Sexuality and Modernity in Today’s Iran

By Lynne Rogers

Modernity, Sexuality, and Ideology in Iran
By Kamran Talattof
Syracuse University Press, 2011, 318 pages.

When asked to publically support Feminism, French writer George Sands declined with the claim, “When women liberated their own beds, the rest would follow.”   Iranian scholar Kamran Talattof would probably agree with Sands provided that the liberation was accompanied by an in-depth discussion about sexuality.   In Talattof’s opinion, Iran will remain a “modernoid: a society that resembles a modern one in some areas but lacks other essential modern structures” until there is an open and intellectual debate about gender and sexuality.  He illustrates his argument by looking at the life of Shahrzad, “the most prominent homeless person in Tehran.”   This beautiful cabaret dancer, an actress of Film Farsi in the ‘70s and later a poet and journalist, was imprisoned and had her possessions confiscated by the Iranian government after the 1979 Revolution.  She was eventually released but found herself sick and homeless on the streets of Iran upon realizing that she had nowhere to go and no one to turn to. 

Although Shahrzad’s  work did not warrant much academic attention in the past as she wrote from the margins, Talattof was able to define her role in popular culture and place her work within a historical context of other female artists. A professor of Persian and Iranian Studies, Talattof predicates his observations on a dichotomy of Western modernization and democracy as opposed to the irregular and repressive cultural development of Iran.   While some Western readers might question the ethics and practices of their own media culture and wonder where exactly the wonderful Western world he speaks of exists, and others may take offense at his controversial stance, Talattof nevertheless knows his material. He presents interesting information about the time of the revolution, such as the attempts by the Iranian police to confiscate hula-hoops in the ‘70s, and adeptly connects recent political waves in Iran with the tensions between religion and popular culture.  Despite his tendency to reduce current literary theory to a sentence or two and create his own terminology, his sensitive handling of Shahrzad’s work and his breadth of knowledge in his concluding discussion on the veil in Iran makes “Modernity, Sexuality and Ideology in Iran” worth reading.

This review appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 18, no. 66

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