Women, Sports, and the City
Nazanin Shahrokni's fascinating account of gender and segregated public space in post-revolution Iran
The Monday Abu Aardvark Book Review Essay
Nazanin Shahrokni, Women in Place: The Politics of Gender Segregation in Iran (University of California Press, 2020)
When I started organizing a workshop on the politics of sports in the Middle East this summer, one book got recommended to me more than any other: Nazanin Shahrokni’s 2020 book Women in Place. I knew that she wrote about the political controversies surrounding women’s access to attend football matches in Tehran, and it seemed like a great fit. When I started reading it, I quickly realized that the book’s contribution went well beyond the question of women attending sporting matches. It was so good, in fact, that I decided to write about it even though it was published a couple of years ago (hey, it’s my blog so I make the rules).
Women in Place offers an historical and ethnographic study of urban space, with the post-revolutionary Islamist Republic of Iran’s policies of gender segregation offering an unparalled window into the shifting contours of the Iranian state and its young and evolving society. The revolutionary regime’s ideological push for gender segregation ran headlong into the realities of urban life and the changing demands of a young urbanized population. Shahrokni traces the shifting logics of state regulation of women’s access to public space through a variety of venues including not just football stadiums, but also public transportation and city parks. “The tangibility and visibility of gender segregation practices,” she writes, “have made the setting of gender boundaries central to the Islamic Republic’s self-image and, effectively, authority.” Her masterful political ethnography of women navigating gender segregated urban life compares well with Amelie Le Renard’s great book A Society of Young Women which similarly explored women’s presence in shopping malls and other public spaces in Saudi Arabia.
The city of Tehran occupies center stage in Women in Place. Her focus on the dilemmas of urban planning and governance makes the issues she explores surrounding women’s presence refreshingly concrete. She captures the pressures created by the city’s rapid and largely unplanned growth after the revolution and during the war with Iraq. The city’s population increased by nearly 2.5 million people between 1976 and 1986, she notes, driven by rural to urban migration as well as waves of war refugees. Meanwhile, economic pressures and the large scale of death, destruction, and long-term absence of men fighting on the front lines, pushed more and more women into the workplace and out into public space. That accelerated in the 1990s as “shifts in social, political, and economic imperatives slowly but surely drove women into the spaces of work, education and consumption.” As women filled out the universities and the workplaces, the demands of governance shifted to finding ways to reconcile the ideologically-dictated demands of enforced Islamic morality with the practical realities of women’s presence in public space. This also shifted the political landscape, fueling the political career of the reformist President Mohammed Khatemi while constantly catching the watchful eye of conservatives determined to protect clerical power and check societal liberalization.
Shahrokni’s account of the pressures all of this put on public transporation is particularly riveting. Rather than beginning with elite debates over feminism and citizenship, she begins with women from the working class who relied on the overcrowded public transportation system for their commutes. That put them into extremely close contact with hordes of unrelated men, allowing for not only the sort of groping and sexual harrassment all too common in such settings but also for unregulated mixing, conversation and transgressions. She traces the various solutions contrived by the public transportation authorities: double decker buses segregated by level, single level buses separated by dividers, buses reserved for women. None fully satisfied anyone. But as time went on, she observes, there was a palpable shift in official rhetoric about the purpose of these state policies: from preventing sin in the eraly post-revolutionary days to guaranteeing the right of women as citizens to safe rids.
Her account of these struggles over public transportation offer a great window into the complexity of Iranian women’s attitudes towards these different forms of gender segregation. This comes through especially clearly in her discussion of public transportation, where the demand for women-only sections or even entire buses comes from women tired of harassment and fighting with men for spots. The establishment of women’s sections on the buses, she notes, created the possibility for mobility for many women who otherwise would have been confined to the home either by families concerned for their virtue or by fear for their own safety. In domain after domain, she encounters women who prefer segregation not on ideological or religious grounds but because of its practical implications for navigating urban life, and even claim it as an empowering rather than confining construct. Gender segregation, she argues, is not always and only exclusionary and repressive - in certain contexts, it can be the key to inclusion, mobility and access. There’s also a hilarious anecdote about the response of some Iranian men to a policy which shifted women from the back of the bus to the front; you can find it on p.52.
I am always fascinated by the political anthropology of the state, and was quite taken by Shahrokni’s account of the shifting purpose and powers of the state through its iterative efforts to respond to these conflicting demands. She documents across multiple domains how state action shifted from exclusionary to inclusionary as it sought to find ways to enable women’s presence in urban space within its ideological contours. That, in turn, led to a shift from a discourse of Islamic morality to one of protecting women’s rights, health and safety. Above, I recounted her discussion of the shift in public transportation from protecting women’s virtue to guaranteeing women’s rights to safe transit. Similarly, her account of women’s only public parks documents the emergence of a health discourse around women’s need for exercise, sunshine and fresh air. Critically, these shifts in purpose do not necessarily mean a retreat of state power, since they often require even more state presence, governance, and regulation to accomplish. When policies shift from the exclusionary and repressive to the inclusive and protective, it does not mean a retreat of state power but rather its transformation. Her nuanced and keenly observed reading of the expansion of state power through seemingly liberalizing policies was one of the most intriguing parts of the book, and one with implications far beyond Iran.
And then there’s the story of women’s entry into football stadiums, which is well told as I had been led to expect. Shahrokni recounts the surge of popularity of football in Iran with both male and female fans, particularly the national team’s participation in international competitions. Her primary focus is the question of women’s access to Freedom Stadium, the largest and most important stadium in Tehran. She documents the fascinating political twists and turns as the question of access went from a fringe issue to a central focus of political controversy and contention. Strange alliances emerged in the process, as when the conservative former mayor Mahmoud Ahmedenijad suddenly announced that women would be permitted into Freedom Stadium after the reformist Mohammed Khatemi had failed to deliver on his promise to his primarily young and female constituence over the course of two terms. It also became an international issue, as international sporting associations challenged Iran over its exclusion of women from the stadiums, with the predictable effects of both strengthening the hand of those forcing the issue into the public sphere and enabling a nationalist and securitized backlash against alleged foreign interference.
Women in Place is a great read, rich with ethnographic detail and carefully observed analysis. It would be a great fit for any class on the comparative politics of the Middle East, as well as for more specialized classes on women, youth, urban politics, or sports and culture. And for those of us who tend to focus primarily on the Arab countries, it’s a great reminder of the need to bring Iran more consistently into our comparative universe and to really learn from the great scholarship being produced by scholars on Iran.
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