Sexual politics of
sacredness for bodily orifices
July 30, 2004
Now that the discussion on what to
call whom has taken off, allow me to add a few words. As Choob
Dosar-Gohi has noted in “Hamjenspeak”,
the assignation kuni in contemporary language is used only for
males who would allow, and perhaps enjoy, being anally penetrated.
It has a very heavy pejorative connotation, implying unmanning.
The word and the general association of de-masculinization that
goes with it, as Choob Dosar-Gohi has noted, is a very modern(ist)
Until early in the twentieth century, only an adult
man (adulthood marked with the growth of a full beard) who would
allow, and perhaps enjoy, being anally penetrated would be abjected,
not the adult man who would penetrate. The latter’s manhood
was in part marked, in the sexual realm, as a penetrator of whatever
The adult male penetratee would be called mokhannas or amradnoma. Anal penetration of an adolescent male (amrad)
or a woman was not shameful to the penetratee; after all they
were not men. Nor was amradbaazi a negative characteristic for
an adult man. The suffix -baazi, as in nazarbaazi (which we would
now call chesh’charaani, gazing), did not have a negative
In fact, nazarbaazi, gazing at a beautiful adolescent
(amrad) male face as an embodiment of divine beauty, was a much
cherished Sufi practice. The suffix that did have negative connotations,
usually implying excess, was -bareh, as in gholam’bareh,
The focus on anus as an erotic zone that we now
collapse onto male homosexuality is indeed even more recent. In
one Qajar source,
Resalah-‘i fojuriyah (An Essay on Debauchery), written in
1872 by Vali Khan, a Qajar courtier, Vali Khan records his sexual
adventures with twenty-eight Qajar princesses, fifteen female prostitutes,
sixty-five amrads, twenty-seven male and ten female servants (gholam and kaniz),
and eight virgins (these are reported in a separate category, since
the concern for their virginity is invoked in relation
to his practice of anal intercourse with them).
But it would be misleading, though tempting, to
conclude from these relative numbers that Vali Khan had a preference
for male objects
of desire. There is nothing in his descriptions that would indicate
superiority of the pleasure he took in male liaisons compared to
female ones. What he does emphasize, however, is his preference
for anal intercourse with men and women alike, a point upon which
he further elaborates by concluding his essay with an elaboration
of superiority of anus over vagina as an object of penile penetration.
Contrary to our current tendency to assume that a
preference for anal intercourse meant a preference for males that
we would now
name kuni, Vali Khan articulates nothing related to “an object
of desire”, male or female, but something that reads more
like a desire for a particular body part, as if this body part
was dissected from the entirety of the person’s body. It
reads more as a hierarchicalization of pleasurable body parts.
Vali Khan’s hierarchicalization of pleasure focused on erotic
localization has a genealogy in the wider Islamicate culture, noted
by scholars of adab (belle lettres) and medicine. It is as well
echoed in theological-juridical literature and in classical satirical-sexual
The most famous example of the latter genre in Persian
is that of ‘Obyd Zaakaani (d. ca. 1370).
Many of his anecdotes and quatrains are dialogues between anus
debates between the two over which one is superior [see "Let's
talk about sex") and "Bittersweet"].
Again the debate is not about male versus female objects of desire,
of anal versus vaginal penetration, and pleasures of anus and vagina
being penetrated by a penis.
The nature of the hierarchy in the
theological-juridical literature, on the other hand, is structured
according to degrees of prohibition.
Zayn al-‘Abedeen Khan Kermani, a prominent Shaykhi leader
of late nineteenth-century Iran, for instance, argues that “liwat is
a more serious (sakht’tar) offense than zina.
Hazrat Sadiq (PBUH) said that hormat-i dobor (the sanctity/prohibitiveness
of anus) is greater (a‘zam) than hormat-i farj (the
sanctity/prohibitiveness of vagina), and truly God killed a whole
people because of hormat-i
dobor and he killed not a single soul for hormat-i
this act and especially to be a mokhannas or a ma’bun [an
adult male who desires/permits himself to be anally penetrated]
Moreover, Kermani distinguishes the female from male
anus, elaborating on the difference of opinion among the ‘ulama’ about
anal intercourse with one’s wife. “The most accepted
(mashhur) among the scholars,” he writes, “is that
it is makruh [abhorrent but not forbidden].” It is prohibited
only if the woman does not consent, “if she is willing (raazi)
there is no prohibition (man‘).”
Kermani also reports that
one reason for which some scholars at times had prohibited husband-wife
anal intercourse may have been the fear of decrease in procreative
sex. Many Islamic schools consider anal penetration of one’s
wife among the forbidden acts. Since women’s bodies are assumed
to be penetrable, the exclusion of marital anal intercourse, one
may speculate, could have something to do with its potential affiliation
with a fantasy of male-male anal penetration. In this sense, the
female anus would be borrowing its sanctity / prohibition from
The overall logic of this explication, in common
with that of Vali Khan’s essay, seems to be a hierarchy of
sacredness for bodily orifices, in which male anus is the most
noble (most pleasurable
and religiously strictly forbidden to penetrate), female anus next
(comparatively less pleasurable and religiously permitted, though
not recommended, for penetration), with female vagina as least
pleasurable and religiously most recommended.
Within the past century our notions of body, pleasure,
genders, and sexualities have gone through enormous transformations,
to the emergence of modern subjectivities. This is a topic that
calls for much more research, historical and contemporary, before
we could figure out how injurious assignations, in language and
in the wider cultural practices, could be changed.
Afsaneh Najmabadi has recently completed a manuscript Women with Mustaches
and Men without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian
Modernity (University of California Press, forthcoming 2005), a study of
cultural transformations in 19th-century Iran centered on reconfigurations
of gender and sexuality, and is working on a new project, "Genealogies
of Iranian Feminism."
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