Monday, March 10, 2008

Homosexuals in Iran

Following last September’s confrontation between Columbia University President Lee Bollinger and Ahmadinajad. the Iranian leader, the university arranged a series of lectures offering a variety of points of view on the Middle Eastern nation. The other night (March 5) the topic was “Homosexuality in Iran.” The presenter was Professor Janet Afary of the University of Michigan, a well-regarded scholar in the field of Iranian studies. She did not disappoint.

Afary began with the abundant evidence of pederastic love from classical Persian poetry. Ironically, much the this material is (or was until recently) read by high-school students, who are unaware of the addressees because the Persian language does not distinguish gender in pronouns.

Most of the historical attestation is age-asymmetrical. As in ancient Greece, the luti (active partner) relates to the amrad (adolescent boy). However, there are some instances of age-concordant relations, as the famous bonding between the Sufi poet Rumi and his adult inspirer Shams al-Din.

Prior to the beginning of the twentieth century, this same-sex behavior was generally taken as a matter of course. At least the pederastic form was generally accepted, because of the expectation that the adolescent, the amrad, would “grow out of it,” marrying and begetting children.

Signs of a shift towards a more disapproving stance can be dated to 1905. In that year the first Russian revolution took place, and its social-democratic ideas penetrated into northern Iran, where they helped create the Constitutional Revolution of the years immediately following. These modernizers disapproved of arranged marriages (which often involved very young girls) and homosexuality. It must be remembered that the Western discourse on homosexuality was overwhelmingly negative until the 1970s. In a sense, the current persecution of homosexuality reflects the reception of this homophobic approach--with of course a characteristic time lag. Consequently, one should be wary of assuming that modernization equates with tolerance. Afari indicated that the current regime, despite its archaizing traits, is in fact a modernizing effort. It has, for example, done much to advance women’s education.

The coming of the Internet has opened Iran to all sorts of outside influences, which the regime seeks to curb. The gay e-journal Maha has been shut down. But other currents are evident, and their is hope that a more tolerant approach will emerge. It must struggle against the family orientation prevalent throughout the Middle East. Nonetheless, Afary remains optimistic about the future of Iranian gay people.

To her credit, she opposes the insidious views of Columbia professor Joseph Massad, who holds that the spread of human-rights campaigns, as an infringement on indigenous cultural traditions, should be halted in the Middle East. I asked the speaker whether Ahmadinajad, in his claim that there were no homosexuals in Iran, had been influenced (ironically enough) by queer theory, with its attempt to deny boundaries and specific identities. She replied that she didn’t know. In my view there has probably been a trickle-down effect.

Afary’s findings will be incorporated in a book to be published this fall.


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