Sexual politics of naming

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) phenomenon.

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 orifice.

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 connotation.

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, or zan’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 literature.

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 and vagina, including 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, but about pleasures 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 farj. Therefore this act and especially to be a mokhannas or a ma’bun [an adult male who desires/permits himself to be anally penetrated] is worse.”

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 male’s.

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, related 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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