Zoning Morality in Tehran: The Formation of the Red Light District, 191233

Friday, January 4, 2019: 8:50 AM
Grant Park Parlor (Palmer House Hilton)
Jairan Gahan, University of Toronto
This paper investigates the shifting role of Islam in public, through exploring the governance of prostitution between 1912-1933. Using petitions, court cases, morality laws, and municipality reports, I demonstrate how the place of Islamic sensibilities were negotiated in the analytics of moral zoning and moral policing in Tehran. Beginning in the 1910s, there emerged an urban moral crusade against prostitution, which started at the local level in various Tehran neighborhoods with intensive petitioning campaigns. The petitioners framed prostitutes as a threat to their “Islamic sensibilities” (Ihsāsāt-i Islāmīyyat) and evoked the principle of “commanding what is right and opposing what is wrong,” (amr bil ma‘ruf wa nahy az munkar), to call the parliament to take action. These collective plaintiffs reveal the intimate nature of public and afford an excellent opportunity to address the intersection of the ethical and the political, in the governance of public morality.

This paper will further read the contemporaneous developing codified laws on morality in juxtaposition with moral-legal court disputes about prostitutes between 1921-1933, in the immediate aftermath of the formation of the red-light district of Tehran. The aim is to address larger questions about the role of Islam in moral governance, under the so called secularizing Reza Shah Pahlavi’s regime, including: What did it mean for citizens to hold the state accountable to their collective moral sensibilities? How did the state draw the line between private and public moral concerns and what role did Islam play in codified laws on morality, if any? Ultimately, the petitions together with the court cases demonstrate that the red-light district of Tehran, which is today remembered and constructed in the national memory of Iranians as a testimony to Pahlavi’s top-down secular agendas, was actually a product of intense religious mobilization from below.