Gendered Counternarratives of Representation in Qajar Society

This session explores how multiple notions of sex, gender, and identity were constructed and commissioned in nineteenth-century visual culture during the Qajar Dynasty (1786-1925). The range of images comprises women, men, and children from different social strata, religions, ethnicities, and cultural backgrounds, created by various indigenous artists (as opposed to Orientalists) and commissioned by both male and female patrons. These inquiries consider painting and photography, as well as their connections to written texts, including poetry, memoirs, clerical writings, and tracts, to elucidate interpretations or to show how various media produced an alternative language in discussing sex, gender, and identity. Of interest is how these images operated sociologically in changing, creating, or perpetuating social constructions of gender, as well as patronage, which indicated who had a voice in such productions.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, definitions of sexuality and beauty were more fluid, bordering on the homosocial and homonormative. Diba (2003) and Najmabadi (2005) have addressed gender in Qajar painting and how it reflected political and cultural changes happening on the ground. Najmabadi has argued that Iranian society in general became more heteronormative at the nineteenth century’s closing due to global contact and modernization, and this reconfiguration is seen in the figures of women and men in later painting. Although these studies have greatly inform us on how sex, gender, and identity were performed in Qajar visual culture, painting and photography also had a language of their own that may have conveyed (different) information about how modern Iran metamorphosed or resisted changes as a result of foreign contact and modernity. In general, the visual spaces of representations have the potential to be subversive and to speak counternarratives—not just legitimize them—by telling the viewer more about the Other and how history was not.

The panel begins with gendered artistic patronage during the Afsharid and Zand periods, providing a lens through which to discuss the types of gendered perceptions that may have shaped later cultural production. The second paper addresses masculinity and kingship in early Qajar iconography, whereas the third paper deals with representations of women in mid-nineteenth-century book illustrations by underlining the social significance of women’s clothing, which tightly connected status and the roles assigned by society. The last presentation relates back to the first, examining both women photographers and sitters and suggesting that photography became a medium that empowered women as creators and witnesses of modernity.


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The main scope of this paper is an attempt to define the position and weight of noble women in Iranian cultural heritage during the late early modern decades before the Qajar Dynasty (1786-1925). Considering that female artistic patronage existed in the Safavid period (1501-1736), this presentation will note this continued activity into the later Afsharid (1736-96) and Zand (1750-94) periods.
The second half of the17th century coincided with significant economic and political roles of the household of Shah Suleiman (1666-1694) in the Safavid state, which could have expanded female artistic patronage. Some farangi sāzi (lit. making of European [style]) paintings of this time could have possibly been ordered by the royal harem to show the significance of the royal women within the Safavid institution. The decline of the Safavids in 1722, however, brought some 50 years of instability and chaos to Iran, even if Nader Shah (1736-1747), and soon after Karim Khan Zand (1760-1779), brought back some short instances of calm and steadiness, during which artistic creations flourished again. The so-called Afsharid and Zand styles include a diverse range of architectural and artistic projects, such as single-page paintings, the muraqqas (illuminated albums), and lacquer objects.
One may wonder if Afsharid or Zand women, like their Safavid counterparts, had any role in these creations. Do the objets d’art remaining from this time support historical assumptions concerning female patronage? Or was it rather an inactive historical phase, during which the social and political instability drew women back from the foreground until the arrival of Qajars and the reemergence of women in Iranian cultural and political scenes? We have, for instance, no precise documentation of female artistic patronage, but since Iranian royal women had always participated actively, not only in the political affairs of various monarchies but also as patrons of art and architecture, it would be logical to hypothesize that female patronage remained active, as tradition had mandated.

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During the reign of Fath Ali Shah Qajar (1797-1834), he had a myriad of images created, depicting him as a powerful monarch of Iran seen in the format of paintings, garments, and iconography of the objects he carries. As a splendid ruler he was not only portrayed in life-size pictures with sumptuous garments, but in order to express his power of manhood and masculinity, he was also often painted with numerous progeny. Diba (1998) has already concluded that Qajar painting conveys power, wealth and potency. In that sense long beards and long swords seem to be used as attributes of manhood and power. In addition, Najmabadi (2001) has argued that before the nineteenth century, gender was not wholly differentiated between male and female figures in painting, and as the nineteenth century drew to a close, these figures became more distinct in relation to modernization and global contact. However, this type of gender difference was already present in early Qajar painting by the late eighteen and early nineteenth centuries, which begs the question of how modernity actually impacted representations of men and women during the Qajar era. It was not that modernity molded gender into more rigid categories; rather, it changed the aesthetics of gender in images.

Less known are aquarels and lacquer objects, in which different court scenes are depicted. The representations of the dignitaries provide another interesting insight into gender issues. Not only are the rulers and princes depicted with a high degree of masculinity considered very aesthetically pleasing at the time, but the women surrounding them also display a corresponding degree of feminine aesthetic; thus, the lower the social rank of the figure, the lower the aesthetic appeal. This differentiation also allows us to come up with a new definition of beauty during the early Qajar era, which is not so much the aesthetics of isolated, outward features but also the correspondence between the physiognomy and status. A further field that in the course of future research may prove of help is that of “firāsat”, the science of recognizing character traits from the face.