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Old 09-28-2007, 12:43 PM   #121
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this article was sent to me not too long ago. i thought it was rather interesting. thoughts?

No Gays in Iran… But Many Same-Sex Couples

New America Media, Commentary, William O. Beeman, Posted: Sep 26, 2007

/Editor’s Note: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s comment that
homosexuality does not exist in Iran like it does in the West is true in
a sense, writes anthropologist William Beeman. In fact, same-sex
relations in Iran do look very different from what is called gay
behavior in the West. /

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was derided for his statement in a
Sept. 24 speech at Columbia University that homosexuality doesn't exist
in Iran. Though many Americans may find it incredible, differences in
the construction of sexual behavior do exist across cultures.

As an anthropologist, I can state with confidence that sexuality varies
tremendously between cultures. The notion that one is either "gay" or
"straight" does not accord with what we observe in human sexual
behavior, which is far more flexible. This categorization is an artifact
of American culture, which glories in binary categories for classifying
people. Folks that identify as "bisexual" (yet another ambiguous
category) in the United States often get grief from both the gay and
straight community for "deluding" themselves about their sexuality.

Of course it is impossible to discern precisely what President
Ahmadinejad meant in his remarks. But what is true is the construction
of same-sex behavior and, indeed, same-sex affection in Iran is
extremely different than in Europe and America. There has been a recent
phenomenon of Western-style "gay culture" emerging in Iran – replete
with gay bars, clubs and house parties – but this is very new, largely
limited to the upper classes, and likely not known to President
Ahmadinejad, whose social milieu is the middle and lower-middle class.
This recent Western-style gay phenomenon is distinct from ordinary
same-sex behavior as practiced traditionally in Iran. Indeed, there was
not even a word for homosexuality in Persian before the 20th century. It
had to be invented. The term used by President Ahmadinejad was
“hamjensbaz,” a neologism that literally means, “playing with the same

In Iran, same-sex sexual behavior is classified rigidly into active and
passive roles. The Arabic terms “fa’el” and “maf’oul” (active and
passive – actually grammatical terms used to describe active and passive
verbs) were the common designation for these roles. The passive partner
is still called by the Arabic term “obneh,” or, more crudely, “kuni.”
(Kun means anus.) The active vs. passive same-sex preference is well
known in the Western world, but it is constructed quite differently in
Iran and other Arab and Mediterranean cultures.

Active partners in Iran do not consider themselves to be “homosexual.”
Indeed, it is a kind of macho boast in some circles that one has been an
active partner with another male. Passive partners are denigrated and
carry a life-long stigma if their sexual role is known, even after a
single incident. They have been deflowered, as it were, in the same way
that women might lose their virginity, and they are considered to be
"xarob" or "destroyed."

In actual fact, many men are "versatile" in their sexual activity but if
they are known to have relations with other men, they will always claim
in public to be the active partner. Same-sex relations between females
are undoubtedly practiced, but this is the deepest secret in Iran, and
rarely talked about at all.

Emotional relations are very different. Men and women both may become
exceptionally attached to people of the same sex, to the point that
Westerners would swear that they must have a sexual relationship. It is
not necessarily so. Kissing, holding hands, weeping, jealousy, physical
contact and all the signs of partnership can exist without any sexual
activity or, indeed, with an undercurrent of absolute horror that it
might take place, because of the active-passive split in sexual
classification and men's fear of being pegged as a passive partner. A
man who truly loves another man doesn't want to degrade him by making
him a passive sex partner.

More typically, male teenagers who become exceptionally attached may
marry sisters in order to become kin to each other, thereby creating a
lifelong bond. There is even a quasi-marriage ceremony based on the idea
of “muta,” or temporary marriage, through which two men or two women can
become fictive “siblings.” This takes care of many things, allowing
intimate relations, and intimacy between family relations, but also
imposing an even stronger taboo against sexual relations, which would be
considered incest.

Iranians who come to Europe and the United States may "discover" that
they are "gay" once they are liberated from the rigid cultural system
that binds them into these polarized active-passive roles.

To be sure, sodomy is punishable by death in Iran, but such executions
have been historically extremely rare compared with the routine
incidence of same-sex sexual behavior in Iran. Much was made in the
United States of two boys who were executed in the city of Mashhad a few
years ago for "being homosexual," as the Western press put it. However,
they were executed because they had essentially committed what we would
call statutory rape on an under-aged boy. The boy's father was beside
himself with rage and grief, and pressed charges. In many such cases,
the shame of the family and the victim himself is so great that no one
ever finds out.

In the end, both the United States and Iran classify sexuality in a way
that fails to accord with the range of actual human proclivities.
However, there is no doubt that the two systems are very different.

/William O. Beeman is professor and chair of the department of
anthropology at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. He has been
conducting research in Iran for more than 30 years, and is a fluent
speaker of Persian. He is author of /Language, Status and Power in Iran/
and /The "Great Satan" vs. the "Mad Mullahs": How the United States and
Iran Demonize Each Other/, the second edition of which will be published
later this year by the University of Chicago Press./

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Old 09-28-2007, 01:17 PM   #122
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Old 09-28-2007, 03:41 PM   #123
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Originally posted by unico
this article was sent to me not too long ago. i thought it was rather interesting. thoughts?
His main point seems to be that we can't know precisely what Ahmadinejad understood himself to be denying--that it may have been more on the order of e.g. 'gay culture' or 'gay romantic relationships,' in which case it's theoretically possible that he sincerely believes those to be non-existent in Iran.

The practice of defining acceptable vs. unacceptable male sex acts (not feelings or desires, as we tend to think in terms of) through the 'active' vs. 'passive' distinction is widespread in Central and South Asia, not simply a legacy of Arab or Mediterranean influence. I think he makes a good point that in some ways, it's no less rigidly 'binary' than our own concept of sexual orientation. But, from a feminist perspective if nothing else, I have to say I do tend to find 'active'/'passive' a more broadly prejudicial way to frame things than 'orientation,' even though the latter certainly can lead to stigmatization and marginalization of those attracted to both sexes. The reason I feel that way is that--as the vulgarisms kuni and xarob seem to illustrate--to be 'passive' (a rather unfavorable-sounding term in its own right) is apparently to be 'womanlike,' i.e., to settle for the inferior sexual status of having nothing to offer but a place to put a penis, despite nature having endowed you with the superior equipment needed to be the 'active' type. Whereas 'orientation,' because it grounds sexual identity in feelings and desires, rather than (primarily) whether you have a penis and (secondarily) how you use it, seems to me less inherently discriminatory.

However, obviously I can only approach the issue as a Westerner, so I may have blind spots about the range of nuances 'active'/'passive' might potentially carry, as well as a tendency to downplay both the extent to which 'orientation' in practice also conveys prejudicial attitudes (e.g., since it entails ideas of normative vs. non-normative), and the extent to which sexism can intertwine with it (e.g., pejorative stereotypes of gay men as 'effeminate,' which like the active/passive idea seem to suggest that to practice 'feminine' behaviors when nature affords you the opportunity not to is pathetic). Of course, in our culture that sort of stereotyping also extends to women who prefer sexual relations with other women (e.g., that they're unfavorably 'mannish'). Still, the generally greater hostility shown to gay men than lesbians would seem to suggest that it's not merely a question of failing to show 'gender-appropriate' behavior--lesbians aren't deemed to have 'fallen' as far as gay men have since, being women, they're 'lower' to begin with.

While it's interesting, his bringing up the stuff about same-sex friendships and the degree of public intimacy allowed them risks muddying the issue, I think--whether or not hand-holding, etc. is acceptable among male friends and relatives isn't a reliable predictor of attitudes towards sexual relations among them. For example, in traditional Jewish communities, both 'passive' and 'active' male sexual relations are definitely seen as wrong, yet for men to embrace, kiss, and touch one another affectionately is generally quite common--in fact, it's far more taboo to do those things in public with a woman, including one's wife. So I'm skeptical of his idea that the active/passive split is somehow critical to making such things acceptable.

ETA: Also, I'm a little surprised he doesn't mention Iran's very high sex-reassignment surgery rate (second only to Thailand's). The Iranian government provides grants and loans to help out Iranians wishing to undergo sex-reassignment surgery, and both international human rights and Iranian transsexual rights groups have asserted that more than a few Iranian transsexuals chose the surgery (which, unlike 'sodomy,' is perfectly legal) not out of any desire to have an opposite-gender body, but rather to escape persecution for being gay. In fact there was an article in the Guardian just the other day about this:
Maryam Khatoon Molkara, leader of the country's main transsexual organisation, said some of those undergoing operations were gay rather than out-and-out transsexuals...But Ms Molkara--who persuaded Khomeini to issue the fatwa [authorizing] transsexuality--said [Ahmadinejad's] stance was inconsistent with the state's sex-change policy. "They are saying homosexuality doesn't exist, but they have never given me a chance to use my influence among transsexuals to prevent transsexuality from happening," she said. "You could change the culture but the press and state TV are not allowed to write or say anything about transsexuality."

The president's claim was an eye-opener to Iranian human rights lawyers, who said the country's Islamic legal code made draconian provision for homosexual offences by men and women. It also outraged international gay rights activists, who recalled numerous executions under Iran's sodomy laws. When legal officials announced the execution of 12 prisoners at Tehran's Evin prison in July, they said the condemned included several "sodomites". According to campaigners, several gay men have been caught up in a wave of hangings over the summer, although the claims are hard to verify.

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