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GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 12.2 (2006) 329-331
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Afsaneh Najmabadi's marvelously original Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards compellingly argues that modernization in Iran was intimately related to the "heterosocialization" of gender and sexual relations; in effect, the "heteronormalization of eros and sex became a condition of 'achieving modernity'" (3). More than an absorbing social and cultural history of modern gender relations in Iran, this book represents a significant intervention in the historiography of modernity within Iranian, Middle Eastern, and gender studies alike. Drawing on literary and visual sources as varied as Qajar paintings, literature, popular artifacts, national emblems, and political essays, this study offers a richly situated analysis of nineteenth-century transformations of gender and sexuality in the production of modern political life in Iran. What sets this study apart from most historical accounts is that by deploying gender analytically, Najmabadi foregrounds the problem of retroactively ascribing modern assumptions about gender to a premodern Iran. Simply put, gender, here, is not reproduced as a consistent object of study cohering around the presumed integrity of the binary man/woman. Not content simply to describe how men and women participated in, resisted, benefited from, or suffered from modernity in Iran, the book undertakes the much more ambitious and rewarding project of demonstrating how central tropes of modernity—nation, citizen, homeland—were gendered articulations that transformed conceptions of beauty, love, and marriage during the Qajar Dynasty (1785–1925).
The chapters in the book's first section describe how securing modern heterosocial [End Page 329] gender relations depended upon transformations of sexuality. Najmabadi's analysis of the visual and literary representations of love and beauty begins with the late eighteenth century and turns on the figure of the ghilman (paradisiacal young male from the Qur'an) or its variant the amrad (beardless adolescent male) as a central object of male desire. Najmabadi argues that verbal descriptions as well as visual portrayals of beauty were initially not gendered, so the same adjectives and visual characteristics idealizing men, as "moon-faced, Venus-shaped, with crescent eyebrows, magic eyes, black scented hair," were equally applicable to women (11). However, Najmabadi detects a significant shift during the nineteenth century, as visual representations of beauty became increasingly feminized until the male object of desire completely disappeared from Qajar royal paintings. Her analysis successfully disarticulates the culturally idealized attributes of young male beauty from expressions of femininity. Using gender analytically enables Najmabadi to be mindful of how deviations from current Western conceptions of masculinity are automatically and retroactively read as a feminization. In fact, same-sex love between men was entrenched in an economy of desire derived from the Sufi tradition of divine love. "Muslim mystics claimed to see in the beauty of the adolescent boys a 'testimony' to the beauty and goodness of God, and initiated the practice of gazing at such a boy as a form of spiritual exercise" (17). While moral and religious criticism of same-sex practices among men had long existed, Najmabadi finds evidence in the surviving personal narratives of political elite men of the period that homosexual relations were rather common during Qajar Iran. Najmabadi maintains that the increasing disavowal of homosexual practices, signaled in the feminization of beauty, was a result of Iranian anxieties about European perceptions of sexual relations between men as a sign of Iranian backwardness. The explicit disgust reflected in travel writings by Europeans such as Sir William Ouseley were couched in terms of the effeminacy of the amrad, and thereby linked beardlessness with effeminacy. Europeans had their own anxieties about Iranian readings of their clean-shaven men, as evidenced in James Morier's widely read novel, The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan in England. "Whereas European men read beardless Iranian male faces as effeminate, Iranian men read beardless European male faces as the ghilman (or as amrad)."1
The chapters in the book...