Discontinuing, Shifting Boundaries
A moment which risks certainty, which recites the unstable relationship between what is perceived and what is acted upon, and reveals what does not make sense is one that cannot be fixed to a single label of interpretation. The mutually constitutive discontinuing, shifting of boundaries between a houzevi (seminarian) woman in Tehran and myself illustrated such a moment, which I explore for what it may teach us.
Tehran, Iran. June 2011, late afternoon. Farideh was calling. She could not find me in the unusually packed crowd. I crossed the street to the Vali Asr metro station. I found her standing at the edge of the sidewalk restively looking for me, her hand pulling her black chador half way over her face. There were police cars and vans in each corner of the intersection. Five security forces stood in helmets, fully geared with assault weapons, lined up in front of their white chromed motorcycles a few feet from us. Crowds, many perhaps students from nearby Amir Kabir University, crossed the street. Security had been on alert since the protest here and in nearby Maydan-e Engelab two days before. Farideh and I looked on as the Basij (paramilitary), two on each motorcycle, some in dress shirts and pants, one in a ski mask, passed us. Flustered, I told her I intended to take her to Cafe France, on the other side of the security line up. She promptly said, “No,” and instructed that we walk quickly away from the area.
“This way,” she said, turning in the opposite direction towards Maydan-e Ferdowsi. Her chador puffed out slightly from the back as she briskly led me away, telling me she had no knowledge this was going to take place. She asked if I was aware of what was unfolding. I told her there was a protest two days previous, but, like her, I was caught off guard with this one. Halfway past Park-e Daneshju, she warned, “It will be very bad, Amine, if you go to there. Very bad.” We continued to walk, as she explained the possible consequences had we not, “You are not Iranian, and maybe they think bad about you, (that) you do something bad. We should go to this way.”
I mentally noted Farideh’s words. This was not the first time I had been cautioned about being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I had been told on many occasions that foreigners caught participating in street protests are charged with inciting unrest and violence against the state. We walked until the crowd could no longer be seen from a distance, and sat in a small ice cream shop.
Farideh, 28 years old at the time, is a student at the Dars-e Kharij level, the apex of a houzeh (seminarian) education, of two of the highest politically ranking clerics in Iran. Three times a week she “sits at their feet,” along with other men and women taking notes on the specifics of Islamic Jurisprudence. Many within this group are researchers which influence decision-making bodies at the state level, and are responsible for managing institutions under the leadership of the Supreme Leader. Some are authoritative figures for the various Basij groups. It is a privileged position with access to both salient and extensive networks bound ideologically to the shaping of a particular Iran since the 1979 revolution; networks perhaps beyond the reach of a man with an assault rifle that afternoon.
In this field notes piece from my 15-month fieldwork with the houzevi women in Tehran, I cast my assumptions about Farideh positioned as an actor of the state. I then attempt to locate the discontinuing and shifting of various boundaries in the said moment of ambiguity.
My assumptions about Farideh were on extreme ends of probabilities grounded on her position as an actor of the state. Through Althusser’s framework, Farideh is in a double bind, as subsumed in a state apparatus, and at the receiving end of it through her own education; an “it” which seeks to replicate “a system of the ideas and representation which dominate the mind of a man or social group” (Althusser 1970). One might push this further, as Farideh privy to a machine of repression, since these said security forces were, in fact, loyal to the positions her very own teachers occupied.
I naively assumed that in Farideh’s position to enact on the power of the state, she could do as she chooses to do at will, inclusive of being seen in public with a foreigner like myself, without fear of negative repercussions. Meaning, I assumed that if necessary, Farideh could vouch that I was not inciting unrest and violence against the state.
Adversely, I also assumed that as part of the ever pervasive “panopticon” I have come to know the Iranian state to be through popular media, Farideh, submitting freely to its conditions, would indubitably perform the actions of her own subjection. Thus, I feared, perhaps through my own subjection, she would by default question me, as an American, for expressing that I was aware of a protest two days before.
Probing Assumptions of Expansive Capability
This piece, along with two additional examples beyond the scope of this article, serves as a starting point of an abridged analysis which does not have a single particular trademark. In this instance, I observed that even with Farideh’s inclusion in, or very close proximity, to the ruling group, my assumptions about Farideh did not play itself out. Here, an “actor of the panopticon” had led me away from a site of potential repression.
It remains tempting to code it as an act of resistance but this would conceivably limit all-things Farideh as resistance. This moment did not have the bearings of resistance when taking into account Farideh’s path in this educative setting of advocating for Iranian judges to be mujtahid (one who independently makes decisions on Islamic Law). The idea of undermining the very system which facilitates her mobility does not hold when Farideh speaks of contributing to a “more Islamic” Iran by replacing “western” with “Islamic” thought in the curriculum-building of Iranian schools.
Something else was at work here. Using the impression of boundaries as a point of reference provides some direction. Returning to my first assumption, I assumed that Farideh would consider her position as leverage to “protect me”, a foreigner, an American, at that. I found the opposite to be true. That which I assumed about her position limited her movement and her choices. Farideh belongs to a ruling group which held foreigners suspect of espionage. This paranoia is not without reason and evidence, most recent of which were the assassinations in Tehran during my fieldwork. Farideh, thus, chooses not to be seen with a foreigner in certain locales, especially in the vicinity of street protests. Although I secured permission to do fieldwork, and through time she and the other women of my research ascertained that I was not a security threat, I was still considered a foreigner in Tehran. Seated in these constraints, Farideh attempts to widen the boundary between what she chooses to do in private- of being with me, and in public- as a student of these clerics.
The boundary between what Farideh does in public is also heavily guarded from her private. Farideh’s family, based 13 hours away from Tehran, does not know she attends these two Dars-e Kharij classes. She said if people in her town were to find out she had direct access to these two political figures, they would demand favors, via her family, from these two men. If she failed to deliver, which she said was a given, she and her family would have to face the backlash. Hence, for Farideh, continued access to this resource demanded a great deal of discretion, not an overt parading of affluence as I had assumed. That moment, of Farideh and I near the street protest, would have compromised Farideh’s boundary between her public and private.
Performing Conditions All By Herself
My second assumption about Farideh maybe suspecting me of wrongdoing against the state at that very moment is never at once resolved, because simply put, I may never know. Again, using boundaries as a point of reference would be useful. Boundaries have several properties; one, they are fluid. Two, they serve a purpose- to bound, to draw a difference, to identify. What is of interest is what people do with boundaries. Though there is no definitive response to this specific assumption, what is possible to describe here is a certain fabric of experience with boundaries.
Often expressed in words, boundaries existed between women like Farideh and myself as interacting bodies; Farideh as an Iranian, Amina as an American; Farideh as a Shi’a Muslim and Amina as a Sunni. Inevitably the question would become, what is to make of these when “as” labels are not found at the fore of interaction, especially in un-nameable moments? Our commonalities—Muslims, women, daughters, students and researchers—took months before acknowledged, but our interactions reached a point where it seemed to me that their boundaries had temporarily discontinued and shifted to be inclusive of my presence among them for 15 months. For instance, they would verbally differentiate between Amina as an individual and the US government which she lived under, or they would filter what to introduce about me so other houzevi, family and friends would interact with me. The backdrop of how Farideh and I were supposed to meet that late afternoon of the protest was predicated on this shift of boundaries. She had invited me along with her roommate to a silent play in Talar Vahdat. Although I may never know whether, Farideh, the “actor of the panopticon” held me suspect, I am certain that afternoon she led me away from a site of pending violence.
Being on the edge, in this space of knowing and not knowing, brought to light a disparity between what was acted upon and what was perceived. Boundaries were blurred, discontinued, and shifted to include Farideh and I in it.
Boundaries are also maintained. Thus, this process was a constant between Farideh and myself, myself and the other houzevi women. In making these boundaries known, words need not be factual. They reify that which is always unstable. It is in these moments, that their instability is that which registers the variation of what these boundaries cannot completely contain. January 2012, one of the women emailed me about the assassination of Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan, a nuclear scientist. She wrote, “I’m sure you know that our enemies have murdered our another nuclear scientist recently and some days later 300 students of Sharif University have changed their field to nuclear physics.”
Notes: This work is based on a 15-month fieldwork in the Islamic Republic of Iran with the houzevi women in Iran, specifically Tehran, which ended in December 2011. Pseudonyms have been used in this article to protect the identities of research participants. Fieldwork was conducted in both the English and Farsi languages.
Amina Tawasil is a PhD candidate in anthropology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University. She is currently writing her dissertation with the generous support of AAUW. Her current research focus is on the intersection of women, Islamic education, forms of patriarchy, Islam and the state.