Global Inspirations and Plastic Modesty: The Case of Intimacy and Composite Gender Arrangements in Iran

Mohammadi, ElahehORCID: (2020) Global Inspirations and Plastic Modesty: The Case of Intimacy and Composite Gender Arrangements in Iran. Doctoral thesis, Masaryk University.

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The “woman question” has been at the center of political paradigms for both modernist nationalists and Islamist fundamentalists in Iran. With women simultaneously representing the location of social morality and cultural conservatism, the two paradigms have a long history of common boundaries when comes to women’s modesty. However, previous cultural perceptions of women’s passive sexual desire and sexual role have been changing. The changes in Iranian attitudes towards sexual intimacy have been such that the conservative state, cognizant of the country’s population decline, has adopted a sex-positive approach in its newest family policy programs. This includes the changes in compulsory pre-marriage courses to focus on the psychological aspects of marital relationships, rights within marriage, as well as Shari’a rules and training regarding marriage and sexuality. Where do such changes stem from and are they at all novel or are they the extension of historical trajectories that have formed the social relations of gender in Iran?
Gurminder Bhambra encourages sociologists to see the connection between historical trajectories in the Global North and the Global South. Taking into account the colonial legacies of modernization and their impact on historical trajectories across the Global South allows us to see their connection to contemporary social phenomena, such as gender arrangements, and in doing so, to go beyond the local and the regional and to move away from the discourse concerning a “clash of civilizations.” In my exploration of social gender relations in Iranian society through the life narratives of women, I have followed such an approach by adopting Eric Mace’s theoretical lens concerning gender arrangements. Breaking from the tautological conception of patriarchy as structural male dominance irrespective of historical changes, following Mace, I understand patriarchy as a specific kind of gender arrangement, in which the asymmetry between men and women is both necessary and legitimate. Various gender arrangements across the globe are formed through different arrays of these two dimensions. A historical theorization of patriarchy shows that through colonialism, traditional gender arrangements are impacted by modern patriarchy; none of the gender arrangements are coherently patriarchal or post-patriarchal. To see such an intertwinement of gender arrangements between Western and non-Western societies, offers us a way to understand that “the current situation is not that of a divide between ‘liberal egalitarian Western societies’ and ‘patriarchal non-Western societies’, but common disengagement, albeit in different forms, from patriarchy” (Mace 2018: 3). While a review of literature on the history of gender arrangements in modern Iran has informed my interpretation of the research interviews, this study itself is an attempt to contribute in a novel way to the body of work on contemporary arrangements of gender in Iran.
To provide a grasp of the state of gender arrangements in Iran today, I analyzed a collection of 25 life-narrative interviews with a group of women, who volunteered to speak with me about their lives. The interviews took place in 2015-2016, in a midwifery/gynecological expert’s office in Esfahan city. The interviewees were predominantly young to middle-aged women, in their 20s to 40s. Most had lowerclass, urban backgrounds.
As Mace states, in the countries of the Global South, gender arrangements are “composite,” shaped by effects and rationales of coloniality, decoloniality, and hybridized globalization. The term composite implies that the on the one hand globalization does not lead to total integration, while on the other hand, contradictions and heterogeneities and conflicting effects and rationales of coloniality, decoloniality, and hybridized globalization, do not allow the resurgence of patriarchy despite “masculinist restoration” of patriarchy.
Through the course of the analysis of the interviews, I looked into how these contradictions are reflected in the stories that the women told about their lives.
Looking through the lens of life narratives, I focused on how the arrangements of gender in Iran manifested through women’s understandings and practices of marital, romantic, and sexual relationships. I also paid attention to how they construct gender norms and understandings of gender inequalities.
The findings of this research show that while the research informants’ critique of gender inequalities between men and women in the Iranian context is acute, regardless of social class and educational level, their practices of subverting sexual gender norms in the context of intimate relationships, specifically family and sexual relationships, was ultimately impacted, if not determined, by social structural factors and their access to social and economic resources.
The informants were clients of a midwifery institution, and the interviews took place either in the midwife’s office or in the waiting room of a small private counseling center located adjacent to her practice. In telling their life stories, informants often spoke about their intimate lives with a focus on spousal, romantic, and sexual relationships. Given the context in which the interviews were conducted, the focus on these specific themes of intimate relationships is not unexpected; however, I did not anticipate that informants would reveal and share such intimate narratives with such openness about their private and sexual lives.
My analysis reveals that while gender asymmetry remains legitimate from the side of political and theological conservative state discourse and policies in Iran, it is highly illegitimate from the side of the women. Calling upon the concept of “bifurcated consciousness,” I have highlighted the emotional aspects of the experiences among the women I interviewed. I look into some of the bifurcations that emerge from the women’s stories. Ruptures between two modes of knowing create tensions and contradictions in the women’s actions and experiences. I have shown that women experience bifurcated consciousness not only because of the ruptures in their life experiences, “within the social forms of consciousness – the culture or ideology of our society – in relation to the world known otherwise, the world directly felt, sensed, responded to, prior to its social expression” (Smith 1987: 49). The bifurcation also occurs as a result of the composite form that the social forms of consciousness embody. The analysis of interviews shows that the women’s social forms of consciousness, similar to the gender arrangements of the society that they live in, are shaped by “heterogeneous,” “contradictory,” and “conflict-ridden” (Mace 2018: 14) effects and rationales.
The internal, conflict-ridden components of social consciousness impose the burden of emotional work, as women try to make sense of their self, their actions, and their lives at the juncture of this heterogeneous complexity. Women thus employ various toolkits to create flexibility in their lives. They utilize modern scientific tools such as medicalized female sexuality, medical examinations, and psychotherapy to avoid being controlled and to maintain a hold over their body and sexuality in ways that make them feel empowered. In breaching the two modes of consciousness, and using their toolkits, they create a place and state of inbetweenness. In crafting and using flexible and customized breaching tools, they reconstruct their bodies, their body narratives, and their narratives of self to reconstruct their sense of self in ways that breach the bifurcated lives that they live, understanding their lives in ways that they feel empowered and dignified.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Keywords: Gender Arrangements, Sexuality, Intimacy, Modern Patriarchy, Bifurcation, Medicalization, Iran.
Research Units: Current Research Groups > IHS general publications
Date Deposited: 23 Feb 2021 09:29
Last Modified: 23 Feb 2021 09:29

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