Renegotiating public space, Tehran as a laboratory

Tehran is a laboratory. Although often trapped into a narrative that describes it as inert and reluctant to change, it produces new realities, driving the transformation of multiple Iranian identities, it recounts changes in power relations within the urban fabric. It is the public sphere, it is even more private dimension, a border and meeting. In Tehran, urban spaces and gender boundaries intersect and mingle in the streets, in public parks, and especially in theaters and coffee.

New interpretations of the public sphere are articulated, the city renegotiates both individual and collective space, in spite of rules and a (sometimes distorted) media representation. As David Harvey argued, the city itself (in this context the capital of Iran) becomes a "body politic" and expresses - through planning (and subsequent citizens’ renegotiation) of urban spaces - the asymmetries of Iranian society.

Systematically portrayed through narrow and limping dichotomies, Tehran is much more than a monolithic and fixed manifestation of crystallized categories, such as public / private, traditional / modern, man / woman, repression / freedom, center / periphery (here understood as related to the city and compared to the world), inclusion / exclusion. These conceptual frameworks, in fact, are wrongly interpreted as binary and clearly distinct from each other.

Categories are socially constructed, thus they undergo mutations in time and space. Therefore, they are renegotiated from time to time in everyday life, in interpersonal relations and management and use of urban areas.

Since the 1979 revolution, which marked the rise of Khomeini and the constitution of the Republic, urban and public space has been reshaped according to a binary logic man / woman. Accordingly public / private spheres were clearly separated in terms of body exposure, physical contact, control of individual and collective behavior. Squares and streets have become places of circulation rather than meeting/gathering points.

In this context and throughout almost 40 years of the post-revolutionary period, the urban space is still used to build and reconstruct the collective identity, but the actors who have influenced and still influence this development are multiple. It is a process in which all the social forces intervene and interact from above and below, individually and collectively.

Therefore, Tehran is in constant transformation and the boundaries between religion, modernity and tradition are increasingly blurred, lost between demonstrations against the Muslim ban, slogans for the anniversary of the revolution, anti-American posters, artwork and retail space.

What has changed? It is the urban space that tell it:

- In recent years, in other words the years of negotiations that led to the so-called Iran deal, the religious propaganda banners or giant posters of martyrs of Iran-Iraq war were largely removed from the streets and replaced. In their place, huge billboards stand on street corners or frame walkways, suspended on a four-lane road. The banners are grafted into citizens’ daily life, conveying political, artistic and commercial messages. Their presence is imposed in a crucial area of ​​public life such as traffic junctions, especially in a metropolitan area that has fifteen million inhabitants, such as Tehran.

Less than two years ago, the mayor of Tehran, Mohammed Baqer Ghalibaf, replaced 1500 advertising billboards with famous artwork reproductions for ten days. Nowadays, the streets are full of advertising campaigns or posters in solidarity with the firefighters who were killed in Plasco building collapse last January.

- Even though there are several "gendered" spaces as the metro carriages for women only, the bus with the back reserved just for ladies, separate canteen areas in government offices and universities, the use that Iranian population makes of all of these dimensions is increasingly less distinct and more casual. The number of cafés, which are on the boundary between public and private spheres, has recently increased. Some of them have become spaces of difference and rupture. And, although the prices are slightly higher than other goods, they are not necessarily exclusive places in terms of class and the boundaries between the spaces are becoming increasingly porous.

- The renegotiation of space in the public sphere passes through the compensation between urban real space (reduced and controlled) versus virtual-digital space (more dynamic and perceived as relatively free). These two dimensions are increasingly interconnecting (e.g. the ratio of the digital organization of events and its practical implementation).


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