- Liminalities of Gender and Sexuality in Nineteenth-Century Iranian Photography: Desirous Bodies by Staci Gem Scheiwiller
Staci Gem Scheiwiller
London: Routledge, 2017
240 pages. isbn 9781138201293
In Liminalities of Gender and Sexuality in Nineteenth-Century Iranian Photography: Desirous Bodies, Staci Gem Scheiwiller foregrounds the representation of bodies and desire in Qajar photography as a lens through which to read questions of gender, sexuality, and race in nineteenth-century Iran. Methodologically, Scheiwiller has extensively used a rich collection of images from archival sources in Iran, Europe, and the United States alongside secondary works on Qajar photography. Theoretically, the text employs Homi Bhabha’s work in postcolonial theory, while engaging productively with Afsaneh Najmabadi’s Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity (2005). Scheiwiller reads these photographs through the prism of desire, and justifies this approach against possible neo-Orientalist accusations of “framing the Middle East in terms of sexuality,” with “two points: (1) photographs illustrating persons revolve around interpretations of the human body; and (2) if the body is the main focus of particular photographs, such as portraits, ethnographic studies, and erotica, then the representation of the body has the potential to provide information about gender, sexuality, and desire within a particular era and/or context, however idealized” (1).
Scheiwiller’s choice to foreground notions of “desire” through an analysis of “bodies” in these Qajar photographs is a welcome psychoanalytic approach that she describes as “mostly performative and innately psychoanalytic in examining the material” (11). In her foregrounding of postcolonial and gender theory, she misses the opportunity to justify how placing them alongside psychoanalysis is either complementary or theoretically productive. Indeed, the largely Foucauldian/postcolonial/gender theory theoretical edifice (the “body” being the privileged term here) that she has built throughout her text in reading these photographs does not generally fit well with psychoanalytic theory, and the (Lacanian) [End Page 62] psychoanalytic notion of desire as lack (11) could have been more extensively discussed and deployed. This is a lost opportunity, considering how psychoanalytic concepts such as the unconscious, desire, drive, fetish, fantasy, jouissance (enjoyment), or repression could have enabled the posing of different sets of questions and inquired into different details in the photographs or their form. Despite these minor concerns, there are many valuable and interesting readings of Qajar photography that significantly contribute to the history of nineteenth-century photography in Iran and, more specifically, to the fields of gender and sexuality and postcolonial and race theory, and to the history of photography in general.
Scheiwiller’s book is structured around eight chapters that are effectively self-contained articles, each including endnotes and a bibliography. Chapter 2 contextualizes the representation of women in Qajar photographs through a history of the visual representation of women in earlier mediums (i.e., paintings, miniatures,), highlighting continuities with these traditions, while noting that Qajar photography developed “a language of its own” (28), with the new technology facilitating new representations of women and gender. Many of the photographs in this chapter consist of images from the Qajar harem and marginalized groups, such as prostitutes (rusbis), musicians (motrebis), and black female slaves/servants. Although Scheiwiller provides some valuable readings, she misreads the hand fan in two images of seated women as a sewing implement, and thereby her conclusion that this is “an almost universal symbol of femininity and lady like activity and skill” (41) is unwarranted. Indeed, the hand fan in this instance is a symbol of the elite status of these women rather than their femininity. Also, the spatial logic of private space (andaruni) reserved for women and public space (biruni) for men, which structured Qajar domestic life, needed to be foregrounded here to draw out the often staged character of many of the photographs.
In chapter 3 Scheiwiller examines the “Corporal Politics” of Nasir al-Din Shah’s photographs of his harem that look at both women and eunuchs. Scheiwiller discusses how these women often appear unveiled, which, as she rightly points out, meant the uncovering of the face and not the hair (48). According to the author, many...