over 10 years ago, Arielle Gordon asked a question

Naming: "Prostitute", "Bi-'Iffat", and No Comment
I'm trying to understand the relationship between the cross-dressed body and its subsequent naming of "prostitute", the sexually available body and its subsequent naming of "bi-'iffat", and then the seeming anomalies that occur with both: there are some cross dressed figures that are not named prostitute, and some women that do not appear "sexually available" that are still talked about as "bi-iffat". There are also some images of women that look like they should only be called "bi-iffat" and not written as "prostitute"-- I wonder why the decision to call them prostitutes and not bi-iffat seems so arbitrary (how it is being distinguished?). I also am seeking to distinguish between what it means to be inscribed as "prostitute", and what type of image deserves such a permanent inscription; versus what it means to be merely talked about as "bi-ismat" -- which is less permanent in history and less designatory, thereby less punishing -- and what type of image warrants this gossip (or what type of image gets off easy by only being talked about as "bi-iffat" and not catalogued as prostitute).

Here are some conclusions I've come to so far: 
- The image of the "prostitute" signifies a woman forced out of the home and a mother having been subverted. The home/domestic space (which is such a focal and necessary institution in the successful constitution of the modern nation; heterosexual project --> home is place where motherwoman is constituted, where she raises and educates the citizens of the nation), is threatened as the prostitute is a potential mother having been corrupted (ruined). Once she becomes a non-domestic body, she becomes the personified embodiment of social ills, spreading moral disease and venereal disease, infecting fathers and sons; she thus becomes ruiner. (Indeed, during the Constitutional Revolution there were accounts that prostitutes employed by the Qajar secret police had violently disrupted a pro-Constitutionalist society meeting: through these accounts, the sociohistorical image of the prostitute is understood as against progress and corruptive of the social order.)

-The cross-dressed body operates similarly as both corrupted and corruptor: it presents itself as a "woman"-subverted, and also threatens critical social institutions like the heterofamily by undermining gender configurations in it and promising only to produce failing citizens. This can be reflected in photographs like "Two Women" (1261A93), which subverts the configurations of gender in their presentation of heterosexuality and subverts the aesthetics of the "woman" by refusing to sit in or interact with the chair (sign of the domestic and place in which "woman" aesthetic is constructed; the chair is intentionally included and just as intentionally ignored, making their neglect of it all the more anxiety-inducing). Additionally, they co-opt heterosexual performance from viewer/photographic subject for themselves (their pose and defiant stance does not allow for the viewer to fantasize about them), and with this relationship now in their hands, they have gone so far as to subvert the gender within this socially imperative relationship. While the two women complete the image of heterosexuality, they undermine the function of the heterosexual couple (to produce citizens and defenders of the nation) because they are biologically and socially incapable. This incapacity portends that the same-gender couple will only ever produce failing citizens, corrupting the heterosexual structure that they have co-opted for themselves.

-The cross-dressed figure is also so anxiety-inducing because they are so socially ambiguous... In "Two Women and a man" (1261A182), their poses all mark them as aesthetically paralleled bodies-- they all wear the same clothing and affect the same pose with each other. They do not situate themselves within any overarching recognizable structure of heterosexual presentation, and there is very little context with which to identify them. There are no markers of domestic space (the chair, the pot of flowers), and without any means to contextualize them they are both contained and uncontained, floating unsettlingly in both spatial and social history. The ambiguously uneasy and socially obscure nature of the (both male and female) cross-dressed figure is compounded in this image.    

Thus, the image of the cross-dressed figure – which is both a subverted “woman” (an other-than-woman/failed-woman) and subverter of social order (corrupter of the heterosexual project) – becomes synonymous with the “prostitute”, the word to describe one that is both ruined and ruiner. The two photographs “Two Women” and “Two Women and a Girl” are then subsequently named as “prostitute” women.

- However, the photograph “Two Women and a Girl” (1261A140) portrays an obviously cross-dressed figure (supposedly transgressive figure), yet neither woman in the photo is named as “prostitute”. How do I explain this lack of naming?  Firstly, the intentional inclusion of the child in this photograph is extremely significant, as woman as “mother” is fortified in this image rather than subverted, as the child sits on the side of the woman-figure in the couple, indicating their connection. Because the child is purposefully posed with the two women, it becomes evermore clear that the cross-dressed body does not stand to undermine the aesthetics of heterosexual representation and the connection between motherwoman and child. The couple has successfully completed the heterosexual project, and has produced the socially “correct” outcome, the child. Secondly, the backdrop of a wall with open shutters, the chair, and table with the pot of plants, indicate domestic markers that construct private space: specifically marked by the domestic, the photograph indicates a space in which the "motherwoman" can be constituted and is not at risk of becoming “woman-subverted”. Lastly, this couple invokes the tropes of the “amorous couple” (a common representation in Persian paintings of a gender-ambiguous couple angled toward each other holding a cup of wine): their affectation of these familiar aesthetics (as opposed to a resistance to it as “Two Women” does) is significant as it does not disturb culturally understood aesthetics, which we have seen translates into social subversion. Additionally, through presenting themselves as a heterosexual couple with a child, the photograph in fact is doing socially productive work by modernizing and heterosexualizing the gender-ambiguous aesthetic of the “amorous couple”. This variety of factors seems to counteract any subversive meaning implicit in the cross-dressed body, explaining the lack of naming for this cross-dressed couple.

Yet, I am still trying to understand why certain women who do not cross-dress are named "prostitute"... what makes them so transgressive that they deserved to be catalogued as such? And why are people like 'Iffat Khanum (or Nigar Khanum although I'm not even sure if she's called b'ismat later in life) only talked about as bi'ismat and not catalogued as prostitutes like "Woman" (1261A92) or "Woman" (1261A100) or "Woman" (1261A90). For those that are named, is there a lack of domestic markers to assuage their "sexual availability" to make it permissible? What makes their poses any more erotic than Nigar Khanum's in photo 1275A24? Is there a certain ambiguity in some in which there is no other name for them but "prostitute" as in the case of the cross-dressed figure? The answer does not lie in who is "more erotic" but rather in who is looking at them and cataloguing them and why the cataloguer sees some as more threatening than others. Why does the cataloguer not feel threatened by Nigar (he does not name her and there is nothing written that says she is gossiped about as b'ismat), but he feels threatened by the three "Woman" photos (1261A90, 1261A100, and 1261A92)? Gossip of women who are b'iffat does not seem as damning as it is not an institutionalized process that so permanently inscribes names into histories. I find it more difficult to understand the naming of not-cross-dressed women who are named because the "transgression" is less obvious to me (note: I'm assuming there is a correlation between perceived transgression and cataloguing as prostitute, and that its not just an arbitrary process).

These are just some of my jumbled thoughts, please forgive the length of this post! If anybody has any ideas about the questions I've posed, please let me know!! Thanks :)
Afsaneh Najmabadi replied over 10 years ago
Thank you for this wonderful piece of analytical reflections on this genre of photographs. There is a lot here to discuss, but here are a few quick thoughts.

I really liked your analytical play with –ed and –er!, as in ruined/ruiner, corrupted/corrupter, subverted/subverter. It works very well with your analysis of the photographs.

I think we need more work on who named whom and when. There are several levels of time embedded in these photographs and it is important not to collapse these different moments: First, the time of photography. I am quite certain that in the early decades of photography, similar to the practices in painting, photographers/painters did not give title to their work. The exceptions here would be Nasir al-Din Shah and his own inscriptions around his photography, and other similar practitioners, such as ‘Ali Khan Vali. Second is the time of circulation/collection/arrangement into personal albums of photographs. The inscriptions on Firouz Album photographs certainly belong to this moment. Third, much later naming that occurred at the time of library/archives/museums cataloguing, which started in the Pahlavi period when such institutions began collecting photographs as historical documents. Many of the photographs from IICHS collection belong to this third moment, in fact some have been catalogued once by Ministry of Culture and Art (Pahlavi period) and then by IICHS (IRI period). Fourth, these photographs have been renamed for sort and search purposes by WWQI. We have discussed at length, and forever, how to name/rename any item, have developed some guidelines, and keep modifying them, as we are very concerned about our own effects of naming and cataloguing. Most of the time we are not satisfied and I think that is a good thing! We could discuss in class, if people are interested, the logic of our namings.

When it comes to being named “prostitute” (in Persian of these photographs, ruspi), these are all later Pahlavi namings. Ruspi is NOT a Qajar period naming. Women engaged in sex-work were called fahishah, bad-karah, and occasionally harzah. I went back and looked at the two-volume Guzārishʹhā-yi naẓmīyah az maḥallāt-i Ṭihrān: rāpūrt-i vaqāyiʻ-i mukhtalifah-i maḥallāt-i dār al-khilāfah [Sāzmān-i Asnād-i Millī-i Īrān, Pizhūhishkadah-i Asnād, 1999; edited by Insiyah Shaykh Riz̤āʼī, Shahlā Āẕarī.] which I had tagged long ago and here is what I found (definitely incomplete, the volumes have no index and these are what I had marked on that reading): fahishah (sometimes za‘ifah-i fahishah, a couple of times when there was a group, favahish): 20 instances, badkarah: five, bad ‘amal: once, harzah: twice, and once: za‘ifah-i milhafah-i ma‘rufah (an expression that could mean two different things). When exactly ruspi came to dominant the naming I don’t know and it is worth researching.

I wouldn’t say that gossip/rumor is less punishing than inscription on the photos or being named in a catalog. Yes, rumors/gossips are less permanent than inscriptions on a photograph, but for the person so marked, rumors and gossips could have affected their life. Not always punishing, if that is how they wished to be known when such gossip would work as publicity. But at times, such circulating gossips and rumors led to isolation of women so gossiped about; we know this, for example, from what was rumored/circulated/reported about Taj al-Saltanah and how it impacted her life in later years.

Paragraph 3, when you say “their pose and defiant stance does not allow for the viewer to fantasize about them”, I would disagree. Textual and visual documents encourage/discourage, invite/disinvite, allow but never fully determine as to NOT allow. It also seemed to me there is an implicit presumption of a heterosexual male viewer in that statement.

I didn’t anticipate these remarks to get so long, but your piece was very productive to think with. Thank you.
Arielle Gordon replied about 10 years ago
Thank you for the response! It has been very helpful in better understanding the historical timeline of naming, as well as rethinking the flaws in my logic of certain photographic aesthetics. I am in the process of rethinking the difference between gossip/b'iffat and inscribing prostitute, taking into account the significance of class politics and other factors I haven't fully thought through yet. I will post again when I have some more substantial ideas :)

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