Of Bowties and Boy Scouts – Changing Iranian Masculinities circa 1900-1941

My research deals with the history of Iranian masculinities during the late 19th to middle 20th centuries, and with the way masculinities intersect with questions of modernity, nationalism and class. Despite the fact that the history of gender in Iran was researched extensively, there is still no full-fledged research that focuses on masculinities as its main interest. During the time period of my research, Iran was never under full colonial rule, but Western powers had great influence on processes that occurred in the state through commerce, concession hunting etc. Western models of masculinity, to which (mostly middle and upper class) Iranian men were exposed via overseas education or encounters with Westerners, posed a dilemma. On the one hand, Iranians who were exposed to westerners were awed by Western power, progress and prosperity, and wished to import what they conceived as the causes to these into Iran. The aspiration to appropriate western characteristics was applied, among the rest, in the adoption of a new kind of masculinity, which differed in appearance, practices and sexuality from known Iranian masculinities. On the other hand, appropriating a new kind of masculinity contained the threat of becoming an empty vessel, a spineless imitator who adopted mostly the external characteristics of the West without the power related to them. These types were named in Persian “Fokoli”, after the bowtie worn by them, and scorned by society. My research uses sources such as newspapers, literature, auto/biographies and photographs to follow the ways in which Iranian men dealt with this dilemma and the change that took place in Iranian masculinities as a result. The case of Iran exemplifies an important aspect of masculinity – that of Power Relations. The weakness of Iran at the face of Western nations, and the growth of a modern middle class in Iran, negotiating its place in society, whose members were those to feel most keenly the impact of Western power, brought about the use of a new kind of masculinity as a tool of adjustment to a new national and international order.

Sivan Balslev is PhD student at the School of Historical Studies and the Center for Iranian Studies in Tel Aviv University. Dissertation topic: Masculinity, Modernization and Nationalism in Iran between the 1870s and the 1940s. Advisors: Prof. David Menashri and Prof. Billie Melman.

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