February 15, 2006

Prof Explores Gender

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Female mustaches were totally in style. Or at least they used to be fashionable in Iran.

Prof. Afsaneh Najmabadi, history and studies on women, gender and sexuality, Harvard University, discussed sexuality in Iran, her native country, yesterday in the A.D. White House.

“There is a centrality of sexuality in education, family, culture, citizenship and conceptions of homeland in Iran,” said Prof. Amy Villarejo, feminist, gender and sexuality studies. “There are knots of history where there are countercurrents and contradictions to the sexuality.”

During the Qajar dynasty, which ruled Iran from 1785 to 1925, many women used mascara to create a small female mustache.

“It was a different kind of aesthetic sensibility,” Najmabadi said.

The mustache, or its imitation, signified a young man’s beauty, like that of a nawkhatt, a young male with the first trace of a mustache. Such an adolescent represented the ideal of beauty. Older men were further distinguished from younger men by having a full beard.

Younger and older men engaged in homosocial relations, such as holding hands or hugging. Men did engage in homosexual acts, but no hegemonious notion of homosexuality emerged and such acts were considered on par with sleeping with a woman who was not a man’s wife.

As Iranian men went to Europe and Europeans came to Iran, however, “Europeans misread homosociality for homosexuality,” Najmabadi said.

At the same time, Iranian men in London considered the young men there to be figures of desire because of their clean-shaven faces. But in 1892, Iran prohibited shaving beards.

“It is fascinating that throughout so many cultures there is a history of homosexuality or homosociality, and it’s not just confined to Greece or Rome,” said Joy Naifeh ’06. “It is empowering that during the eighteenth century and during the Qajar period, homosexuality or homosexual desire was OK.”

In the mid 1900s, there was a heterosocial promise where females were able to join modern men in giving birth to a new nation. Male homosociality was desexualized because such relations disrupted family life. Now, Iran subsidizes sex change surgery as a means to get rid of gay men. The resulting transsexuals are openly allowed to organize and discuss their situation. Despite the judicial and medical acceptance of such surgeries, these people are still struggling to gain social acceptance.

Today the female mustache is no longer a sign of beauty. It has become undesirable, and there is apparent discomfort and disdain when Iranians talk about it.

Villarejo said that Najmabadi’s work is “really important in helping us think about modern Iran and think about the relation between values in the West and what we need to learn about other traditions and systems of social and sexual life.”

The Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies Program, the Departments of Near Eastern Studies, History, Government and the Society for the Humanities sponsored the lecture. The lecture shared the name of Najmabadi’s new book, Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity.

Archived article by Dana Mendelowitz
Sun Staff Writer