- Performing Variant Selves Over TimeDeciphering Trans and Same-Sex-Desiring Subjectivities in Contemporary Iran
Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013. 432 pp.
This historical and ethnographic study comes at a moment in which two popular American serials feature transgender characters, a time of growing attention to transgender rights and experiences in the American public sphere. Yet it is also a time in which Iran continues to be an American foreign policy focus with the conclusion of nuclear talks and the loosening of sanctions while at the same time being represented in popular American and Canadian media as a nation ironically at the forefront of both transgender rights and homosexual oppression. Add to this the firm, hegemonic hold of Islamophobia and its attendant fetishisms and orientalist fascinations with all things Muslim, and you have a context primed for the publication of this book. Despite the allure of potential audiences/markets born of these current historical circumstances, however, Najmabadi does not kowtow to a desire for representations of trans Iran by rendering ethnographically stable subjects. On the contrary, she explores a shape-shifting, subjective play, what she calls “the art of existence” (2), rendering a culturally situated practice of survival that slips and slides around what we in the West understand to be the continuum of gender. So rather than represent stable and coherent postoperative subjects who in the West might be understood to have found their “authentic selves,” Najmabadi examines how institutions like medicine, media, the state, and Islam, both as globalized epistemic formations and through their localized practices, come to constitute the complex lexicon through which Iranian trans and same-sex-desiring persons profess contingent and dynamic versions of self over time. Najmabadi’s claims, too, are made contingently, given the rapidly changing religio-political context for sexuality in Iran (see especially chap. 7).
Professing Selves begins as a compendium on the formation of jins (roughly [End Page 676] translated as genus, which we can just as roughly understand as the collapsing of sex/gender) to illustrate the complexity of the sex/gender concept in Iranian modernity, carefully historicizing how it came into being differently than sex/ gender/sexuality has in the Western context. As with Najmabadi’s first book, Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards, Professing Selves engages a rich media archive that includes newspapers, television, film, paintings, and photography, as well as online resources like chat rooms, blogs, and government websites.1 Unlike in her first book, however, Najmabadi spends a great deal more time on published textual archives focusing on the murder trials of two infamous Iranian transgender persons, leaving this reader wanting for some of the more subtle analyses of visual texts so adeptly displayed in her first book. For instance, there is the start of a rich discussion of Ghasem Hajizadeh’s paintings of “mard-i zan-numah,” or “woman-presenting males” in the 1970s (including a brief discussion of the two untitled, full-color photographic plates reproduced in chap. 4). These paintings exemplify local cultural practices that performatively resignified genders and sexualities otherwise understood as foreign or the result of “Westoxication” (135). Najmabadi could have elaborated here upon her brilliant concept “the marriage imperative” (the means of securing membership within a natal family, the mechanism through which gender is made intelligible, which she discusses primarily in other chapters) in the context of these fascinating paintings, many of which depict MTF trans figures posing for wedding-like photos, with male-presenting men. It would seem precisely through a countercultural appropriation of “the marriage imperative” that these subjects made mard-i zan-numah into an indigenous, Iranian cultural formation (135). Additionally, Najmabadi could have offered the reader more meta-commentary on the significance of media as an institutional and discursive venue with which Iranian trans and same-sex-desiring persons have had to contend during the twentieth century. Or perhaps Najmabadi could have engaged more with the rich archive of material on performance studies in queer theory, given the concluding chapter’s emphasis on performance. Even so, the book gathers a rich and diverse archive of materials presented over...