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.
The rise of the Safavid dynasty and the subsequent declaration of Shiism as the dominant form of Islam in Iran had many impacts on Iranian society and culture, one of which was the official designation of all non-liturgical music as haram. One of the long-term impacts of this designation was the eventual predominance of Jews in minstrelsy, and the consequent outcasting of the Jewish musician from both Muslim and Jewish society. Within this segregated community, the figure of the zanpush – the boy dancer – remains the most elusive and the least studied one to date. While many Western travel journals as well as some Persian memoirs mention them, little more than their name has survived. This scanty documentation changes with the introduction of photography in the Qajar courts and the use of musical troupes as subjects of photography, and starting with the late 1890s we find photographs of some of the more celebrated boy dancers accompanied by their troupes.
My paper will present a very brief history of Jewish minstrelsy in Iran to set the historical backdrop for the story of these boy dancers, the most famous of which seemed to have all been Jewish. With reference to photographs and memoirs, I will then explore the thrice-outcast character of the Jewish zanpush to see how the role of these boy dancers in society may shed light not only on their own mercurial gender and sexual identities in their eyes of their audience in particular, but further on the shifting boundaries of homosexual desire and the position of women in later-Qajar and early-Pahlavi societies in general. I will try to argue that their purpose in society, their fame and desirability, and their seemingly sudden disappearance from the minstrel scene in the late 1950s to early 1960s can all uncover previously overlooked nuances about sexual desire and gender roles in the rapidly shifting world of Iranian society during the first half of the twentieth century.