Sexual Politics in Modern Iran
Cambridge University (2009)
Janet Afary is a native of Iran and a leading historian. Her work focuses on gender and sexuality and draws on her experience of growing up in Iran and her involvement with Iranian women of different ages and social strata. These observations, and a wealth of historical documents, form the kernel of this book, which charts the history of the nation's sexual revolution from the nineteenth century to today. What comes across is the extraordinary resilience of the Iranian people, who have drawn on a rich social and cultural heritage to defy the repression and hardship of the Islamist state and its predecessors. It is this resilience, the author concludes, which forms the basis of a sexual revolution taking place in Iran today, one that is promoting reforms in marriage and family laws, and demanding more egalitarian gender and sexual relations.
Excerpt from Chapter 3
Class and Status-Defined Homosexuality and Rituals of Courtship
One of the best-known examples of love and reciprocity in mystic circles appears in an account of the life of Rumi, the greatest Sufi poet in the Persian language, whose followers founded the Mevle known for its ritual whirling. While living in Konya in 1244, Rumi forged an intense bond with Mawlana Shams Tabrizi, a mystic and accomplished teacher who claimed to have reached union with God. Theirs was a unique relationship since both were mature and renowned masters. Franklin Lewis writes that contemporaries defined their relationship as falling in love, which Franklin qualifies as a “Platonic love of a disciple for his teacher.” Rumi took Shams home, “ where they lived happily for a year or two before the disciples of Rumi became to act on their jealousy” (Lewis 2001, 159). Various accounts have suggested that resentful disciples of Rumi stabbed Shams and threw his body into a nearby well.  After the disappearance of Shams, Rumi’s mystical poetry continued and gave birth to some of the most beautiful poems in the Persian language. Rumi also used Shams’s name as a pen name in much of his poetry, signaling his unity with his beloved. Rumi had other mystical love relationships and eventually composed the epic poem Mathnavi, which has been called the “Persian Qur’an” (Schimmel 1975, 313–15).
Devotees of Sufi poetry have often denied its earthly and carnal dimensions. They have suggested that Sufi love poems were not literal expressions but symbolic representations of the concealed beauty of the divine. We may never know the true nature of the relationship between Shams and Rumi. We do know that many of their contemporaries considered the lack of a hierarchical relationship between the two most unusual. “They embraced each other and fell at each other’s feet, ‘so that one did not know who was lover and who was beloved.” (Schimmel1975, 313). Rumi celebrated moments when social formalities were abandoned in their lives “How sweet it is when there are no formalities between lover and beloved. All these conventionalities are for strangers, [but for the lover and beloved], whatever is not love is forbidden to them (Cited in Lewis 2001, 181). But Shams lamented the lack of clear boundaries, “I need it to be apparent how our life together is going to be. Is it brotherhood and friendship or shaykh-hood and discipleship? I don’t like this. Teacher to pupil? (Tabrizi 1990 cited in Lewis 2001, 163).
Many admirers of mystical poetry have pointed to the mystics’ break with orthodoxy and their exploration of a more intimate relationship with God. Others have celebrated the Sufi message of tolerance, especially their rejection of socially-imposed boundaries between different religions, and their belief that Jews, Zoroastrians, Christians, and Muslims were all created by God (Nasr 1977, 123). Can the homoeroticism of Persian mystical poetry be viewed as also a definite cultural theme, not just a break with religious orthodoxy, but a departure from the requirements of status-defined homosexuality in mainstream Iranian society?. This is an intriguing question. In this rigidly hierarchical society, as much so as the Greco-Roman world that preceded it, one of the most important social barriers was between the “active” lover and “passive” beloved. Yet it appears that some mystic poets such as Rumi may have aspired to a new and more reciprocal ethic of love within their small communities. When Rumi and his contemporaries insisted that in the most exulted state of love the distinction between the lover and beloved disappeared—noting in the accounts of Rumi and Shams that no one knew “who was lover and who beloved”—they may have been moving beyond status-defined homosexuality, beyond a relationship that always involved an implied “active” lover and a “passive” partner. In ultimate love, then, reciprocity and consent were essential.
* Also see excerpt from Chapter 9
 Lewis takes issue with this conventional reading of the disappearance of Shams (Lewis 2001, 187-193).
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