bought it in a container and took it home for her.97 Shahri mentions an Iranian food called jaghur-baghur (a food made of lamb’s liver, kidney, and heart) as “the kings’ envy”:

One day, one of the ladies from the king’s family passes a “Jigaraki” shop [a place to buy and eat jaghur-baghur]. She sighs with despair and says, “The hell with being a lady when you have to take the envy of eating of Jaghur-Baghur to the grave with you.”… Of course, even if she was not a lady of the court family, still she could not eat it because women were not supposed to be there at all, and they could not eat among men.98

Zurkhaneh (the traditional gymnasium where traditional Iranian sport is practised) was another public space which women were absolutely prohibited from entering.99

Women in Public Spaces in Contemporary Tehran

This third section covers the Pahlavi (1344–98/1925–79) and the Islamic Republic (1979–) periods. Reza Shah Pahlavi (r. 1344–60/1925–41) came to power by attempts to modernize Tehran’s urban spaces.100 Under his rule, public and private spaces found new definitions because of the Western ideas and the modernization project he sought to impose. Prior to him, these spaces had been considered completely separate, with their own gendered expectations and functions. Public spaces, including streets, squares, and the bazaar, were assigned for masculine activities; in contrast, private spaces, such as the interior spaces of houses, closed spaces in the neighbourhood, and any other spaces that could be monitored, were allowed for women to do their physical and social activities without them being seen by strangers.

During Reza Shah’s reign, those spaces that had been assigned to men only received new meanings, so that women were allowed to enter them extensively and without any restrictions. Unlike the women of Old Tehran, who had operated under conditions and restrictions, women of Reza Shah’s time were encouraged to benefit from public domains, and their presence in those areas was considered the reference point of Iran’s modernizaion.101 Accordingly, two main Islamic laws—the hijab and the need for gender segregation—were removed from public spaces. The law banning the hijab in public spaces, introduced in the first Pahlavi period, had a huge impact on the type and extent of women’s presence in urban spaces. The law was considered unacceptable by most women, who interpreted it as going out in public undressed.102 As Shahri writes, “A man who could not ride with his wife in a horse carriage and had to be separated from his wife in public places, now could freely attend newly created public spaces such as bars, restaurants, cinemas, and theaters with his unveiled concubine.”103

In 1979, when the Islamic Republic was founded, it based its legislation on Islamic shariʿa. How women should be present in public spaces was one of the most important issues it faced. In line with its revival of Islamic shariʿa, this period was accompanied by a return to the two main Islamic laws—the hijab and the necessity of gender segregation, and, their confrontation with modernity.104

Although the relationship between public spaces and women has undergone some changes under different presidents,105 the adherence to Islamic principles and shariʿa has been a constant. Since the revolution, modern women’s access to public spaces has been relatively limited, while traditional women have had more access to public spaces such as universities and the labour market.106 Despite women’s movements, their political roles and increasing public presence, the Islamic Republic has strengthened a paradox by forcing the hijab and gender segregation into public spaces.107

Women’s participation during the revolution, their support for men in the Iran-Iraq War (1980–88), and their employment in state and governmental agencies are signs of women’s social development in public spaces in the early years of the Islamic Revolution. However, gender segregation still dominates many public areas in Tehran.108 Although women are more likely to enter public spaces,109 they are prohibited from entering spaces like sports stadiums, coffee houses, and zurkhanehs.110 Nevertheless, spaces such as indoor sports facilities have been made available to them in special places. Besides, new public spaces have been created, such as shopping malls, where women are the main attendees.111 On the other hand, some public spaces, like cemeteries, once a place where women could spend their leisure time, have lost their utility.112

Religious Spaces

In the contemporary era, religious spaces are the only spaces that have always been shaped in accordance with Islamic laws; they have never changed significantly, neither in Tehran nor in other cities of Iran, and neither during the Pahlavi period nor after the 1979 revolution. For instance, women in the contemporary period can freely attend mosques for prayers; however, they attend in fewer numbers than men.113 One of the basics of the design of mosques in Tehran today is the segregation of male and female worshippers by constructing separating walls or curtains.114 In every shrine and imamzadeh of Tehran, a part is allocated for women, so that they have no contact with men. Unlike in the past, women do not need men’s and elders’ permission to go out onto the streets, and there is no segregation in these areas either.

Educational Spaces

As mentioned above, women’s attendance at educational spaces in contemporary Tehran has increased, and women have found more opportunities to enter educational fields.115 At present, 84% of Tehrani women are literate, and approximately 49% of university students and 45% of graduates of universities in Tehran are women.116

After the revolution, an optional hijab for entering pre-revolutionary educational spaces was replaced by a compulsory hijab and appropriate cover (mantua and scarf). However, the segregation of educational spaces was carried out in both the Pahlavi era and during the Islamic Republic period. In the Pahlavi period, there were schools for boys and girls, where both genders could study, but at universities, gender segregation was not a dominant policy, and everyone could sit anywhere in the classrooms. The ban on the mixing of boys and girls in schools was seriously raised after the revolution and was pursued more seriously during the Ahmadinejad administration (2005–13). At the same time, attempts were made to introduce a number of gender-based policies to limit women’s admissions to some university disciplines.117

Other educational settings, such as public libraries, are also dominated by gender segregation. On certain days of the week or at certain hours of the day, women are allowed to use public libraries in Tehran; other times are devoted to men. However, where a library is sufficiently large, both genders can use the space at the same time, but with spatial segregation.

Commercial Spaces, Roads/Streets

Women can currently go to the market freely and alone, and can walk to and spend their leisure time in shopping centres.118 Women are also freer to attend other public spaces, such as streets, thanks to developments in urban transportation. During Nāṣir al-Dīn Shāh’s reign, the first urban trainline was launched, connecting Tehran to Rey and the tomb of “Hazrat Abdul Azim” in southern Tehran. Women could go on pilgrimage there by train if they had the permission of their spouse, mother-in-law, and family. The train had a section allocated to women.119 During the Pahlavi era, public transportation was not specifically gender segregated. But, since the revolution, spaces in public transportation systems, like the metro and buses, have been divided. This segregation has, on the one hand, provided women with proper facilities and a safer environment.120 On the other hand, it has created some special problems for them. For example, they usually sit at the back of buses, behind the men, in a space that is smaller than the space assigned to men. This leads to discomfort, especially during the mid-day hours, when women are more likely than men to visit public spaces, for shopping and other activities. Furthermore, women who travel with male family members on a bus may find it difficult to know where to get off the bus, because they are not allowed to sit together.121

Gender segregation in these spaces is implemented on the assumption that women are less present socially and have fewer needs, and insufficient capacity is allocated for them. The transportation sections assigned to men are at full capacity only during the morning and afternoon peak hours, while for most of the day, women who use these services are often under pressure due to small spaces.122 This has led to their discontent and reduced willingness to use public transportation at peak hours.123

Space separation by gender also occurs to some extent for intercity journeys. For example, on intercity trains, a wagon is usually assigned to women travelling alone. On aeroplanes and buses, typically a woman is not seated next to a na-mahram man. Women-only taxis have also been launched in Tehran and some other major cities.

Leisure Spaces

After the revolution, women-only public spaces were specially created. In 2003, sports centres (e.g., swimming pools and parks) were established especially for women. Women could use these public spaces without the hijab. In other public leisure areas, such as restaurants and cafes, the hijab is compulsory, but, unlike in other public spaces, there is no distinction between women and men, and men can sit with their families.

Overall, new phenomena—such as modernity, the spread of mass media, and the formation of civil movements—have had an undeniable effect on the form and manner of women’s presence in these public spaces, although the two main Islamic requirements—the hijab and non-mixing with men—have determined the status of women in urban public spaces after the revolution.124

The inequality and strict conditions arising from these factors have led young Iranian women to rebel against the rules and regulations imposed by Islamic shariʿa. Many women in Tehran today reject the traditional Islamic hijab, appearing in urban public spaces instead sporting fashionable styles. It is not surprising to see women with their hair increasingly visible, and make-up, and shorter and tighter jackets and trousers, walking freely among men in the streets and public areas of Tehran. Such women are described as “bad-hijab,” the term given to such women by the government.125 This type of appearance is largely inconsistent with the prescriptions of Islamic shariʿa, which requires women to cover their faces and bodies, eyes, and seductive body parts.126

Discussion and Conclusion

Public spaces have always been gendered, although in Islamic cities, they have become more gender-based than any other spaces, mostly due to the emphasis on gender segregation.127 To avoid the mixing of men and women in these spaces, shariʿa laws offer multiple, often contradictory viewpoints on women.

In this article, Islamic instructions on the extent and the manner women can attend public spaces were found in the Qurʾan, the authentic hadith books of the Shiʿa and the Sunnis, and the traditional narratives of religious scholars. Then, the nature of women’s attendance in Tehran’s public spaces during different periods was explored, based on historical and religious texts, to discover the extent to which the reality of women’s public presence maps onto the vast prescriptions found within shariʿa laws.

The article has attempted to sketch a pattern for women’s presence in public, according to which some features have remained consistent, some have disappeared, and others have morphed. Women’s use of public spaces has always been influenced by various religious commands and instructions from different sources, some of which have banned women from entering certain public spaces, while others have allowed it.

Our findings suggest that the answer to whether the use of public spaces by women is consistent with the prescriptions contained in religious texts is not simple, due to the diversity of religious orders and the complexity of interpretations. In general, shariʿa tailors women’s public attendance in Tehran; however, context-specific factors (e.g., the political, socio-cultural, and economic characteristics of each place and time) have influenced the degree to which the reality mirrors Islamic prescriptions about women’s attendance in those spaces. Figure 1 summarizes how the use of public spaces in different periods in Tehran reflects the diversity of religious commands.

Overall, Islam’s view of women’s presence in public spaces can be classified in one of two ways, the first of which is based on verses, hadiths, and narrations that prohibit the presence of women in public spaces, and which introduce home as the best place for women. The proponents of this view refer to hadiths and commentary narratives stating that women are barred from entering public spaces. For example, Q 33:33 tells women, “Abide in your houses and do not display yourselves as was the display of the former times of ignorance.” A hadith from the daughter of the prophet Muhammad, Fāṭima, says, “It is better for women to see no man and no men see them.”128 Another narration is attributed to Imam ʿAli, according to which he orders his son, Imam Hassan, at the time of death, “If you can, make your wife not to socialize with alien men. Nothing better than the house can protect your wife. Leaving the house and socializing with alien men is harmful and dangerous for them.”129

Figure 1
Figure 1

Prescriptions relating to women’s use of public spaces in Old Tehran (1700–1920) and contemporary Tehran (1920–)

Citation: Hawwa 20, 4 (2022) ; 10.1163/15692086-BJA10006

The second view holds that nowhere does the Qurʾan explicitly order women not to attend public spaces, and that hadiths and narratives which emphasize the prohibition of the presence of women in the public domain usually lack authenticity and credentials. According to this view, the traditions and authentic narratives, as well as the practical instructions from the Prophet’s wives and daughters, at the dawn of Islam, reflect the quality of the presence of women in public spaces upon observing Islamic orders.

Islam has set several preconditions for women’s attendance in public spaces, which are that they must avoid mixing with men, wear the hijab and the Islamic cover,130 go out in groups and not alone, obtain permission from their authoritative mahram man, not stop along the way, observe modesty (i.e., not laugh out loud, not use cosmetics or perfumes, not attract the attention of others),131 and not stare at na-mahram men.132

It is quite challenging to state clearly which of these intellectual traditions and interpretations are more predominant in Tehran. However, it could be suggested with caution that interpretations of Shiʿi hadith texts, Shiʿi jurisprudence (fiqh), and narrations from Shiʿi Imams are quite predominate in Iran and Tehran, the reason being that Shiʿism is the official religion of Iran. Based on what is implied from the available documents, it is possible to differentiate between the impacts of these two perspectives, both on the frequency of women’s attendance and also on the way they have appeared in these spaces. Despite various changes in Tehran, political and social, women have more or less complied with the Islamic laws relating to their appearance in public spaces, either voluntarily or by force.

What can be concluded from the historical documents is that, in the classical period, women were not particularly active in public and social domains,133 and that Tehran’s public spaces were monopolized by men. However, women were allowed to attend the above-mentioned public spaces by observing certain requirements. Therefore, the second Islamic view would appear to be more consistent with the way women were present in these domains. In many cases, however, women’s attendance was limited. In other words, it could be said it followed the first view.

Nevertheless, the status of women in contemporary Tehran, both in the Pahlavi period and during the rule of the Islamic Republic, has not been so consistent with the first view. It is concluded that, over time, there has been a divergence from Islamic orders, as less stringent restrictions have been imposed on women visiting public spaces in Tehran. Nevertheless, this divergence has had more to do with the frequency of women’s attendance, not the manner of their appearance, in public spaces. Islamic laws remain decisive in determining the quality and the conditions under which women are allowed to enter public spaces.

By way of conclusion, we might say that,

  • (1) in the midst of the complexity of religion, society, culture, and politics, two shariʿa tenets—“avoidance of mixing with men” and “wearing the hijab”—have persisted and are still considered preconditions for women visiting public spaces in Tehran;

  • (2) some female spheres outside the home have disappeared (e.g., cemeteries) as others have emerged (e.g., schools, buses, cafes); and

  • (3) possibly as a result of these shifts, the one notable change has been that women appear in public more frequently in contemporary Tehran than they did in Old Tehran.

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