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Aspects of modernity
On Iranian history and gender

By Mohamad Tavakoli-Targhi
December 18, 2001
The Iranian

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, he wrote:

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 fashion.

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 Europe.

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 remarked:

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 quatrain:

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 historical ballet:

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 with Europe.


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.

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