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Notes on class mobility and status aspiration in contemporary Iran


In the 2000s, post-revolutionary Iran finally established a lively presence in scholarly English-language ethnographic writing, with a notable focus on urban youth culture.[1] Texts such as Roxanne Varzi’s Warring Souls: Youth, Media and Martyrdom in Post-Revolution Iran (2006), Pardis Mahdavi’s Passionate Uprisings: Iran’s Sexual Revolution (2009) and Shahram Khosravi’s Young and Defiant in Tehran (2008), filled a need for accessible ethnographic monographs that met the curiosity of Westerners about daily life in the Islamic Republic and quickly began to feature on university syllabi. These and other accounts published around this time seem to have in common a strong tendency to focus on what can be interpreted as acts of resistance to and rebellion against the political establishment and the moral order it espouses. Indeed, ‘Uprisings’ and ‘Defiance’ are explicitly worked into the titles of two of these texts. Khosravi is concerned with “the pervasive struggle by the young people [of Tehran] to resist a subject position imposed on them from above” through everyday practices and creative projects that add up to a “culture of defiance” (2008: 1, 3). Mahdavi writes of a new climate of sexual and social licentiousness among the city’s youth that amounts to a “sociocultural revolution” and is seen as “embodying resistance and rebellion” (2009: 3). Varzi explores the media tools employed by the state to create Islamic subjects and what she sees as their ultimate failure, as a large group of “secular” youth learn to switch the images off and are obliged to “be creative in order to find freedom” (2006: 130).All three authors open their texts with humiliating or traumatic incidents in which they or their loved ones suffered at the hands of the state. Khosravi describes his project as an “ethnography of suffering and anguish” (2008: 16); Varzi writes of the fear that accompanied her fieldwork and asks if anthropology can be “anything but another kind of mourning?” (2006: 2).

This pessimistic tone is perhaps best understood in the context of the publishing boom in the same decade in first-person narratives about life in post-revolutionary Iran, some of which achieved bestseller status in Western countries. Many of these were memoirs by diasporic Iranians reflecting on the unhappy events leading to their departures from their homeland after the revolution; others were narratives of return to Iran by a younger group seeking to understand the generation to which they might have belonged had they remained (a sentiment shared by Varzi and Mahdavi). The autobiographic trend quickly came under scrutiny by other members of the diaspora, who criticized it for its selective, highly subjective narratives that foregrounded the repressive nature of the Islamic Republic while appearing to represent the universal Iranian experience. It had a particularly sinister aspect for some critics, who saw it as providing moral justification for American military intervention and attempts at reasserting Euro-American cultural hegemony over Iran in the post-9/11 world (see e.g. Mottahedeh 2004, Keshavarz 2007, Dabashi 2006). In the tense atmosphere of American-led wars on Iran’s immediate neighbors and the ever-present specter of an attack on Iran itself, autobiographical narratives of people originating in these countries were marketed and enlisted as sources of authenticity and legitimacy in political arguments. But conflicting allegiances led to a “race within the Iranian diasporic community… to convey the ‘right’ message about modern Iran” (Motlagh 2011: 415).  

In this climate of politicized publishing, I take issue not so much with the idea of studying cultures of resistance or defiance in themselves, but with the failure to seriously consider their boundaries. Post-revolutionary governments have indeed enacted policies that have disproportionately burdened certain segments of the population, and their opposition may be understandable, but at the same time they have actively favored other segments, for whom the Islamic republican system, on the whole, still holds legitimacy. Changing economic and social policies have also led to the expansion or contraction of various classes, and the grievances of some (for example, unemployed university graduates) may be attributed to the fact that their aspirations have been raised and then not fulfilled. I argue that in the context of a wholesale “class reshuffling” (Behdad and Nomani 2009) in the three decades since the revolution, cultural practices in Iran need to be correlated to social class, which I take here to mean a group of people who share an economic position and a set of cultural dispositions. But the latter—including the consumption of certain products, the profession of certain aesthetic tastes and ideological beliefs, or the practicing of certain lifestyles—can be endowed with value as status attributes and may be used as chips in the high-stakes game of social mobility.

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Posters for cultural events hang alongside prayer veils in a refugee home in Iran (photograph by Zuzanna Olszewska)

The explicit or implicit generalization of phenomena such as a purported “sexual revolution” or “cultural defiance” from a narrow stratum of wealthier, secular urban-dwellers to all young people in Iran, poses several problems for analysis. Firstly, it posits the existence of a unitary society positioned in irreconcilable opposition to a monolithic state. There is little accounting for diversity and hierarchies along gender, ethnic, and socioeconomic lines which lead to unequal distribution of power and wealth within the population and alternate subject positions: the assumption is that there is a single fault line of struggle in society. Secondly, even if such interpretations accurately reflect the conscious and perhaps romanticized self-representations by a particular group, they take for granted that when such practices diffuse across social classes and throughout the country, their implication and meaning will remain the same in new contexts. But the same practice may have an entirely different meaning for members of different social groups: when working-class girls mimic the more ‘daring’ fashions of upper-class girls, for example, they may in fact be signaling their aspiration to upward mobility more than the upper-class girls’ avowed defiance of the state’s imposed norms of modesty. Finally, when scholars draw attention to ‘positive’ phenomena that are a direct result of post-revolutionary policies, they may be branded as apologists for the regime. “By merely mentioning such basic facts as the increased mobility of women or the spectacular drop in fertility rates in contemporary Iran,” writes Fariba Adelkhah, “one runs the risk of being labeled a supporter of the Islamic Republic” (2009: 207).

Adelkhah has called this trend a “malaise” in the current anthropology of Iran, attributable to Western Islamophobia, the legitimate grievances of exiles, and the politicization of research on social changes since the revolution. We are frequently presented with two opposing poles, one that overstates the totalizing and repressive power of the state, and another that emphasizes the beneficent and heroic nature of social movements which lie outside the domain of power and resist the inroads of the state (2009: 209). This is a vision of “a supposedly absolute rift between despotism and freedom”; a “domain of irreconcilable oppositions” in which researchers are “not meant to question the interpenetrations of power and society, for their distinction constitutes a line that nobody is supposed to cross” (ibid.) She insists on the need to consider precisely this interpenetration, the overlapping space between state and society (Adelkhah 1999: 3-4).

We need to pay attention, therefore, to the multiple modalities of power. Like anthropologists studying other stratified societies undergoing modernizing transformations, we might take a combined neo-Gramscian and Foucauldian approach and envision the Islamic Republic as an imperfect hegemony, governed through a mixture of coercion and consent, visible or diffuse (see e.g. Murray Li 2007). Such an approach allows us to see that power “often makes its presence felt through a variety of modes playing across one another. [It operates through the] erosion of choice, the closure of possibilities, the manipulation of outcomes, the threat of force, the assent of authority or the inviting gestures of a seductive presence, and the combinations thereof” (Allen 2003: 195-6). Thus, if Abrahamian (2009) was correct in his claim that the endurance of the Islamic Republic on its thirtieth anniversary could be attributed not to repression but in large part to its populist outlook and its social welfare policies, then the social and cultural changes that have taken place among some members of society should be seen as responses to what the state has offered, not just what it has taken away.

My own ethnographic research with Afghan refugees in Iran gave me a clear sense of the extent to which people’s subjectivities in the contemporary Islamic Republic have been shaped by both opportunities and instances of coercion, arising not only from top-down state initiatives but also from broader social factors. They are a population riddled with paradoxes: an exemplar of the poor and ‘dispossessed’ fellow Muslims celebrated in populist revolutionary rhetoric, and yet a group both legally denied citizenship and many other rights, and socially denigrated. Yet many of them have also benefited from access to public education in Iran and have experienced a degree of upward mobility. Studying this group of marginal non-citizens, then, offers a unique perspective on the contradictions at the heart of the Islamic Republic and the opportunities and constraints it has created. At the same time, what I interpreted as the beginnings of a process of class differentiation within the Afghan community in Iran brings into focus how the cultivation of certain cultural dispositions and lifestyle aspirations can be used as a marker of higher status. In this article, I bring my material on Afghans into dialogue with a number of other sources (including the aforementioned ethnographies) in order to highlight aspirations to and realities of social mobility as an alternative heuristic for understanding culture in Iran.

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Afghan writers hold a meeting in the office of a refugee cultural organisation (photograph by Zuzanna Olszewska)

Social Mobility Since the Revolution: Economy, Topography and Culture of Status Distinction

What evidence do we have on the extent of social mobility since the revolution? A wholesale reconfiguration of social structure in Iran has been ongoing for at least the past century and continued after the 1979 revolution: post-revolutionary society has been shaped by factors such as large population movements and urbanization, growing literacy and higher education rates (especially among women), and falling fertility. One of the few studies to examine changes in class structure and labor relations after 1979 (Nomani and Behdad 2006) found a constantly evolving situation, involving upward mobility for some in some periods with downward mobility for others, and dramatic reversals of fortunes. The years immediately following the revolution represented an economic crisis, a collapse of capitalism and a rise of the petty bourgeoisie in “traditional” occupations (ibid.: 87). There was a consequent deproletarianization of labor and the expansion of state employment, particularly in military and paramilitary forces. But due to economic pressures caused by the oil-market glut of the mid-1980s and the financial burden of the war with Iraq, Iran began an economic liberalization strategy, though backtracking on many of its populist and pro-poor revolutionary slogans led to public opposition and consequently a “timid, zigzag liberalization strategy” in which capitalist relations of production have been rejuvenated and high-rise luxury apartments have taken over the skyline of Tehran (ibid.: 196-97).

The 1990s thus heralded a growth in the relative size of the middle class and the gradual return of capitalists and petty bourgeoisie involved in activities that the authors define as “modern” rather than “traditional” (two categories that probably deserve to be problematized). Interestingly, they also find that following the dramatic defeminization of labor in the 1980s, women were returning to paid work in the 1990s, but that the growth of working class women’s employment was much faster than that of middle-class women. (ibid.: 199). Overall, in 1996, the last census year analyzed in this book, the breakdown of the Iranian workforce suggested a society of petty bourgeoisie, workers and bureaucrats, with the vast majority of the small middle class in state employment (ibid.: 202, 209).

The authors’ projections of these data to the mid-2000s, and their later follow-up article (Behdad and Nomani 2009), offer us some clues as to the frustrations of young people at a time when the peak of Iran’s post-revolution baby boomers were entering the labor market. They had higher literacy and education levels than their parents and expected at least as much in terms of employment opportunities. Yet the state bureaucracy was bloated and redundant, while the slow growth of the private sector could not absorb the legions of young people with university diplomas, particularly educated young women – products of the populist revolutionary state’s heavy investment in education. The authors concluded rather presciently that the “failed expectation of the youth, who see unemployment, or at best a factory job or driving a cab in one of the large cities, and cultural and political restrictions, as the bitter fruit of their parents’ revolution, will be the major political and social dilemma of the current decade in Iran” (Nomani and Behdad 2006: 214). Here we have a powerful indication that it is aspiration to social mobility and its disappointment, both consequences of post-revolutionary policies, that are a defining aspect of youth politics and culture in Iran. Indeed, Kevan Harris, in possibly the only ethnographic study of the opposition Green Movement that followed the disputed presidential election of 2009, has linked the protests to the expansion of the middle class due to the “developmental push” and the “modernizing efforts” of the Islamic Republic itself (2012: 436), noting that the grievances of the protesters are typical wherever “upwardly mobile middle classes perceive themselves blocked by the state from the pathways to social power” (ibid.: 451).

Within this context, the experience of Afghans in Iran has been mixed.[2] When up to three million of them arrived in the 1980s, revolutionary ideology held emancipatory promise for many, particularly Hazaras and other Shi’as who had been low in the pecking order in Afghanistan. In the 1980s and early 1990s, the welfare benefits and educational opportunities available to Afghans illustrated the populist revolutionary idealism of the state, and they were welcomed as fellow Muslims in need, having suffered an invasion by a godless oppressor, the Soviet Union. Afghan men also filled the labor market gap left by the millions of Iranian men who were fighting against Iraq. As a result of their access to Iranian public services, including free schooling or literacy programs and public health services, hundreds of thousands of Afghan children and adults became newly-literate or even well-educated. They absorbed ‘modern’ ideas about hygiene, health and reproduction; began to dress, live and eat Iranian-style; and transformed their views and practices of religion, civic participation and the public role of women. Thousands of Shi‘a Afghan men – and smaller numbers of women – completed religious studies in the seminaries of Qom and Mashhad and received stipends from them. Women in particular have benefited from a more liberal attitude to their rights than in Afghanistan and tend to be the most reluctant group to repatriate; Afghan men even joke that Iran is a zan-sālāri (‘femocracy’) compared to Afghanistan.

From the mid-1990s onwards, however, as Iran made its “zigzag” transition to economic liberalism, Afghans continued to be needed as a labor force, but their precarious legal position helped to ensure that that labor force remained cheap and disposable.[3] At the same time, since populist rhetoric persisted in the political sphere, they were convenient scapegoats for all manner of ills, including disease, the drug trade and unemployment, and quick deportation actions against them could mollify frustrated constituencies. Clerics aside, they were barred from working in all but a handful of menial occupations, leading to pervasive poverty. They have legal restrictions on their mobility and endure onerous and costly bureaucratic requirements to ensure their continued legal residence in Iran. Those who fail to do so or who have never possessed documents suffer periodic roundups and deportations that have left many in a permanent state of insecurity. I heard about incidents of both casual racism and systemic humiliation from almost every Afghan I spoke to. Such prejudice seems to be based on long-standing ideas of Iranian national superiority vis-à-vis the country’s more ‘backward’ neighbors. But given Afghans’ shared cultural, religious and linguistic inheritance with Iranians, to an outsider it seems like a classic case of Freud’s “narcissism of small differences” that I suspect has as much to do with Iranian tendencies of class discrimination as it does with nationalism.

Nomani and Behdad provide a rigorous Marxist analysis of relations of production. However, they give little sense of indigenous ideas of stratification based on intangible perceptions of relative status distinctions that do not necessarily align neatly with class – or of divergent levels of financial, social and cultural capital – which would be given more attention in the neo-Weberian or Bourdieusian sociological traditions. Yet pay attention we must: in a country which experienced centuries of monarchic rule, elaborate court ritual and dominance by a landed aristocracy, status recognition remains encoded in, and a crucial part of, language, comportment and social etiquette in Iran, persisting after the revolution to “an extraordinary degree” (Beeman 1986: 35). It was my perception during fieldwork that class and status remain major preoccupations in everyday discourse. Something desirable because it is beautiful, fashionable, elegant and redolent of wealth and good taste is described with the adjective bā-kelās, literally ‘with class’ or classy, a gloss which carries the same dual meaning in English. An action through which one may be perceived as being of high status or, in its negative sense, “showing off” a particular high-status attribute, is called kelās gozāshtan, literally ‘putting [on] class’. Conversely, it is an insult, a marker of undesirability and inferiority, to call someone or something dehāti – lit. a ‘peasant’ or ‘bumpkin’ (n.) or ‘rustic’ (adj.), which carry the same shades of meaning, but with less venom in contemporary English. An urban, lower-class yet aspirational version of the oft-ridiculed dehāti is the javād, while in some parts of the country, an insult which is inflected with both class and ethnicity or nationality is Afghāni; both figures will be discussed in greater detail below.

Status and wealth also have an unmistakable geographic distribution in contemporary Iranian cities. The area south of Tehran’s bazaar, formerly the heart of the city, now regarded as the pā‘in-e shahr or downtown and is largely a lower-income area. It has turned into a series of vast suburbs that have engulfed the nearby city of Rey with its ancient shrine and continue to sprawl onto the hot plain: neighborhoods of narrow lanes and one- or two-storied unadorned houses. North of the bazaar, meanwhile, are the areas considered middle- and upper-class, a distinction that evolved in the Pahlavi era (Bayat 2010a: 104). The apartment buildings grow taller the further north one goes, and, correspondingly, the higher one goes up the sudden slope of the tall Alborz mountains with its cooler climate and cleaner air. This is both literally and figuratively the bālā-ye shahr or uptown. The policies of various Tehran mayors have encouraged spatial leveling through the creation of public spaces such as parks where diverse classes can mingle, and public transport has compressed the uptown-downtown divide. But a deep economic disparity with a spatial dimension persists: Pahlavi-era elites have simply been replaced by Islamist elites and nouveau riches (ibid.: 109-11). I knew several families in Tehran, migrants from the provinces, whose improving fortunes over the years were marked by an unmistakable northward move with every new house they bought or leased. There is a similar division in Mashhad, where I carried out most of my research: I lived and worked among Afghan refugees in lower-income areas where my upper-middle-class Iranian friends told me they would never dream of setting foot.

After the revolution, the Islamist regime offered economic and other incentives to those who readily embraced its ideology, notably less-privileged rural and urban residents, veterans and martyrs of the revolution and the war with Iraq, and the ‘traditional’ middle classes who had remained religiously conservative, and who had not benefited from Pahlavi economic policies. It thus created a rentier “regime class” dependent on state handouts which supported its rule, complicating Marxist class analyses because it spanned income levels (Bayat 2010a: 116-17). Yet such inducements had the paradoxical effect of empowering certain constituencies and creating or legitimating modernist aspirations in, for example, pious working class women, albeit within an Islamic framework. “A young Islamist woman could now stand up to her family and demand to go to the university, to become active in an Islamist organization, to join the literacy, health, or reconstruction programs, to enlist in the women’s auxiliary branch of the Basij, also known as the Basiji sisters, to support the war effort, or even to choose her husband through such contacts rather than submit to an arranged marriage” (Afary 2009: 295). The cultural and political effects of such possibilities are still unfolding.

The Basij militia, for example, was created in 1979 to protect against counter-revolutionary uprisings, and opened its ‘Sisters’’ wing in 1985 (Sadeghi 2009). Basijis receive many financial inducements for their service, such as preference in university admissions, jobs and housing, as well as mobile phones and loans. Some receive stipends from the state, and “it is long since a fact that many young people join the organization for upward mobility” (ibid.: 51). Today, more than four million of the 10-14 million Basijis are women, many of them involved in the crackdowns on ‘bad hejab’ that periodically harass fashionably dressed women in the bālā-ye shahr. Indeed, Khosravi’s lone Basiji informant made it clear that there is a class dimension to the Basij’s willingness to participate in these crackdowns (Khosravi 2008: 76-78). The Basij also provides low-cost courses in English, computers and job skills, as well as free or very cheap access to sports facilities and sports camps for women. Although these are the women that are supposed to help impose the “culture of modesty” on the rest of society, a study by sociologist Fatemeh Sadeghi (2009) found that all of them felt strongly that women should be socially and politically engaged, contradicting their own organization’s strict gender ideology in their insistence on women’s family rights.

What is clear from this account is that the religious sociability or ideological persuasions of this state program, readily associated with people from lower-income areas who are purported to be religious, ‘backward’ and socially conservative, were not sufficient for them. Among the services they asked for—and got—were attributes of status and modernity such as English and computer classes, and receiving access to them helped to gradually redefine their own standing in their neighborhoods, as well as people’s very definitions of appropriate, status-conferring behavior. Female modesty may still have been important to the honor and status of families in such areas, but what counted as modest and honorable behavior was changing: being active in the public arena could now bring recognition and reward rather than opprobrium (see also Hoodfar 2009). All of these are examples of what Adelkhah (1999) has explored as a particularly Iranian way of being modern: one in which Islam has escaped the secular ideal of confinement to the private sphere, but has itself been transformed in the process. We are reminded that Nomani and Behdad’s study revealed that it was working-class women who were entering employment at a far higher rate than their middle-class counterparts, so it is precisely these women who are renegotiating codes of modest behavior in Iran on a large scale: behavior clearly driven primarily by aspiration rather than resistance.

Among Afghans, too, I was struck by the level of intellectual and cultural activity and determination to improve one’s lot in the ‘downtown’ neighborhoods in which Afghans lived alongside Iranian migrants from rural areas. Outwardly, these were still neighborhoods of black chadors and displays of religious piety, stereotypical signifiers of the humbler classes, and many indeed remained committed to their Islamic faith. However, the taxis and buses that ferried people into the city daily told a different story: young women in the formal dress of students and employees going to points uptown; young men with spectacles and books hurrying to various classes or meetings; and even older women in black or patterned prayer chadors travelling confidently by themselves to the Shrine of Imam Reza or to the bazaars surrounding it. Education, artistic activities, sports, blogging, a taste for consumer goods and information technologies, and young people’s push for romantic love and companionate marriage were the prestigious forms of cultural capital nurtured by people in these areas in their aspiration to improve their status.

As such, these people seemed to typify the “status incongruence” described by sociologists unhappy with the rigid categories of Marxist class analysis (Lenski 1966: 87; see also Dogan 2004). This is a state affecting those whose status or rank in one domain is inconsistent with how they are perceived in another (for example, unemployed university graduates or nouveaux riches, who exemplify a mismatch between levels of cultural and economic capital). They themselves cling to a self-perception as higher-status, but others tend to see them in terms of the lower status position they occupy. This group is interesting from a cultural point of view because it is precisely such “obscure aspirants to elite status” who are often the greatest cultural innovators, having to bridge, adapt or otherwise reconcile multiple subject positions, and overcome great obstacles (Barber 2006: 1). Indeed, discussions of ways to reconcile ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’ and Iranian and Afghan identity were everywhere in refugee discourse.

Youthful rebellion or class conflict?

The post-revolutionary state’s focus on disciplining bodies through the strict and gendered regulation of clothing and public space hit certain social groups hardest, particularly the secularizing middle classes. The youthful rebellions described in some recent ethnographies are ostensibly a response to these grievances. Based on fieldwork that seemed to be largely confined to the uptown parts of Tehran, Mahdavi argues that a new sexual libertinism is being used by young people of all classes as a way of resisting the inroads of the state’s rigid attempts at imposing a normative modesty and controlling the body through gender segregation. She describes “the insatiable hunger for change, progress, cosmopolitanism and modernity that many of [her] Tehrani friends linked to sex” (2009: 3).

Mahdavi does mention a number of interviews with lower-class informants who were also sexually active, as well as an outdoor party that she attended with a friend from the downtown of Tehran where alcohol and drugs were freely available and girls and boys disappeared together into the woods. But she does not consider that discourses and practices of love and sexuality among lower-class people may be entirely different. The authority of the patriarchal family and its prizing of female modesty and virginity before marriage is differentiated along class lines, although Iranians of all classes continue to place a greater value on female virginity than Mahdavi admits, and exercise a double standard with regard to men’s sexuality.[4] For lower-class young people who nonetheless engage in premarital sex and associated licentious behavior, it may have alternative meanings, such as a desire to flout patriarchal authority (over young women and men), to be more of an individual, perhaps to appear more worldly and cosmopolitan, or to tap into the perceived pleasures of a lifestyle that is seen as higher-status and which may be otherwise inaccessible. For girls from impoverished families, making themselves sexually available may be part of a strategy for access to material goods or finding a higher-status husband, a dream that often turns into a nightmare of sexual exploitation. Indeed, lower-class women have long used temporary marriage to higher-status men as a somewhat risky strategy for improving their economic standing (Afary 2009: 62-65). Their seeking of boyfriends today also seems to me to be more closely tied to a desire for upward mobility than to political protest. Indeed, Mahdavi herself notes the importance of fashion and style as class signifiers. A working-class girl whom Mahdavi met at the outdoor party seemed to be more fascinated by Mahdavi’s expensive shoes than by the goings-on in the woods, and was delighted when Mahdavi offered them to her (2009: 98-101).

Khosravi’s ethnography (2009) is curious in that the title and a brief introduction focusing on the culture of defiance belie the rich material on class conflict and consumer culture in the rest of the book. Vastly more attentive to the issues discussed in this article than Mahdavi’s text, it may in fact be used to complicate some of Mahdavi’s assertions. Focusing on spatial relations in Tehran as integral to cultural constructions of status, meanwhile, he describes the attributes ascribed to two neighborhoods that have been given opposing and legendary status as the most liberal, globally connected and westernized (Shahrak-e Gharb, or the Western Suburb) and as the ideal-typical traditional, poor, conservative and inward-looking (Javadiyeh). He presents a fascinating ethnography of young flâneurs in the famous modern shopping mall in Shahrak-e Gharb known as Golestan.

Young people from both uptown and downtown areas spend their leisure time in the mall, window-shopping and flirting with members of the opposite sex. For them, the consumption of modernity does not necessarily mean buying modern products, although they do so if they can afford it: the more well-known and foreign the brand, the better. Instead, it is about looking at commodities, talking about consumption and imagining it as much as the act of consumption itself. Khosravi identifies the imagination of consumption as one of the key attributes of modern consumerism and hedonism – an act equally available to, and practiced by, the lower-class visitors to the mall (ibid.: 117).Nonetheless, their right to do so is not uncontested, as the inhabitants of Javadiyeh (and other poorer quarters) are stereotyped as ‘Javāds’ – a male name which has come to be a metonym for an uncouth, backward, unfashionable, traditional, local, misogynistic, conservative and probably not very wealthy male from the southern part of the city. Their consumption patterns are rejected as tasteless. Khosravi notes that the word can be applied equally to migrants from the provinces, or to the nouveau riche.

By contrast, inhabitants of north Tehran and Shahrak-e Gharb in particular, cast themselves as modern, globally connected, cosmopolitan, intellectual and bā-kelās. They, in turn, are mocked with the rhyme, Shahrak-e Gharb, dalghak-e gharb – ‘Shahrak-e Gharb, mimic of the West.’ Being obsessed with or intoxicated with the West, gharbzadeh, to the point of completely losing one’s identity and authenticity was of course an important accusation leveled against elite classes before the revolution, and led in part to the emergence of the discourse of nativism that helped propel revolutionary ideologies of social justice and a return to the self through Islam. It may be, however, that as the internet, satellite television and migration, among other factors, make it easier for people from all social classes to engage with a globalised, multipolar world on their own terms, such engagement will emerge as a desirable attribute of status across the board and the critique of gharbzadegi may lose some of its currency, if it has not already done so.

Thus, social mobility, sudden changes in the economic fortunes of individuals and families, and even cultural mimicry by people from low-income areas and the nouveaux riches are contested through the intense snobbery of those with older money. Khosravi provides many examples of affluent young people mocking the lack of cultural savoir faire of their upwardly mobile neighbors in luxury apartments. We are reminded of Bourdieu’s assertion that “[t]aste classifies, and it classifies the classifier. Social subjects, classified by their classifications, distinguish themselves by the distinctions they make, between the beautiful and the ugly, the distinguished and the vulgar, in which their position in the objective classifications is expressed or betrayed” (1984: 6). One also wonders if some of the criticism is actually a trenchant moral critique of those who have improved their lot by collaborating with the state by those who have been unable to or have refused to do so; Khosravi does not mention the possibility.

In Iran, accusations of vulgarity as contestations of status are often cast in sexual and moral terms – but these can cut both ways. In fact, Khosravi writes that both inhabitants of Shahrak-e Gharb and Javadiyeh accused each other’s women of loose ways. The Shahrakis blamed the problem of prostitution around the Golestan shopping complex on young women from the south of Tehran dressing in vulgar and immodest clothing in order to lure young men away for the purpose of economic gain. Meanwhile, ‘Javads’ would dismissively say that there is not a single female virgin left in Shahrak-e Gharb or in the northern part of the city in general. But extra-marital sexuality should not be seen merely as a hard-won freedom or a form of protest – its benefits and risks are clearly distributed unevenly according to gender and class, and it remains something that most people remain deeply ambivalent about. Khosravi’s description of this kind of instrumental discourse on sexual morality seems to me to be far more nuanced than Mahdavi’s, but there clearly remains much work to be done to understand how these tensions are playing out, particularly in downtown areas.

Harris offers a dissenting view against such characterizations of resistance, pointing out that they coincided with a period both of political apathy, and a commodity-linked economic boom in the mid-2000s which set off a “speculative binge by an upwardly aspirant middle class in land, housing, or any other activity with which one could arbitrage social connections” (2012: 438). This in turn fed a spiral of conspicuous consumption of luxury goods by the wealthy and of knock-offs by the less wealthy. Harris even claims that scholars outside Iran interpreted phenomena such as teenage hedonism and rap music as resistance only because they were “desperate” to find it (ibid). Between the lines of Mahdavi’s and Khosravi’s ethnographies, however, lies a different tale of status climbing and intense competition amongst social classes. For if revolutionary rhetoric translates (or once translated) into real possibilities for upward mobility in post-revolutionary Iranian society, I also suspect that it is the very real threat of being outflanked by the upwardly mobile, or increasing economic hardship of their own, that leads to intense displays of snobbery by those currently occupying cultural and economic levels ‘higher’ than them. It is perhaps these deepening divisions that account for the petering out of the cross-class solidarity of the initial phases of the Green Movement protests that Harris witnessed, and ultimately to the movement’s failure.

Aspirations to Upward Mobility on the Margins of Society

How have Afghans fared in this divided society? Most Afghans had migrated to Iran to seek a better life, and they were determined to seize the opportunities that were available. One way to do so was through adopting a strategy of invisibility and quiet assent to the indignities of their position, working hard in the available occupations and gradually accumulating financial capital in order to fund the spiraling costs of modern consumerism. The second was to acquire social and cultural capital through education and cultural activism: it seemed that in every lane there was a tiny backyard computer or English school, some of which published their own hand-stapled mini-journals, and some of which were far more ambitious, publishing glossy cultural quarterlies distributed all around the world. There were film clubs, women’s groups, arts schools, private libraries, and, most importantly, unofficial refugee-run primary and secondary schools catering to undocumented Afghan children who could not attend state schools. Some of them also demonstrated great personal dedication in pursuit of an education, often traveling for hours by public transport every day to get to a distant school. These were usually staffed by young Afghan high school or university graduates who were not permitted to work legally in the professions in which they had trained in Iran. They came from families of unskilled laborers who may have been landless peasants back in Afghanistan. In some cases, their fathers were impoverished clerics who nonetheless took pride in their status as men of religion and scholarship and were often the ones to encourage their daughters to pursue higher education. The overall sense one got in these communities was of an overwhelming aspiration to upward mobility, and great frustration when this was thwarted by restrictions tied to citizenship requirements or by social discrimination.

There were several factors immediately driving this upward push. One was that in what was still largely a newly-literate population, education conferred a rapid jump in prestige and symbolic capital, even if skilled manual workers often earned more than irregularly employed knowledge workers. But it could have tangible rewards, too: refugee poets, writers and artists could win recognition and cash prizes at state-wide cultural festivals, while those with good English or computer skills could hope to obtain lucrative jobs in the event of a return to Afghanistan in the post-9/11 period. Indeed, I believe I was observing the beginnings of a micro-process of class differentiation that was taking place between those Afghans who were deprived of both cultural and financial capital, and those who at least had gained cultural capital; this explains the dedication with which the latter group cultivated their newly-acquired cultural dispositions as they aspired to become a new Afghan proto-bourgeoisie.

In one large family I knew well, the father was a cleric from a tiny mountain village in Afghanistan who had studied in Iran and under Khomeini in Najaf. The two oldest sons were skilled wage-workers in construction who provided most of the family’s income, although the second had wanted to study civil engineering after successfully completing high school but had been prevented by erratic policies on Afghan refugees in higher education. The third son worked as a petty trader for a while as he pursued his true interests in oil painting and poetry before being resettled to Australia. The oldest daughter had been able to study and earned a Master’s in French literature from Tehran University, later working as a language teacher before moving to Afghanistan to join her husband. The next two daughters studied social science subjects at private universities in Mashhad; and the youngest, while still at school, was a star performer in an amateur Afghan theatre troupe that was invited to participate in the annual Fajr Theatre Festival in Tehran. The family as a whole would have been difficult to place in a Marxist class analysis, but were a perfect picture of status incongruence and the possibilities for and obstacles to upward mobility in one of the most marginal populations in Iran. They all prided themselves on being a bā-farhang (‘cultured’) family.

The eighth child, a boy, was still in school and his anxious sisters regularly met with his teachers when he performed poorly (though bright, he blamed the discrimination he felt in Iranian society for his lack of motivation). They tried to encourage him to do something he enjoyed, interceding with their elder brothers to fund guitar lessons for him. The music lessons were something of an open secret – their father, who they were sure would disapprove of them on religious grounds, was never informed, though I find it hard to imagine that he didn’t realize three of his children had taken violin and ney (reed flute) lessons in the past. Nonetheless, I once watched as they went to elaborate lengths to smuggle the guitar in through a side window while someone distracted their father in the living room. This strange scene was, for me, a striking example of a change in cultural dispositions that was being tactically negotiated between generations.

Leyla, a young woman originally from Herat, lived in a tiny one-room cement house built in her landlord’s courtyard for rental purposes. She often faced violent confrontations with her husband, a petty trader and an actor in an Afghan amateur drama group, yet constantly dreamed of a better life.[5] She determinedly scraped the funds together to take her young son to martial arts classes to expose him to a different atmosphere, while she herself wrote feminist poetry and attended meetings of the Afghan cultural organization which was the subject of my research. She also participated weekly in a study circle run by an eccentric Iranian self-described postmodern poet with a doctorate in pharmacology, who prided himself on his extensive knowledge of European and North American, as well as Iranian, literature, music and film (giving Jennifer Lopez the same solemn treatment as he did Austrian avant-garde writer Peter Handke). He shared his knowledge with a group of ‘disciples’ at no cost, as long as they were serious about studying it. Such cultural resources eventually gave Leyla the confidence to divorce her husband against her family’s wishes, a step that would scarcely have been possible if she were living in Afghanistan. But despite the space these opportunities opened up for her, as an Afghan single mother she felt that she had reached the limit of her possibilities in Iran. Leyla decided to take a huge risk and travelled to Europe with the aid of smugglers via Turkey and Greece.

With so few resources at their disposal, cultural capital was such a hot commodity to some Afghans that they turned to ingenious but less savory means for obtaining it. Hamideh, just 19 when I met her but already a prize-winning poet who composed beautiful ghazals, was a fascinating case. Ambitious, elegantly dressed and discreetly made-up, and with an air of cool calculation about her, she told me that she wished not merely to win the Nobel Prize for Literature someday, but to sit on its selection committee. She insisted that I visit her in her city southeast of Tehran, where she took me to see her mother’s beauty salon and the language school where she took English classes (I felt uncomfortably as if I were being paraded around as her bā-kelās foreign friend). Unusually, she did not invite me to her home. After I left Iran, I heard that she had become engaged to a young Afghan man in Australia to whom she had been introduced by her aunt, who had been resettled there by the United Nations. When Hamideh visited Afghanistan, the poets of two cities feted her as a fresh young talent: her fortune was clearly on the rise. She told her friends that her aunt owned a carpet shop in Australia while her fiancé was the director of a Persian-language school. But I was a little surprised when I travelled to Australia myself and met them – it turned out the aunt worked in a carpet shop, while the fiancé was a part-time caretaker at the school.

In a scandalous turn of events, Hamideh was later discovered to have plagiarized all her poems and was stripped of her prize, having merely been ‘passing’ as a poet (perhaps an extreme version of the much more common form of ‘passing’ whereby Afghan refugees avoid discrimination by simply never admitting they are not Iranian, at least in situations where proof of identity is not demanded).[6] I found myself wondering if the prestige-conferring ownership of the beauty salon, too, had been a sham – perhaps her mother merely worked there – as the visit had been carefully arranged outside working hours.

All of these small and seemingly insignificant actions – hiding a guitar, ‘passing’ oneself off as higher-status, plagiarizing poetry, negotiating with socially conservative relatives to pursue an education, marry or divorce the person of one’s choice, or dressing in a way that carries particular meanings – add up to more significant outcomes in the high-stakes game of status performance and mobility. Some might say that such actions are good examples of the “weapons of the weak” by which the disadvantaged engage in covert resistance that does not challenge the status quo because the costs of open rebellion are too great (Scott 1985). But Afghans never described their actions as moqāvemat or resistance: indeed, moqāvemat was to them precisely a platform for collaboration with Iranian state authorities because the word was used to refer to their armed struggle against the godless Soviet forces that had invaded their homeland, in which they were aided by Iranian state bodies in the 1980s. The well-known category of ‘resistance poetry’ (she‘r-e moqāvemat) refers to the poetry written in that period. Their attitude more accurately represented a yearning for acceptance and advancement in Iranian society. Their struggle to acquire what economic and cultural capital they could might be seen as an example of what Bayat (2010b) calls “quiet encroachment” by the poor in the Middle East, who have constantly been seeking to expand their life chances by whatever means available to them – often succeeding, sometimes being thwarted.

Perhaps it is helpful to metaphorically visualize what we mean by resistance and aspiration as two different responses, or orientations, to power. If resistance is pushing back against a force that is pushing one down, then aspiration is the hope of rising to fill spaces that already exist, or have the potential to exist in certain favourable conditions that one imagines are within reach. Certainly these two orientations can coexist: sometimes one needs to push to reach or actively carve out those spaces; and sometimes reaching those spaces may itself be an act of defiance against those who sought to keep one down. What we must do as anthropologists is keep one eye on actors’ subjective understandings of their actions as resistance or not (Ortner 1995) and another on the diagnostic potential of analytical categories such as resistance and aspiration (Abu Lughod 1990). In this way, we can begin to understand the complex dynamics at work within stratified populations with ideologically-motivated governments seeking social transformation. Such a perspective allows us to sidestep the vexed and reductive dichotomies of tradition and modernity, religion and secularism, or uptown and downtown that are in practice blurred by its very pursuit.

It is my hope that when more anthropologists are able to comfortably carry out long-term fieldwork in Iran, they will challenge some of the class prejudice and stereotypes of the wider society by venturing into the pā‘in-e shahr at least as often as they do into uptown coffeeshops and ski slopes and giving greater representation to the country’s socioeconomic and cultural diversity. Only then can the anthropology of Iran be something other than a “kind of mourning.”



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  1. [1]This is an abbreviated and significantly modified version of an article that appeared in the journal Iranian Studies under the title  “Classy kids and down-at heal intellectuals: status aspiration and blind spots in the contemporary ethnography of Iran” (online version 22 July 2013); it is published in AOTC by kind permission of the editor, Homa Katouzian.
  2. [2]For additional background on Afghan refugees in Iran, see Adelkhah and Olszewska 2007 and Olszewska 2008. On literary and intellectual developments in this population, see Olszewska 2007, 2013.
  3. [3]Compare the production of a legally precarious, disposable immigrant workforce that has been well-documented in other parts of the world: e.g. De Genova 2002, 2005, on Latino immigrants in the United States, and Calavita 2005 on southern Europe.
  4. [4]See Afary 2009 for a wealth of data on this subject.
  5. [5]All names are pseudonyms.
  6. [6]This is easier for young people who have been brought up in Iran and already speak with an Iranian accent, and for those who are not visibly different from most Iranians. Some take the ultimate step to overcome all legal hurdles by purchasing Iranian identity documents on the black market, necessary e.g. for owning a business; Hamideh had told me that her mother had been able to open her salon in this way.

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