- Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity
Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity is a courageous historiography of gender and homoerotic desires as the foci of modernity in Iran from the eighteenth century through the first decades of the twentieth century. This was the time of the Qajar Dynasty (1785-1925), when cultural sensibilities were especially important in understanding homoeroticism and same-sex relationships as signifiers for evaluating Iranian modernity. Considering gender in its comprehensive sense as the subject of this research, Afsaneh Najmabadi confronts the reader with a historical challenge and augments the feminist discourse prevalent among scholars of Iran, which has been traditionally dedicated to understanding the plight of women within the context of heterosexual and patriarchal relations of power.
The complex nature of the topic and Najmabadi's use of a technical set of vocabulary specific to the discipline can initially make the narrative seem difficult to follow. One needs to engage with the text in the kind of close reading that becomes increasingly more involved and interesting to follow. The text entails eight chapters divided into two principal sections, "Beauty, Love, and Sexuality" and "Cultural Labor of Sexuality and Gender." As these titles indicate, aesthetics and the artistic culture of the period under consideration offer a viable venue for approaching the question of gender, especially among the social elite and the nobility at the center of the production of this culture and its social infiltration.
In her analysis Najmabadi makes ample references to Qajar paintings, illustrations, and photographs as well as periodical resources, fictional literature, memoirs, and historical chronicles. A most acute observation concerns the transformation of the image of the male beloved. Nineteenth-century Qajar literary and visual culture abounds with allusions to beautiful young men as the personification of the heavenly creatures, ghilman (young angelic boys), on this earth. The author identifies this type of male not as a child but as an adolescent youth who is desired by his male counterparts. The modern representation of this male persona is an extension of the male beloved who is met in classical mystical-erotic literary and artistic culture. In the Qajar era this familiar persona with his alluring characteristics reflected the relationships that permeated court life and society at large.
There are two important subjects that are addressed in this context. One is the scarcity of similar material on the subject of women homoerotic relationships, and the other is the dynamics of class privilege and age difference that can dominate the desiring affairs between men and adolescent boys. Najmabadi responds to the first with the erudition of a skilled scholar [End Page 587] who extracts information on missing subjects from extant documents and resources. In this case she deciphers information on same-sex relationships among women by probing the available material on heterosexual and male homoerotic relationships. These sources, she explains, respond to women's homoerotic desires in this discourse by alluding to and intentionally evading the subject. For instance, Najmabadi argues that in the classical period gender was not reduced to the dichotomized categories of male and female, and other gender categories were recognized on their own ground. These categories acknowledge male homoeroticism in terms such as amrad and mukhannis. In the modern era men who defied the accepted norm of manliness were branded as effeminate or unmanly. Allusions to these men and the textual and iconographic representation of them in this culture are instances that demonstrate how women and their homoerotic desires were defined. The issue of unequal sexual relationships that were motivated by social status and age difference is a topic that Najmabadi refers to but does not elaborate. A more expansive discussion of this issue could enhance the study by delineating between different kinds of intrigues, attractions, seductions, and infringements that informed gender and homoeroticism in an epoch that was still imbued with the prebourgeois culture of nobility, distinction, and dominance.