For the past two days, Shadi has been distracted at work. The cafe is bustling, but she no longer remembers whether Mr Habibi drinks black coffee or hot chocolate with a lot of whipped cream. She no longer feels like telling customers what they’re going to order even before they utter a word; “the usual?” she usually asks with a smile that she can’t muster anymore.

She knows all the regular patrons of the café and has become friends with many of them, from Mahsa who is always alone and sits in a corner to Hamed who is never alone and must be given extra chairs. But for two days now nothing makes a difference. “I have to say goodbye to this job,” she says.

On August 30th Colonel Khalil Halali, Chief of Police for Public Places, announced that women will no longer be permitted to work in cafés and coffee shops. The order will affect thousands of establishments and working women in this city of nearly eight million people, and will include women who have a permit for running their own business. Under the new regulations, women will only be permitted to work in the kitchens of cafes.

Tehran’s authorities, under the oversight of Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, have embarked on a wide-ranging campaign to segregate public places. The authorities issue their orders piecemeal, making it hard to measure the sweep and aim of the segregation drive, which appears designed to reshape public life in this capital city that has, despite the social restrictions of Islamic Republic, remained a vibrant urban milieu where men and women mix freely.

Unlike in the capitals of the Persian Gulf states, restaurants in Tehran are not segregated by gender or inclusive of “family rooms,” and unlike a populous city like Cairo, gender-based street violence is not a raging daily concern for women. But the creeping segregation in Tehran threatens to remake the city in keeping with much of the rest of the region, where conservative mores and political unrest and instability have reversed  women's hard-fought gains in securing access to higher education and public employment, inhibiting their safety and presence in public space.

Earning a Living, Pursuing a Passion

When Shadi read the news she was stunned, and sat there trying to reimagine her future. For the past three years she has been studying language and translation at Tehran University, and relies on her income from the cafe to fund her degree. Her parents live in the western city of Kermanshah and she moved to Tehran after she was accepted on the course. “From the very first year I worked to pay for myself,” she says. “My family cannot afford to pay my living expenses in Tehran.”

As for many university students, working in a cafe offers Shadi income while keeping her employed in an urban, social environment that complements her identity as a young student. She previously worked in a children’s clothing workshop, but was relieved to move on from the toil of textile production to the lighter work of cafe tending.

Although the police order around cafes is the first instance where authorities have banned women from labor, the regime has long prevented them from pursuing careers in music, putting forward a mishmash of arguments around the forbidden status of music in Islam and the particularly haram nature of women musicians.

Sara, a Tehran-based cellist who has worked with many orchestras over the years, says that state restrictions on women performing in public are growing. “Sometimes when we want to perform a concert in a provincial town they would not allow women on stage,” she says. “They would only permit the concert to go on if men replace us.”

Last week Hossein Alizadeh, one of Iran’s leading classical composers, said in an interview with the International Sport and Culture Association news website that in recent months even larger towns that typically permitted women musicians to play in an orchestra were forbidding them from appearing on stage. He said recently the authorities forbid women from singing in a choir that he led in the northeastern city of Gorgan.  “If this trend continues, women will be driven out from the [country’s] music scene,” he warned.

For women musicians, it has never been clear which cities have tacit gender bans on women appearing on stage, and it has often been a case of discovering an hour before a performance that local authorities demanded women not play. But some websites have reported that some large cities, including Isfahan, Tabriz, Urmia and Zanjan now have outright bans, and in the northeastern province of Khorasan all towns are enacting a ban on women musicians.

In an interview with IranWire, vocalist Alireza Ghorbani notes that many of these cities, particularly Isfahan, run sizable music academics where talented women study. “But the same women cannot appear on stage even if they are appropriately covered and observe all the rules,” he says. “It hurts everybody, banning women from the stage as a punishment for their gender.” Music, he says is becoming an exclusive platform through which Iranian men can show off.


Rouhani, Indifferent at the Helm

Sara, the cellist, says that she and many of her musician colleagues hoped that President Hassan Rouhani would address some of these encroaching restrictions during his tenure, but the momentum seems on the side of the hardline politicians pushing segregation. Earlier this year authorities prevented women from watching volleyball matches in a Tehran stadium and barred women from watching the World Cup in cinemas, restaurants, and other public venues. 

For his part, the Tehran Mayor Qalibaf has sought to separate women civil servants from working alongside men. “Women should not spend most of their time every day next to men other than their husbands because it harms the foundation of the family,” he said in May, after issuing an order for male managers to use only other men as administrative assistants.

While the Rouhani government sought to block these segregation initiatives on grounds that it contravened Iran’s obligations as signatory to the International Labour Organization, women fear that the municipality will quietly begin enacting its policies regardless. Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad managed to pass many of his most controversial gender policies, such as quotas across university subjects, in this manner, by moving forward with individual institutions, rather than submitting over-arching legislation that would have drawn attention, debate, and likely opposition.


A Government Wrapped in a System

Azam Taleghani, head of Iran’s Society of Islamic Revolution Women and daughter of a prominent ayatollah, told IranWire that Iranian women must be realistic in what they expect from a government under the Islamic Republic. “Women were wrong to have such hopes [for Rouhani’s presidency],” she says. “We women must recognize that the government has a limit in saying no and yes no matter how strongly it is against or for something.”

Although domestic media are constrained in what they can report around women’s issues, Taleghani says she believes that diaspora media coverage only heightens the resistance of the hardliners pushing gender segregation. Outside voices never solve the problem even if they are very constructive,” she says. “We have more success when women’s issues are analyzed inside Iran and are argued within an acceptable framework.”

Taleghani says she cannot fathom the motivation behind the new workplace segregation drive, but finds the approach wrong-minded.

“Many high-level clerics believe that men and women working next to one other leads to immorality,” she says. “Even if there is widespread immorality, which there is not, the solution is not to segregate but to teach men and women to view one another as human beings, not just opposite sexes.”

But the journalist and activist Asieh Amini disagrees, arguing that women activists outside Iran –  who now number in the hundreds, following the 2009 post-election purge that led many to leave the country – can play an important role by informing women inside the country of their rights and reporting on the mounting restrictions through digital media.


A Five Year Plan with a Hidden Agenda

As for the structural reasons that underpin the recent initiatives, she says the Rouhani government is marginal to the regime’s wider plan, which is to follow the blueprint set out by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in the so-called Five-Year Economic Development Plan for 2010-2015.

Before 2010 women were occupying an increasingly visible space in Iranian public life: their university enrollment was outpacing men’s, they were entering the workforce in greater numbers and often serving as their family’s main breadwinner. The cultural reverberations to this increasing autonomy, Amini says, began to worry the Supreme Leader and the country’s conservative establishment. Professional and educated women providing their families with income were having a more assertive voice in household affairs, unsettling society’s patriarchal attitudes about gender roles.

“Suddenly a part of the system became aware that the rising awareness of women is the hallmark of modern society and is contrary to the ideals of a traditional religious society,” says Amini. That is when the regime’s highest powers decided to change course, and when authorities wrote the country’s Fifth Development Plan in 2010, under Ahmadinejad, Amini says they did so with the conscious aim of rolling back women’s presence in society, beginning by limiting their access to higher education and public jobs. 

For the thousands of women facing unemployment through the Tehran authorities various segregation drives, regime development plans remain a distant abstraction. Like the women musicians who only find out they’re being barred from a performance after they’ve tuned their instruments, the announcements and reversals and last-minute dealing around something very simple – playing a cello on a stage, serving a customer an espresso – casts both daily life and the future in a haze of uncertainty and anxiety.

Shadi, the Tehran University student who is not sure when her last day will be, says she only knows her plans have been dashed. “After graduation I was hoping to set up a cafe in my hometown, and run it my own way, as a place where I also gave free language lessons once a week.” If the system has its way, Shadi, a multi-lingual graduate of the country’s top university, will only be permitted to work in her cafe’s kitchen. 

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