Some of us like our women hairy
My moment of real consolation came when I met Qajar
December 20, 2004
Insomnia is a terrible condition. I am actually
lucky; I don't get it that often and years ago I discovered a cure
always works: My bedside radio is tuned into our local public
radio and between 11 pm and 5 am it broadcasts BBC World Service.
The monotonous voice of the news caster almost always puts me
right back to sleep. The challenge is insomnia on a Saturday
night. Instead of the boring BBC voice, they broadcast Salsa
music between midnight and 5am; and this was a Saturday night.
So after an hour of turning and tossing I gave up on sleep
and for inexplicable reasons did something I never do that time
of night: went on-line and logged onto Iranian.com. I hadn't
had a chance to look at it for several days and I thought perhaps
a couple of boring postings would put me back to sleep! Wrong!
I always read the left margins first; under updates and subsection
cartoon, Mahmoud's "Unshaved
Persian woman" caught
my attention. A reasonable request: "Thanks for shaving
before kissing, darling." It was evidently meant to be funny,
to look not very credible, perhaps coming from an unshaved Persian
woman? Or was it the cartoonist requesting his Persian woman
to shave before kissing him? Or... several other interpretations
ran through my mind; ... visiting Iranian.com was surely
not a good move if I wanted to get bored and sleepy.
I was tempted to email Mahmoud, saying : "But some of
us like our woman, Persians included, hairy." But the more
I thought about it - and 2 am sleeplessness gives you a lot of
time to think - I realized this was an issue of national significance
and a private email to the cartoonist would just not do the issue
After all woman's hair has been a topic of culture wars in
Iran for as long as I care to remember. And I don't mean the
most obvious and public ones, fought over our heads: one day
compulsory kashf-i hijab, then compulsory hijab, and now the
daily never-ending wars over kam-hijabi, bad-hijabi, etc. It
seems that all womanly hair is cause for social and cultural
anxiety. I will only take up the facial hair issue (cartoonized
by Mahmoud) and leave the rest for braver souls.
Surely I am not the only woman, Persian or not, who has struggled
over facial hair since her adolescent years. As I entered those
memorable years, one high school friend one day asked me why
I had hair on my chin. I felt as if I must have overnight began
to look like a monkey for those few hairs. Right when I, along
with every other girl in our all girl high school, was going
through crushes on other girls or on our teachers, I started
feeling awkward and unattractive on account of my facial hair.
Over the years the number of chin hair strands grew and I started
developing a mustache too. I started getting unsolicited advice.
One cousin urged me to use match flame and burn my facial hair;
another informed me about all those bleach creams recently on
the market; yet another consoled me that once I got married this "hair
problem" would go away; she said, with what sounded to me
like very informed wisdom, that this was some mal-function of
my hormones that sexual activity would set right.
I guess only
matrimonial sexual activity has miraculous hormonal consequences;
over forty years later and much sexual activity, I still have
a lot of facial hair and have used, like all women I know of
the same predicament, variety of ways of getting around it;
sometimes insisting that hair is beautiful, at other times giving
bleach cream or tweezers; I even took my cousin's advice when
I was still in high school and regularly burnt some of the
more stubborn strands of hair. My only moment of real consolation,
however, came when I met Qajar women.
My personal reward for years of researching Qajar cultural
life came when I read how facial hair, and especially that dreaded
mustache of mine, had been a much coveted sign of female beauty
in Qajar Iran. It was as if I felt personally vindicated! Look
pair of women.
women who didn't have enough of a mustache would use mascara to
draw lines over their upper lip. Only in the mid-1920s
a woman's mustache went out of fashion. Some of us are born in
the " wrong" bodies, I was born in the "wrong" century.
Not only did these women cherish facial hair, some of them
looked manly, to our eyes, in more than one way. Look
at this threesome. [for more, visit
When I first saw some of these Qajar photographs, I was reminded
of all I had read in the context of Euro-American history of
gender and sexuality, such as Judith Halberstam's Female
Maybe Iranian nationalists who echo Firdawsi's "hunar
nazd-i Iranian ast-u-bas" are right after all! We had our own transdressers
all along. What did transing mean to a late-Qajar woman? Did
transdressing in anyway connect to trans-naming some adult women
as aqa? And how was it that, yet again in the 1920s, all our
aqas that did not reference themselves to "real men",
to some sort of modern masculinity, began to be written with
a ghayn, as agha - from Aqa Muhammad Khan Qajar, to the women
who had an aqa in their names? One of my own great grandmothers
was named Baygum Aqa.
For years I had spelled her name with a ghayn until I came
upon some earlier papers with her name as Baygum Aqa. How and
when did she get her suffix of being an Aqa and how do I understand
our many aqas becoming agha -- all to consolidate the modern
notion of masculinity by marking it off from a neatly separated
hairless femininity? So is all this anxiety over women's facial
hair all about men feeling if women mimic their facial sign of
masculinity what else are they capable of mimicking? Can we live
with no original genders and sexes?
For more on Afsaneh Najmabadi's passionate hair-splitting
about hair, see Women
with Mustaches and Men without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxiety
of Iranian Modernity.
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