Aspects of modernity
On Iranian history and gender
By Mohamad Tavakoli-Targhi
December 18, 2001
From Chapter Four of Mohammad Tavakoli-Targhi's Refashioning
Iran: Orientalism, Occidentalism and Historiography (Palgrave 2001.
Tavakoli-Targhi offers a corrective to recent works on Orientalism that
focus solely on European scholarly productions without exploring the significance
of native scholars and vernacular scholarship to the making of Oriental
studies. He brings to light a wealth of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century
Indo-Persian texts, made 'homeless' by subsequent nationalist histories
and shows how they relate to Indo-Iranian modernity. In doing so, he argues
for a radical rewriting of Iranian history with profound implications for
Islamic debates on gender.
The European woman (zan-i Farangi) was the locus of gaze and erotic
fantasy for many eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Persianate voy(ag)eurs
of Europe. The travelers' recounting of their self-experience provided the
material for the formation of a discourse on women of Europe. With the political
hegemony of Europe, a woman's body served as an important marker of identity
and difference and as a terrain of cultural and political contestations.
The eroticized depiction of European women by male travelers engendered
a desire for that "heaven on earth" and its uninhibited and fairy-like
residents who displayed their beauty and mingled with men. The attraction
for Europe and European women figured into political contestations and conditioned
the formation of new political discourses and identities. These contestations
resulted in the valorization of the veil (hijab) as a visible marker
of the self and the other.
For Iranian modernists, viewing
European women as educated and cultured, the veil became a symbol of backwardness.
Its removal, in their view, was essential to the advancement of Iran and
its dissociation from Arab-Islamic culture. For the counter-modernists who
wanted to uphold the Islamic social and gender orders, the European woman
became a scapegoat and a symbol of corruption, immorality, Westernization,
and feminization of power. In the Iranian body-politic the imagined European
woman provided the subtext for political maneuvers over women's rights and
appearance in the public space.
I. Heterotopic Women
The early Persian travelers described Europe as "heaven on Earth"
(bihisht-i ru-yi zamin), "the birth-place of beauty" (zad
bum-i husn), and the "beauty cultivating land" (mulk-i
husn khiz). The attraction of Europe masqueraded the attraction to "houri-like"
(hurvash), "fairy-countenanced" (hur paykar), and
"fairy-mannered" (firishtah khuy) women of Europe. Appearance
of unveiled women in public parks, playhouses, operas, dances, and masquerades
impressed the Persian voy(ag)eurs who were unaccustomed to the public display
of female beauty. For them, the only cultural equivalent to the public display
of male-female intimacy was the imaginary Muslim heaven.
Unlike the Shari'ah-bound earthly society, the pious residents of heaven
were to be rewarded with "the fair ones . . . whom neither man nor
jinni will have touched before them." Like many other Persianate travelers,
Mirza I'tisam al-Din, who traveled to England in 1765, was attracted to
the spectacle of male-female intimacy in public parks. Recalling the observed
scenes of a public park near the Queen's Palace in London, for example,
On Sunday, men, women, and youths, poor and rich, travelers and natives,
resort here. This park enlivens the heart, and people overcome with sorrow,
repairing thither, are entertained in a heavenly manner; and grieved hearts,
from seeing that place of amusement, are gladdened against their will.
On every side females with silver forms, resembling peacocks, walk about,
and at every corner fairy-faced ravishers of hearts move with a thousand
blandishments and coquetries; the plain of the earth become a paradise from
the resplendent foreheads, and heaven (itself) hangs down its head for shame
at seeing the beauty of the lovers. There lovers meet their fairy-resembling
sweethearts: they attain their end without fear of the police or of rivals,
and gallants obtain a sight of rosy cheeks without restraint. When I viewed
this heavenly place, I involuntarily exclaimed:
If there is a paradise on earth,
It is this, oh! It is this.
(Agar firdawsi bar ru-yi zamin ast
hamin ast u hamin ast u hamin ast)
Likewise Mirza Abu al-Hasan Khan Ilchi, who had traveled to Europe in
1809-1810, described Hyde Park and St. James's Park in a remarkably similar
If a sorrowing soul traverses these heavenly fields, his head is crowned
with flowers of joy, and looking on these saffron beds-luxurious as Kashmir's
- he smiles despite himself. In the gardens and on the paths, beauteous
women shine like the sun and rouse the envy of the stars, and the houris
of paradise blush with shame to look upon the rose-cheeked beauties of the
earth below. In absolute amazement, I said to Sir Gore Ouseley:
If there be paradise on earth
It is this, oh! it is this!
The practice of male-female physical intimacy in public places differentiated
Europe, "the land of heavenly ordinances" (sarzamin-i bihisht
ayin), from an actual Muslim society where such a behavior was thought
to be indecent, a sign of moral and social disorder. By employing the familiar
images of the Muslim heaven in their description of modern European norms
of gender relations, the Persianate travelers made these norms respectable
to their readers and audiences. What was only imaginable in the promised
heaven was reported to exist on earth by travelers returning from the heterotopian
Conscious of the religious implication of reporting the mixing of men
and women in Europe, Prince Riza Quli Mirza Qajar, who visited England in
1836 along with his brothers Taymur and Najaf Quli Mirza, recalled a Hadith
(saying of Muhammad, the Messenger of Islam) that "The world is a prison
for a believer and a paradise for an unbeliever."
Elaborating on this saying, he assured himself that: "All conveniences
that the Lord of the universe has promised to His special servants in the
hereafter is available for their [European] view in this world. But the
difference is that these intoxications and pleasures are temporary and those
[heavenly] conveniences are permanent." As perfect and desirable places
beyond home, European lands displaced the heaven as sites of sexual fantasies
and socio-political imagination.
Persianate travelers often used the conventional symbols and metaphors
of women from classical Persian poetry in describing Europeans. In these
strategies of familiarization, European women were compared to literary
and historical personalities such as Zubaydah, Asiyah, Zubba', Gharah, 'Azra,
Vis, Sarah, Balqis, Salma, Zulaykha, Layli, Shirin. Mirza Abu Talib, for
instance, favorably compared Lady Palm with such fictional women characters
and observed: "I am an imposter, if I had ever seen a woman like Lady
Palm in Europe and Asia.
While these great women [mahbanuvan] have been mentioned in ancient
myths, I have never seen one [in real life]." In another poem dedicated
to Miss Garden, he said he found in London the promised Muslims heaven:
"while I have heard the description of the garden of paradise enough
times, in London I have seen better than it many times." He thought
the women of London were much more attractive than the imaginary fairies
of paradise. In the same poem while addressing the Muslim ascetics, he stated,
"In every street hundred fairies appear in blandishment; for how long
would you babble about the houris, it's enough!"
To you, the ascetic!, merry be the houris
I am content with the face of Miss Garden
With honey and apple, you deceive me like a child
But I am content with the gem and apple of the chin.
Mirza Abu Talib judged European women according to Persian aesthetic
values. He viewed beauty and nature as synonymous and so compared female
beauty to the moon, sun, flowers, trees and animals. Natural beauty was
to be appreciated and human intervention was thought of as deceptive. For
example, narrating the differences between French and English women, he
Although the French women are tall, corpulent and rounder than the English,
they are not comparable to the beauty and excellence of the English women.
Because of their lack of simplicity, girlish shyness, grace and good behavior,
[the French women] appear rather ugly.
He found the French women's hairstyles contrary to his standards of female
beauty and equated them with those of "the base and whorish women of
India." Unlike the idealized Muslim women, French women were viewed
as "fast walkers, big talkers, rapid speakers, loud-voiced, and quick
responders." Mirza Abu Talib disapproved the behavior of French women,
and while in Paris, he "abandoned" voyeurism:
Although I am by nature amorous and easily affected at the sight of beauty,
I have lost the desire for the profession of voyeurism that I had in London.
Now, my heart desires a different profession. In the Palace Royal I encountered
thousands of women day and night, but I was not at all impressed and none
were attractive to me.
Some Persian travelers were infatuated with the women that they met and
their poems, which, while conventional in their meter and imagery, were
expressions of genuine sensual desire. For instance, Mirza Abul Hasan Ilchi
in a party at the residence of Lady Buckinghamshire, held on the 15 January
1810, "noticed groups of sunny-faced girls and houri-like ladies
chatting together, their beauty illuminated by the candlelight." On
that night Ilchi talked to many women whose beauty dazzled him. He was talking
to a "rare beauty" when "another fairy creature," attracted
him. That night he met a young lady, Miss Pole, who "inflamed"
his heart. Inspired by this "girl of noble birth," who shyingly
distanced herself from him after a short conversation, Ilchi recited this
Like a cypress you proudly stand, but when did a cypress walk?
Like a rosebud your ruby lips, but when did a rosebud talk?
Like a hyacinth's blooms are the ringlets of your sweet hair;
but when were men's hearts enslaved by a hyacinth's stalk?
Ilchi was so infatuated with 'Miss Pole' that he did not notice the presence
of the Princess of Wales at that gathering. The story of his love even circulated
around the high circles of London. For example, the Queen is reported to
have asked Sir Gore Ouseley, Ilchi's official mehmandar: 'I have heard that
the Iranian Ambassador is so enamoured of a certain young lady that the
affairs of Iran are far from his thoughts!'"
One day's fairies, however, would on other occasions be denigrated. For
example, writing about his observations at a party at the house of the Marquis
of Douglas and his wife Susan Euphemia, Ilchi wrote that the Marquis "has
recently married a lady whose flawless beauty makes other women look like
witches. She has a matchless singing voice: the nightingale's song is like
a crow's compared to hers!" Having met her for the first time, he wrote,
"I lamented that--just on the eve of my departure-- I should be ensnared
by the curve of a straying lock:
It is not only I whom your ringlets ensnare,
There's a captive tied up by each lock of your hair.
Ilchi reported that one night he was so absorbed by "the beauty
of that peri-faced girl" that he had no interest in eating and
drinking. In a Sufi style poem, where Susan Euphemia was the beloved, he
declared, "This 'I' is not 'I', if there is an 'I' it's you" (in
man nah manam, agar mani hast tu'i)
Infatuated with the unveiled feminine beauties witnessed in Europe, a
few Persian travelers like Ilchi and Mirza Abu Talib uttered poems and statements
similar to the shathiyat of intoxicated Sufis. The classical Sufi
poems were basically ambiguous, leaving specified the beloved and the nature
of the love. Yet in the poetic utterances of voyeugers occasionally
heaven was compared with parks, European women with fairies, and Islam was
abandoned in favor of the religion of love. It was no wonder that Riza Quli
Mirza referred to some European women as "plunderers of heart and religion"
and noted that thousands would abandon their religion like the Shaykh of
San'an, a Muslim mystic who converted from Islam in order to unite with
his Christian beloved.
The pioneering Persian voyageurs were often invited to ballrooms, theaters,
concerts, and masquerade parties during their European travels. They found
the level of male-female intimacy at these gatherings to be radically different
from public gatherings in India and Iran. The public dancing of unveiled
women with men was shocking to travelers who were accustomed to seeing women
veiled in public gatherings in the Islamicate world. Within their own public
space, the physical proximity of women and men was viewed as a sign of the
disintegration of political and moral orders. The observed/imagined irregularities
and differences of public women provided the loci for imagining the life
and power of Farangi women.
As heterotopic spaces radically different from actual spaces of everyday
life, playhouses, operas, dances, and masquerades provided sites for alternative
experiences in Europe. Abu Talib viewed the visit to playhouses as "sensual
employment" (mashghalah-'i nafs) and wrote a detailed description
of a playhouse in Dublin, explaining the arrangement of the stage, seats,
spectacles, and spectators. He even drew a detailed blueprint of the playhouse.
He was often accompanied to playhouses by Mrs. Garden, whom he described
as a "fanatic in religion and used to the habits of old London."
During his stay in England, Ilchi was also invited to many plays and operas.
After attending the opera of "Sidagero" at King's Theater in
December 1809, he remarked: "Dancers and sweet-voiced singers appeared
one after the other to entertain us, acting and dancing like Greeks and
Russians and Turks." He found pleasing the well-disciplined crowed
at the Theater: "It is amazing that although 5000 people may gather
in the theater, they do not make a loud noise. . ." On that night a
historical ballet entitled "Pietro Il Grande" by Signor Rossi
was performed. He commented that "the dancers imitated the Emperor
and the Empress of Russia and the Pasha of Turkey and his wife and other
Turks." Lord Radstock, in a letter described Ilchi's reaction to the
He laughed heartily at the folly of bringing forward Peter the Great
and his Empress as dancing to divert the throng. 'What!' exclaimed he, 'is
it possible that a mighty monarch and his queen should expose themselves
thus? how absurd! how out of nature! how perfectly ridiculous.' Were I to
translate the look that followed these words it would be thus: 'Surely a
nation that can suffer so childish and preposterous an exhibition, and be
pleased with it, can have little pretensions either to taste or judgment.
Radstock further reported that Ilchi had jokingly said, "'When I
get back to my own country, the King shall ask me, 'What did the English
do to divert you?' I will answer, 'Sir, they brought before me your Majesty's
great enemies, the Emperor and Empress of Russia, and made them dance for
my amusement.'" Radstock added, "This he repeated with the highest
glee, as if consious of saying a witty thing."
Ilchi also attended a few plays including an improved version of King
Lear at the Royal Opera House. "Walking around the theater," he
noted that "my companions and I saw beautiful ladies, beautifully dressed,
casting flirtatious glances from their boxes." He attended the performances
of Angelica Catalan (1789-1849), the famous Italian soprano, saying that
"her performance was superb and her talent was highly praised by those
who attended the Opera regularly." Ilchi was astonished by her salary:
"a high ranking general is said to receive a salary of 1000 tomans
a year, yet a female entertainer is paid 5000 tomans for three nights' work!"
After seeing Mlle. Angiolini's performance of the "Persian Wedding
Dance," he wrote: "The Italian woman called Angiolini, who is
a good dancer, performed a 'Persian Wedding Dance' which bore no resemblance
at all to the real thing. Such novelties are mounted to attract the money
of the idle rich who are forever seeking new diversions."
Most Persian travelers thought of theaters as respectable and entertaining
places. But Mirza Fattah Garmrudi, who visited England in 1839, viewed them
as "the gathering places of whores and adulteresses and rendezvous
of well experienced pimps." He took the intermission between performances
to be an occasion for sex between the performers and their customers. Such
intentional misunderstanding played an important role in shaping the popular
opinion about Europe and European style theaters.
Masquerade parties were another site of attraction for Persian travelers.
Mirza Abu Talib viewed masquerading as a way of "testing the limits
of each others cleverness." He identified "maximum freedom for
a short period of time," as a benefit of masquerading. "Since
the identities of individuals are not apparent," according to Mirza
Abu Talib, "they can behave in any manner." He found the diversity
of nations represented in the masquerades appealing and noted, "since
the English have traveled all over the world and are more familiar with
the conditions of most other nations, London masquerades are perfect. In
their masquerades Iranian, Indian, Arab, Turkuman, Hindu, Yogi,.. and a
hundred other types can be found. Some mimic to the extent that it affects
their language and bodily movement."
The most attractive aspect of the masquerade for Mirza Abu Talib, who
was called the "Persian Prince," was the masking of class distinctions
so that "the nobility wear the clothing of the artisans and appear
like barbers, flower-sellers, and bakers, imitating them so well that it
is not possible to distinguish the original from the imitated/fake."
Among the memorable masqurades described by Ilchi was "a lady [Lady
William Gordon] unknown to me, who was disguised as a priest, introduced
herself to me: the English call such behavior 'forward.'" The accumulated
reports of male-female interactions in ballrooms, theatres, and masquerades
constituted "the woman of Europe" (zan-i Farangi) as the
site of cultural gaze and as a fetishized marker deployed in the crafting
of an extensive network of ethnic, religious, and political differences
Mohammad Tavakoli-Targhi is Associate Professor of Historiography
and Middle Eastern History at the Illinois State University. He was a Fellow
of St Antony's College, Oxford, in 1998, and awarded the position of Outstanding
University Teacher at Illinois State University in 2000-2001. His publications
have appeared in Radical America, Iranian Studies, Strategies, Medieval
History Journal, Iran Nameh, Nimeye Digar, and Comparative Studies
of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East.