Reading Women in Tehran

Nazgol Bagheri interviews Iranian women in a Tehran neighborhood
Nazgol Bagheri interviews Iranian women in a Tehran neighborhood

Researcher focuses on women’s roles in public spaces

Feminists of the Western world might view the life of women in Iran, with its head scarves, gender-segregated transportation and other examples of male domination, as a life of oppression.

Nazgol Bagheri sees it very differently. And her view is that of a social scientist, not merely a former resident. The UMKC doctoral candidate’s interdisciplinary studies focus on Iranian women, their feelings and preferences, and their behavior in public spaces. Her research has revealed a society in which many women enjoy aspects of both modernism and tradition in what Bagheri calls “the best of both worlds.”

Her research could not be more timely, when much world attention is focused on Iran, global political discussions are rife with talk of preemptive strikes on nuclear facilities, and women’s rights have become a dominant issue in the U.S. presidential campaign. Bagheri hopes her research will help bring about a deeper mutual understanding among Iranians and people of the West.

The national attention being focused on her scholarship should help in that regard. Bagheri’s doctoral dissertation proposal was acclaimed at the annual national meeting of the American Association of Geographers in New York in February. She earned the Susan Hansen Award for Outstanding Dissertation Proposal sponsored by GPOW, an AAG interest group for the Geographical Perspective of Women. She also won an International Geographic Information Fund travel grant, which partially paid for her recent research trip to Tehran, where she spent 10 weeks studying women’s activities, and interviewing women, in neighborhoods of central and northern Tehran.

Nazgol Bagheri in Tehran

Nazgol Bagheri in Tehran

“This is indeed a great achievement not only for Nazgol but also for UMKC,” said Syed E. Hasan, PhD; Fellow of the Geological Society of America, Professor of Geosciences and Director, Center for Applied Environmental Research in the Department of Geosciences at UMKC. “It has brought us a great deal of exposure and visibility among peer institutions.”

Closer to home, she earned a grant from the Graduate Assistance Fund sponsored by the UMKC Women’s Council, one of 67 female graduate students to earn grants from the fund this year.

Listening to Voices and Stories

Bagheri is pursuing an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in Geography and Sociology. Her interest is in Feminist Geography, and her dissertation is entitled Modernizing the Public Space: Gendered Space and Multiple Modernities in Twentieth Century Tehran. The study will examine:

  • how women in Tehran use, and behave in, public spaces
  • how modern urban planning impacts the use of public spaces, changing usage from the planner/designer’s original intent
  • how that usage changes according to political and cultural changes in society

In geographic terms, space becomes “gendered” when specific gender role social expectations become attached to it.

In the introduction to her dissertation proposal, she wrote “My goal is to advance the understanding of Iranian women’s social life in public spaces by not simply importing Western theories, but instead by hearing their voices and stories.

“Answering these questions will add to our understanding of non-Western women’s presence and spatial behavior in the public sphere by examining those hidden stories behind women’s efforts to maintain their presence in such spaces. In addition, by offering a ‘new way of seeing’ gender in public spaces in a Muslim society and suggesting new policies in urban planning practices, this research aims to improve the quality of life and to accommodate more diverse participants in such essential spaces of the twenty-first century.”

While the research continues and her conclusions are not yet fully formed, Bagheri has already modified her original hypothesis.

Tehran is very spatially segregated between traditional and modern neighborhoods, she said. Women from modern northern neighborhoods tend to behave and dress one way in their own neighborhoods, and differently when they go south to conservative neighborhoodsincluding her case studies in the central zone. Bagheri sought a deeper understanding of the tension between traditional and modern lifestyles, and what Iranian women wanted their lives to be. She found women moving freely back and forth from one lifestyle to the other – and liking it that way.

Best of Both Worlds

“Many Iranian women do not prefer one over the other; they enjoy having the option to move from one to the other,” she said. “In modern spaces, they feel a greater sense of self, more freedom and a sense of equality with men. Traditional spaces are male dominated but those places help them relate to their cultural identity, evoking a feeling of nostalgia. These places connect them to their past, just as modern spaces connect them to their future. Moving back and forth between the two, they get to experience the best of both worlds.

“Iranian women do not want to cut and paste the Western way of life,” she added. “They want to find a path to equality in their own way.”

Bagheri’s original hypothesis was that the majority of women would prefer the traditional lifestyle; it changed based on field observation.

“My research showed me things I didn’t see as a resident, by looking at my homeland through the eyes of a researcher,” she said “It was happening to me but I didn’t focus on it and think about it and ask ‘why’ as a scientist does.”

Bagheri came to UMKC after earning her master’s degree in Urban Planning and Design at Shahid Beheshti National University of Iran in Tehran. She was drawn to the interdisciplinary opportunities available at UMKC and started her Ph.D. in 2008 under the supervision of Prof. Steven L. Driever.

By combining geography and sociology in her study of women’s relationship to public spaces, she hopes to break new ground in scholarship. In interdisciplinary graduate work, she said, “You ask complex questions and apply a holistic approach to answering them. The downside is that there are fewer opportunities for publishing in peer-reviewed journals, and for funding.”

Bagheri hopes to teach at the university level after completing her doctoral work.

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