Doctoral Project
Transgressing the Forbidden: Gender Boundaries and Their Counter-Narratives in Iran (1848-1936)

Doctoral Project
Niloofar Rasooli
Supervisor: Prof. Dr. Maarten Delbeke

Building walls, hanging curtains between rooms, policing the entrance doors, and covering the windows—these are the spatial boundaries that have long been deployed in Iran to control the official public sphere while subjugating, dominating, and oppressing its primary others: women. Yet, in between these separating walls and curtains, and in front of these doors shutting in our faces, we — the disobedient women — have mapped our geographies of resistance; we have secretly looked through the curtains, trespassed the doors, and scratched the walls sharply, radically, and beautifully. Like the hegemonic politics of gender boundaries that segregate to dominate, the canonical historiographies of architecture in Iran also segregate our stories from what is thought to be the History of architecture to dominate the walls and polish our scratches from them. Nevertheless, our resistance method is to imagine the impossible, to revoke the hidden stories beyond these enclosing walls, and to desire the built environment's "otherwises". But how can we map and craft these radical imaginations into the history of architecture? If the critical imagination and radical transgression have their own hidden, forbidden, and, more importantly, erased discourses, then which materials can be used as evidence of revealing the unrevealed and mapping the unmapped? These questions, and the question of challenges, problematics, and politics of addressing these questions, shape the primary axis of my doctoral dissertation.

In my project, I bring to the fore the moments and places of rejection, transgression, and resistance against gender boundaries to unsettle the modernized, heteronormalized, and hegemonized narrative of the private/public dichotomy in the canonical architecture historiography of pre- and early-modern Iran. By drawing on various queer and feminist theories, from Sara Ahmed's queering the use to Saidiya Hartman's critical fabulation, I develop critical tools to craft the narratives of women's resistance and, thus, map their moments of transgressing and trespassing. I rely on these tools to situate my standpoint with anonymous women of different groups of society and other hidden or erased subjugated identities in the official archives to write a feminist history of architecture, which is not about but from the non-binary margins, which does not surpass the limits of the archive but highlights the erasure, incompleteness, and the loss of the history of these moments. In doing so, I provide a cross-referenced reading of a range of textual and visual materials, particularly anonymous letters to the editor in women's writings, criminal records, and complaint letters against women's disobedience. Following a non-linear frame of history, I show how these radical trespassers transgressed gender boundaries, practiced imagination as a resistance tool, and desired other possibilities within and from their spaces; I show that this is the critical imagination of an otherwise that remains as scratches on the wall, to echo Sara Ahmed, strongly reflecting that they were living there, "but did not get used to it."

Image: Two women talking about schools, anonymous, 31 August 1913, Sukufa, no 14. Public domain. Retrieved from the digital archive of Persian Periodicals in Bonn University and State Library.