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 sex.”
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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