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What is in the eye of the beholder? - An experience in Turkey and Iran

As a foreign artist visiting Turkey for an art event I had a wonderful experience with the artists there in April 2018. Something which touched me about the locals was that they liked that I am a 'smiling person' who laughs a lot giving off a happy vibe. This experience compels me to speak about the discrepancy of hearts, when we read headlines on mainstream newspapers, regarding the issue of 'women not laughing in public' (comment by Turkey's deputy prime minister in 2014). The same issue of women smiling or laughing in public was also a problematic when I lived in Iran under the present "Islamic Republic of Iranian government". In this blog post I observe the eye of the beholder seeing a laugh, just like a viewer's eye seeing an art work. I attempt to find an angle of 'florescence' to fill the gap of discrepancy of hearts between a person laughing with joy, and a person seeing the laugh with 'indecent eyes'. Finally I call upon politicians to listen to the hearts of citizens.

When I was teaching art at a boys’ secondary school in Malta, I remember it was so hard going over some basic shapes without giggles going on among the students. Any triangle was equated by them to a vagina, any long oval was equated to a penis, any crossing shapes was equated to sexual intercourse. That was how the mind of 14/15 year old boys would perceive simple basic shapes I was trying to explain. One can understand the over surge of hormonal changes at that age would be the reason why they equated every shape so easily to sex even when it literally was not related to sex.  In their ‘eye of beholder’ it was sex they were focused on or searching for, thus it is sex that they saw too in anything which got slightly close in visual similitude to it.

When we look at a glass which is half filled with water, some see it as “half empty”, others as “half full”. That is also reflective of what the eye of beholder perceives according to what the person is searching for or focused on.

In the eyes of an angry man, the high waves in the sea seem angry punches of the sea water, while the same high waves of the sea seem a passionate dance of sea water in the eyes of a joyful man.

In the eyes of a sex hungry man, the beauty of a woman is easily dismissed in its purity and taken only for flesh desire possibly void of any other level of appreciation.

If a teenage boy sees in a triangle a female sex, and in an oval the male penis, a sex-hungry man dismissing any purity in a woman’s beauty for flesh desire, then what does the prohibition of a female laugh say about the eye of the beholder seeing the laugh?

When I was living in Iran under the Islamic Republic under Ayatollah Khemeini (in 1980's), women were also called upon to stop smiling and laughing in public. The reason for stopping a woman from laughing in public there was that it can cause ‘sexual arousal’ to men and that should not be done according to the regime’s understanding of Islamic code of behaviour. Well, they are saying that all a man is capable of seeing in a woman’s laugh, is an urge for sex to the point that he must not see it; that reflects a state of mind completely ‘ravaged’ by sex,  so much that he is unable to see anything else in a smile rather than the physical urge of sex. While in reality there is so much more that can be seen in a woman’s laugh: joy of living, state of happiness, interaction with the world, communicating joy to the world. If that state of joy causes arousal to a man, it may simply be the time for the man to control his urges and learn to behave respectfully to the fact that he cannot perform his sex desire on a woman the moment it comes to him. Cutting all kinds of things which might possibly create sexual arousal, is reflective of a possible ‘sex-maniac’ eye of beholder (state of mind and perception) whereby it is considered dangerous to arouse a man, because he is incapable of controlling his urges, almost like one does with dangerous wild animals in a forest: make sure not to provoke the animal by the slightest move, because the animal will attack, as the animal is not reflective and does not see anything else except a PREY to attack! That is exactly what inhibiting all things which can create sexual arousal is: treating men/women as though wild animals incapable of handling their sexual urges.

The famous expression ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ is as valid as ‘ugliness is in the eye of the beholder’ , and ‘purity is in the eye of the beholder’ is as valid as saying  ‘sin is in the eye of the beholder’. When a black canvas is shown to a depressed person, he will only see death in the blackness. But the same black canvas shown to a man passionate about life, will see magic of mystery in that black canvas.

The eye of beholder is a phenomen I have had to learn much about (and still learning about) as an artist whose canvases (like any other painter) have been at highest scrutinies by the audience. What the viewer sees and what I am showing have nuances between them, unless the viewer tries to understand and feel the artist behind the work.

The inhibition of a woman’s laugh or smile in public, is fixating on one sole view of the smile: stopping possible sexual arousal to men. That is an insult to men by treating them as wild animals whose eye of beholder can see nothing but a sexual prey, incapable of appreciating joy and happiness in a woman interacting with her environment with no necessary sexual calling from her side.

I wish to call upon politicians to stop fixating on just a sexual state of mind which sees nothing beyond a sexual urge, because life is much larger than just physical urges. Allowing space for the eye of the beholder is allowing indeed  space for the vision of society to grow, and affirms that men and women are capable of seeing beyond sexual urges in life.


ida Sherafatmand


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