Universität KonstanzExzellenzcluster: Kulturelle Grundlagen von Integration

Lady Teheran

Ayat Najafi


In order to not fall apart from social pressure, disguising and masking is necessary in all societies; in Iran it constitutes an everyday technique of survival. At the center of the play “Lady Teheran” stands the strategy of gender crossing, as both a transgression of one’s own sexual role and as a possibility of self-concealment, of removal from contact by the authorities: dressing up as a man or woman, taking on typically male or female behavioral patterns, in order to achieve, escape, or assert a goal.

The play’s characters make use of the system of sexual separation by undermining it. In the process, sexual identity itself becomes a subject of debate: what is a man, a woman? The theater becomes a field for testing sexual ambivalence.

The project is a continuation of my work in Teheran, in which both public and private rehearsals led to problems with the police, the security forces, and some of society’s more narrow heads. Concealment, posing, and silence—forced on us, these strategies have been the norm since the city’s founding. Such a situation ties the city’s past to its present and is an essential element in its identity.

“Lady Teheran” tells the story of an actress in pre-World War II Teheran who is forced to struggle along on narrow underground paths.

According to legend, a living underground serves as the Iranian capital’s basis—the city thus having been built and inhabited by obscure figures and gangsters. In those days, in fact, Teheran was a place that mainly lived and breathed underground. Far removed from Iran’s central government, a second population inhabited house-cellars and an intricate system of secret passages between the cellars. In the knowledge that a distant government could not exercise any authority over them or even locate them in their hidden underground world, they set up their own secret empire. Part of the society from the beginning, the underground movement exerted its attraction over centuries in which Teheran vegetated onward in servitude and dependence, under censorship and foreign rule.

No one has felt the pressures emanating from this society — a society that developed in concealment — more strongly than its women. More than seventy years ago, at the time of the regime of Shah Reza, wearing the Islamic headscarf was forbidden. Presently adhering to Islamic clothing regulations in public is mandatory. This speedy transition from ban to mandate reveals the contradictions prevailing in our culture over time, and the clear differences between the nature of both experience and reality in public and private space.