Theses Doctoral

Revolutions and 'Rough Cuts': Bodily Technologies for Regulating Sexuality in Contemporary Iran

Batmanghelichi, Kristin

Studies on the regulation of sexuality in the Islamic Republic of Iran are often focused on the regulatory tool of criminalization in relation to sex and sexuality. More recently, popular academic debates have centered on the revolutionary sexual practices among a subculture of upper-middle class Tehrani youth. Yet the scope of practices, methods, and technologies used to regulate and express sexuality in contemporary Iran are manifold and diverse, conflictive and collaborative, and seldom reflective of the state's ideological imperative of an "Islamic sexual morality." This dissertation examines the regulation of sexuality in Iran from 1965 to 2012, a period beginning with the launching of modernization reforms under the Pahlavi dynasty and ending well into the third decade of the Islamic Republic. As seen through state, religious, juridical, popular cultural, and public health discourses on sexuality, this project examines the construction and application of bodily technologies --meaning the physical and conceptual modes of regulation enacted to discipline and/or control "immodest" and "deviant" expressions of men and women. This project concentrates on five unique sites: a popular women's journal, a red-light district, temporary marriage, iconic public statues, and a HIV-AIDS advocacy organization in Tehran. In each site, I identify, compare, and contextualize the methods of regulation, posing the following questions: how are bodily technologies constructed discursively and socially in Iran? And, in particular, what values and perspectives are incorporated in them, serving to dictate what kinds of realities, lifestyles, and desires are both permissible and accessible? By tracing the construction and strategic application of both old and new modes of regulation, I discuss how each mode engages with the forces of modernity, consumerism, prostitution, and religious discourse. Also, I examine how sites and modes of regulation mutate into each other, breaking form to join with other disciplinary methods to condition a similar kind of isolation, concealment, and stigmatization. I argue that even despite the change in regimes, from the secular, pro-West Pahlavi monarchy to the clerical-led Islamic Republic, there are shifts and continuities in the modes of regulation. This is especially evident during periods of economic, social, and political crises. Moreover, I contend that in most of these sites, the body is one of the ways through which sexuality is regulated; in others, sexuality is disciplined through the spatial cleansing of brothel sites and, after 1979, in the official promotion of temporary marriages to assist in controlling the rise of prostitution. I establish that through the processes of sexualization and desexualization, modification and erasure, and denial and acceptance, sexuality is regulated not only through the disciplining of women and their bodies, but also through the dispersing and internalizing of positive ideals about health, family, marriage, modesty, and pleasure for the Iranian citizen and the general body politic. The impetus for my project stems from what I believe to be a necessity in reviewing and challenging the dominant, scholarly discourse on gender and sexuality within the discipline of Iranian studies, which tends to (re)present Iranian women as political and/or religious subjects, in lieu of women attempting to navigate and construct meaning for themselves in such a complex sociological terrain. In academic, state-sponsored, and Twelver Shi'a religious discourses, the tendency is to focus on medicalizing, gendering, and anatomizing Iranian women through the paradigms of modernization and nationalism. My work is an intervention in these debates, as I incorporate sociological fieldwork conducted in Iran over a five-year time period, when I interviewed a cross-section of Iranian women about issues of health, body image, maternity, and sexuality--among many others. This research offers valuable ethnographic material not only for studies on sexuality, but also for sociological studies on the complex construction of identity, personhood, and power in the contemporary Middle East.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies
Thesis Advisors
Dabashi, Hamid
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
March 25, 2013