Unveiling of women
On the idealized women of the other
By Mohamad Tavakoli-Targhi
January 7, 2002
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
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
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.
This 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.