On Friday, October 6, guest lecturer Dr. Nazanin Shahrokni, an assistant professor from Syracuse University, presented a lecture entitled “Producing Healthy Citizens: The Politics of Women’s Outdoor Exercise in Iran” as part of the Iranian Studies Lecture Series. After a brief introduction by Dr. Manata Hashemi, an assistant professor in the Farzaneh Family Center, Dr. Shahrokni began her lecture, in which she demonstrated how the Iranian state has pivoted its discourse on women from objects of Islamic morality that the state must protect to citizens whose health is vital for the well-being of the nation. The lecture was engaging and informative throughout, although there were a few areas that I hope are further addressed in her upcoming book tentatively titled For Women Only: The State and Politics of Gender Segregation in Iran.
Dr. Shahrokni began the lecture with an anecdote from 2010 when she met with a director from the Tehran municipality office, who lamented that the women-only parks designed to foster healthier women (and therefore better wives and mothers) became spaces that created feminists who nagged their husbands. The anecdote was attention-grabbing and introduced the topic of the lecture: the development and politics of gender-segregation in Iran. Honestly, I feel that the lecture should have had a title more along the lines of “Producing Healthy Citizens: The Shifting Politics of Gender-Segregation in Iran” because the lecture was on more than just women’s outdoor exercise and it might have attracted a bigger audience.
With the help of a PowerPoint and key graphics, Dr. Shahrokni presented her evidence chronologically, which was an effective way of presenting her position because it clearly demonstrated the shifting dialogue from the Iranian state regarding gender-segregation as well as women’s reactions to these women-only spaces. After a brief historical background of the Pahlavi Dynasty and the Islamic Republic of Iran, Dr. Shahrokni then compared in more detail the 1980s in Iran versus the 2000s. The graphic for this information was very strong because it showed how gender-segregation was originally framed in a narrative of Islamic morality and only later became framed in a narrative that women’s health is important because of their role as citizens of the state. Later in the lecture, there was another strong visual that showed the transition from the 1980s when women’s exercise was viewed as a problem to the 1990s when women were allowed to exercise in public but largely remained inside and up to the 2000s with the emergence of women-only parks as popular spaces for women of all ages to not only exercise outdoors but also organize politically and form bonds across class and social divides.
While the lecture convincingly demonstrated the implications of gender segregated spaces for women, it did not fully answer what the shifting gender segregation practices reflect about the Iranian state — which was one of the guiding questions of Dr. Shahrokni’s research. I believe that this question could have been more fully answered by discussing the future of women-only spaces as well as a more in-depth discussion about the consequences of the Ministry of Education’s report that directly linked wearing the veil with a decline in school girls’ health. Additionally, a discussion about similar segregation elsewhere in the region might have provided more context for the Iranian state’s decision and its implications.