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In the Epilogue, I discuss whether or not the policies of each regime impacted the various authors’ interpretations of sigheh. I posit that the female body and sexuality, in the context of sigheh, has been politicized under both the Pahlavi and Islamic regimes. I also discuss, in response to the fact that men have produced almost all literary and cinematic works about sigheh women in this book, whether male-dominated writing or directing promotes a more realistic characterization of the female protagonists, suggesting instead the importance of women writing themselves and their bodies and discuss the ways that the “body politics” is related to women’s writings. Through their writings, women challenge male-dominated society and culture, literature, and language. Using a new language for the expression of their lived bodily experiences that rejects the phallocentrism of the dominant discourse, women disrupt the dominant male-centered language reclaiming and asserting their sexuality. I examine the flourishing women’s writing in the 1980s (and onward) when women began writing their lived experiences, their bodies, their thoughts, and their lives.
The focus of Chapter 3 is Mohammad Ali Jamalzadeh’s Ma’sumeh Shirazi (Ma’sumeh from Shiraz), in which he pits an ill-reputed sigheh/sex worker against an evil high-ranking cleric, highlighting the relationship between sigheh and the clerics. Ma’sumeh is a victim of the existing sociopolitical system that pushes her to marginalization, abuse, and violence. However, even though Ma’sumeh is stigmatized, she also takes up an important sexual position in the social imaginary of the novel’s world. Here once again, the sociocultural, political, and religious corruption of society is mapped out on the female body; and female sexuality is politicized through the interwoven network between sigheh/sex work and sociocultural and political institutions. These are the various sociopolitical and religious institutions that reduce women to the biological and corporeal, instrumentalizing the female body to political and religious advantage without viewing individual women as autonomous subjects. Nonetheless, by the end of the novel, Jamalzadeh desubjugates Ma’sumeh by giving her a voice to defend her rights and complain about the hypocrisy of the religious cleric to the Divine. Only within the realm of the divine court can she find justice. To have a voice, Ma’sumeh must rewrite the normative sociocultural, religious, and political scripts.
The Introduction presents the reader with the methodology and theoretical structure of the book, a general historical overview of sigheh marriage in Iran, literary productions of the Pahlavi era, and the cinematic productions of the Islamic Republic; and discusses the importance of each work briefly in its historical context with a chapter breakdown at the end.
In Chapter 8, Farahbakhsh’s Zendegi-ye Khosusi (Private Life, 2011) also draws on ways that the political becomes personal. Farahbakhsh not only focuses on the political environment of Iran in the 2010s, but he also highlights the inherent double standards found within government-endorsed sigheh. Highlighting the importance of sigheh marriages and the unsettling balance of the political and the personal, the manipulation of religion, double standards, and gendered inequality, Zendegi-ye Khosusi demonstrates the inimical power of patriarchy to protect and maintain male dominance. The film calls attention to women like Parisa, who are desired and lusted after initially, but as they pose threats and demand equal rights, they have to be eliminated. To complete her eradication from his life and keep his moral corruption a secret, Ebrahim, who initially lusted after Parisa, now uses his agency as an autonomous subject to objectify, victimize, and ultimately murder Parisa. Similar to Afkhami, Farahbakhsh depicts the politicization of the female body and sexuality in the context of sigheh under the Islamic regime. He uses the figure of Parisa to lay bare the religious and political hypocrisy and gender-related double standards inherent in the practice of sigheh.
Chapter 4 analyzes Jalal Al-e Ahmad’s “Jashn-e Farkhondeh” ("The Auspicious Celebration"), set in the 1930s, drawing on the 1936 police-enforced unveiling decree of Reza Shah. The narrator’s father, a cleric, has been invited to Reza Shah’s organized event for the Emancipation of Women where he will have to take his wife unveiled. To avoid this, he decides to contract a sigheh for two hours with a friend’s more modern daughter, so he can attend without violating the royal command, but able to disobey the state’s unveiling decree by not attending it with his formal wife. Al-e Ahmad shows how female sexuality is regulated and the female body is exploited under a religious façade to the benefit of the sociocultural, religious, and political institutions during the early years of the Pahlavi regime. Al-e Ahmad addresses the issue of modernization, how it intersects with anxieties over losing or sacrificing indigenous culture, and the role of women within this new nation-state, which is heading toward a Western model of modernization. In so doing, “Jashn-e Farkhondeh” depicts how modern Iranian womanhood came to be defined through the struggle between religion and politics, as well as the interaction between modernity and tradition, among other factors.
In Chapter 7, I examine Behruz Afkhami’s Showkaran (Hemlock, 2000), set in 1995. Showkaran depicts Mahmud, a happily married man who finds himself stuck at the junction of religiosity and modernity. Afkhami exposes some key social problems, including sigheh marriages, and how religious regulations are used as a façade to justify social injustice. He sheds light on the double standards that dominate sigheh marriages and dramatizes how the political becomes personal as individuals strive for morality. Through the character of Sima, Afkhami pushes back against the social and moral corruption of the time, which is mapped onto a woman’s body that must ultimately be eliminated. By highlighting the role of sigheh marriages in maintaining the precarious balance of religiosity and modernity, the manipulation of religion, the societal and religious double standards imposed on women, marriage as an institution versus an intimate relationship, and politicization of the personal, Afkhami displays the complex aspects of sigheh marriages and the detrimental effects the practice has particularly on the personal lives of women, but also on society as a whole. Afkahmi portrays Sima who is “socially peripheral” as “symbolically central,” for she poses a grave threat to Mahmud's nekah marriage, and therein lies her power.
Chapter 2 examines Morteza Moshfeq-e Kazemi’s Tehran-e Makhuf (Horrid Tehran), which portrays the corruption of the sociopolitical structure of the country and its impacts on female sexuality, particularly in the context of sigheh and sex work, at the end of the Qajar and early Pahlavi eras. In this novel, we hear the life stories of four female sex workers, among whom two, Ashraf and ‘Effat, reference their sigheh marriages. I argue that Moshfeq-e Kazemi pushes back against the political and social system that supports the practice at that time. By foregrounding the vulnerable socioeconomic status of women, Moshfeq-e Kazemi illustrates the ways that sigheh marriages stigmatize women and allow society to exploit them. I postulate that while these sigheh/sex-worker women are socially marginalized and stigmatized, they occupy a significant space in the social imaginary of Iran that points toward their symbolic and sexual power. I focus on the ways the female body can be a subject of reclaiming power and countering discourses of oppression. Through the embodiment of these sigheh/sex workers, I explore how the female body simultaneously fluctuates as an object of power, a site of social inscription, and a threat to the status quo concerning women’s subjectivity and autonomy.
Chapter 5 looks at Ebrahim Golestan’s “Safar-e ‘Esmat” (“‘Esmat’s Journey”) and the relationship between sigheh/sex work and the clerics. Golestan illustrates the impact of religious and sociocultural decadence of the country on sigheh women and the female body. In this story, ‘Esmat’s socioeconomic conditions place her on the margins of the society, but the fact that the cleric approaches her immediately after seeing her in the shrine hints at ‘Esmat’s symbolic sexual social power. It is within the paradoxical context of reality and fantasy that I approach Golestan’s “Safar-e ‘Esmat.” As a sigheh/sex worker, ‘Esmat can bring men’s sexual fantasies close to reality. ‘Esmat’s transformation from being a sex worker to a sigheh woman under the influence of a cleric problematizes the question of female agency. Did sex work provide ‘Esmat with agency? If ‘Esmat engaged sex work and enters sigheh due to lack of alternative means of income, does it mean that she will still feel empowered, or is this another form of exploitation? The fact that ‘Esmat had freedom in choosing her clients as a sex worker, while as a sigheh woman, the Seyyed will choose her clients for her, also foregrounds the dichotomy of “victim” versus “oppressor.” Hence, the question remains: Who holds the power?
Chapter 6 explores Sadeq Chubak’s Sang-e Sabur (The Patient Stone), which reflects the chaotic social conditions of the 1930s and includes a criticism of the institution of sigheh. Sang-e Sabur, too, explores the relationship between sigheh and the clerics, and how clerics exploit sigheh women as an income source. Chubak depicts the decadence of the social and religious systems of the country by hinting at the abundance of women contracting sigheh in pilgrimage zones to alleviate the conditions of their poverty. Chubak criticizes the way sex work is disguised under the façade of religion and sigheh. By exposing Gowhar to social violence and subsequent murder at the hands of a psychopath who has decided to purge society of sex workers, Chubak also indicts the social stigmatization and ostracization of sigheh women in Iranian society. This exposure to violence indicates that the patriarchal world in which Gowhar lives is hesitant to grant working-class women, especially sigheh women, the right to control their own sexuality and thus their subjectivity. Hence, Gowhar’s murder can be viewed not only as an act of gendered and sexual discrimination, but also a class-based one – and altogether a violation of her rights as a human.
Focusing on the murder of Mitra Ostad, the Prologue sheds light on the ways that various sociopolitical institutions reduce women to the corporeal, instrumentalizing the female body to political advantage without viewing individual women as autonomous subjects. It also examines the manner in which news and social media handled the murder of a woman, pushing the elimination of the female body to the margins (and to a great extent this marginalization of a woman’s murder), contributing to the normalization of such gendered domestic violence and murder cases. Again, the way that these political parties approached this murder and the portrayal of the murder in the news outlets, including reformist and hard-line newspapers, speaks to not only the normalization of the murder of a woman who was a potential threat to the so-called greater good, but it also speaks about the ways that this female body has been commodified and commercialized in a capitalist system to become a tool of payback for opponent political parties and newspapers while the murder and the elimination of the murdered woman’s body and her rights have been forgotten. The Prologue draws connections between various chapters of the book and this murder case and brings the readers’ attention back to one of the main arguments in the book, which is the mapping out of the sociocultural, religious, and political corruptions of a society upon the female body.
Chapter 1 focuses on the sociopolitical and cultural background of Iran with respect to sigheh marriages and female sexuality from the final years of the Qajar era to the Islamic period. I trace the sociocultural impacts of the gender-based reforms under each regime and discuss the fluctuating value of sigheh marriages during each period and how the disequilibrium of these reforms influences prevailing discourses on female sexuality, sigheh marriages, and further stigmatization of sigheh women.