Divas and Dancing Boys, Respectable Men and Disreputable Women II: Gender at the Margins and Center Stage in Iran and India

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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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.

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To act on stage, Iranian actresses must observe certain Islamic/cultural dress codes. The focus of this article is Iranian actresses’ engagement with their own embodied specificity, an engagement that creates a space for both assertion and resistance; assertion of new forms of agency and resistance to Iranian hegemonic discourses. Religious hegemony among the others, mediate these actresses’ bodies in a way that all their body movements become religiously and semantically laden actions. The result of such laden actions is the emotional labours that are performed by these actresses mostly in service to the dominating religious system. The article contends that in recent years, the interplay of theatrical corporeality, subjectivity and cultural specificity has enabled the new wave of actresses in Iran to not only navigate but also develop their transgressive potentials in relation to their labour on the Iranian stage.

Paying particular attention to their certain corporeal actions and practices including veiling, voice and even stillness, which are framed by several censorial regulations and supervision, reveals how these women carve out a space for their resistance and creation. Through a survey of theatre reviewing in the theatre journals and blogosphere, a brief case study of Tehran-based stage and street theatre groups, and conducting interviews with their actresses, I investigate what corporeal activism and agential authorship means to Iranian actresses who practice it and to the members of Committee of Theatre Supervision whose attitude this corporeal agency destabilizes. Such approach is also significant for female scholars including myself who desire to represent/explore this potential through writing from their identity position as critics and historians.

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This paper investigates exiled female vocalists working in the musiqi-ye pap genre and their relation to power and powerlessness in their discourse, self-presentation, and performances. Since the early days of the revolution, when women’s public performances were subject to myriad restrictions, many female vocalists have chosen to leave Iran for westward destinations. Migration to Los Angeles, the home of a large Iranian population and a highly developed exile culture industry, has provided some women with professional opportunities and outlets for self-expression that are not currently accessible in Iran. The losanjelesi music industry’s international scope also affords these performers a transnational audience, allowing women to move from a condition of “suffocation,” to use one singer’s words, to having their voices (potentially) heard around the world. Through analyses of interviews, songs, and music videos, I show how visibility and audibility become female vocalists’ literal and metaphorical means for asserting their power, while their gendered self-presentation points to a negotiation of past models and future possibilities. I also examine how these women’s acute awareness of their large transnational audience, especially within Iran, leads them to understand their works and performances as avenues for engaging contemporary and historical gender norms and current Iranian policies. The paper examines the possibilities and limits of these claims of vocal agency while also contrasting the strategies of female singers within Iran.