All across Tehran men, women, and young students can be seen standing on the side of a street, waiting at an intersection, or walking towards their destination in the hope that a car going in the same direction will pass by and take them as passengers. The city is made up of winding one way roads and hidden back alleys that lead to noisy and jammed highways which cut across wide boulevards and circle around districts. While some get into their cars to get to their destination and others call taxis to whisk them away, the majority of the population rely on public transportation or shared cars to get from one point to another.
Like most in Tehran, during my daily commute I relied heavily on these shared cars, which are unmarked and owned and driven by individuals. Each car ride is a unique experience, some cars smell like a burnt clutch or dust while others reek of cologne and sweat and many smell of cigarette smoke and pleather. The drivers themselves are as diverse as the number of routes they drive. Some are old and abrupt while others sing along with their soundtrack, a number will tell stories while others remain completely silent, most are honest, but some will overcharge, and all of them are men.
While I was fundamentally dependent on these strangers to get me to my destination, it was always with an acute awareness of being female and riding in the car of a man I knew nothing about. Yet the moment I entered the car there would be clues, from the style of music to the tasbih hanging from the rear view mirror or, on rare occasions, the photo of a child taped to the sun visor. Even with these clues, it was comforting to have other people in the car, not only because it demonstrated closeness between complete strangers but also because it provided a kind of safety by making the experience less personal.
During the morning commute, it was generally easy to find a car going in the direction of the nearest metro station, but when returning late it was often a struggle to find a car that was going in the direction I required once I exited the metro. Waiting on the side of the street in the dark, shouting out my destination at passing cars, I would often wonder whether I entered the car of a stranger who offered to take me towards my destination out of trust, need, or a combination of both. And every time I entered a car, it was with confidence that this person, who would melt into the backdrop of fourteen million people would help me during my commute for a small monetary sum.
Regardless of whether others were in the car, the gendered dynamics were always clear and seemed to provide a natural way of interacting with the driver or passengers. Generally, the men in the car ensured that as a woman I was never seated between two men in the back seat, and oftentimes the driver would ask a man to sit in the back so that I would be able to sit comfortably (and with dignity) in the front seat. Even when sitting in the back seat next to a man, my personal space was normally respected, although there was occasionally a case when space was purposefully disregarded.
While the cars may take individuals to different realities like visiting grandparents, getting to work, heading to a party, going to the gym, or meeting a date, the shared ride is a reminder of the gendered and social dynamics that exist in the public realm, and sometimes without this reminder it is easy to lose track of what life is really like in Tehran.
Picture by Soroush.