Staci Gem Scheiwiller, Liminalities of Gender and Sexuality in Nineteenth Century Iranian Photography: Desirous Bodies
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(London: Routledge, 2017), 240 pp.
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Staci Gem Scheiwiller introduces Liminalities of Gender and Sexuality in Nineteenth-Century Iranian Photography: Desirous Bodies with an undated (likely nineteenth-century) image of two Qajar Iranian women, labeled “prostitutes” by the Iranian of Ministry of Culture, dressed as a Europeanized heterosexual couple. Scheiwiller leads with questions of desire: “what were [these women’s] desires in staging this photograph, and for whose desire was it composed?” Her question very soon broadens into what becomes a guiding question for the study as a whole: “Within the temporal time and space constituted by the frame or through the long expanse of time... how can desire as an intangible thing become manifest and expressed, if it is indeed there?” (1).
Scheiwiller’s answer throughout the book is that it is, indeed, “there” in these Qajar photographs. Desire leads the study down fruitful lines of inquiry that center the body, both in terms of gender and, refreshingly for Iranian studies, of race (I say ‘refreshingly,’ though such developments are thankfully becoming increasingly common). But reading the fraught discourse of desire into the photographs—which after all, can only ‘speak for themselves’ with great limitations, if at all—also exposes the study to overgeneralizing arguments about not only the relationship between photography and power, but also about power more generally, as well as agency. Though I will attempt to elaborate such concerns below, they do not overshadow the many strengths of what is a novel and sophisticated contribution to the history of modern Iran, not to mention to the fields of gender studies, postcolonial theory, race theory, and the history of photography more broadly.
The monograph is organized into eight chapters that, aside from elegantly making and actually adhering to succinct, distinct claims, are conveniently set with figures, notes, and a bibliography within the confines of each chapter, lending the book to its easy incorporation on syllabi. As method, Scheiwiller offers readings of photographs and albums culled through extensive archival research in Iran, the United States, and Europe, interpreting these images and objects with reference to a broad range of academic and theoretical writing available in Persian, English, and French on Qajar photography, pornography, and the erotic in various global contexts, as well as writing on gender in Iranian modernization (not least of all, critically engaging Afsaneh Najmabadi’s now canonical Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity ). Though the project necessarily occupies itself a great deal with Europe, occasionally coming into contact with theories of Orientalism, which no study of modern Iran can (or should) avoid, Scheiwiller explicitly tries to decenter Europe as a normalizing point of comparison (4). To this effect, she provides the photographic culture of nineteenth-century Chinese courtesans and Japanese geishas as the main point of comparison for an industry of indigenous erotica outlined in chapter four.
Scheiwiller outlines her theoretical framework in the Introduction (chapter one). Foregrounding postcolonial theorist Homi Bhabha, she cites Bhabha as the “inspiration” for locating modernity in liminality (1). Scheiwiller’s central claim is that
photographs became liminal sites of desire that maneuvered ‘betwixt and between’ [a phrase borrowed from anthropologist Victor Turner] various social spaces—public, private, seen, unseen, accessible, and forbidden—thus mapping, graphing, and even transgressing those space, especially in light of increasing modernization and global contact during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. (3)
Closely related to this idea of liminality is another theorization closely associated with Bhabha: hybridity. Gestured to more obliquely above in the coupling of opposites (e.g., public-private, etc.) and later through such polarities as veiled-unveiled and male-female, to mention only a few, hybridity becomes crucial to the arguments Scheiwiller pursues throughout the book.
Chapter two, “A Language of Its Own: Depictions of Women in Iranian Art before and Shortly after the Arrival of Photography,” puts forth one such thesis of hybridity, representing Qajar Iranian photography as a new “language” that incorporated elements of, but did “not always rely on” earlier Iranian image production, including but not limited to painting, and foreign visual culture. Thus Qajar photography appears as a third term that exceeds past and contemporaneous moments.
Along the same lines, in chapter five on “The Erotic Spaces of Qajar Photography,” Scheiwiller suggests that “the photographic space, although considered a ‘modern one,’ also became a liminal and transitional one that preserved older ideas of sexuality and gender, as well as provided new and hybrid ones of expression” (124). Thus departing from Najmabadi’s prevailing thesis about the Victorianization of sexuality in Qajar Iran, Scheiwiller revises what Najmabadi has cited as a disappearance of the amrad (idealized boy beauties) from Iranian visual culture to make the compelling argument that it was instead “both the transgendered and the hybrid, the liminal itself, that seemed sexually appetizing and pleasing to Qajar male gazes” (126). Examples of women cross-dressing such as that which introduces the book (cited above) exemplify such ambiguous and ambivalent desires; the same image also neatly shows the blending of Iranian and European tastes. Yet there are also significant ways that Iranian tastes were markedly different than their European counterparts: namely, in a preference for a depilated vulva in Iranian imagery and the eroticization of pubic hair in European, and in particular French, pornography of the period. Scheiwiller thus seems to avoid some of the pitfalls of relying on hybridity, for she maintains the integrity of both individual terms (i.e., Iranian and European) while suggesting moments of mixture as well as the existence of newness (Qajar Iranian). Arguably, though, she does not entirely avoid the conceptualization of Western and non-Western cultures as oppositional/opposed entities, for which hybridity has also been widely critiqued.
Late in chapter two, Scheiwiller presents the claim, picked up again in chapter three and throughout the book, that unveiling in the Qajar context must be understood as uncovering the face and not the hair (48). Such a contextualization and specifying of veiling practices is welcome. But Scheiwiller could go further still in interrogating what unveiling might mean in different context, and how the line between veiled and unveiled might have changed in various spaces of Qajar society.
For example, an anecdote from the journals of British civil servant Robert Blair Munro Binning (active in Iran in the 1850s) could be interpreted quite differently. Citing Binning’s comments on his and his colleagues’ experiences in Iranian homes, where the foreigners were exposed to what Scheiwiller describes obscurely as “refined women in revealing dress” (considering the author is pursuing an argument about what exactly constitutes unveiling, one wonders what the women were actually wearing, information that, if unavailable in the original text, should be noted as conspicuously absent), Scheiwiller reads the narrative as demonstrating that veiling practices in urban Qajar society took into account ideas of private versus public space as well as a woman’s particularly relationship to the men in question (48-9)—indeed, Scheiwiller’s framing seems to suggest a privileging of the former over the latter. Yet this anecdote might equally, and perhaps more compellingly, be interpreted as saying something about the gendering of foreigners and the relationship between foreignness and masculinity in privileged Qajar society. What I mean to suggest is that these European men might not have been seen as ‘man enough’ to warrant covering before them; or, if veiling were understand as culturally and religiously contextual, then they might have been seen as existing outside the strictures of mahramiyat, which dictates veiling according to the possibility for a licit sexual relationship, so that appearing before the foreign men with the face exposed or “in revealing dress” might not have been interpreted strictly as an unveiling. Or alternately, appearing unveiled might have been a transgression these women were undertaking and not an unreservedly sanctioned act. Such a transgression might then have been forgiven precisely because of the ambiguous gendering of foreign men and/or due to a broader cultural flirtation with shifting cultural norms—as aforementioned, Najmabadi has suggested that the European influence on Iran at this period resulted in increasingly strict gender norms; but one can also see how the private space of the home might have been fertile ground for testing nascent unveiling movements, keeping in mind of course, that unveiling and gender normativity are not necessarily at odds.
This interpretation of unveiling is pregnant with further repercussions for Scheiwiller’s arguments about agency, which she pursues in chapter three on the “corporal politics” of Nasir ud-Din Shah’s now famous and well-mined photographs of the members of his harem, including both women and eunuchs, the latter of whom were predominantly black slaves. Focusing on images of Iranian women in this chapter, Scheiwiller suggests that women always appear unveiled, as she has defined it (they do not wear face veils and “expose” their bodies, which includes the well known Qajar taste for bare breasts), and that they furthermore “appear as active participants in the production of their own images” (58). Thus women’s unveiling figures as an expression of the women’s agency. This is not necessarily inaccurate—indeed, above, I too have suggested that women might have purposefully unveiled as an act of transgression. But also, in a context in which unveiling was often a sexualization of the female body meant to disempower women, the alignment between agency and unveiling cannot be easily assumed. Scheiwiller’s reading exists in contrast to arguments pursued by Ali Behdad (cited here on 68, in regards to a photograph of the Shah’s favorite, Anis al-Dowleh), for example, which claim that much of the Shah’s harem photography was self-Orientalizing.
Contextualizing these images with a historical claim that “Qajar women were seen as too headstrong and castrating by controlling state affairs through harem politics and unleashed sexuality” (75), Scheiwiller opens up these photographs to important feminist interpretations. The power dynamics between the Shah and the women of his harem, nevertheless, was complex, as Scheiwiller herself shows in the context of the aforementioned photograph of Anis al-Dowleh. Though these women may have “participated in” their representation, it would be too much to say that they are in control of that representation; but this is a distinction Scheiwiller seems reluctant to draw out. Doing so would not have to undermine the politics of her reading: instead, it might present further opportunities for complicating her claims about discourses of power.
As is, Scheiwiller’s underlying thesis that “photography is inherently a tool of power,” while true, is so broad that it threatens to fall flat, especially inasmuch as it invites a similarly insufficiently nuanced view of agency. Throughout the text, the term “agency,” which itself deserves a dedicated monograph, seems to be assumed rather than interrogated. The closest Scheiwiller comes to a definition is when she states in the conclusion to chapter three that “agency is always won at the cost of another” (80). This is a bold claim to make so casually: certainly feminist scholarship and activism from the past several decades—and I am thinking in particular of work by women of color that engages with race and gender—does not agree with this view of agency as a zero-sum game, suggesting instead that we can build a world in which multiple types of people can posit and attain variegated desires (one might even see the suggestion of a scarcity of resources when it comes to self-actualization, which seems to be implied in the idea of agency presented, as in line with capitalist ideologies). Moreover, the distinction between active and passive participants suggested by the formulation quoted above in regards to the harem photographs begs the question: what exactly might be judged “active” and what “passive”? Further, is being “active” always a matter of resistance?
Here we arrive again at the challenge such a claim about desire in the context of a visual language (i.e. photography) poses. Whereas arguments about desire are more easily (or substantially) made about literary works, where a vocabulary of desire might be employed in the text, visual vocabulary is more ambiguous, so that ascertaining a photographic subject’s desire glides dangerously close to arguments about intentionality or authorship that are highly susceptible. For example, the claim (also made in the Conclusion) that a female photographer causes “an agency [to] coalesce within the photographic frame” because “one sees the world through her eyes” (206-7) makes several assumptions, first among them, that a female-bodied subject will necessarily have a different perspective, ignoring the ways dominant ideologies can mediate the perspectives of dominated subjects. Simply having a perspective, regardless of what that perspective is, is here elided with agency. Is it agency if that perspective reinscribes the dominant ideology, including but not limited to the subject’s own domination? What is the difference between agency and power?
The claim that Scheiwiller makes in chapter seven, “Enslaved Bodies of Desire: Photographs of Black African Bodies in Qajar Photography,” that the black female slave “becomes the witness and indexer of sexual indiscretion” in Qajar painting (186), a role then adapted in photography so that black bodies were “encoded” as “the eyes and ears of the harem, making them witnesses of various spaces, including photographic ones” (194), suggests a conceptualization of whiteness by which the native Iranian (i.e., Aryan) female body was differentiated against not only black bodies but other ethnic bodies in the Perso-sphere (indeed, regarding contemporaneous literature, in Burying the Beloved: Marriage, Realism, and Reform in Modern Iran , Amy Motlagh has argued that bourgeois Iranian femininity was constructed against the figure of the black slave and housemaid much in the same way of white femininity in the Euro-American sphere). The danger in defining agency as zero-sum is that such an exercise of power might be easily elided with “active” subjecthood, whose positive valuation is assumed here, thus equating personal agency with disempowering others.
These concerns about an oversimplification of power and agency notwithstanding, to her great credit, Scheiwiller complicates notions of desire by suggesting the subject-oriented adjective “desirous” alongside the object-oriented “desired” or “desirable.” She glosses this term most clearly in the conclusion (one wonders: why not instead foreground the import of this term in the Introduction?), writing: “‘desirous’...implies dichotomous positionalities that call for a state of liminality to trespass from one subjectivity to another” (206). Thus multiple subjectivities might be accounted for in the same subject, so that liminality becomes not just about the negotiation of public or interpersonal space but also about the negotiation of the self.
When applied to same sex desire, such as in Scheiwiller’s important tracing of woman-woman homoerotic and homosocial, and frequently explicitly sexual, desire in chapter five, a topic often ignored in studies of Qajar Iran in favor of stressing male homoerotic desire (here, the subject of chapter six), such a conceptualization offers a productive theorization of sexuality in this period, and more precisely, of what Scheiwiller calls, as in the title, the “liminalities of sexuality.” Blurring the lines between desirous and desired, and between subject and object, or, alternatively, offering multiple positionalities to the same subject (suggesting not just a switching, but a simultaneity), same sex desire thus conceived offers an expansion of the self.
This is crystallized in images of masturbation, for which Scheiwiller presents a brief genealogy starting with Safavid miniature painting (14-15). Referring to an eighteenth-century Tabriz school miniature that depicts a woman masturbating while reading an erotic text, Scheiwiller writes: “women in Iran before the advent of the camera (and then afterward as well) looked at images, and they looked with pleasure, be it sexual or otherwise” (40). In the context of histories that focus inordinately on the male gaze even when it comes to women’s bodies, Scheiwiller’s attention to female desire is a vital contribution.
Despite any possible shortcomings, Scheiwiller provides a significant intervention into the field of Qajar photographic history and serves as a timely and substantial addition to the growing corpus of analyses of gender and sexuality in modern Iran. (Indeed, a less sophisticated text would not have warranted the critical engagements I have attempted above.) Reading this book and its images is both edifying and thought provoking; the questions it forces us to confront carry resonances far beyond the area of Iranian studies, with repercussions for how we understand gender and sexuality and the postcolonial more fundamentally.
Mariam Rahmani is a doctoral student in Comparative Literature at UCLA with Persian, French, and German. Her interests span a range of topics in postcolonial theory and literature, gender and sexuality, the history of photography, and Orientalisms. She also writes fiction.