Sara Farizan reflects on queer love and law in Iranian society, in If You Could Be Mine

In If You Could Be Mine, Iranian-American writer Sara Farizan looks at her own cultural milieu which forbade and criminalised homosexuality.

Chintan Girish Modi March 20, 2020 08:55:42 IST
Sara Farizan reflects on queer love and law in Iranian society, in If You Could Be Mine

The Queer Bookshelf is your fortnightly date with books about queer lives and loves from India and elsewhere

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As the coronavirus pandemic continues to strike terror all over the world, my heart goes out to everyone who feels afraid. The thought of death can be paralysing for many, and the barrage of information being thrown at us is a poor source of comfort. The friends that I have spoken to are not looking for more tips on how to wash their hands or where to buy their masks but someone to speak with — a human connection amidst the isolation.

It is fascinating to see how it took a collective tragedy like this to make us recognise how deeply interconnected we are, and that it takes so little to offer support and care. I have chosen to stop consuming more reports about panic buying, so that I can focus instead on the little acts of kindness popping up everywhere. People are finding such cute and creative ways to be responsive to the needs of others they share this planet with.

I feel sorry, however, that I am getting to read and hear very little about what is happening in Iran at the moment. This is partly because journalism there is strongly monitored by the state, and it is challenging for media persons to report audaciously about state failure. All I know is that thousands of people have been infected, hundreds of them have died, and the authorities are waiting for international aid because the situation is spiralling out of control. It is a country that is so close to India, geographically and culturally, yet we are unable to help much in this period of crisis.

This fortnight’s column is dedicated to Iran as a quiet gesture of affection in our dystopian present, especially to all the queer and trans people there who might be feeling caged in their homes away from friends, lovers and partners. This is important to say because home is not a place of safety for everyone, where they can happily catch up on a pile of unread books and sip chamomile tea while instrumental music plays in the background. Birth families in Iran and elsewhere deny the personhood of queer and trans people not only through misgendering and deadnaming but through physical, emotional and verbal abuse as well.

Sara Farizan reflects on queer love and law in Iranian society in If You Could Be Mine

Sara Farizan; cover for If You Could Be Mine.

I have been reading If You Could Be Mine, a novel written by Sara Farizan and published by Algonquin Books in 2014. The author of this book, about two girls desperately in love, is an American woman born to Iranian immigrants. She wrote it while earning an MFA in Creative Writing at Lesley University in Massachusetts, and reflecting on her own cultural milieu which forbade and criminalized homosexuality. The book is dedicated to “my parents, for always loving me as I am.” It is a beautifully crafted work of fiction, and deserves the numerous awards it has won. My paperback edition also includes a reader’s guide, which might be ideal for a book club.

Let us get to know Sahar and Nasrin, the protagonists in this lesbian romance. They live in Tehran, and have been best friends since they were six years old. Sahar is 17 now, gets the best grades in her class, and wants to be a surgeon. Nasrin is a fashionista, dreams of acting in a Bollywood film, and thrives on parental approval. Sahar lives with her father, who is a single parent. Nasrin lives with her parents, her brothers Dariush and Cyrus, and their stay-at-home employee Soraya, who is in charge of domestic chores. As you might have guessed, Sahar comes from humble circumstances while Nasrin is raised in an affluent family.

Sahar is the first-person narrator in this book. She confides in us about her beloved Nasrin: “It’s difficult, hiding my feelings for her. Tehran isn’t exactly safe for two girls in love with each other. I wonder if people can tell I love her when I look at her — in the park, at the bazaar shopping for bras, everywhere...I tell her no one will know, that I will protect her, but when we kiss I can feel her tense. She keeps thinking about the two boys who were hung years ago in Mashhad.” Sahar had wanted to marry Nasrin even at the age of six but her mother said it was not possible because it was haraam, but they could always be best friends. She tried to cajole her heart but it was not willing to listen.

The only person in Sahar’s inner circle who understands her longing for Nasrin is her cousin Ali, who is also gay. He is fiercely protective of Sahar though she initially thinks of him as a corrupting influence. The sense of kinship Ali feels with her comes not only from their blood ties but also the recognition of their shared marginalisation. He is aware of the privileges available to him as a cisgender gay man, and wants to use them in a way that can enable Sahar to access more freedom than what is currently available in her own house. She grows to love him dearly in spite of her discomfort with the ‘shady’ people — including cops and sex workers — he is associated with.

Though Sahar’s love for Nasrin does not have religious or legal sanction in Iran, she imagines it to be superior than what Ali feels towards the men he is intimate with. She says, “I see how Ali is with his boyfriends — they’re very sweet together, but they are always hiding. Ali is perpetually dating someone new, but he treats the men like they are toys that he is eventually going to grow tired of. Ali introduces his gentlemen to me as his boyfriends, but usually the boyfriends look nervous and laugh like Ali is crazy. They say they are in Ali’s class, but I know Ali has never cared much about schoolwork, and I’m pretty sure Ali is planning on studying anatomy when they come over. He’s an engineering major.”

This caustic humour is typical of Sahar, especially when she speaks of Nasrin’s suitor Reza. Yes, this is the sad part. Nasrin wants Sahar to have a lifelong clandestine relationship with her while she can present a happy, monogamous picture of conjugal bliss with Reza — a man her parents like, and one who will give her all the luxuries she wants. Sahar wants to do all that she can to prevent Nasrin from getting married, and this includes her plan to “become a man” in order to ask for Nasrin’s hand in marriage. In Iran, trans people are compensated by the state for the expenses they incur on medical procedures involved in transitioning. However, homosexuality can lead to being beaten, imprisoned and even executed. Sahar is stuck between her love and the law.

One day, while paying a visit to Nasrin’s house, she tells us, “I take off my coat and head scarf and hang them on a nearby coatrack. I’ve tried my best to look attractive. I don’t know if it will work. Maybe if Nasrin sees me look my best, she will call off the wedding. The possibility of that happening is about the same as a chance of a mullah’s admitting to watching Baywatch via illegal satellite.” Sarah is always irreverent in the privacy of her own mind but, while kissing Nasrin, she feels as if she is being watched by Ayatollah Khomeini and Ayatollah Khameini. In her words, they are “Angry Grandpa” and “Disappointed Grandpa” respectively.

I do not want to mess with your experience of devouring this book, so I will spare you a lot of the interesting details. All I am going to say is that you must read it to discover how queer people create little islands of joy within the heteronormative structures of family, marriage and religion that imprison them. Imagining alternatives is risky business, and they often have to pay a heavy price. Some of the most hard-hitting moments in this book revolve around Sahar’s desperation for Nasrin, and the lengths she is willing to go to for love. She is utterly clueless about what dysphoria and gender reassignment surgery are all about, and learns only after being educated by Goli khanum, Parveen, Maryam, Katayoun, and Jamshid. Until then, all she wanted was to become a man.

If You Could Be Mine is not a fairytale romance; it does contain violence that could be triggering for some readers. Many of the characters in this book are deeply embedded in the biases inherited from their social conditioning. Having a marginalised identity does not make them empathetic by default. They are fallible because they usually put themselves first; they are judgemental because they do not realise how their words and actions hurt others. They despise the authoritarian regime but rarely accept how they harm each other. Are you and I not guilty of doing the same?

Chintan Girish Modi is a writer-researcher working at the intersection of peace education, gender equality and queer rights

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