On a tourist trip to Iran in the summer of 2010 I decided to visit the famous “Big Bazaar” in Southern Tehran. On my way, I found myself in a men’s compartment of the metro. In Iran, the last two compartments of each metro tram are women-only sections, and the rest of the compartments are de facto male-dominated carts. Other countries in the region employ similar gender-segregated metro systems. Typically, women sit in the front compartments only when they are accompanied by their husbands and when the metro is not crowded. My trip to the “Big Bazaar” took place during a crowded rush hour, but I was resistant to part from my male friends to sit in the back of the metro. It felt degrading. My mistake became clear as hoards of men pressed shoulder-to-shoulder into the cart, en route from their jobs in Northern Tehran to their homes in Southern Tehran. Our stop in Southern Tehran arrived and I was forced to pushed through the hyper-attentive crowd of groping hands. That was degrading.
As a “Western” woman, I imagine myself to be liberated—although the degree of liberation is questionable, that’s another matter—and above patriarchal gender distinctions ubiquitous in the Middle East. Take transportation, for instance, riding in the back of the metro is like being told you’re not good enough for the front seat. Such gender segregation initially struck me as a facilitator of misogyny. It enables the conception of men and women as different—so different that they need to be separated and treated according to their gender.
As a “liberated Western” woman becoming acquainted with Tehran, I found myself defying these social (and sometimes legal) gender distinctions in small ways—showing excessive bangs from under my headscarf, smoking gallion (hukkah) in downtown cafés, respectfully declining the back seat reserved for woman, etc. I validated these defiant acts as a effort to bridge, in my own small way, the larger social conceptions that so sharply define and marginalize the role of women in Iranian public life. I was probably proving something to myself as well in this foreign-to-me context that unequivocally encouraged my contribution in the domestic sphere while legally prohibiting my participation in the public sphere, just because I am female. In retrospect, I see that I imagined myself to be above these gender constructs through my nonobservance of them.
And with the exception of the relentless staring and optimistic hands, outstretched for a subtle grope, gender-defiant actions came fairly easily. All it really required was for me to keep being myself. To keep being assertive, as I was accustomed to in the United States. To not soften my tone. To walk, as usual, with speed and purpose, and to not step to the side of a doorway so that a man, any man, could walk through first. Basically, defying Iranian gender roles required minimal effort. I was simply imposing my pre-existing beliefs upon another cultural context, and validating this behavior with the social order that I alone presumed appropriate.
However, understanding the implications of gender segregation from the perspective of women within the cultural context of, for instance, Iran, requires more effort. My grandiose social ideals are humbled whenever I remember that my having an opinion is in itself a luxury. In many patriarchal cultures, a woman’s actions are inhibited by social stigmas, regardless of her personal beliefs. Iran’s women-only metro cart, for example, enables the movement of women from a variety of socio-economic strata, who may have otherwise been inhibited or prohibited from doing so, whether or not they believe themselves capable. Transit segregation potentially increases a woman’s medical, economic, and social access in may different places by allowing them to travel safely and free from social stigmatization.
In this light, the segregated metro that I initially scorned as degrading and regressive is, in practice, empowering and progressive, expanding a women’s sphere of possibilities and participation in public life. Iran’s transit segregation is clearly a gain for women and I’ll have to be more thoughtful next time I am there.