Iranian Homosexuals; Social Identity Formation and Question of Femininity

Ahmad Karimi
Iranian homosexuals; social identity formation and question of femininity[1] Iranian society and its cultural traits have remarkably changed over the last century, mainly during the late nineteenth and the early twentieth century when the country went through a modernizing process and after the Islamic Revolution based on Shi’a ideology where gender and sexuality issues were central to both movements.

Iranian Homosexuals; Social Identity Formation and Question of Femininity

Iranian homosexuals; social identity formation and question of femininity[1]


Iranian society and its cultural traits have remarkably changed over the last century, mainly during the late nineteenth and the early twentieth century when the country went through a modernizing process and after the Islamic Revolution based on Shi’a ideology where gender and sexuality issues were central to both movements. While homoeroticism has been removed from public space and gender roles have been reintensifying repeatedly, gays, whose identity is interwoven with the culturally denied homosexuality and femiphobic mannerism of the people, have been struggling to negotiate their social identity within backstage groups of private spaces. Although there are several scholarly works written on sexuality and gender in Iran (Amin, 2002; Moallem, 2005; Sadeghi, 2008; Afary, 2009; Shaditalab, 2006), the field lacks a focused study on identity formation among homosexuals in Iran. Taking identity as a sum of different attributions and categories (Jenkins, 2010), this paper is primarily concerned with the feminine aspect of social identity among Iranian homosexuals. Here femininity is not a fixed social concept, but one which is constantly under construction and negotiation between subjects. Therefore this study will also examine the position of femininity and effeminacy among Iranians since these factors are decisive in sociocultural rejection of homosexual subjects who at times display culturally perceived feminine behaviors.   

The question of identity formation in relation to the femininity and other cultural attributes (Friedman, 1997) indicates that identity is built in constant negotiation with and within social, cultural, historical and political discourses through positioning and repositioning the subjects. The notion of negotiation invites us to consider the process of identity formation and the power relations involved in and resulted from such negotiations.

The idea that identity formation is an ongoing process implies the incompleteness of the process and its product. Therefore, identity becomes the problematic and unaccomplished product of the cultural practices and negotiations (Hall, 1990). It becomes the ‘becoming’ itself; it shifts in different contexts and representations as the subject takes positions or is positioned by the discursive practices. This very relation between the subject and the discourses of culture and history problematizes the identity construction and identification (Hall & Du Gay, 1996). From a discursive approach, the relations involved in identity formation construct and constitute social identities through “power” in form of oppression and resistance (Hall, 2001). In the case of making sexual identity it has been discussed that there are complicated links between sexuality, religion, cultural values and institutionalized practices (Madureira, 2007; Jaspal&Cinnirella, 2012; Annes & Redlin, 2012) which produce various constructs of sexuality, masculinity, femininity and gendered social structures.

Discourse of sexuality in Iran is mainly produced by religious and governmental heterosexist discourses while this should not depict the youths as the mere victims. Heteronormativity of Iranian culture contains heterosexism where female subject and its characteristics are depreciated in comparison with the male subject. In such gender structure, men and women are expected to perform and represent certain identities which are constructed through definitions of masculinity and femininity. While masculine and feminine behaviors are constricted in this symbolic system of identity, homosexual subject who performs a different gender role and demonstrates abnormal identity attributes will endanger the whole structure. Here, homophobia is produced to circumvent such threat. Thus, heterosexism and homophobia operate simultaneously in order to mark certain forms of sexual expression as appropriate and those who do not conform to such heteronormative standards as inappropriate (Fine, 2011). Through entrenching heterosexist cultural values and inducing psychological cognates and affects[2] such heterosexist and femiphobic discourses will reproduce sets of identities and preclude others. Since homosexuality, homosexual identity and homophobia are not recognized in any discourse in Iran[3], here I am about to dissect the role of femiphobic attitudes in social identity formation among Iranian gays in the heterosexist context of Iran. In this paper I examine the basic reasons behind the rejection of homosexuality in Iran and the ventures of the Iranian gays into cyberspace and back to society, while struggling to construct a new feminine-admissive social identity.  The final part of this study is devoted to the discussion of the seat of femininity, particularly effeminacy, among Iranians. The paper concludes with demonstrating the incomplete social identity formation of gays, but also envisages a rising divergence in Iranian youths’ gender behaviors which grants the likelihood of negotiating the newly developed social identity to homosexuals.


[1] Ahmad KarimiMaster of Social and Cultural Anthropology, KU Leuven, Belgium

[2] For further discussion on social and psychological foundations of heterosexism and homophobia see Madureira, 2007.

[3] This means that homosexuality for Iranians is exclusively linked to the sexual act not the same-sex emotions and desires. Consequently, homophobia in its western concept, in absence of homosexual subject, is about and directed toward the same-sex intercourse only.



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Universiteit of Hogeschool
Social and Cultural Anthropology