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Humour as Soft Repression in Aqa’ed al-Nesa: Notes on the Macro-Politics of Ridicule vis-à-vis Gender / Mostafa Abedinifard

Wednesday 22 May 2013, by admin

FeministSchool: The following article is written by Mostafa Abedinifard, [1] University of Alberta, about Aqa’ed al-Nesa:

Ridicule, Social Control and Norm-Reinforcement: A (Western) Historical Overview

In this short essay, I conjecture on the macro-political dynamics of ridicule—as a form or aspect of humour—in its relation to gender order. As a significant type of social order, gender order refers to the pattern of gender relations between and among men and women at the level of a whole society. Therefore, rather than dealing with micro-relations, “gender order refers to the current state of a macro-politics of gender†(Flood 235). Unlike micro-politics, which takes the individual as its unit of analysis, macro-politics is the politics of the aggregate, thus dealing with such collective identities as groups of people, institutions, and the states. Within the dynamics of such politics, I am particularly interested in how ridicule, as a disciplinary practice, may affect the social order. The extant literature on humour identifies many interpersonal and social functions of humour. Of these, the functions of “enforcing social norms and exerting social control†(Martin 150)—often relying on ridicule for their effectiveness—are of paramount importance to my inquiry.

Ridicule signifies “the act of making fun of some aspect of another [which] involves a combination of humor and degradation and encompasses a range of activities like teasing, sarcasm, and ritualized insults†(Wooten 188-189). References to ridiculing laughter date back to Greek philosophy, and to the works of such figures as Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero. However, systemic thoughts on the ridiculing aspects of humour first emerge in the works of the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, whose thoughts on the matter are later developed into what we now recognize as the superiority theory of humour (Roeckelein 95-7). Concerns with ridicule continue after Hobbes, but tend to decline gradually by the emergence, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, of humour theories which significantly shy away from ridicule—in particular the incongruity and the relief theories (Morreall 9).

The French philosopher Henri Bergson, in his Le rire: Essai sur la signification du comique (Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic), partly revives the previous prominence of ridicule. Bergson deems the useful social function of laughter to be its social corrective function, which he embeds in his more complex argument about “the comic [as] ‘something mechanical encrusted on the living’†(qtd in Billig 127). Preoccupation with the corrective function of ridicule randomly continues in the twentieth century, with some scholars emphasizing ridicule as a social control and norm-reinforcement strategy. However, ridicule only becomes the subject of a book-length research by the publication in 2005 of Michael Billig’s Laughter and Ridicule: Towards a Social Critique of Humour. As a prominent work in the emergent field of critical humour studies, Billig’s book seeks to advance previous claims about the disciplinary aspects of ridicule. Somewhat venturesomely, Billig contends that humour, in the form of ridicule, plays a universal and hence necessary role in maintaining all social life. “Without the possibility of laughter,†he asserts, “serious social life could not be sustained†(5, 200). [2] While proving Billig’s claim is well beyond the scope of this writing, or any other separate endeavour for that matter, in this short essay, I would like to foreground a couple of historical cases which reveal, on a macro-political level, the disciplinarity of ridicule vis-à-vis gender as an important structure of social relations in almost all societies. The cases are hoped to support and at the same time hint towards extending Billig’s contention.

Ridicule as Soft Repression: The Case of Contemporary Western Gender-Based Movements

In her essay, “Soft Repression: Ridicule, Stigma, and Silencing in Gender-Based Movements,†sociologist Myra Marx Ferree makes a case for the powerful function that the informal social control strategies of ridicule, stigma, and silencing have occupied in non-state actors’ attempts to block or disarm gender-based movements in the West throughout the twentieth century. Ferree aims to transform our conventional understanding of repression as “only in terms of violence and state action,†which she deems as “hard repression†(97). Thus, she draws our attention to how in the past two decades, social movement scholars have noticed various women’s movements which have taken place as decentralized activities pointed towards institutions other than the state. Ferree marks such women’s movements as “the very epitome of†similar civil movements in the twentieth century that have “include[d] a variety of non-state institutional targets and change strategies that depend on cultural subversion as much or more than stone-throwing confrontation†(86).

In such movements, Ferree states, “it is the change in values, perspectives, culture, norms, expectations and behavior in the public at large that is the real goal of the movement, and state action, if any, is one of many means to its end, not an end itself†(87). Thus, the state, if it ever intends to respond to such movements, tends to “co-opt†rather than to “quash†them (86). With such decentralized protest movements directed at changing the civil society, Ferree suggests, a different model of understanding the dynamics of social movement is needed (88). Thus, as opposed to the more familiar hard repression model, mostly expected from the state, Ferree conceptualizes the notion of soft repression which is distinguished by “the collective mobilization of power, albeit in non-violent forms and often highly informal ways, to limit and exclude ideas and identities from the public forum†(88). This new model of repression constitutes the three strategies of ridicule, stigma, and silencing.

Ferree extends ridicule from what she deems a micro-level of analysis to the realm of groups and collective identities. Thus, in delineating ridicule’s role in soft repression, not only does she refer to the elementary schoolers’ social practice of mocking “fags,†“queers,†and “dykes†as instances of discursive acts directed towards policing boundaries and enforcing conformity, but she also expands the effects of ridicule to groups and movements as aggregate identities. By doing this, she views ridicule as “a tool explicitly put to use to diminish and disarm cultural challengers who are mobilizing or mobilized.†Ferree reminds us of the “mocking abbreviation†of “women’s lib†that the women’s liberation movement received immediately after its advent, and of such labels as “bra-burners†and “feminazi[s]†as the movement’s followers have sometimes been called by. She leaves no doubt concerning the importance of such seemingly insignificant labels, when she later demonstrates how some Western public media’s use of stigmatizing terms in reference to feminists has in fact significantly diminished the number of women who self-identify as “feminist†while simultaneously increasing “the proportion of women who considered the term ‘feminist’ to be an insult.†[3]

Ferree’s observation of ridicule as a tool for soft repression is strongly reverberated in the case of a late Safavid (1532-1736) humorous text in Persian, titled Aqa’ed al-Nesa (Beliefs of Women). [4] However, while Ferree explores the role of non-state actors’ ridicule in suppressing “gender-based movements†—i.e., the deployment of ridicule by non-state agents for sustaining a well-established or long-standing gender order—in the case of Aqa’ed al-Nesa we note how ridiculing humour could be employed by state-affiliated entities to support state-initiated hard repression vis-à-vis the social and particularly the gender order. At a critical juncture during the Safavid dynasty, Aqa’ed al-Nesa was apparently written by a state-affiliated clergyman with the specific purpose of supporting certain serious and harsh measures that the state had already launched in order to re-define many mores in the social life of its subjects in Isfahan, the then capital city of Persia.

On the Repressive Humour of Aqa’ed al-Nesa

Aqa’ed al-Nesa (عقائد النسا), which is described as “a specimen of Persian humour, a jeu d’esprit†by its first 19th-century English translator James Atkinson, was “probably written during the reign of [the eight Safavid king] Shah Sulayman (r. 1666-1694).†Its author was “the cleric Aqa Jamal Khansari (آقا جمال خوانساری) (d. 1710)†(350), who announced his intention in writing the book to be a critique of what he self-proclaimed as the “superstitions†practiced by many of his contemporary women (Babayan 350).

Khansari, a renowned faqih (i.e., Islamic jurisprudent) at the time, satirically writes Aqa’ed al-Nesa as a summary account of several imaginary religious resalahs (i.e., booklets containing frequently asked questions regarding the shari’a and its practice in daily life) purportedly written by five female faqihs whom Khansari similarly fabricates for satirical effects. These female faqihs are, seemingly in a tongue-in-cheek manner, named: Bibi Shah Zeinab, Kulsum Naneh (this one has become an alternative title to Khansari’s text), Khaleh Jan Agha, Baji Yasaman, and Dadeh Bazm-Ara. Khansari holds these fake figures accountable for legitimating a set of beliefs he tends to deride throughout the sixteen short chapters of his book.

Like a typical religious resalah, Aqa’ed al-Nesa opens with the three vital topics of the ritual ablutions (vozu), daily prayers (namaz), and fasting (ruzeh). The list continues with further subjects some of which which, compatibly with Khansari’s jocular tone throughout the book, descend into topics which do not normally appear in genuine resalahs, and actually contradict conventional Islamic jurisprudence: marriage, wedding nights, childbirth, bath-houses, musical instruments and their occasions, marital relations, food for vows [nazr], amulets and talismans, those to whom women are accessible [mahram] and those to whom they are denied access [namahram], the favourable answering of women’s prayer, house guests, vows of sisterhood [sigheye khahar-khandegi], and things they send each other†(Babayan 379; Katirai xvii-xviii).

Khansari’s text, perhaps due to his own declaration that it is a criticism of superstitious beliefs, had mostly been regarded and read accordingly by scholars. More recently, however, the book has been suggested as a document worthy of historiographical investigation. One such investigation is historian Kathryn Babayan’s highly insightful essay titled “The Aqa’id al-Nisa’: A Glimpse at Safavid Women in Local Isfahani Culture.†In this paper, Babayan puts Aqa’ed al-Nesa in its socio-historical milieu in order to re-imagine “the world of urban women in seventeenth-century local Isfahani culture†(349). According to Babayan, Aqa’ed al-Nesa marks a critical “juncture in Safavid history, on the eve of an orthodoxy†when Imami Shi’ism was being successfully embedded and institutionalized within the Safavid state. More specifically, this procedure entailed a reaction against “the more eclectic and tolerant darvish [i.e., sufist] culture of the classical Safavid era (1501-88)†preceding this new era. Due to this transformational reaction, a major redefinition of social moralities, including those of gender roles and gender politics, was undertaken. In order to make a successful transition, the Safavid court issued unprecedentedly harsh edicts regarding the social and moral behaviours of people, who had enjoyed strikingly further social and religious freedom during the classical Safavid era. For instance, wine and all non-shar’i activities were banned (thousands of bottles of wines were broken); music and dance were prohibited at all ceremonies; the veil became mandatory; and women were banned from lingering in public places, and from appearing in public without the accompaniment of a mahram relative.

Babayan’s contextualization enables us to regard Khansari’s text as a historically consequential instance of the strategic deployment of ridicule as a disciplinary tool for soft repression vis-a-vis social, but particularly, gender norms as they were being adopted and appropriated by his contemporary women. The text’s disciplinarity was apparently hoped to be achieved by putting to embarrassment, if not to shame, those women who, heedless of the newly established social order by the late Safavid state, would still want to choose to continue their own previous forms of life. Throughout the text, our renowned faqih author makes frequent derisive references to the jocularly named old female ‘olamÄ , whose characters sound to us as incongruously ridiculous as they would probably seem to the text’s immediate audience. Such references frame all the other derisions throughout the text, which is aimed at ordinary women who would still be willing to follow the ridiculed maxims. In fact, in his introduction, Khansari explicitly defines his audience to be “any woman who is of age and who is inclined to superstition†(Babayan 362; Katirai 1, my emphasis).

As far as the gender relations and their connection with religion are concerned, Aqa’ed al-Nesa discloses the prevalence among Khansari’s contemporary women of many non-conformist behaviours and acts which he is determined to discipline and repress. For this purpose, Khansari frequently utilizes the technique of depicting such widespread gendered acts as ludicrously incongruous with what he presupposes as the genuine religious and/or social mores. As a case in point, in part of the text it is revealed that some women simply ranked the compulsory daily prayers inferior to their own predilections, or that under certain circumstances women simply chose to dispense with the compulsory prayers. Such circumstances, as ironically disclosed by Khansari, had to do with the asymmetrical power relations such women apparently experienced in their marital relationships: “Further, when a woman is in the bath, and is amusing herself with her friends in cheerful conversation, or when she is listening to the fond protestations of a lover, and has not leisure for more serious calls on her thoughts, prayer is not required; nor is it necessary when women have guests, nor when they go to see a bride, nor when a husband goes to a journey, or arrives from a journey. But should a woman, whilst engaged in prayer, happen to discover her husband speaking to a strange damsel, it is wajib for her to pause and listen attentively to what passes between them, and if necessary, to put an end to their conversation†(Atkinson 24-25).

In another part, the author, while complaining that women claim much more freedom than they must be religiously and conventionally allowed within their marital relations, reveals his concerns about women’s homosociality: “And if [a woman] wishes to undertake a little journey, to go to the house of her friends for a month, to attend the baths, or enjoy any other pastime, it is not fit for the husband to deny those wishes, and distress her mind by refusal. And when she resolves upon giving an entertainment, it is wajib that he should anticipate what she wants, and bring to her all kinds of presents, and food, and wine, required on the festive occasion. And in entertaining her guests, and mixing among them, and doing all that hospitality and cordial friendship demand, she is not to be interrupted or interfered with by her husband saying ‘What have you done? Where have you been?’ And if her female guests choose to remain all night, they must be allowed to sleep in the woman’s room, while the husband sleeps apart and alone…†(Atkinson 56-57). “Inasmuch as Aqa Jamal was deriding such female expectations,†Babayan observes, “Isfahani women played more than the obedient and submissive role the purist clergyman, Majlisi II, paints for wives in his contemporaneous essay on Imami Shi’i practice, Hilyat al-Muttaqin (1081/1670), a role Aqa jamal would have also deemed more appropriate for pious women†(369).

Numerous other examples of Khansari’s mocking his contemporary women’s gendered behaviour could be mentioned. All such examples—in light of Babayan’s contextualization as well as of Ferree’s discussion—could serve to support the above conjecture about the strategic deployment of ridicule as an informal social control strategy and as soft repression in Aqa’ed al-Nesa. If this is the case, we might be able to claim that other than reinforcing firmly settled social orders (as argued by Billig and others), ridicule could also be employed to fortify newly projected social orders. In this latter case, however, it appears that the nascent order must have already gained some degree of cultural hegemony—or at least some sovereign coercion, as witnessed in the case of Aqa’ed al-Nesa—since “ridicule is [almost always] ‘the prerogative of the powerful,’ not an option for the weak and the oppressed†(Murphy 128). [5]

Works Cited

Atkinson, James, trans. Customs and Manners of the Women of Persia, and their Domestic Superstitions. London: n.p., 18.

Babayan, Kathryn. “The ‘Aqa’id Al-Nisa’: A Glimpse at Ṣafavid Women in Local Isfahani Culture.†Women in the Medieval Islamic World: Power, Patronage, and Piety. Ed. Gavin Hambly. New York, NY: St. Martin’s, 1998. 349-381.

Billig, Michael. Laughter and Ridicule: Towards a Social Critique of Humour. London: Sage, 2005.

Ferree, Myra Marx. “Soft Repression: Ridicule, Stigma, and Silencing in Gender-Based Movements.†Research in Social Movements, Conflicts & Change 25 (2004): 85-101.

Flood, Michael. “Gender Order.†International Encyclopedia of Men and Masculinities. Ed. Michael Flood et al. London: Routledge, 2007. 235-236.

Katirai, Mahmud, ed. Aqa’ed al-Nesa. Tehran: Ketabkhaneh-ye Tahuri, 1349 [1970].

Kuipers, Giselinde. “The Politics Of Humour In The Public Sphere: Cartoons, Power And and Modernity in the First Transnational Humour Scandal.†European Journal of Cultural Studies 14.1 (2011): 63-80.

Martin, Rod A. The Psychology of Humor: An Integrative Approach. Burlington, MA: Elsevier Academic P, 2007. Print.

Morreall, John. Comic Relief: A Comprehensive Philosophy of Humor. Chichester, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.

Murphy, Peter. Studs, Tools, and the Family Jewels: Metaphors Men Live By. Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 2001.

Roeckelein, Jon E. The Psychology of Humor: A Reference Guide and Annotated Bibliography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood P, 2002.

Shubnell, Thomas. Men vs. Women: A Complete Book of Lists. Charleston, SC: Createspace, 2008.

Wooten, David B. “From Labeling Possessions to Possessing Labels: Ridicule and Socialization among Adolescents.†Journal of Consumer Research 33(2006): 188- 198.


[1Mostafa Abedinifard is a doctoral candidate in the Comparative Literature Program at the University of Alberta. His current research interests include critical theory, masculinities studies, disability studies, and humour studies. His dissertation work involves the power dynamics of ridicule in its relation to gender orders of societies.

[2For an overview of Michael Billig’s book, see here.

[3The contemporary English jokelore confirms Ferree’s observation. In a joke collection called A Complete Book of Lists: Men vs. Women, for instance, under the “Woman Personal Ad Translator†list we have: “Feminist: Fat†(Shubnell 86). As Giselinde Kuipers reminds us, the “humourless feminist†is a prevalent target in jokes: “How many feminists does it take to screw in a lightbulb? That’s not funny!†(73). (It is noteworthy that sense of humour as a personal characteristic has a history. In modern times, the lack of a sense of humour is associated with “personal shortcoming†and thus can denote an insult [Kuipers 75].)

[4As the text’s editor Mahmud Katirai remarks, there exist various manuscripts of Aqa’ed al-Nesa in Persian. Accordingly, the current translations also probably vary. For the 1832 English translation by J. Atkinson, see here. For the 1881 French translation, by Jules Thonnelier, seehere.

[5I am thankful to Afsaneh Najmabadi for bringing to my attention Aqa’ed al-Nesa as well as Babayan’s essay on it.

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