From A Social History of Sexual Relations in Iran: 2,500 Years of Sexual Relations in Iran by Willem Floor (2008, Mage Publishers). Dr. Floor studied development economics and non-western sociology, as well as Persian, Arabic and Islamology from 1963-67 at the University of Utrecht (the Netherlands). He received his doctoral degree from the University of Leiden in 1971. From 1983-2002, Dr. Floor was employed by the World Bank as an energy specialist. He has published extensively on the socio-economic history of Iran. His books include: Public Health in Qajar Iran, Agriculture in Qajar Iran, and The History of Theater in Iran, as well as, The Persian Gulf: A Political and Economic History of 5 Port Cities, 1500-1730 and its second volume, Persian Gulf: The Rise of the Gulf Arabs, 1747-1792. He has also recently published, Travels Through Northern Persia, 1770-1774, and Titles and Emoluments in Safavid Iran.
Male superiority was a sine qua non, also in sexual matters.(1) Women were on the receiving end; they were dominated by their underlying position by the man, and this showed who was in charge. Because marriage gives the man the right to have sex with his wife, a woman can neither leave her husband’s bed when she has been invited nor refuse to come; she even has to cut her prayers short when he wants to sleep with her.(2) Furthermore, because a man has paid for his wife, (although payment of the mahr usually takes place on divorce), only he has the right to decide when and how he wants to have sex, which he also might want for medical reasons.(3) For only men are allowed to show sexual desire, also towards women with whom they are not married. If the latter happens the man will not be blamed, but the woman is, because she should not have found herself in a situation where another man could approach her. Moreover, there still is a strong belief that girls and women cannot say no to a man, if she happens to be alone with a man. The author of the Qabus-nameh wrote: “You must realize that a woman cannot steadfastly resist a man, however old or ugly he may be; so admit no male slave into the women’s apartments, even though he is black, old and ugly.”(4) The belief that women are unable to withstand a man’s charms, because of her insatiable lust, was reinforced by the fact that, according to Imam Reza, women are 99 times lustier than men.(5) This belief was further enhanced by popular tales that confirmed and endorsed such attitudes. For example, in the popular tale of Hoseyn-e Kurd, the daughter of his captor, Sonbol, helps him escape because her father wants to kill him. Her motive was, as she told Hoseyn: “I will sacrifice myself for your handsome face and your shaved [and therefore appealing] penis.”(6) This probably was as much male boasting as it was male uncertainty given their endless search for penis enhancement, about which later. Although allegedly much lustier than a man, a woman cannot show desire, even in marriage. She must follow and react to her husband’s moves, which are aimed to reveal “the latent erotic powers of the woman. Only he arouses the desire of the woman and fulfills it. The woman before his intervention would not be able to desire; afterward she could not remain insensible without frustrating him in the result he expects from an act whose sole author he considers himself.”(7)
But even if a man has been overcome by sexual desire he just cannot give in to his lust. For even when you are married, as a Moslem, you have to respect certain religious rules concerning if and when you may have sexual intercourse with your wife or slave girl. For example, it is unlawful to have intercourse with a woman during menstruation or who has a female complaint.(8) However, there are other constraints. Intercourse on the first night of the month, the last night of the month and the middle night of the month is considered to be an abomination by the jurists, because during those nights Satan is present during intercourse. Also, while having sex, one should neither face nor have one’s back towards the qiblah or the prayer direction, while in general the place where the sexual act takes place should be carefully chosen; e.g. not on the roof or under a fruit tree.(9) For a woman there is an additional impediment, for she cannot have intercourse with a male slave. Finally, incest is not allowed, which means that sexual relations with any of the so-called maharem, the close relatives, such as the father’s wife, the wife’s mother and the wife’s sister and daughter, is forbidden. (10)
Once these impediments have been taken into account intercourse may begin. However, here the believer is counseled to behave properly, for sexual intercourse is after all sanctioned by religion and therefore, its spirit should guide one’s behavior, including when having sex. The man is therefore given the very appropriate advice to “begin by pleasing her with talk, play, kisses, and embraces.”(11) If this were not convincing enough the jurists have adduced a Tradition that makes these things even clearer and moreover have the additional weight of the Prophet’s own words:
The Prophet said, ‘A man should not fall on his wife as on a mule; he must send a messenger before he lies with her.’ They asked, ‘O Prophet of God, what is this messenger?’ He replied, ‘A kiss.’ Then when he wishes to begin he should say, ‘In the name of God, Sublime and Mighty; God is Great, God is Great, God is Great.’ … At the time of ejaculation he should think of this verse: ‘Praise be to God; It is he who hath created man of water, and has made him to bear the double relation of consanguinity and affinity’ (25:56), and then wait till the woman also ejaculates. For the Prophet said, ‘Three things are weakness in a man: … third, that he becomes busy with intercourse before kissing and embracing, and when his need is satisfied not wait until the woman’s need is also satisfied.’”(12)
Such an advice would not be out of place in modern ‘How to have good sex’ manuals, although the approach is rather one-sided, i.e. only the male has the initiative. Although Imam ‘Ali allegedly advised men to take heed and realize that women have sexual needs, having sex with one’s wife, according to the prophet Mohammad, is like giving alms (sadaqeh), which puts it in a slightly different perspective.(13) Moslem authors certainly took their cue from this and other Traditions. The Qabus-nameh counsels:
Do not have intercourse when you are drunk, for it may have detrimental effects. Moreover, it sets man apart from beast, when he selects both the time and proper season for intercourse, and is not ruled by passion. During the height of cold and warm season it was better not to have intercourse, in particular older men, on whom it could have a deleterious effect. Spring was the best season, when like the world, the body renews its vigor, “the blood in the veins increases together with the semen in the loins.” Moreover, let your desires incline “During the winter towards women.” But on this topic it is requisite that one’s discourse should be brief, lest it engender appetite.(14)
Kay Ka’us b. Eskandar further advised his son:
Once you have married a wife, being greatly in love with her, even though you may be infatuated with her, do not spend every night in her society. Let it be only from time to time, thus leading her to think that such is the universal custom, so that if on occasion you have reason for excusing yourself or wish to go on a journey, your wife will be forbearing towards you. But if you customarily visit her every night, she will acquire a propensity for it and it will be difficult for her to exercise forbearance.(15)
A late nineteenth century anonymous author in a booklet entitled ‘The Education of Wives’ (Ta’dib al-Nesvan) took a rather censorious position towards women’s behavior in marriage and he counseled his readers that wives should prepare for bed, i.e. make toilet, wash up and smell and look nice. “To my mind, a simple chemise of transparent stuff and a bright-coloured petticoat will advantageously replace the day’s apparel.” In fact, the best way would be to dress the way the man likes it. If the man wants his wife to come to him in a pleasant manner, she should not discuss irksome matters of the day, but rather make enticing remarks and above all do not wait for him to make the first move. “Shamelessness is better in bed than prudery; therefore do not imagine that your dignity will suffer if you surrender utterly to love.” Also, the author preferred no lamps, waiting maids and the like in the bed room, while he opined that “the woman may undress entirely at a certain moment.” There should be, of course, no talking about what happened in bed with the girl friends, which women often did when going to the baths. He lectured his female readers as follows: “Do not imitate the fashion of too many woman of our time, and show all your friends the marks of kisses you have had on the neck or breasts.” Shocked, he further remarked that some women even went further and wrote about it to their friends. Since the unknown author considered sex very important he further opined:
Certain great ladies exact a multitude of preliminaries, especially if their husband claims this favour in the day-time. They have no idea of abandoning themselves except in some place devoted to the purpose, and, once there, they require the maid to come and spread the bed, to bring in towels, and to shut all the doors before they will undress. After such long preparations the poor lover feels his flame die down and fall asleep, and even when the case is not as bad as this, there can be no great pleasure in love after such waiting. It is well then, I repeat, for the woman not to pay too much attention to those silly details. Let her rather be ever ready for her husband’s amorous fantasy, and always have a yes for his advance, whether it be preceded by tender cajolery and exciting play or not.
In short, the author told his readers that the husband wants his wife to be uninhibited at these moments. In the morning, however, the wife should not tarry, but leave and wash up, clean her teeth and make her toiletry and make-up. Meanwhile, the husband’s servants will take care of him. Only then present yourself again to him; sweet-smelling, good-looking and coquette. However, most women want to stay and smoke one water pipe after the other and then they expect to be showered with kisses and are astonished when that does not happen.(16)
Thus, women were not considered to have a sexual life of their own; they were just an object of sexual gratification for the man. The latter considered women like a farmer considers a piece of land, viz. a passive field to be used, ploughed and molded by him alone and of which only he had the right to try to get the most productivity (progeny, sexual gratification) by using his knowledge of the lay of the land.(17) If there were no children then it must be that the woman was infertile, not the man, unless he was impotent. If there were only children of the same sex, then it must be the woman’s fault. Eslami-ye Nadushan in his childhood memoir ‘Days’ echoes this, for he writes:
Man/woman relations were either based on barter and settlement or on domination. There was no equality between the two sexes to generate love. Generally speaking, with the view a man held of a woman, he considered it below his dignity to feel himself obligated to satisfy her. In other words, he could not debase himself to the level of gratifying her. His fulfillment was bound with domination and possession, that is, taking by force and preponderance. This was called “enjoyment”.(18)
This one-sidedness of the sexual act is also expressed in the terminology used (mostly Arabic terms in the texts) that tends to be derogatory and abusive in nature and most certainly does not convey the meaning of reciprocity, of a coming together of two equals trying to please both parties.(19) According to one Iranian female psychologist, writing in 2007, “In traditional Iranian society, the concept of sexual satisfaction for women is essentially without meaning. I have seen many such women who regard sexual intercourse as merely a means of satisfying the man, prolonging a shared married life and perhaps also guaranteeing continued financial support from their partner.”(20) For women, of course, were/are not passive sexual partners, because they also know that they have to please their man. However, she is not supposed to show her desire and does so only indirectly by provoking her husband’s desire. Women apparently shared information to know what pleased men, for by binding her husband sexually she acquired marital security.(21) Nevertheless, it is also reported that many men were not sexually satisfied and they estimated that 30-40 percent of women were frigid. This male dissatisfaction with heterosexual relations was/is expressed in “the lament of popular songs, the frequency of other forms of sexuality such as masturbation, homosexuality, and bestiality."(22)
Such conditions led to a situation where many women felt that marriage rather than a warm, safe nest was a cage, even if it was a gilded one. This sentiment was eloquently expressed by the poetess Forugh in her poem ‘The Captive’ (asir).(23)
I am thinking that in a moment of neglect,
From out this silent prison I will fly,
Laugh in the face of the man who jails me,
And then begin life over by your side.
I am thinking this, and know that never
Will I have the strength to leave from out this cage;
Even if the man who jails should wish it,
Breath for my flight no longer now remains.
From the foregoing it is clear that male dominance in sexual matters did not necessarily result in sexual gratification for either husband or wife. It may be that the general phallic attitude is reinforced by the prevailing notion that, in the words of Rumi, “The creator is masculine and active in relation to creation, which is female and receptive.” Love, therefore, has little to do “with mutual satisfaction and nuptial bliss.” In the view of al-Ghazzali, one of the most influential Islamic thinkers, “the lover is an enemy and not a friend, and that the beloved, too, is not a friend.” Therefore, both have two scripted roles to play, one who loves, the other who is beloved, but neither can or wants to assume the role of the other and reciprocate the feeling.(24)
Although sex was not performed in the nude, for usually both partners were/are still (partly) dressed, this is not due to passion which prevented the couple to divest themselves of their clothes. The most likely reason for clothed sex is religious in nature, for Imam Sadeq replied in the negative to the question whether a man could sleep with his wife naked. Moreover, one should not talk during sex as the child may be born mute.(25) The fact of clothed sex is evident from miniatures that depict couples in sexual embraces. This also holds for those miniatures that are explicitly pornographic in nature, i.e. those that show the genitals and the coitus. In these cases, both parties only have divested themselves of their bottom clothes, while the top ones are still worn. This practice of clothed sex also is borne out by sociological studies, which submit that “the lower classes do not undress to make love; the bodies remain covered; it is believed that nudity can bring on male impotence.” In fact, foreplay, as strongly counseled by the prophet and some of the Imams, is usually absent and the same holds for making love. “There is no physical contact during the course of the sexual act other than that of the genital organs; other erogenous zones are not excited and used by sexuality. … In addition, the caress is practically unknown; the sexual act begins with intromission and ends with ejaculation, so that man and woman are physically united only in coitus.” The absence of sexual fore- and afterplay in rural areas is mainly due to “poverty, living arrangements, and the presence of family.”(26) The usual living arrangement in rural areas until recent times was one room or tent that was shared by parents, their children and the farm animals.(27) In urban areas, where until recent times there was no separate bedroom either in most family homes, this situation may further have been enhanced by the fact that lower class married workers worked an average of eleven hours per day, and spent most of their spare time with other men, and thus could not spend much time in the company of their womenfolk.(28)
It is the man who not only decides when to have sex, but who also decides whether to practice birth control and by what method. However, coitus interruptus is only allowed with the wife’s permission; such permission is not required when the woman is a slave girl.(29) Such rules offered food for satirists, such as the author of the Latayef al-Tavayef. He told the story of a man who had sex with his neighbor’s slave girl and, as a result, she became pregnant. When the owner became aware of this he said to the neighbor: ‘Oh enemy of God, you did this dirty deed; could not you at least have withdrawn so that the seed would not have entered the womb.’ The fornicator replied: ‘I learnt from the olama that withdrawing is ‘not desirable’ (makruh).’ The owner then said: ‘Did not you learn that fornication is forbidden (haram)!’(30)
(1) Al-Ghazzali, On Marriage, p. 24 wrote “Men are set up over women (Q. 4:34). The men must always be dominant. The messenger said (pbuh) said: ‘Wretched is (the man who is) the slave of his wife.’”
(2) Muslim, Sahih, 8, 3366-3368 (unless he cannot pay the dowry; see above); Avazeh, Qanun-e Qovveh-ye Bah, pp. 22; she also cannot go to sleep before her husband has had sex with her or has given her leave to do so. Ibid., pp. 21-22.
(3) Avazeh, Qanun-e Qovveh-ye Bah, pp. 24-25 (e.g. in cases of high blood pressure, pains, weakness of the body, phlegm, etc.).
(4) Kai Ka’us b. Iskandar, Qabus Nama, p. 118 (ch. XXVI); Vielle, “Iranian Women,” p. 463. “The mark of a slave suited for employment in the women’s apartments is that he should be dark-skinned and sour-visaged and have withered limbs, scanty hair, a shrill voice, little [slender] feet, thick lips, a flat nose, stubby fingers, a bowed figure and a thin neck.” Kai Ka’us, Qabus Nama, p. 102. The same sentiments still prevailed in the seventeenth century. Eunuchs were often chosen for their ugliness so that women really had to be very desperate before they would overcome their disgust at their sight to desire them. But even this was not enough, for some of the eunuchs had not only their testicles removed, but also part of their penis. However, this was partly compensated by the attachment of a silver tube, which allowed them to urinate farther. Strauszens, Sehr schwere, pp. 154-55. Polak, “Die Prostitution,” p. 563 reports that no Persian man will believe that his wife is innocent if she has been alone with another man without witnesses.
(5) Avazeh, Qanun-e Qovveh-ye Bah, p. 42.
(6) Rosemary Stanfield-Johnson, “Yuzbashi-ye Kurd and ’Abd al-Mu’min the Uzbek: A Tale of Revenge in the Dastan of Husayn-e Kurd,” in Soussie Rastegar & Anna Vanzan eds. Muraqqa’e Sharqi. Studies in Honor of Peter Chelkowski (San Marino, 2007), p. 175. On the various reasons why bodily hair should be removed see Avazeh, Qanun-e Qovveh-ye Bah, pp. 80-81. Persians took hair removal seriously, for a man became very annoyed when he noticed that his wife had not shaved her pubic hair and said: “This is allright with me since I am your husband and intimate with you, but you should really be ashamed if a stranger finds you like this. Obeyd-e Zakani, Ethics of The Aristrocrats, p. 69.
(7) Vielle, “Iranian Women,” pp. 462-63. About the macho man see ‘Obeyd-e Zakani, Resaleh-ye Delgosha, p. 245.
(8) Julie Scott Meisami, The Sea of Virtues (Bahr al-Fava’id) A Medieval Islamic Mirror for Princes (Salt Lake City: Utah UP, 1991), p. 97.
(9) Meisami, Sea, pp. 163-64; Avazeh, Qanun-e Qovveh-ye Bah, pp. 27-30, 34-36; Khomeyni, Tahrir, p. 214..
(10) Meisami, Sea, p. 226.
(11) Meisami, Sea, pp.163-64; Avazeh, Qanun-e Qovveh-ye Bah, p. 30.
(12) Meisami, Sea, pp.163-64; al-Ghazzali, On Marriage, p. 28. In another version the man should not behave like the birds, for sex should not be ‘a quickie’, according to Imam ‘Ali. Avazeh, Qanun-e Qovveh-ye Bah, pp. 39-41, which also provides more details on what constitutes good and desirable foreplay.
(13) Avazeh, Qanun-e Qovveh-ye Bah, pp. 23, 39 (“Imam Sadeq said: The holy prophet asked a man: ‘Did you fast this morning?’ He said: ‘No.’ He then asked: ‘Did you feed a poor person?’ He said: ‘No.’ The holy prophet then said: ‘Go back and have sex with your wife, which to her is like receiving alms.’”).
(14) Kai Ka’us b. Eskandar, Qabus Nama, ch. XV, pp. 77-78.
(15) Kai Ka’us b. Iskandar, Qabus Nama, p. 118, Ch. XXVI.
(16) Anonymous, “The Education of Wives” translated from the French by E. Powys Mathers, Eastern Love 3 vols. (London, New York, 1930), vol. 1, pp. 246, 248, 251, 253.
(17) For the theme of comparing the beloved with a garden see Julie Meisami, “The Body as Garden; Nature and Sexuality in Persian Poetry,” Edebiyat 6 (1995), pp. 245-74.
(18) Mohammad ‘Ali Eslami-ye Nadushan, Ruzha (Tehran, 1363/1984), p. 272, quoted by Farzaneh Milani, Veils and Words. The emerging voices of Iranian women writers (Syracuse, 1992), p. 142. Women, of course, were not the passive sexual submissive non-person as seen by men; they had sexual feelings, which they often freely expressed in games and plays performed for and by women, see Safa-Isfahani, “Female-centered World Views,” pp. 42-53 and Anthony Shay, “Bazi-ha-ye Namayeshi: Iranan Women’s Theatrical Plays,” Dance Research Journal 27/2/ (1995), pp. 16-24.
(19) Javadi, Satire, pp. 198-99. A Persian verb sopukhtan, used in medieval times, meaning, among other things, ‘to enter by force’, also was used to denote ‘to have sex.’ ‘Obeyd-e Zakani, Resaleh-ye Delgosha, p. 100. Even the rather neutral Persian term for having sex, kardan, expresses the one-sidesness of the sexual act, for it refers to the male role, i.e. doing, for the woman’s part is but ‘to give’ (dadan). Milani, Veils, p. 142. The polished term for having sex, nazdiki kardan, is neutral on purpose and is one that may be used in polite society and text books.
(21) Vielle, “Iranian Women,” pp. 463, 468.
(22) Vielle, “Iranian Women,” p. 470. This may explain the satyrist’s witty advice: “Do not waste your precious time on lawful but cold love-making.” Obeyd-e Zakani, Ethics of Aristocrats, p. 77. This does not mean that there were not satisfied males or thought that they could be so, as evidenced by a popular Qajar streets song (Phillot, “Some Lullabies,” p. 153):
“Now lip pressed lip and navel pressed against navel;
an aleph straightened up into qaf’s round stable.” Translation by Dick Davis.
For the metaphoric use of letters of the alphabet, in this case of the aleph and the qaf, see Paul Sprachman, Language and Culture in Persian (Costa Mesa, 2002), pp. 78-80.
(23) Hasan Javadi and Susan Selleé, Another Birth. Selected Poems of Forugh Farrokhzad (Emeryville, CA, 1981), p. 9.
(24) On this issue in general see Michael Glünz, “The Sword, the Pen and the Phallus: Metaphors and the Metonymies of Male Power and Creativity in Medieval Persian Poetry,” Edebiyat 6 (1995), pp. 232-33.
(25) Avazeh, Qanun-e Qovveh-ye Bah, pp. 36-37, 39-41. Also the fact that Ayeshah reported that “I used to wash the traces of Janaba (semen) from the clothes of the Prophet and he used to go for prayers while traces of water were still on it (water spots were still visible),” indicates that sex was performed while clothed during the prophet’s time. Bukhari, Sahih, 4.229-233. However, Khomeyni, Towzih, p. 511 (no. 2312) states that husband and wife can look at one another’s body; Ibid, Tahrir, vol. 2, p. 217.
(26)Paul Vielle, ”Iranian Women in Family Alliance and Sexual Politics,” in Lois Beck and Nikki Keddie eds. Women in the Muslim World (Cambridge, 1978), p. 462. For a funny poem describing the frustration of a man with three wives, who wants to have sex with his wife, but cannot because his children seem never ever want to go to sleep read ‘Ali Akbar Sabir, HopHop-Nameh translated into Persian by Ahmad Shafa’i (Baku, 1962), pp. 173-74 (mard-e seh zan).
(27) Willem Floor, Agriculture in Qajar Iran (Washington DC, 2005), pp. 134-45.
(28) Pakizegi, “Legal and Social Positions,” p. 222.
(29) Meisami, Sea, p. 164; Bukhari, Sahih, 62, 135-137; Muslim, Sahih, 8, 3371-3388. On birth control methods in medieval Middle Eastern society, see B.F. Musallam, Sex and Society in Islam: Birth Control before the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge, 1986); for the situation in the last 40 years see chapter five.
(30) Ravandi, Tarikh, vol. 7, p. 410.
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