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Modern Iranian female subjectivity and spatial exclusion

SADAF 2.jpg

Author's own illustration, 2020.

It was known as The Ward (Qal’ah) since the impassable tall brick wall was erected and circumscribed the area in 1953, restricting its access. The coarse rusty metal door was only open to men who were seeking illicit pleasure. The Ward, also known as Shahrinaw, was the red-light district of Tehran for more than seventy years.[1] The district was officially constructed on the outskirts of Tehran between 1918-1922.[2] For more than a century, this wrecked space and its inhabitants were ignored but remained an undividable part of modern Tehran.

‘Smoke, dust, shouting and commotion; A large crowd is watching… Women with bare head and feet running out of burning houses screaming and coughing…as soon as they get out, they find themselves in a circle of angry men hitting them with belts, sticks and brass knuckles. A vigorous man comes forward and cuts a woman’s long hair… [another woman shouts:] How come yesterday’s clients became religious all of a sudden?’ [3]

The 29th of January 1979 was the beginning of the bitter end to Shahrinaw. The revolutionaries were getting ready to receive Ayatollah Khomeini back in Iran after fourteen years of exile. It was never revealed why on that cold day in the middle of winter the revolutionary crowd embarked on a witch-hunt and marched towards the south of Tehran to vent their rage on the walled area of Shahrinaw. The revolution was finally reaching its spring – what better way to celebrate this event than with the ancient tradition of lighting a fire; a fire symbolising purification and promising the end of the darkness. This fire was transformed into a weapon and used to remove the ill-favoured stain from the face of their city.

Around midday, a crowd gathered and set Shams brewery on fire. On their way to Shahrinaw, they burned down all the bars, cafes and cabarets. By 5 pm the Shahrinaw was surrounded and soon the angry mob – some might even have been regular visitors to the district – broke the main gate and poured into the neighbourhood.[4] The next day, the headline of the Ittilā‘āt newspaper read: ‘The South and the West of Tehran was Burning in Blaze.’ The article reported on violent physical contacts between the revolutionary mob and women of Shahrinaw that resulted in numerous injuries and a few unconfirmed deaths.[5] Shahrinaw continued to function on the threshold of legality and uncertainty for a year after the Islamic Revolution. In July 1979, the Central Committee of the Islamic Revolution prosecuted the three main female leaders of the brothels in Shahrinaw.[6] The Committee ordered the evacuation of the district and the doors of Shahrinaw closed forever on March 1980.[7] The public memory of Shahrinaw faded out after the district was physically erased and its inhabitants dispersed. The physical removal of Shahrinaw created a spatial void in the middle of Tehran for almost two decades. In 1997, Tehran Municipality inaugurated the Rāzī park and cultural complex, built on top of the remnants of Shahrinaw. The complex includes a variety of public services such as a library, movie theatre, an artificial lake and a mini amusement park.

This dissertation started out with finding a series of photos ‘Untitled, the prostitute Series 1975-77’ by Kaveh Golestan at the Tate Britain Prints and Drawing Rooms collection. The photo collection depicts the faces and pure desolation in these women’s eyes in an extremely powerful way. This research reflects on my personal desire to know the past as an architect and a woman; to re-imagine and materialize the space, which was home, prison, hospital, school and workspace of many women for more than a century.

The history of Shahrinaw as explained above, beside its iconic restraining wall and iron gate, portrays the neighbourhood as a containing space which materializes power and gender relations as new products of modernity in Iran. Shahrinaw can be considered as a heterotopic space on the edge of Tehran, isolating and alienating its inhabitants.[8]  To better understand the condition of Shahrinaw and the reasons behind its inception and abrupt end, one must investigate the social, cultural and political circumstances that collectively led to the creation and materialization of this space.

This dissertation explores how Shahrinaw was planned, built, controlled and finally demolished within a patriarchal society. It investigates the reasons behind the creation of Shahrinaw, considering discourses on hygiene, cleanliness, venereal diseases and the growing concern with the decline of the Islamic image of Tehran. This research underlines the concept of ‘public woman’ or the ‘woman out of place’ and explores her relationship with the traditional Islamic city on the verge of modernization.[9] The social status of ‘public woman’ within society is directly linked to the novel socio-cultural relations shaped by the process of modernization and transformation of the city. Moreover, this dissertation investigates Shahrinaw as a spatial solution which was materialized to conceal the newly emerged and unwanted conditions of street solicitation and prostitution.

[1] Shahrinaw translates to the New City.

[2] Jafar Shahri, The Old Tehran (Tehran, Iran: Moeen (in Farsi), 1993).,Vol III, 396-397.

[3] Bahram Beyzaei, Facing Mirrors (Tehran, Iran: Pegah (In Farsi), 1983).7.

[4] “Ittila’at 15722,” January 30, 1979, 8; “Kayhan 10626,” January 31, 1979, 3.

[5] “Ittila’at 15722.”

[6] “Kayhan 10755,” July 12, 1979,1.

[7] “Javānān-Emrouz 683,” March 1980.

[8] Michel Foucault and Jay Miskowiec, “Of Other Spaces,” Diacritics 16, no. 1 (1986), 22–27.

[9] Judith R Walkowitz, City of Dreadful Delight: Narratives of Sexual Danger in Late-Victorian London (University of Chicago Press, 2013).

Copyright of image: © Sadaf Tabatabaei

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