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Unveiling of women & progress
On the idealized women of the other

By Mohamad Tavakoli-Targhi
January 7, 2002
The Iranian

The remaining section of "Imagining European Women" in Chapter Four of Mohammad Tavakoli-Targhi's Refashioning Iran: Orientalism, Occidentalism and Historiography (Palgrave 2001) The first part was published earlier. 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.

II. Comparing Women

Misogyny and ethnocentrism were the shared characteristics of both European and Persian narrations of the other. European fascination with the imagined women of harems, seraglios, and gynaeceums paralleled the Persianate view of Europe as an eroticized "heaven on earth" and European women as lascivious and licentious. Both Occidentals and Orientals constituted the body of the "other" women as a site for sexual and political imagination. Traveling in Iran in 1812, James Morier explained the residents of the Iranian city of Bushir showed a "feeling of great wonder" about women who accompanied the British delegation to Iran: "Above all things, that which excited their curiosity, was the circumstance of our ambassador having brought his harem with him; for although the Easterners look upon it as indecorous to make inquiries about each other's women, yet still we could observe how anxious they were to know something about ours." Morier, who had traveled to Iran a few years earlier, explained that this inquisitiveness was reciprocal:

Perhaps their curiosity about the women of Europe is quite as great as that of Europeans about those of Asia. I can state, in confirmation of the last assertion, that one of the first questions put to me by my acquaintances in Europe, has ever been on that subject; and from the conversations I have had with Asiatics upon the same topic, both parties have universally appeared to entertain in their imaginations the highest ideas of beauty of each other's women.

The idealized women of the other became objects of male desire. Seeking the fulfillment of their fantasies, journeymen pursued exotic sex unobtainable at home. For many Europeans, as Said has observed, "the Orient was a place where one could look for sexual experience unobtainable in Europe." Likewise, the late nineteenth century Iranian traveler Ibrahim Sahhafbashi ascertained that, "Anyone who wrote a travelogue, exalted [Europe] and anyone who heard these reports desired [to visit] it." These desires for Europe were displaced desires for European women. Such "preprogrammed expectations" overdetermined what travelers sought, saw, and cited.

Thus women figured prominently in the travelers' understanding of the rising political dominance of Europe. They often established a causal relation between the education of women and the progress of Europe. For them the public appearance and behavior of European women symbolized a different order of politics and gender relations. I'tisam al-Din, for example, recognized the significance of schooling in the shaping of social and gender relations:

In England it is usual for the people of rank to send both their sons and daughters to a distant place of education... The people of wealth in England, commencing at the age of four years, keep their sons and daughters constantly employed in writing, reading, and acquiring knowledge; they never permit them to be idle. If a man or woman not be acquainted with the musical art, be unable to dance or ride, he or she is accounted by people of substance as descended from a mean parentage, and taunts and reproaches are not spared... The ladies, particularly, who can neither dance nor sing, are considered in a very inferior light; they will never get well married.

Mirza I'tisam al-Din found the institutionalised disciplining in England more beneficial to the children of the elite than the Indian practice of hiring private teachers at home. Like nineteenth century reformers, he praised the European devotion to education and scientific inquiry, contrasting it to the worthless Persian-Indian quest for the beloved:

They are not like the people of this country, who repeat Hindi and Persian poems in praise of a mistress's face, or descriptive of the qualities of the wine, of the goblet, and of the cup-bearer, and who pretend to be in love.

Mirza Abu-Talib, like I'tisam al-Din, was interested in the European educational system, especially that of women. Commenting on the "apparent freedom" (azadi-i zahiri) and education of English women, Mirza Abu-Talib noted that through education the English "have cleverly restrained" women from deviant deeds. He viewed education and the veiling as two diverse patterns of disciplining women. He observed that "the institution of the veil as a form of restraining is [also] an instigator of sedition and corruption." Similarly Mirza Salih, who resided in England from 1815-1819, explained that the English women while unveiled as a result of education "do not have the propensity of committing wicked acts." Disciplining women through education was more appealing to Persian travelers who viewed the veil as an instigator of moral depravation. Ilchi, for instance, in a conversation with Mrs. Perceval in January 1810, compared European and Persian women remarking: "Your custom is better indeed. A veiled woman, with downcast eyes [zan-i masturah-'i chashm bastah], is like a caged bird: when she is released she lacks even the strength to fly around the rose garden." Likewise, in a Persianized English letter published in the London Morning Post (29 May 1810) and reprinted in many other newspapers and journals, Ilchi observed:

English ladies [are] very handsome, very beautiful... I [have] see[n] best Georgian, Circassian, Turkish, Greek ladies - but nothing so beautiful as English ladies - all very clever - speak French, speak English, speak Italian, play music very well, sing very good - very glad for me if Persian Ladies [were] like them;...

On many other occasions Ilchi wished that Iranian women could become like British women.

As God is my witness, I wish the women of Iran could be more like the women of England. Iranian women are chaste because they are forced to be - they are shut away from men; but the English women are chaste by choice. They are free and independent and responsible only to their husband, whom they look upon as the only man in the world. They do not hide themselves away, but appear veil-less in society.

Such arguments became fashionable among modernist men who linked the unveiling of women to the progress of the nation. Likewise women utilized the same rhetoric in their struggle for suffrage and participation in public life. For instance Bibi Khanum Astarabadi in her Vices of Men argued the European men serve their wives and "live in perfect harmony and concord" with them whereas Iranian men "all endeavor to humiliate women." Such rhetorical comparisons became an essential component of the discourse on women's rights in Iran.

Persian travelers were also conscious of the legal order that made women's participation in the public sphere less restrictive. I'tisam al-Din explained the sexual liberty of Europeans in contrast to Muslim women in terms of the different legal systems:

The courts have nothing to do with cases of simple fornication, unless a woman complains that she was forcibly violated. ... If a man and woman commit fornication in a retired house, or even in any place whatever, they may do so with impunity, and neither the cutwal [police] nor the censor [muhtasib] can take any notice of it; for it is a common saying, 'what business has the superintendent inside a house?' [Muhtasib ra dar durun-i khanah chah kar?] In England it is completely the reverse of what it is in this country, for there the cutwal and the censor have little or nothing to do, and don't have the power of seizing either a fornicator or a fornicatress, whatever the people may say.

He further observed that "the King of England is not independent in matters of government... and can do nothing without first consulting and advising with his ministers and nobles and a few selected men." By focusing on the relative freedom of women and the restriction on the power of sovereign, he shifted the meaning of freedom (azadi): "It is the English but also the European norm of freedom [rasm-i azadi]... that neither the elite nor the poor ever subjugate themselves to others." Contrasting this to the conventional historical practices, he observed that their norm is different from those of other countries where people "are proud of the title of the servant of the king" [binam-i ghulami-i padishah fakhr kunand]."

Such observations on gender and political "space of experience" in Europe expanded the "horizon of expectation" for the travelers and their circles of audience. Azadi (freedom) was among the first temporalized concepts deployed by travelers to project the observed experiences in Europe into the expected future for their own homeland. It also became a key concept for "diagnosing" norms of life at "home" and for legitimating interventions for their future progress (tarraqi). This is evident in Sahhafbashi's observation that "We raise our girls in a cage and would not teach them anything besides eating and sleeping... Unfortunately we comprehend the enjoyment of eating and intercourse more than progress and education [tarraqi va tarbiyat]." The futurist concept of azadi produced its own counterconcept of istidbad (tyranny/despotism), which was used to characterize the mode of governance in Qajar Iran. To strengthen their nation, many nineteenth-century Persian travelers, either directly or indirectly, called for the establishment of a constitutional government and the increased participation of women in the public sphere.

III. Libertine Women

Unlike many nineteenth century travelers, Mirza Fattah Garmrudi, who traveled to Europe in 1838, developed a distaste for European manners and characteristics and warned against closer contacts with them. He called upon the 'ulama and the political elite to distance themselves from this "wicked group" (guruh-i nabikar). Aware of the colonization of India, he warned that Europeans should not be trusted. For if opportune, they would "damage the religion and the state and destroy the Shari'ah traditions." He referred to Europe (Farangistan) as the land of the infidels (Kufristan) and concluded his 1942 Shab Namah (Nocturnal Letter) by noting that "due to the emotional depression and immensity of regret and sorrow that resulted from my observation of the state of affairs in Kufristan, I have been able to narrate no more than a seed from a donkey's burden and a drop in a sea about the obscene acts and indecent behaviors of this malevolent people [in qaum-i bad sigal]." Mirza Fattah's pornographic view of Europe was the precurser of a Europhobic political imagination that sought to protect Iran from the 'feminization of power' and European domination by guarding Iranian women from the malady of Europeanization. Like the earlier genre of Lizzat al-Nisa' (Joy of Woman), which was widely disseminated in homosocial male gatherings, Nocturnal Letter was the prototype of a new erotic literature that constituted the uninhibited women of Europe as the locus of male sexual fantasies and arousal.

Mirza Fattah Garmrudi was a member of an Iranian delegation which was dispatched to Europe in 1838 and traveled to Vienna, Paris and London. The main objective of the mission, led by Mirza Husayn Khan Ajudanbashi, was to offer condolences to Queen Victoria (r. 1837-1901) on the death of William IV, to congratulate her on her accession to power, and to ask the British government to recall John McNeil, its Minister Plenipotentiary, for being unsympathetic to Iran's political claim to the city of Herat.

Click Here to Pay Learn More Amazon Honor SystemThis delegation, arriving in London in April 1839, faced a most discourteous reception. Queen Victoria declined to see them. The British government refused to receive them as governmental guests. Lord Palmerston pointed out that "[t]he Persian Ambassador must be Europeanized" by making him pay for all of his expenses. This was a reversal of the earlier protocol according to which the British government, like its Iranian counterpart, paid all the expenses of diplomatic guests for the duration of their stay. Adding to the insult, the Iranian delegate was asked to revise Muhammad Shah's (r. 1834-1848) letter to Queen Victoria, changing her title from Malikah to Padshah, for, according to Palmerston "we have no sexual distinction for our sovereign," a distinction which is implied in the concept malikah but not in padshah. This hostility, instead of the expected hospitality, shaped the Iranian delegates' image of Farangistan and perception of Farangis. This is clearly illustrated in Mirza Fattah's Shab Namah (1842). He recounted about twenty anecdotes and incidents witnessed by him or Iqbal al-Dawlah, his newly found Persian-Indian friend who was in England at that time. Mirza Fattah constructed a pornographic view of Europe that focused particularly on the sexual debauchery of British women.

After discussing the source of his anecdotes, Mirza Fattah noted that he would "briefly explain some of the conditions and characteristics of the women and their husbands."

In this land of diverse persuasions, women and girls are generally pantless and without a veil [chadur] and have a constant desire for able pummelers. Covered women are rare and unacceptable. Women are masterful in the realization of the wishes of men. They are addicted to pleasure and play, and are free from suffering and toil [az ranj va ta'ib azad]. In actualization of the demands of their partners, they are always daring and exquisite, while in preservation of their own honor they are incompetent and frail.

According to Mirza Fattah, "A common characteristic of women is their extreme desire for sexual intercourse." In his view,

They have escaped from the trap of chastity into freedom and have masterly leapt from the snare of purity. They have extreme desire for union with men and are endlessly coquettish and flirtatious. They glorify freedom and appreciate self-reliance [bah azadi tafakhur darand va bah khud sari tashakkur].

He equated English women's freedom with a lack of honor and chastity. This constituted the nodal point of the emerging Europhobic and misogynist discourse. Women and men, according to Garmrudi, were united nights and days in ballrooms, theaters, coffeehouses, and whorehouses. To highlight the sexual debuchery of the English, he offered a pornographic description of how some women satisfied their sexual desires by keeping dogs at home. He explained that this practice was accepted and appreciated by the husbands:

In this land, due to the enormity of a woman's lust, a man does not have the strength to satisfy and realize her wishes promptly. Consequently, if a woman has an affair with another man and receives from him a payment, or due to her nobility and magnanimity, doesn't receive anything, according to the law of the nation [qanun-i millat] the poor husband has no right to punish her. Under such a condition the zealous husband is thankful that the dog has done the job for her instead of a neighbor or an ignorant rogue in the street. To be just and fair, the poor husband cannot be blamed.

Men's sexual impotence and their inability to punish their wives was viewed as a cause of women's bestiality. To further illustrate the legal restrictions on men and the resultant sexual appetite of women, Garmrudi recounted the story of a wife who was "ugly and bad looking, and singularly ill-created and ill-humored." Her husband had become repulsed and preferred "living in a cave with a snake" to her companionship:

But since in their nation [millat] it is established that a man cannot have more than one wife, he was compelled to give in to his destiny and persevere, always praying to God for mercy and his liberation from her yoke of damnation.

One day the husband came home to find his wife with another man. He asked the adulterer why he was not looking for a better woman. The adulterer replied, "I do not have such bad taste. I am laboring and getting paid for it." Because of the incompetence of European men and the voracious sexual appetite of European women, Garmrudi reported that women had to rely on extra-marital relations or on dildoes to satisfy their desires. But he also described in graphic detail the pleasures of oral-genital sex between men and women.

Why did Mirza Fattah write such a disparaging account of European women whereas earlier travelers had offered exualting reports? One is the obvious fact that the special mission was ill-treated by the British government. But there are a number of other factors which may illuminate his motivation for the writing of Shab namah. For example, he wrote:

With all these destructive conditions and deplorable actions, if a person in the nations of Farangistan, especially in England, unintentionally (which is the necessary nature, meaning that it is the second nature of human beings) names chest and breast, or vagina and phallus, or the like among women, they will immediately print and register them in the newspapers and will disseminate it around the world that so and so in such and such gathering, had no shame and talked about such and such in front of women.

So Mirza Fattah and his colleagues might well have been victims of such journalistic intrigues, which capitalized on the Persian travelers unfamiliarity with European norms, mocked them, and portrayed them as indecent and uncivilized. Might this also explain Mirza Fattah's rather negative view of newspapers, which earlier Persian travelers greatly admired? He wrote,

Since the majority of newspapers print pure lies and they lie thoroughly, then it is clever of them to clean their posteriors with these papers. There is no better use for them. They believe that with these papers the feces is cleaned from their rears, but this is neither clear nor obvious. It is not clear whether in reality their rears are cleaned by the papers, or whether the newsprint is actually purified by the excrement.

The members of the special mission had become extremely sensitive to and angry with journalists who seemed to have reported on all that seemed irregular and unfamiliar to their readers. There are other possible explanations for Mirza Fattah's negative representation of Europeans. As this same text suggests, it also seems that Mirza Fattah was responding to a denigrating European view of Iran.

With all these desolate affairs and deplorable conditions, they [Europeans] have written some books to reproach and reprimand Iran. Especially the Englishman [James Baillie] Fraser has vulgarly denigrated Iran and has gone to extremes in this regard. Among his charges is that the men of Iran have excessive desire for beardless teenagers and some men commit obscene acts with them. Yes, in the midst of all nations of the world, some fools, due to the predominance of lascivious spirit and satanic temptations, commit some inappropriate acts. It is far from just that the people of Farangistan, with all of their imperfect attributes and obscene behaviors for which they are characterized and are particularly famous, i. e. the establishment of homo-houses [amrad-khanah] and whore-houses, where they go at all times and pay money and commit obscene acts, that they characterize the people of Iran with such qualities and write about them in their books.

After expressing his disapproval of Fraser's generalizations about and condemnation of Iranians, Mirza Fattah narrated the story of an Italian lord who copulated with the son of an English gentleman after gaining the consent of the boy's father. He concluded that:

The above incident, besides indicating unfairness and engagement [of Europeans] in demeaning behaviors, is also an indication of the stupidity and foolishness of this people; but they ignore all these incidents and occurrences amongst themselves and attached their own characteristics to others.

As Mirza Fattah observed, Europeans were reading their own behavior and ways into Iranian character. Reflecting on the European perception of Iran, Garmrudi recognized the importance of power in determining the type of relations Europeans establish with other countries:

Apparently, they always interact on an appropriate and humane basis with strong states and never initiate opposition. With a state which appears weaker, however, they constantly search for excuses, make downright illogical statements and resist listening to logical views.

Mirza Fattah did, however, praise some European political institutions. Concerning the parliamentary arrangements, he remarked, "Individually, the people of Farangistan are not very wise or mature nor are they endowed with much eloquence or intelligence; but the parliament and the house of consultation [mashvirat khanah] that they have established apparently conceal these shortcomings." Despite their parliamentary form of government, he observed that on most occasions Europeans "deploy shenanigan and deception." He concluded that, "in fairness, any government whose elite are addicted to this habit are not considered amongst the wise and the mature but should be regarded as swindlers and ignoramuses."

The Nocturnal Letter ends with a warning that the Iranian governmental elite should distance itself from the "wicked" Europeans, for they would damage the foundation of the state and religion. During the nineteenth century, pornographic views of Europe, similar to Mira Fattah's Nocturnal Letter, provided the ammunition for an intensified struggle against the reformists who were idealizing Europe. Such pornographic denunciation of Europe entered into the Islamist discourses on the danger of unveiling and women's suffrage. The threat of feminization of power played a pivital role in articulation of a counter-modernist Islamist political discourse. In the counter-modernist discourse the "fairy faced" women of Europe appeared now as demonic. Mirza Fattah was amongst the originators of such a Europhobic discourse, a discourse in which the political threat of Europe was connected to the sexual debauchery of European there. By its erotic condemnation of sexualized European women the discourse interfaced the erotic and political literatures. The success of this politico-erotic literature created a serious cultural opposition to the traveling of Iranian women to Europe.

IV. Narrative Plots and the Scapegoating of Women

Fascination with non-Muslim women has a long history in the Perso-Islamic literary culture. The mystical "Story of Shaykh San'an" by Farid al-Din 'Attar (d. ca. 1230) is one of the most famous and often narrated tales expressing the Persian imagination on the erotic and the exotic. Shaykh San'an, the keeper of Mecca's holy place and an accomplished mystic with four hundred disciples, had fallen in love with a Rumi (Roman/Greek) Christian girl whose beauty "was like the sun in splendor." Her eyes "were a lure for lovers," her face "sparkled like a living flame," and "the silver dimple of her chin was as vivifying as the discourses of Jesus." To unite with the Muslim mystic, the Christian woman set forth four difficult conditions: "prostrate yourself before the idols, burn the Qur'an, drink wine, and shut your eyes to your religion." After accepting these apostatizing conditions and converting to Christianity, instead of the usual dowry, the woman requested, "Now, for my dowry, O imperfect man, go and look after my herd of pigs for the space of a year, and then we shall pass our lives in joy or sadness." Deeply in love, Shaykh accepted this "unkosher" task: "Without a protest the shaykh of the Ka'aba, this saint, resigned himself to becoming a hog-ward." At the end of the tale, Shaykh reconverted and his Christian beloved also accepted Islam. This and other similar stories provide a glimpse of how the exotic and erotic Christian women figured in the mystical and religious formation of identities in pre-modern South and South-West Asia.

In the course of the nineteenth century, pornographic views of European women became as prevalent as the views that they were educated, decent, and self-restrained. Sahhafbashi who praised the education of women also observed that in Europe "virgin women are rare and womanizing [dukhtar bazi] is like eating bread and yogurt in Iran and is not offensive." Reports of sexual laxity of European women provided the Iranian clerisy ('ulama) with effective moral ammunition to attack the modernists who were questioning their moral and intellectual leadership. An early example of clerical scapegoating of European women is evident in the writings of Hajj Muhammad Karim Khan Kirmani (1810-1871), a leading Shaykhi theologian. Writing in 1856/1273, Kirmani believed that Iran was becoming infected with a "new malady" which was the result of "pleasure-seeking individuals, who refuse to associate with the ulama, and would no longer abide by religious principles." Relying on the eyewitness account of Europe narrated to him by "a leading Iranian notable" who had taken refuge in England, he warned of the ensuing feminization of power in Iran.

Can any Muslim allow incompetent women to have affairs in their hands so that they could go wherever they choose, sit with whomever they desire, leave the house whenever they wish? They [Europeans] have not yet gained firm control of Iran but they are already ordering our women not to cover themselves from men. Would any Muslim consent to women wearing makeup, sitting in the squares and at shops, going to theaters? Can any Muslim consent to the independence and beautification of his wife and allow her to go to the bazaar and buy wine and drink it and get intoxicated... and sit with rogues and ruffians [alvat va awbash] and do whatever she chooses? God forbid! Would anyone consent to allowing freedom and losing charge of one's daughter, wife, slave and housekeeper? And allow them to go wherever they please and do whatever they like and sit with whomever they choose and have available in their gatherings any kind of wine they desire and mingle with rogues, and not be able to protest because an unbeliever has ordered the establishment of a land of freedom (vilayat-i azadi)?

Kirmani described his antagonist as an "ignorant, conceited youth who, upon hearing the call of freedom, immediately make themselves look like Europeans, adopting European customs and betraying Islam and Islamic values." He warned:

When they hear the call to freedom [nida-yi azadi] they would shape themselves like the Farangis, organize their assemblies and associations patterned after Europeans, model their behaviors on the bases of European customs, and turn away from Islam and Islamic traditions.

Fearing that the imitation of Europe would lead to the de-differentiation of gender and religious identities, Muhammad Karim Kirmani cautioned Muslim men:

Then if your wife abstains from you, if she chose to convert to Armenianism, she would go to a church and after she is baptized in public, she would enter the Christian religion... If the deviant women wish to become apostates no one can protest. Due to freedom a large number of people would become apostates and the clerisy and others would have no power to speak out. In conclusion, they would establish schools, and classes would be taught by European teachers... and then the simple minded people would send their children to European schools and they would become totally Christianized.

He further warned the male believers that if Iranian women mingled with European women, they would be tempted to dress like Europeans, dance in public celebrations and gatherings, drink wine, and sit with men on benches and chairs and joke with strangers. By becoming a "land of freedom" (vilayat-i azadi), women of Iran would copulate with Europeans and no one would dare to protest. Muhammad Karim Khan ends his counter-modernist essay by declaring that "anyone who befriends a European would be considered a European himself... and thus has apostatized and adopted the religion of the Europeans." This line of argument became a significant component of an Iranian counter-modernity that equated undesirable sociopolitical reforms with the Europeanization and Christianization of Iran. Iranian modernity was always constrained by the terms established by its powerful counterpart.

Persian travelers' accounts of their journeys to Europe frequently followed the narrative plot of the "Story of Shaykh San'an." While enthusiastically reporting on the liberty of European women, their mixing with men in masquerade and dancing parties and their sexual laxity, at the same time they often sought forgiveness for deviating from the straight path during their journey to infideldom (kufristan). For example, Mirza Abu Talib Laknawi Isfahani (1752-1806), who traveled to Europe during 1799-1803, confessed to having abandoned his cherished goal of learning "English sciences" ('ilm-i Ingilish) in favor of "love and gaiety" in London. On his return journey to Calcutta he visited the shrines of the Shiite imams 'Ali, Husayn, and Zayn al-'Abidin and sought their forgiveness for his sins in Europe. He also composed two elegies in praise of 'Ali and Husayn,

Whilst at Baghdad, I had them beautifully transcribed, on gold paper, and suspended them near the tombs of those illustrious saints at Karbela and Najaf. These elegies were much approved by both the superintendents; and they promised me to take care they were not removed, but they should be preserved, a testimony of my zeal.

Not all travelers visited Muslim shrines, repenting for their experiences in Europe like Mirza Abu Talib; instead many assumed the posture of objective and disengaged observers in the recounting of their self-experience. This objectivist posture, like repentance, enabled the travelers to reintegrate themselves into their own society by eroticizing and exoticizing Europe.

Through the narrative recounting of their observations in Europe, the Persianate travelers induced the production of two competing Europhiliac and Europhobic discourses. In the Europhiliac discourse Europe was represented as an orderly and law-bound heterotopia with educated and disciplined women who were perfect companions to their husbands. In the Europhiliac discourse Europe was depicted as an ectopia, an abnormal place with lewd and libertine women who could not be sexually satisfied by their husbands. These competing representations of Europe were deployed by Iranian modernists and counter-modernists in their divergent strategies of refashioning Iran. Identification with Europe served as a strategy for the subversion of the dominant Islamicate discourse and the construction of a new pattern of identity rooted in pre-Islamic history and culture. By mocking Europe, counter-modernists sought to preserve the existing order and to subvert the political strategy of de-Islamization of Iran. Both the modernist Europhilia and the counter-modernist Europhobia deployed Europe as a point of reference; both, however, were actively involved in creative construction of alternative body-politics and vernacular modernities.

V. Seeing Oneself Being Seen

The Persian travelers narrated the spectacle of Europe and the European onlookers reported the spectacle of the exotic Persians in their midst. The surveyors of Europe and its cultural differences found themselves surveyed by Europeans. Reflecting on his own experience as a spectacle, I'tisam al-Din wrote:

Whenever I went outdoors, crowds accompanied me, and the people in the houses and bazaars thrust their heads out of the windows and gazed at me with wonder. The children and boys took me for a black devil, and being afraid kept at a distance from me.

Mirza Abu Talib recalled happier experiences. Remembering his visit to Dublin, he wrote:

As I would walk out of the house they would surround me and every one would say nice things about me. Some said that I must be the Russian General, who had been for some time expected; others guessed that I am a German ruler, and still other would view me as a Spanish noble. But the greater part perceived me as a Persian Prince.

Observing the details of English social and political life, Mirza Abul-Hasan Ilchi was likewise constituted as an object of popular gaze and amazement. According to The London Literary Gazette "he was so great an object of public curiosity, that

he could not leave his hotel without being surrounded by a multitude of gazers. When he attended fashionable parties, the eagerness evinced by the ladies to gain a sight of him, subjected him to a degree of embarrassment the more insupportable, as the people of the East entertain notions very unfavourable to that kind of female curiosity.

Ilchi's appearance provided a signifying surface for the rearticulation of cultural differences and the replaying of European sexual fantasies. Drawing on the culturally available resources, The Morning Herald (29 March 1810) offered a spectacularized description of Ilchi's appearance:

The Persian Ambassador attracts the particular attention of the Hyde Park belles as an equestrian of a singular order, for he rides in silken pantaloons of such a wide dimension, that, being inflated by the wind makes his Excellency appear [more] like flying to a Turkish Harem, than riding for the pure air in Rotten Row.

The harem, a misrecognized space, had already become an exotic site for the projection of European sexual fantasies. As a symbolic condensation of the Muslim Orient, the harem became a point of reference for culturally placing the Persian travelers who were often asked about polygamous practices.

The Persian visitors were the objects of intense public voyeurism. To ward off the public eye, they went "native" and crossdressed. By replacing their Persian dress with European costumes, the visitors hoped to de-exoticize themselves and remove the most obvious sign of their otherness. Such transvestite protection from public voyeurism sought by Muhammad Riza Bayk (d. 1714), a Persian envoy to France, provided Montesquieu with material for the Persian Letters. A central episode of the Persian Letters terminated with the question "How can one be Persian" (Comment peut-on etre Persan?). The Persian Rica found the excessive public curiosity to be burdensome and so decided "to give up Persian costume and dress like a European."

The protective shield of transvestitism was occasionally sought by Mirza Salih Shirazi, a Persian student who lived in England between 1816-1819. On the occasion of King George's birthday, Mirza Salih was asked by his friends to participate in the public celebration. Worried about the public gaze and harassment, Mirza Salih intended to wear a European costume instead of Persian attire. But his friends advised him against it, arguing that he should not be worried since he was to be accompanied by Englishwomen and men. Upon their insistance, Mirza Salih wore his Persian garments and holding hands with a certain Ms. Sara Abraham accompanied his friends to the public celebration. But the sight of an "exotic Persian" walking hand-in-hand with an Englishwoman intensified public curiosity: "All of a sudden, the masses, who had not seen a person dressed like me, appeared from all sides and in a short time five hundred people gathered around me." Mirza Salih escaped from the scene, went to his apartment, and after changing into European dress, rejoined his friends. According to his own report, no one harassed him after he cross-dressed. Such harassing public curiosity was also reported by European travelers who visited the Middle East in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

With the global hegemony of European perspectives, the Persian mode of dress becmae associated with premodernity. The Persian travelers who were conscious of the use of dress as a time-distancing device in European imagination, contemporized themselves by shedding their Persian dress in favor European mode. The European dress, as it will be explained in chapter six, was initially adopted as a military uniform in 1839 by the military modernizer Muhammad Shah. Having likewise internalized the time-distancing European perspectives, almost a century later Riza Shah sought to visually contemporize Iran with Europe by imposing European dress on men and by unveiling women. These policies of self-refashioning were driven by two interlocking inferiority complexes: a sense of inferiority to contemporary Europeans and a feeling of inferiority to the imperial ancient Persians, an imperial tradition that was created in the sixteenth- and popularized in the nineteenth century.


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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Comment for the writer Mohamad Tavakoli-Targhi


A very good thing
Muzaffar al-Din Shah's encounter with cinema
By Naghmeh Sohrabi

Serious fun
Early cartoons

Lagging behind
Why the West moved forward
By Kazem Alamdari

This curtain of cloth
Sometimes I hate it. Sometimes I value it
By Gelareh Asayesh

Tight knot
I could stay in my country forever
By Mersedeh Mehrtash

We are the victims
Women: Foremost victims of fundamentalist fanatics
By Setareh Sabety

Second class
The legal status of Iranian women
By Mehrangiz Kar

On the outskirts
Photo essay
By Javad Montazeri

Making sense of faith and culture
Women turn the most patriarchal elements of shari'a law to their advantage
By Fereydoun Safizadeh

Questions of faith and freedom
Does the exercise of power by a woman make her a prostitute?
By Darya Allen-Attar


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