Iran and that Renaissance idea, ‘no means yes’


Susanna and the Elders (1610), Artemisia Gentileschi


“Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life”
– Jack Kerouac

Iran is having a moment around the ‘no means yes’ idea that women can’t be taken at their word.

This is an old notion and it is laid bare, believe it or not, in Renaissance art. We saw it vividly portrayed in two very different renderings of the story around Susanna and the Elders, which is related in the Book of Daniel.

Consider Artemisia Gentileschi and Ludovico Carracci’s depictions of the story. Gentileschi, a woman, depicts the virtuous and beautiful young Susanna as anguished, while she tries to ward off the attentions of two older men. The two “Elders” are watching Susanna as she bathes in her garden.

Carracci’s treatment of the story is very different from Gentileschi’s. He shows Susanna as resistant – but not wholly so. She looks at the Elder trying to pull her robe away in a strange way – not shocked exactly, almost pleased. It was, as Paula Keller, a doctoral candidate in philosophy at the University of Cambridge, recently suggested, almost “the Renaissance version of ‘her no is really a yes’.”

Susanna and the Elders by Ludovico Carracci, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The “no is really a yes” idea is old, of course it is. Which is why it’s odd to hear it being trotted out, time after time, in various parts of the world, as a defence for misbehaviour.

Iran, for instance, has been hit by wave after wave of anguished commentary by women over the alleged behaviour of Mohsen Namjoo, a singer, songwriter, composer and musician, who was memorably christened Iran’s Bob Dylan by the New York Times in 2007.

The name is easy shorthand to convey Mr Namjoo’s prominence and it  stuck.

Mr Namjoo has denied the many allegations of sexual assault levelled against him by multiple women. You can read a recent piece that sums up the whole thing here.

Anyway, the point about the situation is Mr Namjoo’s explanation that in Iran, “no really means yes”. In a leaked audio recording, he describes his relationship with a friend and says: “I told her ‘Do you remember that night when we were together, it was ‘No means no’ until five in the morning, when it turned into a yes? At 9 in the morning I said ‘Let me go, I have things to do,’ but you were offended, and the level of your hormones made me wretched.”

Renaissance art has more resonance than we think.