Javaher’s Jewels: Voicing Narratives of Trans/sexuality in Equal of the Sun
“‘How has being a eunuch changed you?’
I stopped to think for a moment.
‘No one knows the ways of both
men and women as well as I do.’”
Anita Amirrezvani, 250
Equal of the Sun recounts the eventful period following the death of the Safavid Shah Tahmasp in 1576. In this historical novel by Iranian-American Anita Amirrezvani, the reader learns of Pari Khan Khanom, the king’s favorite daughter, who not only played a vital role in securing an heir for her successor-less father but also directly governed during the interregnum. Although Pari Khan Khanom was such an important historical figure, her story is largely absent both from contemporary memory of the time and from official histories. Equal of the Sun begins to fill this lacuna.
Anita Amirrezvani’s self-proclaimed goal for her work is to “give voice to people who didn’t write their own stories” (Gilbert interview). In Equal of the Sun, those people include both the eunuchs who played such an important role in court politics of Safavid Iran, as well as Pari Khan Khanom herself. The first-person narrator of the novel is a eunuch, Javaher, who becomes a key political figure in the court during Pari Khan Khanom’s time in charge. In writing this book, Amirrezvani is not only bringing forward an often-forgotten story of one woman’s rule, but she is also working to re-narrate how the West has come to understand gender in both a Persianate setting as well as in a historical setting. This novel, published in 2012, was written in a time when issues of transsexuality and homosexuality in Iran were coming to the forefront in both North American and Iranian media.1 Emerging from such a context, this work problematizes the way sexual minorities are talked about and establishes a medium through which their stories may be expressed first-hand. By placing the novel in this setting, we are able to gather the importance that representations of gender, sexuality, sex, and sex change hold in this text. These representations are significant because they provide a new perspective on an issue that fascinates the public. In this paper, I explore how this new perspective acts as an instrument for giving voices to the voiceless. Historical fiction often tells forgotten stories or retells common ones from new angles. This is the case here, because Amirrezvani’s text both brings forward Pari Khan Khanom’s life story and does so through the eyes of a court employee. However, Pari Khan Khanom, the historical figure, is not the only “voiceless” figure in the novel. I argue that Equal of the Sun gives voice to those who have been made doubly voiceless by their atypical experiences with gender and sexuality. By “doubly voiceless,” I mean characters who belong to more than one “voiceless” community. These are figures who not only occupy an invisible or forgotten class in society, but they are also sexual minorities. Their ability to narrate their own lives and have that narration heard is rendered doubly impossible. In giving such characters a voice, the novel provides a context to hear new stories, which often provide nuance to otherwise assumed stereotypes. I focus specifically on how the previously unheard voices we hear in this novel reflect narratives of homosexuality and transsexuality in Iran. By reading Javaher’s storyline as one of sex change, the reader can begin to think about the complexities that are inherent not only to portrayals of sexual minorities but to representations of gender overall.
The first-person narrator in Equal of the Sun is a eunuch who goes by the name Javaher. I argue that we can read this character as an example of a narrative of transsexuality for several reasons. First of all, his decision to become a eunuch is the most obvious parallel—it is a kind of metaphor for sex reassignment surgery. The physical act of having removed his male genitalia is something Javaher keeps returning to, something that both causes him stress when he realizes that he will not be able to marry the woman he loves, and something that he is thankful for, since it allows him greater access and protection within the royal court. We see this combination of emotions in accounts of transsexuals in Iran, and across the globe, today. Iranians contemplating sex reassignment surgery (SRS) face both the difficulties of transitioning in a religious society, in which marriage is often a given, as well as the advantages of being able to express their true identities beyond the four walls of their houses (Najmabadi, Professing Selves 7).2
Amirrezvani also uses specific language to indicate to her readers that Javaher’s story is one of transsexuality. For example, the chapter in which Javaher describes his experience of becoming a eunuch is entitled “First Assignment.” This language calls to mind the term “sex reassignment”, which is in fact what takes place within that chapter. Javaher’s “first assignment” can be read as his given sex, making his operation his “reassignment”.
Furthermore, the name of this character is significant. Javaher is not his birth name; instead, it is something he is called by the other eunuchs at the palace after he himself becomes employed as a eunuch (22). Javaher means “jewel” in Persian, and in the text, it has multiple layers of meaning. On his first day in the palace, Javaher is introduced to an older eunuch who tells him, “you have no jewels between your legs or on your fingers . . . so make sure you acquire currency in your mind” (22). We see “jewels” standing in at once for information, wealth, and male genitalia. This is significant because it serves as a constant reminder, every time his name is mentioned, of what he lacks physically, what he possesses in terms of information, wealth, and power, and how his position in Pari Khan Khanom’s employment is directly related to these multiple jewels. Furthermore, Javaher mentions that though “‘Javaher’ was normally used for women,” it became a “badge of honor” (23). This brings us back to how we can read Javaher’s surgery as a case of SRS. It is common after SRS to change your name to match your gender, and here Javaher indicates that he does not completely see himself as a woman but does feel proud of being recognized as one. In this way, Equal of the Sun serves as an alternative understanding of transsexuality; Javaher’s SRS is neither the process to make his physical sex match his gender (Shakerifar 328) nor the chance to embody someone of the opposite sex in order to maintain a same-sex relationship (Carter 797). Rather, Javaher is someone who has undergone a sex change, but not a gender change. That being said, the pride he feels from bearing a woman’s name indicates that he does identify in some way with his new “sex.”
Javaher’s name may also be a reference to a work entitled the Javahir al-Ajayib. This work is a collection of biographies of women authors and poets written in mid-sixteenth-century Iran, the time in which Equal of the Sun is set (Szuppe 335). The title translates to “Jewels of Wonder.” It is an important reference because, as the narrator, Javaher is meant to be the recorder of the events that transpired during his time at the court; events that would, otherwise, not appear in official court records. Both Javahir al-Ajayib and Equal of the Sun are works that provide a space for the voiceless to share their work or their lives. In addition, having the same name as a portion of the title suggests we might think of Javaher himself as a book containing the autobiographies of women writers: himself (since Equal of the Sun functions as an autobiography from Javaher’s perspective), and Pari Khan Khanom.3 This reference is significant to my discussion of transsexuality because it allows us to think not only of Javaher as an example of someone who underwent SRS, but also because it is an instance where he is able to record his own narrative, something that is generally not the case when looking at reports and representations of Iranian trans-people in the US. His agency in the recording of his experiences is just one of the ways that his narrative argues against the dominant narrative of Iranian transsexuality.
While I am reading Javaher’s surgery to become a eunuch as parallel to SRS, there are transsexuals who do not undergo SRS and still see themselves and are legally considered by the state as transsexual. In Professing Selves: Transsexuality and Same-Sex Desire in Contemporary Iran, Afsaneh Najmabadi discusses how the different stages of transitioning open up new spaces of identity.4 For instance, she explains how the category bilataklif (undecided), allows some “gays the safety of semi-openness and offers more flexible (at times more playful) options for social maneuvering . . .” (289). In other words, this category allows for cases in which a gay or lesbian individual can live as the opposite sex, without having to change their physical being. In fact, this already counters some of the narratives about transsexuality, which deem transitioning or SRS as inevitable or as a requirement for gays and lesbians (Carter 797-98). Rather, the opportunity to transition without a drastic physical change allows gays and lesbians to be relatively “out” by officially identifying them (from a legal standpoint) as members of the opposite sex. In this analysis of transitioning, it would seem that Javaher’s experience is the opposite—he immediately gets surgery, without really becoming a member of the opposite sex. Yet, he spends a great deal of time and emotional energy reflecting on what his gender actually is, and it is this ambiguity that makes me claim his is a case of transsexuality. Even when someone transitions without undergoing SRS, there is still ambiguity about what gender the person is. They are in-between, bilataklaf, undecided. Javaher, despite his definite surgery, is just as in-between, just as undecided. It is this gender liminality that awards him opportunities he would otherwise not have. Thus, while Javaher’s surgery is not an exact case of SRS, his experiences surrounding his transition parallel many of the experiences trans-people in Iran encounter today.
While Javaher’s character passes as a modern-day transsexual, such a category did not exist in Safavid Iran. That is not to say that there were not people who were what we would now call transgender, it is simply that gender and sexuality were not identity categories in the same way that they are now. That being said, Javaher is not a typical eunuch, a topic I will elaborate on presently. His unusual traits make him stand out and force him to address gender-related issues that other eunuchs would not have faced. In other words, taken in a historical context, Javaher’s character still stands out for his gender ambiguity. In this way, his character is doubly voiceless. Not only is he a eunuch, a servant at the court who would typically not have the opportunity to tell his story, but he is gender-ambiguous, someone whose experiences are ostensibly unique to himself. In Equal of the Sun, however, he does have the chance to speak. I argue that while eunuchs and servants were voiceless in Safavid Iran, their modern, voiceless counterparts in contemporary Iran are sexual minorities. Though much reporting is done about them, there are few opportunities for them to publically narrate their own lives. Equal of the Sun does just that—in its historical setting, it provides a voice for an otherwise silent eunuch and court servant, while to the modern audience reading this text, it offers a way into the lives and experiences of those who are currently voiceless, the gays, lesbians, and trans-people living in Iran today. This space that the novel provides is not simply a passive depiction; the voice it gives to Javaher as a trans-person allows him to define his own identity within and through his gendered experiences. This allows for a personalized narrative that forces readers to recognize the varied experiences trans-people in Iran encounter, and it provides nuance to a complex issue.
Transsexuality in Iran is often seen as intimately related to homosexuality. Though the two occupy different religio-legal statuses—while transsexuality is both legally and religiously sanctioned, homosexuality is neither legal nor considered moral. According to clerics, they both surface throughout the entire transitioning process (Najmabadi, Professing Selves 6-7, 16-20). In some cases, SRS is a viable option for same-sex partners to get married. This option, however, is often distorted, implying it is the only reason for SRS, and that it carries coercive connotations.5 Such a narrative does not leave much room for people who opt to have SRS, as is the case with Javaher. He explains how he goes to have the operation and loses his nerve. As he lies on the operating table, he panics and refuses the surgery (13). After several days, however, he changes his mind again and goes through with the operation. We can garner from these descriptions that the physical process of undergoing SRS is not simple; it is not a decision made lightly. This already provides a much more textured approach to understanding sex change than the simplistic narrative of SRS as a fix to homosexuality or a means to “mingle with men” (Fathi, “Gays in Iran”). Furthermore, it emphasizes how this was a choice Javaher made; no one forced him into it. In fact, when describing the operation, he explains that the second time he went to be cut, he “told the men to proceed, but added that . . . they should not restrain [his] arms” (13). This is an important move that underlines how willing Javaher was to undergo surgery. He might have been scared or nervous, but he ultimately decided for himself what was best. By making a point of not being bound, Javaher demonstrates that it was his decision and he could not lay responsibility on any other person or circumstance. This frames SRS and transsexuality as something that a person chooses. As such, it diminishes the importance of the government in the decision, making SRS a personal choice, not a government-backed coercion. Javaher’s first time on the “operating table” can be read as a filtering process, one that he ultimately “passes” by choosing to go through with the cutting.
People seeking SRS in Iran must go through a “filtering process” that determines whether they are “really” transsexual or whether they are actually homosexual. If they are determined to be transsexual, they get a certification that affords them certain liberties in public spaces, such as the option to present as male or female despite their biology, and it is what enables them to undergo SRS. This filtering process involves several months of supervised therapy, culminating in a certification process in which two psychiatrists and a case-supervisor meet with the candidate to make their final decision on whether s/he qualifies as transsexual or not (Najmbadi, Professing Selves 15-17). The psychologist the candidate works with throughout the process has a large impact on the end result, whether or not s/he receives official certification of being transsexual. On the one hand, there are therapists whose goal is to dissuade the candidate from continuing on in the filtering process and who employ hostile tactics to ensure this goal (Najmabadi, Professing Selves 18). On the other hand, the current director of the Tehran Psychiatric Institute, through which many individuals seeking transsexual certification pass, believes that it is not his role to tell candidates what to want and that “if the circumstances make [them] ask for [transsexual] status, that is the person’s right” (Najmabadi, Professing Selves 25). Though this filtering process may be strenuous and emotionally draining, it does not involve forced transitioning. A candidate can choose at any time not to go through with the application or surgery. Should the commission decide that s/he is not “really transsexual,” they will offer counseling or additional therapy (Najmabadi, Professing Selves 18). In other words, forcing SRS on someone is not a common practice because it is simply not beneficial to anyone. Javaher’s version of SRS not only reiterates the importance personal choice plays in the transsexual experience, but it also portrays the way such an important decision takes time and is never taken lightly. The other eunuchs who perform Javaher’s “surgery” neither encourage him nor actively dissuade him, but they respect his decisions—both his initial refusal, and his final resolution to go through with the cutting (13).
In addition to recasting SRS as a matter of choice, Equal of the Sun also addresses what goes into the making of that choice. In fact, Javaher is making this decision out of economic and political incentives. While this may seem at odds with our notion of SRS, as something that a person chooses based on the belief that his/her gender does not match his/her biological sex, it is still a narrative of choice (Shakerifar 328).6 Javaher’s father has fallen out of favor at the court for suspected treason, and so, to maintain his good standing and position working for the royal family, Javaher decides to make a sacrifice to show his loyalty. While this sacrifice may seem strange, since it is hardly related to his father’s treason, its value lies in the fact that Javaher is willing to cut off the possibility of having a family or any offspring. This translates to undivided attention to his job and the royal family. Javaher is choosing to undergo a sex change for the “state,” and this speaks to the role the government has in current cases of transsexuality. As discussed above, an individual must undergo a strenuous “filtering” process in order to be certified transsexual. This “certification” comes in the form of a number of documents that make official the individual’s status as a trans-person (Najmabadi, Professing Selves 166-67). As Najmabadi explains, “carrying a whole lot of ‘useful papers’ . . . has now become a routine practice that saves days of detention and humiliation if one is arrested” (166-67). In other words, being “certified” means state recognition, something that offers the trans-person a level of security. Though Javaher never receives “useful papers,” it is his official status as a eunuch that allows him entry to the court, and the protection of his employer, Pari Khan Khanom. His experience is of course different in that his sexuality is never put in question by those in power, as is the case with many people seeking transsexual certification.
Though Javaher’s characterization addresses a transsexuality that is not linked to possibilities of same-sex desire, his sexuality and the questions it raises about gender play an important role in the text. Throughout the novel, he has sex with two different women, one prior to his sex reassignment surgery, and one after. This positions Javaher in a heterosexual framework, one where his sex change did not alter or affect his sexuality and sex drive in any way. What it alters, instead, is his ability to procreate, which in turn affects his relationships. After sleeping with his lover, Khadijeh, he thinks to himself that she will not marry him because “most women crave children, and that [is] the one thing [he cannot] provide” (105). This passage is important because it shows Javaher’s complicated relationship to womanhood. First, his reference to Khadijeh as one of “most women” serves to distance himself from her and from womanhood generally. Furthermore, the word “provide” has multiple meanings here. On the one hand, it could mean “to father,” which would place Javaher in a typical male and masculine role. On the other hand, we can read this word as an indicator that Javaher must fill the role of both mother and father. In other words, this term frames Javaher as the one who is solely responsible for bringing children into the relationship. Someone who provides a shelter is the one who builds, procures, or maintains the shelter presumably for someone else; a person who provides for someone else is responsible for the care, usually monetary, of the latter. Both of these more common usages of the word speak to an independence or individual responsibility. So by thinking of Javaher as the one who would have to provide children, the responsibility to procreate lies with him, rather than with his partner. This is an odd way to think about reproduction, where only one partner is responsible for the entire process, particularly as we see Amirrezvani does not seem to work within this model of reproduction throughout the text.7 Instead, in Amirrezvani’s portrayal of conception, both the man and the woman share responsibility.8 In other words, the idea that only one person in a relationship is responsible for producing children is not how Amirrezvani is framing pregnancy and procreation. Javaher’s internal thoughts about his inability to provide a child are something that is unique to his situation: he alone would have to provide the child, and as such, he occupies this space of both man and woman.
That being said, according to the quote, a child is the “one thing” Javaher cannot provide. This is also interesting in our discussion of sexuality because it distinguishes reproduction from sexuality. Javaher is not lacking in any way except in his ability to procreate. This separation of sexuality from reproduction is important in arguing against narratives of sex that simultaneously condemn non-reproductive sex acts while considering them, and an openness surrounding the discussion of such acts as a mark of progress. By simply not being able to reproduce yet maintaining an active sex drive, Javaher’s character is able to disentangle these two acts, sex and reproduction. His status as a eunuch further complicates our understanding of sexuality as it is portrayed in Equal of the Sun.
Generally, eunuchs are portrayed and were thought of as “desexualized,” which is one of the reasons that they made such excellent harem guards or liaisons between the woman’s world and the men’s (Babaie et al. 21). This is clearly not the case with Javaher. One of the reasons Javaher does not fit this desexualized mold is that he was much older when he was cut than most other boys. At 17, Javaher had already gone through puberty, and because of it, he appears much more “masculine” than the other eunuchs whose “rounded shoulders and soft thighs made them look womanly” (18). This distances Javaher from the other eunuchs and from a notion of femininity that involves curves and softness. That distancing does not stop at appearance, however, and it is through his expressions of sexuality that he further stands apart from the other eunuchs, who, to our knowledge, have not engaged in sexual activity. Amirrezvani describes his sexual encounters in great detail, not shying away from referencing Javaher’s unusual anatomy. In describing an encounter with Khadijeh, she writes, “she traveled down to the flat place between my legs with her tongue and delicately teased the exposed edges of my tube. By God above! No uncut man can imagine what it feels like to have an internal organ stroked” (60). In this passage, we see how Javaher’s lack of a “jewel between his legs” actually allows for greater sexual pleasure. This pleasure is a consequence of his surgery and draws our attention once more to the physical aspects of transsexuality. Here, Javaher is physically different from both a man and a woman. He tangentially refers to himself as a man, yet it is the description of his anatomy that stands out. While his sex is not typically female, it is still internal, something that makes him akin to being a woman. This complex anatomical picture shows how, though I have been reading Javaher’s experiences as a straightforward example of SRS, he is not quite a “standard” male to female case.
While Javaher undergoes a sex change of sorts, he is not really becoming a woman. We see this throughout the text, most obviously in the use of masculine pronouns when referring to him. This of course is complicated slightly when we consider how “the same Farsi word [is] used for ‘he’ and ‘she,’” a fact Amirrezvani makes sure to point out (65). This allows the reader to think that, perhaps, had the book been written in Persian, the issue of gendered pronouns would not have come up. While this is true, it still does not change the fact that the book is quite intentionally written for an English-speaking audience. So why the masculine pronouns? I would argue that it helps the reader think about transitions and fluidity. While Javaher may have undergone a physical operation, that does not mean that his gender is any more fixed than it was prior to the operation. In other words, by using male pronouns, Javaher is not presented as a straightforward male to female transsexual. He is constantly in flux between seeing himself as a man and as a woman.
Javaher frequently calls into question his own gender identity. A common question that runs through his narration is, “yet I [am] still a man, [aren’t] I?” (106). The way this question is framed again points to the uncertainty of Javaher’s gender. He is not the woman he would be in a “typical” sex reassignment case nor is he the man he started out as before he was “cut.” Even if we add a third category to our types of gender and think about the eunuch as a third gender, we still see that he does not fit neatly into this category either. Unlike the other eunuchs with their “womanly” bodies, Javaher’s physical appearance is “masculine” (18). He is the only eunuch to have a sex drive and to act on it. I argue that this ambiguity is useful for forcing us to reconsider gender as neat typologies. Transsexuality as a concept inherently involves change, and Javaher’s extreme case of gender ambiguity emphasizes that change. I would further argue that the notion of change as presented here is one of constant transition and navigation; neither reader nor Javaher are ever really certain of Javaher’s gender identity. It is this gender fluidity and constant transitioning that allows Javaher a privileged and powerful position at the court.
This brings up how Javaher’s sex change, while it does present certain setbacks, as I have mentioned, is overall a positive choice for Javaher. This is because, as his employer Pari Khan Khanom rises in power, he becomes one of the most powerful men in the country (316). He also ends up extremely wealthy and is able to fulfill his dream of bringing his sister home under his care, something that required a certain position in society and money in order to achieve. None of this would have been possible had he not chosen to become a eunuch, because it was his status as a eunuch that allowed him entry to the princess’s quarters. Positioning Javaher’s decision as primarily a positive one works on two levels for destabilizing existing narratives of transsexuality in Iran. First, it rejects the notion that life as a transsexual in Iran is necessarily terrible.9 While I am not refuting claims that life as a trans-person may be hard, I am saying that it is important to present sex reassignment as a varied experience. Regurgitating the same experience of transsexuality over and over again eclipses the positive experiences some people have when they finally are able to feel a connection between their gender and sex. It presents sex change as a uniformly negative situation, which is misleading and damaging to trans-people who are debating the options and are put off by overwhelmingly negative representations of life post-operation.
The second reason this positive portrayal of Javahar’s experience is significant is that it undoes another common feature of sex change discourse. This feature involves looking at how male to female changes are somehow worse than female to male changes (Carter 812-13). It is based on the assumption that women in Iran live under terrible conditions and have no rights. For example, a 2004 New York Times article claiming increases in SRS in Iran indicate an “easing of repression” casually states, “[I]n a society where men enjoy a higher status than women, the stigma against any man who wants to become a woman is especially strong” (Fathi, “Repression Eases”). Again, while I am not trying to negate the fact that there are differences between the legal and cultural rights of men and women in Iran, I do believe that it is overly simplistic to assume that women are monumentally worse off than men. Framing the situation as one in which becoming a man is a big step up, while becoming a woman is a decrease in social status and quality of life, serves to reify the notion that men are for some reason more valuable. If we look at Javaher’s narrative of transsexuality as one of male to female transition, we can see how Equal of the Sun is arguing against this devalorization of transwomen and women in general. I maintain that by making Javaher’s experience of sex change a positive one, the reader can see that there is not some inherent or automatic worsening or lessening of status that occurs when one becomes feminized. In fact, as in Javaher’s case, it can be an extremely empowering and financially successful experience. This point is especially important in thinking about how Equal of the Sun complicates how we understand gender difference.
Having discussed how Equal of the Sun brings forward the experiences of a gender ambiguous eunuch and, in doing so, offers alternative readings of transsexuality, I will now turn to Pari Khan Khanom’s character to discuss what voice the novel has offered her. To begin, as a historical figure, very little is known about Pari Khan Khanom in popular discourse. Writing a novel about her to in the first place is an example of voicing an otherwise unheard story. The novel, however, does not simply retell what is known about Pari Khan Khanom; it embellishes where historical evidence is slim. The clearest example of this is in Pari Khan Khanom’s involvement with her brother, Shah Ismail II’s death. Court records allude to the fact that contemporaries suspected Pari Khan Khanom of having a hand in Shah Ismail II’s demise, but it is Equal of the Sun that makes it abundantly clear how and why she murdered her brother. After only a few short months on the throne, Shah Ismail II has stripped Pari Khan Khanom of almost all of her power and has begun a reign of terror, murdering those he feared would turn on him, including his own siblings. Pari Khan Khanom decides something must be done, recognizing that both she and the entire empire are in danger of destruction at Shah Ismail II’s hand. She works tirelessly with Javaher to devise a way to kill the king secretly and subtly, so that riots do not follow his death. Together, they lace Shah Ismail II’s opium with a poison, hoping to make it look like the king simply overdosed. This exciting tale of murder and mystery makes for a good read, but it does more than that. Making it indisputable that Pari Khan Khanom was the cause of her brother’s death awards her an agency that other, more ambiguous references to her life deny her. Shah Ismail II’s death was a major event at the time, and Equal of the Sun serves as the back story to how that event took place. In this way, the novel is not only providing a medium for Pari Khan Khanom to share her story, but it is also re-inventing what that story contains, making it clear just how powerful Pari Khan Khanom was.
That being said, Pari Khan Khanom is not unrealistically powerful. Her character is aware of her gender and the expectations this gender carries with it throughout the novel. For example, soon after Shah Ismail II’s death. Pari Khan Khanom and Javaher are discussing what will become of the court and who will succeed, when she reveals her desire to take over. She says:
“‘The remaining princes are too young and inexperienced to rule. The only suitable person is me, even though no woman can rule officially….I wish to be made regent to Isma’il’s son Shoja. I will rule in his name until he is old enough to rule for himself. When I am finished with his education, he will be a leader of excellent character.’
I was awestruck. ‘That means you would essentially serve as shah until he is of age.’
‘Yes! At last, I will claim my rightful sphere.’” (311)
This passage provides interesting insight into Pari Khan Khanom’s aspirations and abilities. She does not shy away from recognizing her worth, since we see in her claim that ruling is her rightful place. While acknowledging that as a woman, she will never be able to be the official king, she knows that she is the most worthy candidate. In the plan she envisions, she not only acts as shah, “in her rightful place,” but she also takes on a teaching role for her nephew, thus ensuring that her knowledge and talents will carry on, even as she is “dethroned,” when Shoja comes of age. This passage is important for giving voice to her story as a realistic character who could very well have lived in sixteenth-century Iran. This realistic approach, where she is shown as powerful but still bound by her gender, lends a level of realism to the novel. Pari Khan Khanom is neither a superhero, who exists in a gender-less world, nor a completely subservient figure. Her character is an individual who has limitations but works around them. It is also important on a broader scale for the reader, who does not readily comply with gender expectations, whatever they may be in different cultural or historical contexts. Just as Pari Khan Khanom attempts to work around her gender in order to become the ruler, Equal of the Sun shows its reader that gender does not dictate all. In fact, the novel goes on to show that Pari Khan Khanom completely defied what was expected of her as a woman.
Pari Khan Khanom’s mother, Daka Cherkes Khanom, frequently insists that her daughter get married. She cannot understand why someone would choose not to wed. Daka Cherkes Khanom’s desire to see her daughter married comes from a place of motherly concern, as she fears for Pari Khan Khanom’s safety now that her father, Shah Tahmasp is dead. However, she also cannot understand Pari Khan Khanom’s resistance to the topic, asking, “‘Pari, where is your womanly feeling?” (73). These interactions are an interesting invention in Equal of the Sun, which does not reference Pari Khan Khanom’s possible fiancé or husband (Gholsorkhi 5). There are conflicting reports about whether Pari Khan Khanom was actually married to her cousin, Prince Badi al-Zaman, or whether they were simply betrothed. Either way, no mention of such an arrangement is made in Equal of the Sun, leading me to believe that these scenes between Pari Khan Khanom and Daka have a significance that extends beyond a simple mother-daughter argument. These interactions serve as an outline of what “woman” meant and how Pari Khan Khanom does not fit neatly into that category. She insists that she does not want children and that her spouse would likely uproot her to a remote province where she would have no political influence. In this characterization, Pari Khan Khanom is not only a historical figure whose story has been left untold, but she is an anomalous woman who does not behave according to her gender expectations. She is, like Javaher, doubly voiceless.
Pari Khan Khanom’s sexuality brings another dimension to her narrative. Pari Khan Khanom has a sexual relationship with her servant and companion, Maryam. Close female friendship was not uncommon in sixteenth-century Iran. In fact, many women “wed” their friends, becoming sisters on the Earth and in eternity in a process called siqqah-yi khwahar khwandegi (Babayan and Najmabadi 254). This ritual, however, did not necessarily mean that sisters became sexually involved. We could read Pari Khan Khanom’s relationship with Maryam as one of the ways Equal of the Sun historicizes same-sex desire, by bringing to light the existence of such practices. However, there is little evidence in the book that Pari Khan Khanom and Maryam’s relationship was one of khwahar khwandegi; there is no mention of a ceremony establishing sisterhood. Rather, their relationship is explicitly and mainly physical. Javaher describes seeing a “hunger” in Pari Khan Khanom’s eyes as she gazes at Maryam, as the two women begin to embrace (96). Emphasizing the physical elements of their love leaves any ambiguity out of the equation, allowing the modern reader to place Pari Khan Khanom’s sexuality in both a historical and contemporary setting. Pari Khan Khanom and Maryam show both that same-sex practices and female intimacy took place in the sixteenth century, but they also can speak for Iranian or Iranian-American gays and lesbians who do not have much representation in literature. While of course Pari Khan Khanom’s experience with same-sex love is not the same as someone who identifies as a lesbian in Iran today, the fact that she is a powerful character who unequivocally has a same-sex relationship is significant.
Furthermore, Pari Khan Khanom’s sexuality is in conversation with Javaher’s gender and sexuality. While Javaher’s narrative works to disentangle transsexuality from homosexuality, Pari Khan Khanom’s story serves as an example of homosexuality, as it is unrelated to transsexuality. There is no question in the novel that Pari Khan Khanom becomes a man, even at times when she regrets the lack of power her gender grants her. While she keeps her relationship with Maryam secret from all but Javaher, she is never forced to act out a gender or sexuality that she does not feel. That being said, at no point is she labeled a “lesbian.” This refusal of the term “lesbian” is significant because it shows an attempt to historicize Pari Khan Khanom’s sexuality in a time where “lesbian” did not exist as an identity category. It further refuses to import Western terms that may or may not have a place in Iran to begin with.10 This allows the characters to speak for themselves without having to attempt to fit into a specific identity category, while still offering the opportunity to share their story.
By foregrounding the stories of the voiceless and the doubly voiceless, Equal of the Sun has carved out a space where we can question dominant narratives of sexuality and transsexuality and begin to fight stereotypes these narratives import. The text brings to light the seriousness that comes with undergoing SRS and how it is important to represent such decisions as the choice of the individual, not as a state-led coercion. The decision to undergo SRS can furthermore be influenced by more aspects than are covered by the narratives that see transsexuality as a “response” to homosexuality. These narratives do not address the option to be gay or lesbian without any interest in SRS nor the experiences of trans-people who do not identify with homosexuality. We have also seen how transsexuality can help us separate sexuality and sex from reproduction and how SRS can call into question a strict gender binary. This reframing of transsexuality not only argues against these stereotypes, but it also helps depoliticize transsexuality. While Amirrezvani points out herself that one of her goals is to show Iran in a light that has neither to do with the hostage crisis nor with nuclear weapons, this text goes further by depoliticizing transsexuality (Amirrezvani, “Shattering the Stereotypes . . .”). Not only does Equal of the Sun eschew a narrative that presents a one-dimensional look at modern politics, but it actively brings forward different accounts of sexuality and transsexuality, inviting the reader to rethink how such issues are represented in the US and West. In this recasting of transsexuality and homosexuality, we can go further to think about how these topics allow us to appreciate the inherent fluidity, change, and transition that transsexuality represents and is embodied in Equal of the Sun.
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Amirrezvani, Anita. Panel Discussion moderated by Nahid Mozaffari. “Shattering the Stereotypes of Iran and Iranians Through Fiction.” Asia Society of New York, 4 December 2013. Live Stream.
Amirrezvani, Anita. Equal of the Sun. New York: Scribner, 2012. Print.
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1. For a full discussion of the prevalence of this topic in both Western and Iranian media, see Afsaneh Najmabadi’s Professing Selves, where she details the quantity and content of all newspaper and internet reports on transsexuality in Iran (1-3). See also Genevieve Abdo, Maria Kari, Ladane Nasseri, and Hanna Rosin.
2. Javaher is not actively prevented from marrying his lover; rather, it is her desire for children that makes their relationship impossible. In Iran, transsexuals may face criticism or isolation from their communities and families, but they are legally allowed to marry an opposite-sex partner, should they chose to do so. That is not to say that it is easy for them to find a partner or that an inability to conceive children will not lead to marital difficulty.
3. Javaher and Javahir refer to the same word; they are transliterated differently.
4. Najmabadi discusses at length the process Iranians go through to transition. They are required to meet with several psychological and religious figures in order to decide the best option for their situation. At times, SRS is recommended, while, for others, hormones or cross-dressing suffice. The process is long, and there are often lengthy waiting periods, which can result in the “undecided” phase Najmabadi discusses here.
5. B. J. Carter argues that the medical-religious-legal structure in contemporary Iran presents a “change or die” option for homosexuals (797-800).
6. In her anthropological work on transgender people in Iran, Shakerifar proposes a useful way of thinking about transsexuality: “Transsexuality should not be understood as a change from one sex to the other, but rather of “fixing” sex so that it matches that which the mind identifies with. In this sense, it is erroneous to believe that a transsexual will have experienced being a man as well as being a woman” (328).
7. In his work on Ottoman sexual discourse, Dror Ze’evi explains how reproduction was seen as the collision of both male and female semen (39).
8. This notion of reproduction is made explicit when Khadijeh and Shah Ismail II are trying to conceive (189).
9. Media depictions both in and out of Iran tend to focus on the hardships transitioning depicts, rather than on the possible benefits. One particularly powerful example is Tanaz Eshaghian’s 2008 film Be Like Others, in which we follow the intimate lives of trans-people, witnessing a trans-person be disowned by his/her family, experience depression, become a prostitute, among other difficulties.
10. Joseph Massad puts forth a theory of “Gay International” that examines how LGBTQ activist groups presume fixed identity categories of sexuality—gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transsexual—that do not necessarily exist everywhere, and that such presumptions “[are] in fact heterosexualizing a world that is being forced to be fixed by a Western binary” (163, 188).