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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 of apprehension 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.

For some 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, regardless 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?

Playing 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, when 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 to 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 is assumed 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.

Initially, 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 it was 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 illicit 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 women (or all men). Men may look at all men, regardless of any other specificity. 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 not desire (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, meaning: 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...

For letters section
To Afsaneh Najmabadi

Afsaneh Najmabadi




Book of the day

Crowning Anguish
Taj al-Saltana, Memoirs of a Persian Princess 1884-1914
edited by Abbas Amanat

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