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Some of us like our women hairy
My moment of real consolation came when I met Qajar women

December 20, 2004
iranian.com

Insomnia is a terrible condition. I am actually lucky; I don't get it that often and years ago I discovered a cure that almost 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 justice.

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 in to 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 at this pair of women.

Qajar 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 here]

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 Masculinity. 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?

About
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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