Divas and Dancing Boys, Respectable Men and Disreputable Women I: Gender at the Margins and Center Stage of Iranian Life

This double panel presents new research on historical and contemporary negotiations of gender in a variety of Iranian socio-cultural settings. The panel is divided into two thematically grouped halves. The first half, “Gender at the Margins,” examines gender in three different social groups and settings located at the margins of contemporary Iranian society. The panel explores the constraints and creativity in the gender self-fashioning among Iranians living outside of the mainstream. Writing about heavy metal music fans in several of Iran’s major cities, Presenter 1 finds that this typically “masculinist” popular music genre provides both its male and female devotees with alternative models for imagining and presenting themselves and their social worlds. Comparing pre- and post-revolutionary perspectives, Presenter 2 argues that prostitution and Tehran’s red light district have constituted unexpectedly productive sites of femininity and citizenship. The final paper moves from the margins of urban Iran beyond Iran’s borders to examine gender in Iranian migrant communities. Presenter 3 shows how performing “respectable masculinity” is a central concern for male Iranian laborers in Dubai who contrastingly perceive Iran as a place of moral breakdown.
The panel’s second half, “Gender Center Stage,” provides three analyses of the strategic performance of gender and sexuality in theater and entertainment which in turn reflect the explosive power of gender in Iranian society off-stage. Presenter 4’s historical investigation of Jewish male transvestite zanpush dancers explores these “thrice-outcast” urban Iranian entertainers’ negotiations of gender, sexuality, and desire, thus also connecting to the previous section’s focus on marginal subjects and subcultures. Presenter 5 argues for the recognition of contemporary theater actresses’ “corporeal agency” and shows how these women have learned to navigate and augment the transgressive potential of their performances. Presenter 6 analyzes performances and presentations of femininity and sexuality among female pop singers in exile in Los Angeles, who controversially view their distance from Iran and their participation in transnational media as a means for combating the “suffocation” of women within the country.
The panel discussant, an expert on gender and sexuality in Iran, will round out the double session by drawing connections between the various papers, querying the authors, and setting the stage for audience questions.


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Iran is home to some of the world's most devoted fans of various forms of metal music. These fans go to great lengths to attend concerts, often in neighbouring Turkey, United Arab Emirates or Armenia, to obtain music recordings, usually by downloading, to buy instruments and equipment, and to form bands in Iran. Hardcore fans have detailed knowledge of their favourite musicians' and bands' songs and biographies. Many profess philosophical outlooks that are shaped by their devotion to particular forms of metal music and adapted to cultural conditions in Iran. Alongside these hardcore fans, considerable numbers of Iranians follow the fashions of metal culture. This paper examines the reasons for the popularity of metal in some sections of Iran's population and analyses this popularity in the context of Iran's recent cultural history and gender relations. It argues that aspects of metal culture that appeal to many fans in Iran include a distaste for religious institutions, the articulation of anger about perceived injustice, hypocrisy and ignorance, and the empathy of fellow fans who live with feelings of isolation, difference, and not being understood by families or mainstream society. These aspects of metal culture cross genders, but the ways they are experienced by individual fans are conditioned by the particular gender divisions of contemporary Iran, some of which differ from those of other metal contexts. Metal music conventionally features simple, explicit lyrics, performed with flamboyance and often with elaborate stage shows that may be read as masculinist. For many fans in Iran, this music serves to resolve personal conflicts, such as paradoxical desires for both outsider and insider status, and for acceptable modes of individualism and collectivity. Some fans claim that metal communities represent an appealing alternative to the central role of family in Iranian culture, as members loyally take care of each other in a world seen as hostile. Other fans draw on certain genres or examples of metal music to support a range of views, such as those relating to nationalism, alternative religious practices or different approaches to gender relations. This paper analyses the roles of gender in each of these responses to metal music in Iran. It is co-presented by a cultural historian who has conducted extensive fieldwork in Iran and an Iran-based metal guitarist and devotee.

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In January 31, 1979, twelve days before the grand return of Khomeini to Tehran, anonymous mass revolutionaries raged to the streets and burned down the red light district of Tehran—first constructed in 1920s during Pahlavi period. The message was clear: In Khomeini’s Islamic Iran, there will be no place for prostitution. In the following six months, as the Islamic Republic regime was consolidating, the red light district was evacuated, its inhabitants were hanged publicly or scattered on the surface of Tehran. Today the government denies the very existence of sex work. Refusing to recognize sex workers, the state renders them representationally invisible.

Since before the revolution, prostitution—as a moral-political category—has been pivotal to the relation between reconfigurations of the state and formation of public space. A careful study of modern history of Iran attests to the fact that both, the body of “prostitute” and the space of “prostitution” have been productive sites of femininity as well as citizenship. In this paper I put the erasure of the red light district—being at once discursive and concrete—at the center of inquiry to engage with contesting configurations of public space, in relation to spatial governance and politics of visibility. I will argue that the rise of women’s emancipation movement—both state sponsored and otherwise—tied to the emergence of identity politics during the Pahlavi period has a congenital intimacy with the formation of the red light district—as tight space (Deuluze, 1988)—and the emergence of the category of "street woman" as urban prostitute.

While before the revolution, the Pahlavi government regulated and monitored sex workers in the state sponsored red light district, after the revolution, the state eliminated their bodies as well as any marked place for sex work. In other words, while before the revolution the state regimented, regulated, and constructed bodies of sex workers in the panopticon of the red light district, after the revolution the category of the urban prostitute was both physically and discursively erased. I will specifically look at the ways in which gendered bodies are situated and understood in relation to these two radically different spatially informed modes of power: the productive and the eliminating.

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This paper is concerned with the pursuit of masculinity among working-class Iranians living in Dubai. To this end, it elaborates upon the everyday lives of groups of Iranian men and youth – variously hailing from the provinces of Hormuzgan and Fars – who operate small retail operations and live together in the urban core of this Persian Gulf city. Based upon 14 months of ethnographic fieldwork, and drawing from the burgeoning conceptual vocabulary of anthropology’s recent “ethical turn,” this paper examines how these men engage in self-fashioning practices (Mahmood 2005) and narrative performances (Prasad 2007) that together constitute a distinct ideal of respectable masculinity. As such, it is intended to compliment recent scholarship of masculinity in the area of Iranian studies (Gerami 2003, Khosravi 2009).
On the one hand, I examine how a particular constellation of virtues is cultivated through a variety of embodied practices in ordinary settings – practices pertaining to their homo-social residences, and interactions with customers in their shops. On the other, I examine the oral narratives that these men and youth routinely exchanged in these shared settings. These narratives often work to articulate Iran and Dubai as types of place that respectively require and enable the striving necessary to support their dependents. More specifically, these explicitly stated imaginings render Iran as a site of “moral breakdown” and Dubai as one providing the opportunities to offset the implications of this breakdown for these dependents. Thus these narratives performances do the illocutionary work of establishing their presence in Dubai and their everyday lives therein as a struggle to successfully inhabit and maintain the character of respectable men.