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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.
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.
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.
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