In this interview with Reza Arjmand, head of the project "I like to feel the wind blowing through my hair", we learn about the rise of women-only parks in Iran.
What is the project’s background?
Since the Iranian revolution thirty-two years ago, the Iranian-Islamic government has been trying to impose and implement policies of gender segregation systematically across various levels of the society. As part of the cultural revolution different social institutions including schools, universities and then gradually the rest of society, like public transportation facilities, sport facilities, banks, etc. divided across the gender lines.
The presence of women, due to various complications and problems, partially as a result of traditional and normative and partly as an outcome of the government’s policies, were limited and women’s access to public spaces such as parks decreased.
In 2001, a report by the Iranian medical experts warned for an epidemic among the Iranian women, claimed to be caused by deficiency of vitamin D. The report regarded that partially as a result of lack of exposure to sunlight. In 2002 the Teheran Municipality commissioned yet another study to examine the possibilities at public level to overcome the problem. The study suggested that women-only parks were to be constructed in order to allow women to move freely out of sight of male beholders and exposed to sunlight.
“Iranian medical experts warned for an epidemic among the Iranian women”
So the initiative of the women-only parks was not primarily based on ideological reasons (i.e. gender segregation) but is nonetheless a continuation of the institutionalized segregation of sexes and fit very well into the gender segregation discourse. We found the phenomenon of building women-only parks interesting out of many different perspectives: How do women perceive this? What functionality do they fulfill? What is the impact on women’s social life? Starting out from these questions, we at CMES put together a research project with the School of Urban Studies of Lund University to study the parks more systemically.
Pardis Banuan Women-only Park, Tehran, Entrance, © Shaqayeq Talebi
What have you done so far?
In our study we have looked at two different women-only parks in northern and southern Teheran and two mixed parks. We are looking at how women are interacting in mixed parks compared to in women-only parks. Since this is a multi-disciplinary study, rather than using the social science approach, we have approached it from an urban studies framework of analysis along with those of social sciences. We divided the park into different characteristics: physical, functional and social. We have interviewed more than 80 people and have done over 100 hours of observations and are now in the process of finalizing a monograph.
What are your primary research results?
In the physical analysis part we looked at four components: accessibility to the parks, legibility of the parks as public spaces, methods of closure and visual attractiveness.
In the functional analysis we have explored and examined, among other issues, methods of surveillance and control, notion of trust and (dis-) respect, hard (active) control verses soft (passive) control, rules and regulation, values and normative directives, as well as symbolic control and semiotics of control.
“We study if and to what extent these parks as public spaces are regarded ‘places for all’”
In the social analysis, we study if and to what extent these parks as public spaces are regarded “places for all”. How gender segregation contributes to the social vitality of the parks and affects the engagement of the users. What kinds of networking take place at these parks and if they extended beyond the parks. We also cast a closer look at these parks as a sort of “gated communities” and study the consequences of the gender segregation in the society at large.
What will happen next?
This project has incited me to look into other public spaces and their role in enacting or counteracting formal policies. Right now we are looking at teahouses and their functions as non-formal/informal institutions of cultural and linguistic learning for the minorities in given parts of Iran. In Iran, despite the directive by the constitution, minorities are not entitled to mother tongue education. The teahouses are prime examples of the institution, which adapt to the context to transfer certain kinds of knowledge and culture, using both traditional and modern methods.
Text: Anna Hellgren. For more projects by CMES, visit http://www.cmes.lu.se/.