Sex & Iran’s Upstoppable Resistance

Against the Current, No. 145, March/April 2010

Catherine Sameh

Sexual Politics in Modern Iran
By Janet Afary
New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009,
442 pages, $33 paperback.

SINCE IRAN’S PRESIDENTIAL “election” in June 2009 and the protests that followed, the world has caught a partial, albeit highly mediated, glimpse inside that country and its politically active citizenry. The state, frequently misrepresented as a monolith and in neoconservative circles tarred as “Islamo-fascist,” is now more accurately understood as a diverse and fractured set of actors. The reform movement that had ushered in President Khatami suffered defeat by the hardliners with Ahmadenijad’s 2005 election, and hailed by many as dead, has come back to life. To many, it appears unstoppable.

The gendered dimensions of the green movement have been widely covered. Women, key actors in the reform movement from the 1990s on, supported the reform candidates, Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi, challenging them to reform family law in favor of women’s equality if elected. Women were and still are active members and leaders of the movement.

More recently, men from the green movement have used the hejab to gain anonymity and facilitate physical mobility within restricted places. (For more about men’s recent use of the hejab, see Ziba Mir-Hosseini, Islam and Gender: Religious Debates in Contemporary Iran, 2009).This strategy borrows from women in pre-modern Iran who used the hejab to move about in public spaces more freely.

Women’s creative capacity for mobility and agency in pre-modern and modern Iran is but one of many fascinating topics explored by Janet Afary in her ambitious and excellent new book, Sexual Politics in Modern Iran. Afary, Professor of History and Women’s Studies at Purdue University, is best known for her work The Iranian Constitutional Revolution: Grassroots Democracy, Social Democracy, and the Origins of Feminism (1996), exploring women’s role in the early 20th-century nationalist struggle against the shah, conservative clerics and European presence in Iran.

Afary’s work on the Constitutional Revolution brought a historian’s eye to the present, tracing the roots of contemporary Iranian feminism to earlier periods. In this new work, Afary draws on her experiences growing up in Iran, personal interviews, and a wealth of historical records — Persian literature, marriage and divorce certificates, police reports, harem memoirs, European travel literature — to mine the ways in which gender relations and ideas about women’s and men’s sexuality have been changing since the 19th century.

Afary’s main thrust is that the shifting ideas and practices regarding women’s sexuality, gender relations and homosexuality are part of Iran’s “unfinished sexual revolution” that began with Iran’s transition to modernity. This is a welcome contribution to work on modern sexual politics in Iran.

Roots of Sexual Revolution

Pardis Mahdavi (Passionate Uprisings: Iran’s Sexual Revolution, 2009) has recently argued that a sexual revolution is taking place among upper-class youth in Northern Tehran who have come of age in a post-revolutionary period marked by more egalitarian relationships between women and men, less parental authority, and a cyberculture that has facilitated new ideas, social spaces, and personal connections. While important, Mahdavi’s work casts a limited net by focusing only on privileged young people in one elite part of Tehran. Afary’s new book, on the other hand, goes deeper and wider, exploring class and regional similarities and differences over the last two centuries.

Afary examines sexual politics through changing marriage and intimacy patterns from the 19th-century Qajar period to the present day. In Qajar Iran, nekah, or formal marriage, sigheh, or temporary marriage, and slave concubinage prevailed as the modes of legal, heterosexual intimacy. As formal wives, women had relative stability and social status, particularly as they became mothers, then mature mothers-in-law.

Patriarchal norms dictated that women experienced little authority and control within marriage, even as formal wives. But Afary pays keen attention to the subtle ways women exercised agency even within the delimited boundaries of their lives. One of the most entertaining discussions in the book is of the “love brokers” women sought out in elite urban spaces in 19th-century Iran. Solicited to help women with emergency situations like infertility, love brokers more commonly arranged secret meetings for sex “for married, divorced, or widowed women … and handsome poor men.” (48)

Women dressed as men to gain access to public spaces like cafes and mosques, or disguised revealing clothing under their chadors to signal their interest in sexual trysts. Not only do such records point to women’s agency within the confines of a patriarchal society, but also to the multiple meanings women have assigned the hejab.

Along with her fellow Iranian feminist historian, Afsaneh Najmabadi (Women With Mustaches and Men Without Beards, 2005), Afary makes the central claim that pre-modern Iran, like other parts of the Middle East and pre-modern Europe, implicitly tolerated homoerotic bonds. Afary draws on Michel Foucault’s work on early Greco-Roman societies. Foucault argued that these societies did not have homosexual identities, and that homosexual and heterosexual love were not seen as completely distinct.

Like Najmabadi, Afary explores the figure of the amrad, an adolescent boy with a faint mustache, but no beard, and an object of both men and women’s desire. Afary uses the term “status-defined homosexuality” to explain the kinds of homosexual acts between royal or upper-class men and boys of lower classes. These relationships assumed an active partner, the upper-class man, and a passive recipient, the boy. They were sexual, but also about mentorship and physical and intellectual training.

Afary does not romanticize this pre-modern period, however, pointing out that “distinctions between consensual adult sex and pedophilic or pederastic abuse or rape of a boy were less clear.” (107) While refreshing in their candor, homosexual expressions of desire in the context of status-defined homosexuality were shot through with class and cultural power.

Afary also points to pockets of more egalitarian homosexual relationships. In a fascinating section on Sufi mystical love, Afary explores the “bonds of sisterhood” among married women:

“Tradition dictated that one who sought another as ‘sister’ approached a love broker to negotiate the matter. The broker took a tray of sweets to the prospective beloved. In the middle of the tray was a carefully placed dildo (Arus chock or Arus hak) or doll (Arus kuchak) made of wax or leather. If the beloved agreed to the proposal, she threw a sequined white scarf (akin to a wedding veil) over the tray. She then tipped the broker and sent the tray back. If she was not interested, she threw a black scarf on the tray before sending it back.

“Vows of sisterhood were performed on special days of the year at some of the many shrines around the country, accompanied by drums, the sharing of sweet juices, and other festive practices. Often, the ceremony was performed on March 20, the last day of the Persian calendar and on the eve of Nowruz (Persian New Year), a day when the world turned upside down.” (102)

These homosexual practices and inclinations were all part of what Afary calls an “Iranian homosexual ethos” (94), which persisted into the early 20th century, but faded with the rise of modern forms of intimacy. Afary persuasively shows that the loss of this homosexual ethos was accompanied by a gain for women — a more egalitarian and affectionate form of marriage, what she calls “companionate marriage,” which persists to this day.

Afary’s sweeping account illuminates new gender discourses, ideals and practices in Iran’s transition to modernity through health, hygiene and education reforms which ultimately re-drew the boundaries of public and private for women and men. This invariably led to a disturbance of strictly homosocial spaces, contributing to a decline in the practices that took place there.

While a new ethos of monogamous heterosexuality became the norm in 20th-century Iran among the rural poor and urban elites, the conservative bazaari merchant class resisted such norms, linking them to contact with the imperialist West.

Modernization and Revolution

The modernization program of the Pahlavi shahs (r. 1925-1979) included important gains for women in marriage and divorce. The Family Protection Law of 1967/1975 “curtailed a man’s uncontested authority to divorce his wife through repudiation at any time or for whatever reason” and put limitations on polygamy. (216) It also raised the age of marriage for women to 18.

But the Pahlavi regimes alienated many, particularly conservative and traditional families, with their forced unveiling, political repression, and economic programs that benefited few and impoverished many.

The revolution was a response to the corrupt dictatorships of the Pahlavi shahs, and as Afary argues, the Islamist and secular left inherited and reproduced some of the anxieties about changing gender relations alive in the pre-revolutionary period.

“Some sectors of the left briefly defended women’s rights after the Islamist seizure of power, but others shared the Islamist view that those who demonstrated against Khomeini’s rollback of women’s rights were either naïve or outright tools of the imperialist powers, which wished to divided the revolutionaries in order to intervene in Iran, as they had in 1953. Thus, these three oppositional currents — secular leftists, supporters of [Ali] Shariati [the influential left Islamist], and followers of Khomeini — agreed that the preservation of the nation’s independence and cultural identity depended on maintaining many existing gender norms, even thought they differed in their articulations of what constituted this ostensibly authentic cultural realm.” (262)

The revolution largely failed women, particularly in the realm of legal rights. The Family Protection Law was rolled back and mandatory hejab imposed on women. But as Afary’s work demonstrates, the post-revolutionary period has witnessed some of the most innovative and important changes for women and for gender relations.

Afary looks at the rise of Islamic feminists in the decades following the revolution, like Zahra Rahnavard, the wife of reformist presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi. Rahnavard, like many Islamic feminists in Iran, has a long and compelling history of political activism.

Afary writes that the young Rahnavard was influenced by Marxism, and was part of the broad anti-Shah left. Ultimately, Rahnavard found Marxism irreconcilable with her religious beliefs. She became a follower of Shari’ati, then Khomeini, and joined the Islamist intellectual and political forces that supported the revolution. Highly educated — she has an M.A. in art and a Ph.D. in politics — Rahnavard “lived a life that seemed to offer many new choices” that weren’t available to previous generations.

“By becoming a political activist in the Islamist movement, she found a compromise solution. She returned to many of her familial ethical principles without abandoning her desire for new ones, such as an advanced education, professional and economic progress for women, and companionate marriage, albeit within the bounds of Islam.” (256)

I would modify Afary to argue that it is precisely Islam, or rather Islamization and the particular Iranian Islam of the modern revolutionary state, that made Rahnavard’s and so many Islamic feminists’ reconciliations of Islam and feminism possible. In other words, instead of a boundary, Islam is the very condition of Rahnavard’s and many other Muslim women’s feminist agency.

Afary explores the great paradox at work in contemporary Iran. The high literacy and life expectancy rates, increased age of marriage, low fertility rates and high levels of university education for women, all facilitated by the Islamist state, have raised women’s expectations and contributed to continuing shifting marriage and sex practices. New discourses about women’s rights, new gay subcultures and a predominantly youthful and cyber-literate population have intensified Iran’s century-old sexual revolution.

While Islamic law in Iran is largely unfavorable to women, everyday practices and desires have shifted tremendously, reflecting the trend towards more egalitarian and democratic families and relationships. While the elections showed, on the one hand, the repressive arm of the state, they also revealed Iran’s highly politicized population. As Afary asserts:

“At the turn of the twenty-first century, and with the emergence of a “third generation” of dissident youth, Iranian feminism had also redefined itself. The first generation resisted the shah and started the revolution. The second one endured the harsh early days of the Islamic Republic and the war. This third generation grew up in the reform era and was not only more confident, but seemed determined to confront the state.” (332)

Feminist activists are confronting the state through campaigns to reform family law, and they are doing so in a bottom-up, non-sectarian fashion. As the post-election green movement grows and changes, and Iranians push for greater democracy, women will continue to be key actors. As Afary brilliantly shows, the gender and sexual revolution in Iran is unfinished, unfolding and ultimately unstoppable.

ATC 145, March-April 2010

1 comment

  1. ” The high literacy and life expectancy rates, increased age of marriage, low fertility rates and high levels of university education for women, all facilitated by the Islamist state, have raised women’s expectations,” could you cite one, just one source for any of these claims. On every single account from literacy, to life expectancy,age of marraige,… past 30 years has been a total catastrophy for Iranian women, all round.

    Does ” GENDER-APARTHIED” exist and being practiced everyday by the state in Iran or not? If not( I would really like to know what you’re smoking), if yes how come there’s never a single mention of it in all of your analysis!?!?

    Why is this beloved ” Green” movement so allergic to March 8th?

Comments are closed.