Afary's book "Sexual Politics in Modern Iran" is reviewed in the New York Review of Books

Published in New York Review of Books, Volume 56, Number 11, July 2, 2009

Divided Iran on the Eve

By Malise Ruthven

A cliché of Iran’s revolutionary rhetoric is that the United States is the Great Satan bent on destroying the Islamic Republic. While there is a genuine historical grievance over the CIA- sponsored “countercoup” that overthrew the nationalist Mossadegh government in 1953, the anti-Americanism that characterized Khomeini’s writings and still surfaces in Tehran street demonstrations seems closer to psychopathology than rational politics. Such frenzied antagonism, as Amanat suggests, owes more to Zoroastrian dualism than mainstream Quranic theology. In the Muslim scripture Satan (shaytan) is a less than Miltonic figure. He is just one demon among others, who has the role of tempter or ethical tester.

In the Zoroastrian schema, however, eternal conflict rages between supporters of Ahura Mazda, Lord of Wisdom, and those of the evil Ahriman. The cosmic battle is unending. One of Ahriman’s titles, the Demon of the Demons, is strikingly comparable to the Great Satan. Unlike the rather docile shaytan of Quranic tradition, his scope of operations and powers are immense. Amanat argues that during the early Islamic centuries Iranian Shiism absorbed the Zoroastrian view of a world divided between pure believers and polluting infidels, with bodies subject to constant danger. In the folk versions of Shiism that still persist, the human body is subject to all kinds of satanic onslaughts and must be constantly guarded against the enemy’s insidious plots. In a patriarchal social order it is, inevitably, women who bear the brunt of such guardianship.

Muslims were sometimes shocked when first encountering unveiled females. Their horror was registered by a Persian visitor to Europe in 1838, who, scandalized by the way that women handled “unclean” puppies, decided that women must be using their pets as sex toys:

The husbands of such women are very happy and content with this arrangement…. Women are so sexually aggressive in this country that no man, no matter what his potency and skill, can hope to satisfy them.

The East–West battle over gender is brilliantly described by Janet Afary in her groundbreaking survey Sexual Politics in Modern Iran. As in other patrilineal societies the woman is the “door of entry to the group.” Improper behavior on her part can expose her community and family to all sorts of hidden dangers. Systems such as these

exercise a double standard wherein a woman’s infidelity (but not a man’s) is seen to allow tangible and damaging impurities to infiltrate the family, both physically and morally…. A woman’s sexual and reproductive functions turned her body into a contested site of potential and real ritual contamination. The concept of namus (honor) and the need to control women’s chastity may be related to this fear of sexual contamination.

The sexual double standard was effectively institutionalized in all the mainstream Islamic traditions: men were permitted up to four legal wives and the right of divorce by repudiation (talaq). However, in pre-modern Iran (prior to the 1920s) male prerogatives were enhanced by the practice of temporary marriage (sigheh), which was exclusive to Shiism, and by the availability of concubines, which persisted after the formal abolition of slavery at the end of the nineteenth century. Sigheh was a sexual charter for men: the ease with which it was contracted meant that consensual affairs between men (married or unmarried) and single women could hardly ever be labeled fornication, and therefore subject to Islamic penalties.

Gender segregation—common to most Islamic societies—contributed to the prevalence of other practices that are rarely discussed in social histories of Islam: boy concubinage and pedophilia. Although liwat or lavat (sodomy) is condemned in the Quran (the word alludes to the Old Testament story of Lot), homosexual relationships between older men and boys were tolerated, not least because they posed a lesser threat to the patriarchal order than unregulated heterosexual interactions.

Afary’s book exposes the absurdity of claims by ideologues such as Ali Akbar Natiq-Nuri, a former Iranian minister of the interior and presidential candidate, who blame the West for “spreading corruption and obscenity, propagating debauchery and homosexuality.” She provides plenty of evidence to show that the prohibition against liwat was honored in the breach. Beardless boys, not yet being men, could be “penetrated without losing their essential manliness, so long as they did not register pleasure in the act, which would suggest a pathology liable to continue into adulthood.” In a society where beards were de rigueur, the beardless European male was often thought to be an amrad (catamite). Institutionalized pederasty was part of a wider culture in which family security balanced or compensated for the turbulence prevailing in the public domain.

Under the Qajar dynasty, which took power in the 1790s, Iran had a rigidly hierarchical social order, with clearly defined class and ethnic boundaries, a coherent religious establishment, and above all a pattern of family obligations that fostered strong communal identities. Marriage—including child marriage—was nearly universal, with parents choosing spouses for children of both sexes.

The available records can only hint at the sexual culture that flourished in the privacy of homes:

Reported crimes were low in a world where girls, boys, and women endured or quietly resisted incest, sexual molestation, and rape.

Yet contrary to assumptions about the emancipatory effects of Westernization, urban women in pre-modern Iran enjoyed a considerable amount of personal freedom. In the 1850s the wife of Britain’s ambassador observed that women of all classes

enjoy abundance of liberty, more so, I think, than among us. The complete envelopment of the face and person disguises them effectively from the nearest relatives, and destroying, when convenient, all distinction of rank, gives unrestrained freedom.

Afary points to references in the indigenous literature to pimps and love-brokers and to the secret affairs of married, divorced, or widowed women. In a patriarchal order where honor was defined by women’s conduct, with sexual transgressions of respectable women severely punished, it was the veil itself that provided opportunities for resistance.

Afary’s perspective throws useful, if unfamiliar light on the impact and consequences of the social reforms instituted by Reza Shah Pahlevi—the Cossack general who rose to supreme power in the chaotic aftermath of World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution. The changes he imposed—European-style dress codes for men that reduced ethnic or religious distinctions, compulsory unveiling for women, and the desegregation of gender, along with measures such as raising the age of marriage to eighteen and improvements in public hygiene—were modeled on the perceived advantages enjoyed by people in the industrialized West. Mired in their medieval fortress mentality, religious leaders adamantly resisted, waging propaganda against vaccination, protesting against the installation of faucets in public bathhouses, and forbidding the use of alcohol for sterilization. The religious establishment instinctively recognized that in enacting reforms in the realms of hygiene and dress, the state was appropriating their powers as the guardians of purity.

These reforms accelerated divisions that were cultural as well as social. A new middle class, exposed to modern education, comprising less than 10 percent of the country’s labor force, became increasingly secular in outlook and distant from the dominant religious culture, while the majority—the rural peasantry and the small traders of the urban bazaars—remained attached to the instructions of their mullahs. The outcome may be described as an era of profound psychic discomfort for a majority of Iranians going about their daily lives. “Modernity,” Afary concludes,

instituted a double life for pious Muslims. Outwardly, they behaved as modern citizens of the state, ignoring religious hierarchies and engaging not just in business and trade with women and non-Muslims, as they had always done, but also mingled socially, shaking hands and sharing tea or meals with them. Inwardly, many bazaaris harbored a constant sense of anxiety since they continued to believe that a pious Shi’i Muslim who ignored the proper rituals of purification after encounters with najes (polluted) individuals had “nullified” his prayers and supplications to God and the Imams.

Initially Khomeini’s revolution upended the Pahlavi reforms, leading to a drastic reversal in women’s rights. The compulsory hijab (veil) was imposed for women in public, with even slight violations bringing severe punishment (seventy-four lashes or a year’s imprisonment), though since the face is exposed, it no longer gives the advantage of anonymity. Women and men no longer enjoy equality under the law, with evidence from a man worth twice that of a woman. Lashing, amputation, and stoning have been applied by the courts, with the latter punishment reserved for women convicted of adultery. The courts apply lighter sentences than previously for husbands, fathers, and brothers accused of “honor killings.” There are even regulations against public displays of affection.

Under Khomeini child marriage was allowed once more, with the age of marriage reduced from eighteen to nine for girls (revised, after protests, to thirteen) and fifteen for boys. New laws encouraged polygamy and prevented women from leaving abusive husbands. The husband’s right of unilateral divorce (limited under the Shah’s reforms) was reinstated. New policies encouraged temporary marriage as a “morally sanctioned substitute for Western dating,” with trial sigheh marriages recommended for high school students and sex workers invited to enter short-term marriage contracts with returning war veterans.

In sum, Afary suggests that the sexual doctrines instituted by Khomeini vastly increased the authority of men and the state “over women’s sexual and reproductive capacities.” This was not a

minor side effect of the [revolution]. Rather, it formed an important, though often unspoken, reason for male support or acquiescence in the face of Islamization.

At the same time, change is moving in the opposite direction. Paradoxically, the revolution released many young women from their family ties, which is why many found it attractive or expedient to join Islamist movements. During the war with Iraq, women were encouraged to enlist in the armed forces, with Khomeini urging women to “defend their Islamic and national honor” and to complete “the military, partisan, and guerrilla training appropriate for a resurgent Muslim nation.” Female volunteers reported that years spent on the front, alongside their “brother warriors” were the best in their lives.

Statistics reveal a picture that differs strikingly from the legal texts. Despite the formal reintroduction of child marriage, the mean age of first marriages for young women has continued to rise from around nineteen before the revolution to twenty-four today—with nearly 80 percent married after the age of twenty. The revolution has maintained the momentum of the Shah’s literacy campaigns, with literacy rates exceeding 95 percent for both sexes. With young women from rural families seeing education as the path to economic independence, a majority of college students are now women. “Companionate marriage,” with couples freely choosing their partners, is becoming the norm. Modern social forces are universal. Despite its reactionary rhetoric, the Islamic revolution is being remorselessly carried on their tide.

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