Connecting the world through research

Nathan Zoschke

Student receives more than $150,000 for studies of Iranian Women

Nazgol Bagheri’s research in gender studies and sociology isn’t a path many students with an urban planning background pursue.

She received bachelor’s degrees in computer science and architecture with a master’s in urban planning and design from the National University of Iran before her arrival in the U.S. in spring 2008.

At UMKC, this interdisciplinary Ph.D. candidate has found harmony between her studies in geography and sociology. In addition to a full-ride scholarship and teaching fellowship, Bagheri has received more than $150,000 in grants and fellowships for her qualitative research studies of how women interact and create boundaries in public spaces in Iran’s capital city of Tehran.

Unlike many sprawling American cities where cars rule the roads, the citizens of Tehran depend on foot and public transportation to carry out their daily routines.

“Most cities are created by and made for men, perhaps unintentionally, but it just happened because women were not involved in the planning,” Bagheri said. “Women’s experiences were dismissed by lack of inclusion, and I experienced those difficulties as a woman.”

Tehran’s subways are inconvenient for women who are pregnant or pushing a stroller. The growth of women in the public sphere has compounded this problem.

“Before the Islamic Revolution, only modern, high-class women were accepted in public spaces, like a concert or the cinema,” Bagheri said. “The Islamic Revolution of 1979, surprisingly opened the door for more traditional women back to public spaces.”

Bagheri said her research in America showed a changing preference in favor of traditional public spaces and older-built environments over their contemporary counterparts.

Bagheri’s studies attempt to test that hypothesis among women in Iran. But unlike America’s deep-rooted virtues of individualism, experiences in Iranian culture are underscored by adherence to cultural norms. This causes Iranian women to be self-conscious.

“My own experience is that women are controlled in terms of the hijab (veil worn by Muslim women) and social norms in public,” Bagheri said. “The representation of one’s self is a challenge in everyday life.”

To collect and analyze data, Bagheri has employed qualitative methods of research, emphasizing one-on-one interviews and participant observations.

She selected two contrasting public locations in Tehran: one in Bala Shahr, or high city, in northern Tehran, and the other in Paeen Shahr, or low city, in the south.

The two neighborhoods show a distinct social and cartographical divide. More symbolically, they represent the cultural divide of modern-day Iran.

“High city is newer and associated with Western culture,” Bagheri said. “Paeen Shahr, is more traditional, more congested and polluted. It’s an older-built environment.”

Bagheri created behavioral maps by counting the number of women and men in the two spaces, categorizing their interaction and gender boundaries, and entering the data in a geographic information system (GIS).

Her use of GIS in qualitative research is a new frontier. GIS is typically associated with quantitative research, which focuses on categorical and numerical variables as opposed to qualitative methods where researchers immerse themselves by observing subjects in their natural settings.

Bagheri found that women and men are less likely to interact in the low city’s older neighborhoods, whereas there was no distinct “man’s sphere” or “woman’s sphere” in the high city.

Factors such as social class, education, age, home location, cultural background and disability status played significant roles in how women experienced public spaces. However, many women didn’t show a preference for traditional or modern environments.

“We in the professional world categorize our domains too strictly, but people in everyday life do not,” Bagheri said. “Iranian women enjoy their freedom, for example, holding their boyfriend’s hand or smoking in more modern public places. At the same time, they enjoy connecting to their Iranian identity in more traditional places.”

Bagheri’s research in her hometown adds a unique dynamic to her studies.

“I have complete membership; I can understand what’s going on because I’m from that culture,” Bagheri said. “I have to also make sure that I don’t make assumptions just because I’m a native of that culture.”

She said her husband, a U.S. native, was helpful in that regard.

A passion for learning and teaching

Bagheri has worked closely with several faculty members, namely Dr. Shannon Jackson, Associate Professor of Anthropology.

“Dr. Jackson pushed me a lot to go explore difficult questions that you might not ask that often. She was very pushy, in a good way,” Bagheri said. “She helped me explore things in greater depth. She made me brave to ask difficult questions.”

Jackson and Bagheri remained in close contact via email as Bagheri conducted her studies in Tehran.

“People invest emotionally in their hypotheses,” Jackson said. “Emailing is one way to help a student let go as their abstract hypothesis is challenged in a more natural setting.”

Jackson praised Bagheri’s persistence in pursuing qualitative research methods.

“She’s chosen the path that’s about research and not society’s measure of it and what it will get in terms of opportunity,” Jackson said. “In my opinion, that’s what makes her a better scientist.”

This has made it more difficult to obtain funding from major research organizations, which emphasize objective data that can be explained in terms of numbers or algorithms.

“It [quantitative research] forces researchers into a box where they’re forced to choose from a set of answers,” Jackson said. “It can be problematic because it doesn’t tell them anything meaningful.”

In addition, Bagheri praised Dr. Wei Ji and Dr. Steven Driever of the Geosciences Department.

“Dr. Driever is very emotionally and intellectually supportive,” Bagheri said, “and although Dr. Ji is a GIS professor, he has been very open and supportive of my work in exploring more qualitative aspects of GIS.”

Upon completion of her doctoral work, Bagheri hopes to continue her research and eventually teach. Teaching, she said, puts her in a good mood.

“I would like to bring American and Iranian cultures closer together through my teaching scholarship and research,” Bagheri said. “I would like to build a friendship between the two cultures when our governments push us farther apart. I love America, especially the Midwest.”

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