Rules of desire
The interminable question of hijab
August 30, 2005
When I arrived in Tehran in early July, it was
shortly after the presidential elections. There was a great deal
about what the election results would translate into, especially
as far as cultural space, civil liberties, public norms, and similar
issues were concerned. Understandably, among all the women I visited,
Islamicly-oriented or secular, how the practical rules of hijab
and female-male socializing in public would change were topics
of agitated concern and speculation. But what I found most fascinating
was the working of the rules of hijab in private homes.
time, I had been growing suspicious of the idea of the veil as
a mere controller of heterosexual desire; there to make
sure that adult men do not eye na-mahram women lustfully. Such
an argument presumes a “natural, inborn” heterosexuality
-- something that classical Islamic thought did not assume. Moreover,
of what any institution, ritual, and daily practice is meant to
do, their cultural generative effects may be very different. So,
I had wondered, if we shifted the terrain of our thinking away
from the intended to the effects, what cultural effects might the
veil generate that may tell us something about the ways in which
daily culture in Iran would craft patterns of sexuality?
with that idea, I had tentatively come to think of daily practices
of veiling -- meaning the patterns of who covers what in order
to avoid a break-down of the rules of eyeing, ahkam-e negah -- as generative of heterosexuality. In its most general terms,
as a daily practice growing young females learn that particular
categories of males should not be able to eye them in the same
way that it is fine for females of similar kin-status to do,
the effect of such repeated performance of gender regulation is
incite heterosexuality; it is as if one is told over and over
again who one may desire (and thus ought to control it) and who
to be beyond desire.
Now in Tehran, my 24-year old daughter and
I were visiting my cousins;
or rather a tribal cluster of cousins: my first cousin, her two
daughters, and their many adult children (one with two daughters
and a son, the other with three of her sons). This cousin of mine
had married at an early age (16) into a religiously
practicing family and had since been an observing Muslim. Then
and now (meaning before and after 1979), her whole family was observing
of the codes of proper male and female socializing.
only one cousin’s daughters were there; it was an all female
group and none of us was wearing our scarves and outer wears. Shortly,
the door-bell rang and the girls’ twenty-year old brother
was arriving; my daughter quickly put on her rupush and scarf,
and I was rushed a chador. This to me was more like a joke; he
was precisely my son’s age.
I started a discussion with my
cousin, quite learned in Islamic teaching, about whether menopausal
women should follow the rules of hijab, hoping I could invoke
some sort of exemption. She informed me, quite seriously, that
not menopause that would relieve a woman of such observance;
rather if an elderly woman was clearly beyond an age of being desirable,
then one could argue about suspension of the rule.
This was a big
disappointment, as I had spent the previous week telling everyone,
only half jokingly, that I was going to start a campaign to get
the Office of Pezeshki Qanuni to establish a bureau that would
issue menopausal women special IDs to exempt them from observing
the rules of hijab. My grandmother had always said so and I believed
her more than my cousin, but regrettably she was long dead and
people like my cousin held a great deal of power now. In any event,
I was not willing to concede I had become undesirable and quietly
put on the chador as I mumbled to myself, “of course she
assumes my desirability only by men.”
A similar incitement
was at work, even more obviously and strongly, for the young women
as well: my daughter and her two female second
cousins of similar age group were presumed not to desire each other.
Not so between their brother and my daughter. This became even
more pronounced when the three young adult sons of my other second
cousin rang their entrance; swiftly the two young women rushed
to cover their hair and bodies. It was a remarkable performance
of presumed heterosexuality -- a presumptive obligatory daily
performance that works to generate the very desire the circulation
of which it aims to regulate.
In a homosocially organized culture,
the very organization of social space, within the context of
other cultural, juridical and legal regulations of licit and
sexual practices, repeatedly implies that men and women desire
each other. These regulations control the scene of desire through
generating desire. The implicit cultural commandment -- thou
ought not/will not desire one of your own kind -- works in
similar ways, and indeed through affiliation with, another commandment;
what we usually refer to as the incest taboo.
The rules of hijab
make an equivalence between close kin men and women (those
among whom there is no possibility of any licit sex) and all
(or all men). Men may look at all men, regardless of any
Women need not practice rules of hijab under the eyes of
other women or mahram men -- what brings them into
one category is the commandment on desire: thou ought not/will
(or be desired by) these people.
This kind of regulatory production
of heterosexuality is of course not particular to homosocially-organized
cultures. Here in the
U.S. I used to take my son through the women’s changing and
shower room with me. Then around the age of five -- I am not exaggerating
-- I started getting stares from other women in the shower room,
why do you bring him here?
It reminded me of the stories about
Iran’s public baths or women’s sections of the mosque,
where women with growing sons would be told by other women not
to bring with them their growing sons any longer; he had reached
the age of “recognition,” that is, when other women
did not feel comfortable being seen naked by him, or felt distracted
during prayer if he were around.
I ignored the stares, but sure
enough, a few weeks later, a sign went up in the shower room, “Parents
are asked to send their children with gender appropriate parents.” Never
mind sons of single or lesbian mothers, or daughters of single
or gay fathers; they don’t need to go swimming.
Like the “bath
expulsion scene”, this sign in an American university swimming
pool, and similar daily repeated moves we all participate in --
such as going to gender-marked bathrooms -- presume and incite
heterosexuality. The message to my five-year old son was quite
clear: he may desire females (or be desired by them), thus he must
no longer come to the women’s changing and shower room but
he will not desire men, nor will they desire him.
The many ways
through which every culture works to generate what every one
insists is an inborn natural desire...