Modernity & sexuality
Uncovering the gendered tropes of Iranian
June 2, 2005
to Afsaneh Najmabadi's Women
with Mustaches and Men without Beards : Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian
of California Press, 2005). Najmabadi is Professor
of History and of Studies of Women, Gender and Sexuality at Harvard University.
See features in iranian.com.
Years ago, in the heat of a polemical exchange with a historian
of Qajar Iran (1785-1925), who expressed regret and dismay that
doing Qajar women's history was impossible because few historical
sources and solid extant records about women of that period existed,
I retorted, "But if we use gender analytically, sources about
men are also sources about women." From the moment of its
utterance, the sentence began to haunt me: How do we employ gender
analytically so as to write history differently, to write history
from which women are not absent and gender is not a missing category;
one in which issues of gender and women are not afterthoughts and
To consider gender as an analytical category (Scott 1988) poses
different questions than those relevant for retrieval women’s
history (Scott 2001). For my project, the questions became: What
work did gender do in the making of Iranian modernity and how did
it perform this cultural labor? If central concepts of Iranian
modernity were gendered, how were they gendered and what effects
did their genderedness produce for constitution of Iranian men
and women of modernity (Felski 1995). This work began as a study
of the constitutive work of gender on several distinct but interrelated
levels: metaphoric, symbolic, narrative, and rhetorical.
From the late-18th century through the first decades of the 20th
century, Iranian modernity was shaped through re-articulation of
concepts like nation/millat, politics/siasat, homeland/vatan, and
knowledge/‘ilm. These re-conceptualizations depended on notions
of gender. Nation was largely conceived and visualized as a brotherhood,
at least until the first decade of the twentieth century when women
began to claim their place as sisters-in-the-nation. Vatan [homeland],
on the other hand, was envisaged as female, as a beloved and as
a mother. Closely linked to the maleness of nation and the femaleness
of homeland was the concept of namus [honor]. Namus was transported
from its religious affiliation [namus-i Islam] and reclaimed as
a national concern [namus-i Iran], just as millat itself changed
from a religious to a national community. Slipping between the
idea of a woman’s purity [‘ismat] and integrity of
the nation, namus was constituted as subject to male possession
and protection in both domains; gender honor and national honor
intimately informed each other.
The Iranian national emblem was a male lion holding a sword,
with a (fe)male sun rising from behind his torso. But why (fe)male?
In an earlier version of this manuscript, I used no parentheses.
Like so many modern Iranians, I grew up thinking of the sun as
Khawrshid Khanum, Lady Sun. But as I was finishing my manuscript,
I became uneasy, aware that something was amiss. In particular,
I realized that my association of beautiful faces with femininity
and femaleness, and thus my unquestioning reading of the sun in
the national emblem as female, did not correspond to nineteenth-century
Qajar sensibilities. In the Qajar period, a beautiful face could
belong to either a young male or female with identical features.
This recognition was not an incidental and localized trouble. Sexuality
and masculinity crept in as haunting afterthoughts in several chapters
of the book. For instance, when I looked at the genealogy of the
concepts of love and homeland that informed the nineteenth-century
love of homeland, I ran into "sex trouble." Homeland
had an unmistakable feminine genealogy through its double connection
to soil and to womb. By the end of the nineteenth century in the
writings of male nationalists, love of homeland was evidently the
heteroerotic love of male Iranians for a female homeland. But this
love was rooted in Sufi (Islamic mystic) love which was male homoerotic.
How did a deeply male homoerotic concept become usable as a heteroerotic
one? How did this sex-change, so to speak, happen?
I had read Iran's "long-nineteenth century" as a century
centrally shaped by the transformation of gender. Yet this transformation
had depended on the transformation of sexuality. In common with
current historiography of Iranian modernity, for example, I had
assumed that Iranian-European cultural encounter had been pivoted
around European gender heterosociality, with the public visibility
of European women as the key signifier of cultural difference.
This narrative, I came to conclude, was an already-heteronormalized
narrative of the process of heteronormalization of love and the
feminization of beauty. Part I explores this proposition.
This conclusion turned out to be more radical for my manuscript
than I had anticipated. My project of writing a history of Iranian
modernity in which issues of gender and women would not be afterthoughts
and appendices had produced its own afterthoughts and appendices.
In a tortuous and belabored way, through years of focusing exclusively
on uncovering "the gendered tropes of Iranian modernity," I
came to appreciate that Eve Sedgwick's proposition that "an
understanding of virtually any aspect of modern Western culture
must be, not merely incomplete, but damaged in its central
substance to the degree that it does not incorporate a critical
analysis of modern homo/heterosexual definition" was highly
pertinent to my study of Iranian modernity (Sedgwick 1990, 1, my
emphasis). I ended up reconceptualizing and rewriting the entire
manuscript. Indeed, I had to re-read my sources.
This book began as a project on the work of gender for the formation
of Iranian modernity on iconic, narrative, metaphoric, and social
levels. But there was another labor of gender that I had overlooked:
the production of gender itself as a binary, man/woman, to the
exclusion of other categories that would not fit. Thinking of gender
as man/woman turned out to be a very modern imperative. I had overlooked
the erasures that made this binarity of gender possible in the
first place. As I re-read and re-thought the entire project, I
was first intrigued and then obsessed by a remarkable amnesia and
the work of that amnesia in conceptualizing the gender of modernity.
Simply put, the taken for granted man/woman binary has screened
out other nineteenth-century gender positionalities and has ignored
the interrelated transfigurations of sexuality in the same period.
In Part I and chapter five, I confront the assumed normalcy of
the man/woman binary by mapping modes of male-ness in nineteenth-century
Iran that were distinct from manhood.
Moreover, gender as a binary has since become a template for
categories of modern sexuality. Our contemporary binary of gender
translates any fractures of masculinity into effeminization. Nineteenth-century
Iranian culture, however, and perhaps before and beyond, had other
ways of naming, such as amrad (young adolescent male) and mukhannas (an adult man desiring to be object of desire for adult men), that
were not equated with effeminacy. I suspect similar re-mapping
is called for when thinking of women and females, although in this
book I do not pursue this line of inquiry.
In the nineteenth century, homoeroticism and same-sex practices
came to mark Iran as backward; heteronormalization of eros and
sex became a condition of “achieving modernity,” a
project that called for heterosocialization of public space and
a reconfiguration of family life. While we may consider a society
in which men and women mix at all levels as less gender-stratified,
that very notion of mixing assumes a binary of the two kinds, men
as one gender category and women as one. In that sense, modern
heterosocialization became, paradoxically, productive of gender
as a binary. For the past two centuries, Iranian (and Islamicate)
modernity and its historiography have regarded the veil as the
gender marker of cultural difference between Iran (Islam) and Europe.
This dominant view has ignored the veil’s other cultural
effect, namely, its work as a marker of homosocial homoerotic affectionate
bonds among both women and men. The veil’s backwardness,
I will argue in chapter five, stood for the backwardness of homosociality
and homoerotic affectivity.
Before addressing these issues further, however, I would like
to go back to the lion and sun, the third chapter. This chapter
focuses on gender's work for modernity on a symbolic level, the
Iranian national emblem of lion-and-sun that was first formally
adopted in 1836. In the course of the following century, it went
through a period in which the sun burst into a magnificent Qajari
(fe)male face, while the lion became more masculinized. By the
early twentieth century, however, the sun lost most of its facial
markings, and by the mid-1930s all such features were erased. The
emblem was fully geometrized in the 1970s before it was finally
discarded by the Islamic Republic in 1979. Chapter three explores
this history to unravel the sedimented levels of meaning that this
trajectory reveals: What did the initial blossoming of the (fe)male
sun signify, and how can we understand its subsequent erasure and
the total masculinization of the national emblem?
Qajar Iran began with a concept of love embedded in Sufi allegorical
associations. Love and desire in this discourse were intimately
linked with beauty and could be generated in a man as easily, if
not more so, by a beautiful young male as by a young female. In
early Qajar art, for instance, beauty was not distinguished by
gender. However, by the end of the nineteenth century, a highly
gender-differentiated portrayal of beauty emerged, along with a
concept of love that assumed heterosexuality as natural.
How did this enormous cultural transformation take place? One
element, I suggest, is that in the nineteenth century Iranians
became acutely aware that adult man/amrad love and sexual practices
prevalent in Iran were considered vices by Europeans. As "another
gaze" entered the scene of desire, Iranian men interacting
with Europeans in Iran or abroad, became highly sensitized to the
idea that their scene of desire was now under European scrutiny.
Homoerotic desire had to be covered. One marker of modernity became
the transformation of homoeroticism into masqueraded hetero-eros.
Chapter two maps out this enormous cultural shift by studying iconic
changes in Qajar paintings and the transformation of a particularly
powerful popular narrative, the story of Shaykh San‘an.
The central argument in chapter 2 raises an important methodological
problem for which I do not have a simple answer. During many presentations
of material from this chapter, I was asked variations of the same
question: Am I suggesting that Europe was responsible for these
transformations? Am I suggesting a causal link between the increasing
interactions between Iran and Europe and the transformation of
sexuality and gender in nineteenth-century Iran? What about “internal
causes”? On one level, these questions are unanswerable.
When dealing with the kind of radical historical transformations
of genders and sexualities that I sketch out in this book, it is
wise to remember that innumerable contingent events and concepts
went into their making. Our historiography can never be a history
of things as they really happened at their time. This implies that
pin-pointing causes could only be a historiographical effect.
I cannot answer the hypothetical question of what would have
happened had Iran not profoundly interacted with Europe. Moreover,
I find it difficult to make a separation between internal and external
developments, as they become so intermeshed and progressively so
as the century unfolds. Iranian-European cultural interactions
go back at least to the sixteenth century. By the nineteenth century,
they had become much more intense and involved a wider circle of
Iranians beyond the Court. Much cultural hybridization was also
mediated through the increasing interactions between Iran and the
Indian subcontinent and the Ottoman Empire.
I suspect that on the
cultural level, more so than on the economic, administrative, and
military levels, the interactions were a two-way street. Just as
this cultural traffic transformed Iranian gender and sexual sensibilities,
European gender and sexual mores were also changed through interactions
with other societies that Europe “discovered” and,
in some cases, colonized (Mendus and Randall 1989, and Bleys 1995).
The repeated question about European influence perhaps indicates “a
fear of influence,” an anxiety that recognition of effects
of European-Iranian interactions may translate into “denial
of agency” for Iranians. I could not disagree with this idea
more. Agency does not need a power vacuum to exist. On the contrary:
agency would be meaningless outside a matrix of power. Nineteenth-century
Iranians lived their cultural lives within a given world of power
relations, within a cacophony of “hearing and overhearing” (Siegel
1997, 6). Neither Iranians nor Europeans invented themselves out
of whole cloth.
My story of the nineteenth-century is a contingent rather than
a causal one. Agency and causation work in many different directions.
As Mohammad Tavakoli-Targhi has suggested, “In the interplay
of looks between Asians and Europeans, there was no steady position
of spectatorship, no objective observer. . . . The field of vision
and the making of meaning were perspectival, contestatory, and
theatrical” (Tavakoli-Targhi 2001, 36). Power of course was
not an even field, but that does not mean that cultural agency
flowed in one direction. That we worry about the question of agency
in one direction, but never consider the impact of “the East” on “the
West” as an issue of denial of agency for Europe, is a colonial/anti-colonial
legacy that continues to inform our current thinking.
The first three chapters of this book depend heavily on visual
texts for their main arguments. In 1994-1995, when I was deeply
puzzled over transformations of the sun of the national emblem,
Layla Diba (then the Kevorkian Curator of Islamic Art at the Brooklyn
Museum) generously invited me to join a group of scholars who were
preparing the exhibition "Royal Persian Paintings: The Qajar
Epoch, 1785-1925." The exhibition and the many symposia organized
around it did more than give me an appreciation of Qajar art. I
came to realize what a critical and powerfully rich source art
historical resources provide for understanding a society’s
history and culture.
Using visual texts as primary material for historical writing
challenges the priority we usually accord to textual evidence over
visual material. Historians often use visual material illustratively
rather than analytically. Art historians, as well, sometimes draw
a line between narrative and non-narrative sources, accepting a
level of interpretive speculativeness about the latter that is
denied for the former. When presenting an argument articulated
through visual documentation, one is often asked to produce supporting
texts. One is rarely asked to produce visual material to support
an argument based on textual evidence. Written texts are often
assumed to have an apparent self-sufficiency and transparency that
visual texts are assumed to lack. The challenge for me was learning
how to "read" visual texts historically and to use methods
of visual interpretation to craft a historical argument.
In the case of nineteenth-century Iran we have an abundance of
representations of women. But, as I have argued elsewhere, these
paintings cannot be assumed to represent actual women (Najmabadi
1998a). This can be a source of disappointment and frustration
for a social historian, for Qajar art seems largely devoid of social
information (Diba 1989). However, using feminist theories of representation
can turn these visual texts into rich sources for studying gender
and sexuality (Pollock 1988). This is especially critical for the
earlier decades of the nineteenth century. In the century’s
later decades, and of course from early twentieth century, issues
of sexuality and gender become more explicit topics of political
discourse and social critique, making the use of written texts
as the main primary material more plausible.
Visual texts are in a sense similar to dreams: a sedimentation
of some of the most significant cultural meanings that become accessible
through reading methods that feminist art historians, film theorists,
and psychoanalytically-informed cultural historians have developed.
In fact, working with visual texts made me more conscious of avoiding
presumption of transparency about textual sources, on which I depend
more for the later chapters of this book.
The nineteenth-century heteronormalization of love was central
to the shaping of a number of political and cultural transformations
that signify Iranian modernity. Feminization of the category "beloved" made
the figure of Iran as a female beloved available to the male national
brotherhood. Heteronormalization of love thus performed patriotic
labor. This process made the entire discourse of protection of
woman -- a body that needs protection against alien designs, intrusion,
and penetration -- and the defense of honor available to nationalism.
Iran as a female beloved, in turn, consolidated love as hetero-eros.
It made the transformation of marriage from a procreative to a
romantic contract possible, performing romantic labor for the production
of the companionate wife. Women as companionate wives demanded
that men do away with their same-sex affairs -- leaving a birthmark
of disavowal of male homosexuality on the modernist project of
Concomitantly, modernity held out the promise of opening the
public space to women and to treat the educated modernist woman
as a citizen and a compatriot. Chapter five will consider the politics
of public visibility and the contest over the gender of space in
Iran that ensued from these reconfigurations. It will map the effects
of heterosocialization on women's language, verbal and somatic,
and on female homosocial space. The chapter concludes with a critical
assessment of women's disillusionment with important aspects of
modernist heterosocial promise.
In Chapter six I address the effects of heterosexualization of
love for reimagining marriage as a romantic rather than a procreative
contract. Romantic heteroerotic love entered the scene of Iranian
modernity as a tragedy in which the ideal happy ending, the marriage
between modern man and woman, was blocked by political and cultural
forces, such as despotic government, ignorant people, unconscionable
behavior by men of religion, and lawlessness of the country. Men's
writings and women's writings on romantic marriage display a divergence.
The proposition of marriage as a romantic contract demanded women
to prioritize love and loyalty to husband over their female-female
bonds. From the start, this was a high-risk proposition for, and
was perceived as such by, women, especially when men advocated
romanticization of marriage, while still wishing to keep the prerogatives
of marriage as a sexual/procreative contract, to be polygynous
and divorce at will. All of the early women's writing on marriage
centered on the critique of polygyny and easy divorce by men. These
critiques were combined with demands on men to disavow male homosexual
practices that were seen to endanger the possibility of a companionate
As women were reimagined as companionate wives for the modern
citizen-men, their procreativity was also reconfigured into new
notions of motherhood, driven by the modernist drive for progress
and science. Chapter seven will examine the modern educational
regimes, and their regulatory and emancipatory impulses. Not only
did educated motherhood enable women's quest for education; schools
also provided a space within which women would claim citizenship.
Yet, women’s claims as compatriots of men were contained
by the protectionist prerogatives of the masculine over the feminine,
real and allegorical. Chapter eight will discuss the effects of
these tensions for women’s national claims.
The final chapter focuses on feminism's productive work of a
different kind: screening away sexuality of modernity. Issues of
gender and sexuality were central to the formation of modernist
and countermodernist discourses. These contestations continue to
be central to contemporary politics of Iran and many other Islamic
societies of the Middle East (Paidar 1995). Yet, the centrality
of this marker of difference, and its current prized place in the
revisionist historiography of modernity, has come to screen away
the other category of difference: the figure of the ghilman (the
young male object of desire) and the historical memory of male
homoeroticism and same-sex practices. Feminist critique of Iranian
modernity has been focused on the disciplinary work of the figure
of female excess -- the Westoxicated woman. In a troubling sense,
this focus has complemented feminism’s burden of birth --
its disavowal of male homoeroticism.
This book began as a project of gendering historiography of Iranian
modernity, by showing that the work of gender was not a 'left-over'
effect of the 'traditional' but a central effect of modernity itself.
Yet the project has ended in an elsewhere -- of sexuality. If this
book begins the work of making us uncomfortable with feminist complicities
in modernist erasures, and moves to bring closer together studies
of modern genders and sexualities in Iran, it would have achieved
more than I could have hoped for.
with Mustaches and Men without Beards" is available
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