Campus & Community

Women with mustaches, men without beards

8 min read

Research illuminates the elasticity – and politics – of sexual boundaries

Afsaneh Najmabadi: ‘I realized doing history only with texts … had actually deprived me of an enormous resource for study, especially for issues of gender and sexuality. Now I can’t do any history without looking at visual materials.’ (Staff photo by Kris Snibbe)

Two years ago, Afsaneh Najmabadi delivered a lecture on gender and Iranian modernity as part of her selection process to the Harvard faculty. The talk summarized the final chapter of her nearly completed manuscript, “Male Lions and Female Suns: The Gendered Tropes of Iranian Modernity.”

Two weeks ago, Najmabadi, now a tenured faculty member of History and Women’s Studies on leave in her first year to pursue a Radcliffe Institute Fellowship, delivered a very similar talk at her Radcliffe Fellows Colloquium (March 4).

It’s not that she was being lazy or resting on her laurels; rather, in the intervening two years, Najmabadi had re-researched and begun to rewrite her manuscript. She describes that final chapter, which dealt with sexuality, as “the moment of ‘Oh my God! What I’ve concluded in this means I have to rethink and redo the previous work.’”

“As I was doing work on the gender of modernity, I kept running into issues of sexuality,” she said.

Women with mustaches, men without beards

In her Radcliffe Fellows lecture, titled “Women With Mustaches and Men Without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity,” Najmabadi explored how notions of male and female beauty changed under the Qajar dynasty (1785 – 1925) in her native Iran.

At the beginning of that period, male and female ideals of beauty were remarkably similar. Najmabadi showed slides depicting women with heavy brows and faint mustaches – considered so attractive that they were sometimes painted on or augmented with mascara – and young beardless men with slim waists and delicate features. In 19th century portraits of lovers, the genders are barely distinguishable, identified only by their headgear.

Young men without beards – called amrad – and nawkhatt, adolescent men with the first trace of a mustache, were the ideals of male beauty at the time, said Najmabadi. And sexual mores and erotic sensibilities of 19th century Iran permitted homosexuality between these young men and older men.

As the Qajar dynasty and the 19th century came to a close and travel between Iran and Europe became more common, Iranian images of beauty changed, more closely imitating European ideals. And while same-sex practices did not disappear, they became a derivative desire, said Najmabadi. They no longer occupied a comfortable place in Iranian culture as premarital expressions of sexuality and desire.

As Iran looked toward European ideals of modernity, the amrad and the homosexual practices of Iranian men were seen as hopelessly old-fashioned. “Iranian modernity has spent a great deal of cultural energy to eradicate the memory of that troublesome figure of male sexuality,” she said of the amrad.

‘Art-blind’ no more

Najmabadi’s manuscript changed direction when she began to see – literally – her subject matter. Invited to provide intellectual commentary on an exhibit of Qajar portraits at the Brooklyn Museum in 1995, Najmabadi, who describes herself as “art-blind” at the time, was stunned by the portrayals of male and female beauty in 19th century Iran.

“I realized doing history only with texts … had actually deprived me of an enormous resource for study, especially for issues of gender and sexuality,” she said. “Now I can’t do any history without looking at visual materials.”

While her revelation delayed the completion of her manuscript by several years and demanded a thorough rereading of all her sources, Najmabadi has no regrets. “I’m very glad I never published the manuscript as it was,” she said. “Before the printer’s ink was dry I would have had to write a critical review of my own manuscript.”

Even the tedious process of revisiting her research has proved enlightening. “It was an incredible experience to read the sources and realize that some things had never really registered as relevant,” she said. “It made me for the first time have empathy for historians who say ‘there’s no gender in this text.’”

A cultural and academic rover

Starting over is familiar to Najmabadi. A star student in Iran, she left Tehran University in 1966 to study at Radcliffe College; further globe-trotting had her putting down roots in London and Manchester, England, before returning to the United States in the 1980s.

She’s no stranger to academic renewal, either: she began her Harvard career as a student of nuclear physics, earning a B.A. and M.A. from Radcliffe and Harvard before veering into social sciences.

She credits the shift largely to the times. “It happened because it was the 1960s and early ’70s,” she said. As the anti-Vietnam and feminist movements captured her time and attention, Najmabadi sought to align her professional life with her political activism; sociology was more sympathetic than particle physics. Her activism shifted to her homeland during the Iranian Revolution in the late 1970s and 1980s.

The late 1960s, a watershed era in the role of women in the workplace, had another impact on her career choice. As one of the few women in the physics department, Najmabadi saw her male colleagues and faculty members working around the clock, their personal affairs managed by their wives. “Somehow that didn’t look like what I was going to be doing,” she said. “There was no way I could survive, compete, succeed in a world of physics that was structured according to those rules.”

Najmabadi is quick to express her enduring love of physics and her respect for the Harvard department she studied with, which even allowed her to bend the rules to accommodate her burgeoning feminist interest. As a teaching assistant for Professor Paul Bamberg, she noticed that the few women in sections for Physics I barely contributed in class. Bamberg allowed her to form an all-female section, simultaneously creating an all-male section for parity.

Watching the women in her section flourish and learning from Bamberg how to make physics fun for students, Najmabadi seriously considered pursuing science education before political activism led her to social sciences. “I actually believe most of our life decisions are chance decisions,” she said. “I love physics and I miss it. If I had a second life maybe I’ll go back and do physics again.”


Although her work focuses exclusively on Iran and she writes in both Persian and English, Najmabadi has not returned to her home since the tumultuous year of 1980 for reasons both personal and political. Hiring local research assistants to comb Iranian sources, while effective, is “not totally satisfactory,” she said, noting that it renders surprise discoveries nearly impossible.

Najmabadi remains very connected to Iran, however, especially since political repression there relaxed its grip in the mid-1990s. “I feel very much part of the new feminist community in Iran,” she said, adding that she contributes regularly to feminist journals there.

While Cambridge is far from Iran, her return to Harvard from Barnard College, which “I dearly loved and I dearly miss,” she said, really represents a homecoming for Najmabadi. She credits Barnard’s outstanding community of feminist scholars with shaping her work. Yet her friends and family are in Cambridge, where she has continued to live, commuting to New York since she joined the Barnard faculty in 1992.

Her joint appointment to the Harvard History Department and Women’s Studies Program is sufficiently synergistic that “I don’t fear becoming a split personality,” she said. Indeed, Najmabadi notes that the courses she will teach next year – two in history and two in women’s studies – could fall under either department. “I love teaching, so I’m itching to teach. I can’t wait until next fall,” she said.

Until then, Najmabadi will continue work on her book, taking advantage of the collegial atmosphere and generous time afforded by her Radcliffe Institute Fellowship to finish her manuscript by June – this time, for good.

Back at Radcliffe after more than three decades, Najmabadi recalls “my fondest and saddest moment” as an undergraduate on a full scholarship. She was invited to meet with Mary Ingraham Bunting, then the president of Radcliffe. Excelling in academics but still struggling with English at the time, Najmabadi was not an engaging conversation partner, merely nodding “yes” or “no” to Bunting’s questions.

“I left thinking that one day I should be able to tell this woman how much I appreciated” Radcliffe’s generosity, she said, “but I didn’t have the language to talk to her.”

Concluding her lecture as a Radcliffe Institute Fellow, Najmabadi told the audience that “the fellowship was critical for saving my manuscript from completely unraveling into a heap of shredded papers and a pile of discarded disks.” Thirty-some years after that one-sided conversation, on a fellowship founded by Mrs. Bunting, Najmabadi found the language to express her gratitude.