The Story of a Wall: Tied Histories of Shahr-i Naw, Tehran’s Red-light District, and the 1953 Coup

By Samin Rashidbeigi
Submitted to Session P5297 (Cold War, 2018 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector with Audio Patch or Speakers;
Shahr-i Naw (SN) was Tehran’s red-light district from 1909, and it functioned as a giant sex market with around 1,500 prostitutes living and working there until the 1979 Revolution. SN’s existence as “Tehran’s red-light district before the 1979 Revolution” has been only briefly mentioned in some scholarly work; however, the district has not been analyzed as a gendered and politically relevant urban construction in the context of modern Iranian history.
This paper is specifically concerned with the 1953 Coup and the two ways that it is related to the history of SN: first, some of SN’s women were among the participants of the Coup, and second, a wall was built around SN immediately after the Coup.
Through a series of archival documents, I reflect on the engineered presence of SN’s women in the Coup. I explain how having a female population could represent the Coup as a spontaneous national uprising. I interpret this incident as a political utilization of SN’s women. In this sense, I argue that SN’s women were not merely providers of sexual labor, but were, at times, used to support the state officials’ objectives by their constructed identities as “prostitutes.”
As for the wall around the district, I argue that the wall functioned as a tranquilizer for the anxious environment of Tehran after the Coup. It embodied a political boundary between the Mussadiq’s administration and the post-Coup Zahidi’s administration.