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Familial Undercurrents: A Lecture by Afsaneh Najmabadi

November 25, 2015

by Elizabeth Dolfi, Department of Religion PhD and 2015 – 16 Graduate Fellow


Afsaneh Najmabadi’s lecture ‘Familial Undercurrents,’ on gender, sexuality, family structure and modernities in Iran, provided a fascinating introduction to a work-in-progress that is part theoretical meditation, part historical-sociological investigation, and part family history.  Najmabadi is interested in the rapid transformation of conceptions of marriage and the family among educated and upper class Iranians during the early and mid twentieth century, and the everyday practices and affects which allowed people to live with and through the gaps left by these shifting social and ideological possibilities. 


This project began with the unearthing of Najmabadi’s own family secrets and her attempts to account for their consequences in her life and the lives of her kin. She did not grow up in a “combined” house, and neither she nor her mother knew about her father’s second household until well into adulthood. In dealing with the emotional fallout from this discovery, Najmabadi asks how “a form of family life that would have been normal for my mother’s generation could have become a shameful family secret only a generation later?”  Najmabadi wonders how the imperial “love marriage” generated “family unspeakables” and, often, “the will not to know.”


In her effort to track historical shifts in the construction of, in Najmabadi’s evocative language, “the kin who count and those in their shadows,” Najmabadi is particularly interested in the affective lives of those who wrestled their way through these incomplete transitions. She asks what the promises of modernity and companionate marriage were, and how, when the practical realities of marriages failed to live up to the romantic ideal (as when a second family exists, but as a secret rather than a naturalized part of the home or the family structure), people lived with, through, and in between the inheritance of social and ideological changes wrought by imperialism. Using oral histories and archival material, she investigates the fall-out from silences and secrets – the ways that relatives become strangers, that monogamy’s promises are broken, and that kin are exiled to the margins in order to posit a center for the nucleated family. 


Najmabadi’s analysis of family photographs as sites where never-fully-realized modernities are enacted, resisted, and “lived with” in quiet, quotidian ways was particularly compelling. She connected the arrival of photography in the Middle East with the Europeanization of marriage ideals, describing the camera and the photograph as objects of everyday life through which these changes were negotiated and “off-modern” practices were generated. She spoke about oral history interviews with older Iranian women who lived through these transitions and rejected the narrowing logics of the nucleated family (because, of course, these were never quite nuclear families). When looking at a family photograph with three women labeled as “mother” in pencil on the back, for instance, these women would rebuff Najmabadi’s request to identify their mother by insisting that the photograph identified “all of their mothers.”  Family photographs recapture, for Najmabadi, familial logics in which aunts, uncles, siblings, and mothers were called by these names without any “half” or “step” modifiers.  They also suggest some of the patterns of affect and sentiment that went along with these family systems. 


Wedding photographs, on the other hand, give us access to something a little different. In the 1930s and 40s, wedding photos were often taken at a photographer’s shop on a different day from the wedding.  They were typically taken in western-style wedding clothes (white dress, black suit) that were only worn for these photos and not for the actual wedding ceremony or celebration. In marking the couple as sartorially and spatially separate from the wider family, the bride and groom in these photos were ritually presented as different from their parents and their parents’ generation. Going to the photographer’s studio became a crucial way for brides and grooms to stage coupledom and their investment in the bourgeois conjugal family (no matter what kind of home they actually lived in). These photographs might be displayed in homes in which the companionate couple and monogamous romance existed in an unresolved juxtaposition to a household full of many mothers and (half) siblings.

Najmabadi concluded by addressing the difficulty of excavating these pasts without, one the one hand, slipping into nostalgia and, on the other, imposing anachronistic terms on her subjects.