Excerpts from a new book by Janet Afary
"Sexual Politics in Modern Iran"
Sunday 24 May 2009
"Sexual Politics in Modern Iran"
by Janet Afary
Sexual Politics in Modern Iran
Cambridge University (2009)
Janet Afary is a native of Iran and a leading historian. Her work focuses on gender and sexuality and draws on her experience of growing up in Iran and her involvement with Iranian women of different ages and social strata. These observations, and a wealth of historical documents, form the kernel of this book, which charts the history of the nation’s sexual revolution from the nineteenth century to today. What comes across is the extraordinary resilience of the Iranian people, who have drawn on a rich social and cultural heritage to defy the repression and hardship of the Islamist state and its predecessors. It is this resilience, the author concludes, which forms the basis of a sexual revolution taking place in Iran today, one that is promoting reforms in marriage and family laws, and demanding more egalitarian gender and sexual relations.
Chapter 9: The Islamic Revolution, Its Sexual Economy, and the Left
The 1979 Islamic revolution was not a wholesale return to the past; rather, the new state reinvented and expanded certain retrogressive cultural practices and presented them as what Foucault has called a “regime of truth” through modern technologies of power. As part of its commitment to modernity, the Islamist state continued the literacy and health campaigns of the Pahlavi era. It also created, alongside the army and the police force, a parallel series of paramilitary forces.
As soon as the regime attained some degree of authority, it established a new juridical discourse on sexuality, whose underlying theme was granting more power over women’s sexuality and reproductive functions to the state and to men, while also reversing modern trends in love and marriage. The state encouraged polygamy (multiple ‘aqdi wives) and temporary marriage, as well as the return of repudiation. While these measures weakened conjugal bonds of affection, they also served to compensate men who had acquiesced to the rules of the new theocratic state.
In the name of morality and the preservation of women’s honor, men of all social classes gained easier, cheaper access to sex, both inside and outside of marriage. The state reduced the age of marriage, and encouraged motherhood and large families, while limiting or closing other life choices for urban professional women. Small openings that had emerged for a modern, gay lifestyle in elite urban circles vanished and were replaced with a partial return to practices of covert bisexuality in male and female homosocial spaces.
The long Iran-Iraq War helped the regime to consolidate its new policies on sexuality. . . At home, the war allowed Khomeini and his allies to speed up the implementation of their harsh Islamist program and eliminate their moderate Islamic, nationalist, and leftist allies. By 1986, the Pasdaran had grown to 350,000 personnel grouped in battalion-size units, including a small navy and air force. The Basij had enrolled some three million armed volunteers, including many women’s units, at 11,000 centers. The Pasdarans received professional military training and operated on a fulltime basis, while the Basij consisted of those on active duty and others kept on reserve. Together, the Pasdarans and the Basij were considered the “eyes and ears” of the Islamic Republic. They served under the direct authority of the Revolutionary Council of Guardians led by Ayatollah Khomeini, and later Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and were never subject to any elected bodies such as the presidency or the parliament (Iran: A Country Study 2004, 11; “Pasdaran” 2007).
While they undertook many such activities during the war, after it ended, the Basij and the Pasdaran gave even greater attention to the surveillance and repression of the domestic population. Equipped with the latest weapons and subject to sophisticated riot-control training, they worked with the secret police SAVAMA and were instrumental in eliminating dissident groups. They spied on the general population. One of their most visible activities involved prowling around schools and factories to enforce the hijab regulations, often arresting youth for improper clothing and conduct. This could occur for as minor an infraction as a young man caught wearing a wearing a short-sleeved shirt. They also stopped cars to check for alcohol consumption or use of make-up by women; they burst into weddings and arrested guests for improper dress, alcohol violations, or Western music; or they broke into homes to destroy banned satellite TV receptors. These activities were coordinated with the Party of God (Hezbollah) who intimidated intellectuals by firebombing bookstores, disrupting social and political gatherings, and killing dissidents (“Niruyeh Moghavemat” 2007; “Pasdaran” 2007).
As the new revolutionary regime was placing greater limits on the rights of modern urban citizens, especially women, it simultaneously encouraged the more cloistered women of the old middle classes to become politically active in support of the Islamist cause. This is why Iranian women reacted to the policies of the Islamic Republic in such varied ways. Modern, urban women condemned the severe restrictions of the new regime, which deprived them of numerous rights, but many from the old middle classes actually gained greater rights. They credited Ayatollah Khomeini, the revolution, and the war with emancipating them from rigid and patriarchal households and allowing them to become active citizens. This was true, even when this activism began by denouncing the more secular supporters of women’s rights.