I wrote this for my Women & Gender in Islam class this semester. Enjoy, and let me know what you think! (The footnotes didn’t transfer, but my bibliography is included at the bottom.)
The Evolution of Masculinity and Views on Male Homosexuality in Qajar Iran (1785-1925)
Throughout much of Iranian history, homoeroticism was not seen as something peculiar; the male youth, or amrad, was the pinnacle of beauty, and was to be appreciated by older men. This can be seen through centuries of Iranian poetry, and literature shows that homosexual practices were not uncommon or viewed in a negative light.
However, the concept of ‘masculinity’ changed dramatically in Iran during the Qajar period of 1785-1925 due to European political and artistic influences. The Qajars were an ethnically Oghuz Turkic ruling class in Iran, which strived to unite and modernize Iran, and rose to power in the 1780s.
The popularity of the newly invented camera and French photographic style among Qajar elites altered the way Qajar men viewed themselves as well as others throughout the 1800s, therefore transforming the Iranian ‘male gaze’ into one of European-style heteronormativity. Western European standards of masculinity continued to be implemented even without the presence of French photographers in later Qajar practice.
Once these heteronormative ideas became associated with the Qajar ruling class, they were seen as part of ‘modern’ Iranian culture and began to affect society’s perception of homoeroticism and homosexual practices as well as masculinity in general. New notions of what constituted ‘appropriate’ male behavior affected all spaces of life, impacting men’s relations with other men and women in daily life, as well as representations of men in art, photography, and poetry. As ‘sexuality’ came to exist as an identity, rather than simply a sexual preference or act, behaviors that were once acceptable began to be re-interpreted as indecent, and consequently, homoerotic or ‘effeminate’ behavior was discouraged, and later in Iran’s history, prohibited.
Masculinity and Sexuality in Iran in the 1700-1800s
Concepts of ‘masculinity’ and ‘sexuality’ in the early Qajar period were far from what they are today. Ajmadbadi writes that “Notions of beauty were largely undifferentiated by gender in Qajar Iran (1785 – 1925); that is, beautiful men and women were depicted with very similar facial and bodily features.” In this period, there was one standard of beauty, regardless of gender, and in Qajar art, it can be difficult to tell the gender of the subjects. Beautiful men and women were described in similar ways, generally in ways that today are considered ‘feminine’, such as having gentle features, smooth hairless skin, long hair and a coquettish demeanor.
The most beautiful males were those who had not yet shown signs of facial hair and were more physically gender-ambiguous. The youth, regardless of sex, made up what could be considered an androgynous third-gender, seeing as they looked similar to each other and were treated similarly by society; they were objects of desire for the ‘male gaze’. Depictions of idolized male youths show them with slim and curvaceous bodies as well as long hairstyles that would now be considered ‘feminine’. Since both the young male and young female appealed to ‘the male gaze’, paintings often depicting young couples. The fact that now these bodies are viewed in a gender-specific way shows that there has been a transition in society’s concept of gender.
In early Qajar fashion, male rulers wore luxurious dresses and covered themselves in fine jewelry, while later in the period, they retired these robes for European-influenced royal wear. Throughout the period, however, beards remained an important symbol among men of power, and in depictions of couples, and often are the only way to distinguish the lover from the beloved, be them male and young male, or male and female. The beard was a sign of a mature ‘masculine’ male, however, proper ‘masculinity’ did not initially assume specific heteronormative behaviors.
Not all Iranian men were ‘feminine’, as often told by Orientalist writers, they simply did not perform masculinity in the same way that Europeans did at the time. Iranian culture was not ‘backwards’, it simply had a different system than the heteronormative one Western European travelers were accustomed to in their home countries. It is important to note that only very young hairless-faced males were seen as the center of the ‘male gaze’, while older men were, in good taste, expected not to shave their faces, as this was seen as a deception.
In Iran, the appearance of facial hair was the chief determining factor of ‘youth’, therefore the actual age of amrads could vary but loosely ranged between 8 and 20. Once a male began to grow facial hair, his position in society advanced from an object of desire to one who desires others. The idea of what constituted as ‘youth’ was flexible, similarly to the constructs of gender and masculinity. These concepts were not as black-and-white in Qajar Iran as they seem today in Western and contemporary Iranian culture.
Men were expected to marry women as they matured, however, this did not mean that they did not court young male lovers as well. There were many nuanced social stigmas associated with masculinity and sexual practices. For example, older men who shaved their faces were viewed as effeminate or ‘lacking desire of women’. ‘Passive’ homosexual behavior was something that men were expected to grow out of. Older men who did not marry were judged for still only pursuing young men; while younger men with beards were judged for continuing to be interested in older men and ‘passive’ sex. Those who shaved in order to appear younger were chastized and referred to as ‘mukhannas’. The mukhannas were ambiguous in terms of gender as they were often male or dressed as males, but not always, and they had a different role in society as typical adult males as mukhannas were often slaves or from lower classes. These cross-dressing entertainers, both male and female, were not uncommon in Qajar Iran and were apparently “wealthy and respected”. However, it is noted in all of these sources that the line between musician/entertainer and prostitute was a thin line indeed. So, complex ideas of masculinity and appropriate sexual conduct did in fact exist, however, these values did not line up exactly with ‘modern’ European ideals.
For example, older men performing ‘active’ homosexual behavior were generally not viewed negatively. The zurkhaneh was essentially a male-only gym where warriors, wrestlers, and other sportsmen met to train, spar, and bathe. This homosocial space was an important part of Iranian culture, and the men who participated in matches at the zurkhaneh were seen as ‘bold and fearless, unrestrained’. Members of the zurkhaneh were also known for their love of male slaves, but this did not diminish their valor and strength, as sexual masculinity was characterized by penetrating others, regardless of the receiver’s sex.
As long as men in Qajar Iran performed their ‘reproductive functions’ with their wives at some point, their homosexual activities were permitted, though it was recorded that many Qajar rulers had a strong preference for amrads, and would more likely than not choose amrad lovers over female courtesans.
The idea of gender-transcending youths and the prevalence of male-youth relationships both have Pre-Islamic roots, and therefore the Qur’an was often loosely interpreted in order to fit with these pre-Islamic practices, as is the nature of a spreading and evolving religion. Islam is generally interpreted as prohibiting sexual activities between two men, however, male youths were not subjected to a gendered view as being actual men (or women), but simply regarded as beautiful youths. Thus a man taking a young male lover, or rather, ‘a youthful beloved’, was not necessarily going against his faith, depending on the local interpretation of shari’a. For comparison, homosexual acts were not punished by the Qajar dynasty, while in France and England during this period, sodomy was punishable by death.
It is important to remember also that while these amrad relationships may straddle the line of what today would be considered pedophilia, the idea of ‘childhood innocence’ as something ‘sacred’ did not yet exist. Amrads and often their parents needed to consent to these relations with older men, for if they did not, and non-consensual sexual acts occurred, the older man would be severely punished by the law. These relationships were common among the elite class and were seen in some ways as mentorships, providing the amrad with valuable connections later in his life.
It is important to note also that these concepts are not uniquely Iranian, as male-youth relationships have been widely documented throughout the ancient and world in Greece, Mesopotamia, India, and China. These practices were popular for centuries until they came in contact with new religious practices or other cultures which forbade them.
European Concepts of Masculinity
The heteronormativity of the ‘male gaze’ in France was firmly shaped in the late 1600s and 1700s. Starting in the 1700s in France, official anti-sodomy laws became enforced by the government. Until 1750, sodomy was punishable by death in France and was punishable by imprisonment until Penal Code of 1791 ignored the sex acts of consenting individuals in private.
As Michel Foucault writes on sexuality, “The term itself did not appear until the beginning of the nineteenth century… The use of the word was established in connection with other phenomena: the establishment of a set of rules and norms..which found support in religious, judicial, pedagogical and medical institutions” .
Men’s sexual reputations regarding their wives, men, and other women became extremely important, especially in a Christian context, in Western Europe. Certain sexual behaviors, from sodomy to extramarital affairs were increasingly seen as ‘impure’ in France and England, and these notions began to spread by way of travelers and colonial policy. These behaviors did not disappear of course but were now forced to be concealed since they had been deemed socially unacceptable.
Extramarital relations negatively affected the nuclear family, which could not function without a ‘proper’ husband. These ideas were imported to Iran by way of various military modernizing excursions as well as Christian ‘civilizing missions’ to Qajar Iran. Iran was able to defeat the Russians and British in various skirmishes on its border but was still subjected to “relentless conquests” both militarily and ideologically. However, the Qajars welcomed European travelers, as well as European philosophy and technology. The dynasty strived to be ‘modern’ and enjoyed European culture. Travelers and artists, however, were equally capable of influencing Iranian culture, in more subtle but equally as transformative ways as colonial powers.
The idea of ‘childhood’ emerged in British Victorian society in the 1840s, protecting ‘those who had not fully matured’ from the harshness of labor, life, and sex. Sexual practices with those who had not reached ‘full maturity’ (which is vague as sexual maturity is different for different people as well as for men and women) were frowned upon, and the new age of consent continued to rise throughout the 20th century. In Europe, seeing ‘boys’ as objects of desire was taboo, and sex acts with them considered a criminal offense under sodomy laws. Therefore the desire of amrads in Iranian culture was seen as ‘backwards’ in the eyes of Orientalist writers.
Orientalists openly wrote about the “destestable vices” of Iranians, using moral and religious rhetoric to portray the Qajar empire as primitive and “decadent”. French writers such as Vivant Denon described Iranian male dancers as “disgusting”, claiming they “presented in the most indecent way, scenes which love has reserved for the two sexes.” It did not take long for these ideas of heteronormativity and European hypermasculinity to reach Iran.
As Western-educated Iranian elites brought back European ideas of gender and sexuality, the Qajar dynasty’s policies began to reflect ‘modern’ European ones. The concept of the ambiguous youth began to disappear as European ideas of a two-gendered world penetrated the Iranian classes.
Changing Representations of Men in Qajar Art
The French invention of the camera in 1816 and its popularity among Qajar elites greatly influenced dramatic changes in perceptions of beauty and masculinity. In the Qajar empire, the first photographers were French, and they projected European ideas onto Qajar leadership. These photographers had in their minds how the ideal ruler was ‘supposed’ to look and how he was to carry himself, so this is how Qajar rulers were portrayed. These leaders were to be depicted as strong and firm, like warriors, rather than luxurious and beautiful, and accepted these depictions as part of the ‘modern’ Qajar identity. By reframing Qajar life and style through a French lens, photography created the image of the stern and powerful Qajar man. European dress, in addition to ideas, were increasingly seen as ‘modern’, and elite Qajar men abandoned long flowing colorful dresses, jewels and fluid poses for dark pants, sharp angles, and broad shoulders.
Men were posing mainly for other men, and women were posing for men as well, therefore most photography was curated towards the satisfaction of the ‘male gaze’. By changing what the ‘male gaze’ found attractive, as well as what was considered ‘masculine’, photography altered the way men sought to see themselves portrayed.
However, traditional homoerotic art forms did not suddenly vanish, they merely adapted to the new and stricter constructs. Scenes of the zurkhaneh were photographed extensively, as these men were historically viewed as hypermasculine, despite the homoerotic nature of these male bodies in close physical contact. The men of the zurkhaneh continued to be a popular symbol in Iranian art forms such as the later cinema, however, without the homosexual connotations. Elites and their amrads were photographed extensively as well, in the early 1800s. As the amrad relationship came under questioning, less of these photos circulated in the later 1800s and early 1900s.
Over time, male behavior shifted over time to mirror these representations. Across Europe and the Middle East, beauty and ‘passive’ sex had become synonymous with ‘feminity’. Two subtle social revolutions took place as a result of this idea: one, since only women should be feminine, men, young men included, needed to be something else in order not to be like women; and two, heteronormativity became a fundamental aspect of ‘modernity’. The ‘something else’ men were expected to become was an exaggerated European form of masculinity.
In response, Qajar paintings no longer painted unrealistic standards of beauty that blurred the lines of sex, in favor of more realistic paintings similar to photographs that focused on bold and erect older men, rather than beautiful and voluptuous male youths. Photography was ‘modern’ and therefore fantastical and unrealistic representations of people were not as well-received as they previously had been.
Additionally, many traditional genres of male dancing ceased to exist in this period as they were seen as effeminate. Male dancers began to dance in stiff and simple ‘hypermasculine’ ways that more closely resembled European dance. Male dancers were no longer the centerpiece of the performance but rather the physical support for lifting women, who were to be the object of the ‘male gaze’.
The lifting of women, performed by young male dancers, showed that ‘masculinity’ was not limited only to older, bearded men. Those who previously would have been considered amrads, were now expected to perform the same European-engineered version of ‘masculinity’ as older males; they were no longer seen as part of the ambiguous third-gender, but simply as younger men.
Delicate, graceful or sensual movements of the hips and shoulders that invoked sexual desires began to be regarded as feminine and were no longer choreographed. Professional theatre dancers were instructed to dance in more ‘masculine’ movements which resembled the athletic pursuits of the zurkhaneh. In general, the popularity of male dancers decreased in this period, as they began to be more closely associated with ‘indecent’ acts such as homosexuality and prostitution, and therefore dancing was not regarded as a ‘proper’ job for a man. These stereotypical ideas linger in both Iran and Western European society today.
The law also contributed to the concretization of ‘masculinity’, as the Qajar empire passed dress code laws in the 1800s prohibiting men from cross-dressing or ambiguous dressing, in the spirit of the Islam. Stricter and more literal interpretations of Islam surfaced in order to reinforce heteronormative behavior and enforce the laws. However, anti-sodomy laws were becoming more relaxed in France and did not arrive in Iran until much later.
Photography of the time shows that the Qajar edicts against cross-dressing were not necessarily enforced to the fullest extent, as photographs of women dressed in men’s clothes were popular and teetered on the line of ‘acceptable’. These women represented amrads in their youth and beardlessness, which appealed to the traditional Iranian ‘male gaze’; but since they were women, they were acceptable objects of the new ‘male gaze’ as well.
By the end of the Qajar dynasty, the concepts of ‘masculinity’ and ‘appropriate sexuality’ trended towards hypermasculine heteronormativity. Heteronormativity, which was seen as a sign of ‘modernity’ spread from Europe to Iran, and then from Iran’s city centers into the countryside, as Iranian society sought to be more ‘modern’. Photography of non-nuclear families, specifically of Iranians of non-elite status in rural areas, shows that these rigid European ideals did not transform all of Iranian society as suddenly as it may seem, but rather set an example for the future and changed gradually over time.
European ideas of masculinity, aided by the invention of the camera in 1813, wooed the minds of Qajar elites, and these ideas trickled into Iranian law and society over time. Despite strong European influences in the Qajar Dynasty’s rapid ‘modernization’ and gender reforms, the practices of Iranian society changed gradually. Eventually, the youth ceased to be an ambiguously gendered group of their own due to, in favor of the stricter European binary model and the emerging concept of childhood innocence. Amrad relationships became less popular, or at least less public, while art forms became to incorporate more ‘appropriate’ hypermasculine representations of men.
It took over a hundred years for homosexual practices to become illegal in Iran, with the first penal laws passed after the 1979 revolution. Now that Iran has finally adopted Victorian-era practices of government-backed heteronormativity, the West has decided homosexuality is acceptable, therefore hypocritically deeming Iran as ‘backwards’ once again. This complete reversal of attitudes towards sexual practices sheds light on how easily perceptions of sexuality and gender can be changed by other cultures’ influence and government enforcement. Homosexual behaviors which were once commonplace in Iranian society and art forms have now been driven completely underground. The changes in the concepts of gender in Iran show that masculinity, as it is performed today, is simply another phase of the world’s ever-changing culture and understanding of men’s place in society.
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Harvey, Karen. “The History of Masculinity, circa 1650–1800.” Journal of British Studies, vol. 44, no. 2, 2005, pp. 296–311. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/427126.
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