Social Class

Iran Table of Contents

Prior to the Revolution of 1979, political connections were considered a key measure of one's social status. In other words, the amount of access that one was perceived to have to the highest levels of decision making was the major determinant of prestige. Wealth was important, but acquiring and maintaining wealth tended to be closely intertwined with access to political power. Consequently, members of the political elite were generally involved in numerous complex interrelationships. For example, some members of the Senate (the upper house of the parliament, or Majlis), a legislative body that included many members of the political elite appointed by the shah, were also on the boards of several industrial and commercial enterprises and were owners of extensive agricultural lands. Since being part of an elite family was an important prerequisite for entry into the political elite, marital relationships tended to bind together important elite families.

The other classes attempted to emulate the political elite in seeking connections to those with political power, whether on the provincial, town, or village level. By the 1970s, however, the nonelite of all classes perceived education as important for improving social status. Education was seen as providing entry into high-status jobs that in turn would open up opportunities for making connections with those who had political power. Despite a great expansion in educational opportunities, the demand far outstripped the ability or willingness of the elite to provide education; this in turn became a source of resentment. By the late 1970s, the nonelite groups, especially the middle classes, rather than admiring the elite and desiring to emulate them, tended to resent the elite for blocking opportunities to compete on an equal basis.

As a result of the lack of field research in Iran after the Revolution, it was difficult in the late 1980s to determine whether the traditional bases for ascribing class status had changed. It is probable that access to political power continued to be important for ascribing status even though the composition of the political elite had changed. It also appears that education continued to be an important basis for determining status.

The Upper Classes

The postrevolutionary upper classes consisted of some of the same elements as the old elite, such as large landowners, industrialists, financiers, and large-scale merchants. They remained part of the upper class by virtue of having stayed in Iran and having retained a considerable part of their wealth. For the most part, however, such persons no longer had any political influence, and in the future the absence of such influence could impede the acquisition of new wealth. The element of the upper classes with greatest political influence was a new group, the senior clergy. Wealth was apparently no longer an attribute of authority, as the example of Khomeini demonstrated. Religious expertise and piety became the major criteria for belonging to the new political elite. Thus, key government administrators held their positions because of their perceived commitment to Shia Islam. They were part of the new political elite, although not members of the old social elite.

The Middle Classes

After the Revolution of 1979, the composition of the middle class was no different from what it had been under the monarchy. There were several identifiable social groups, including entrepreneurs, bazaar merchants, professionals, managers of private and nationalized concerns, the higher grades of the civil service, teachers, medium-scale landowners, military officers, and the junior ranks of the Shia clergy. Some middle- class groups apparently had more access to political power than they had had before the Revolution because the new political elite had been recruited primarily from the middle class.

Prior to the Revolution, the middle class was divided between those possessed of a Western education, who had a secular outlook, and those suspicious of Western education, who valued a role for religion in both public and private life. In general, the more secularly oriented tended to be found among those employed in the bureaucracy, the professions, and the universities, while the more religiously oriented were concentrated among bazaar merchants and the clergy. Among entrepreneurs and especially primary and secondary school teachers, the secular and religious points of view may have had roughly equal numbers of proponents. Since the Revolution, these two outlooks have been in contention. The religious outlook has dominated politics and society, but it appears that the secular middle class has resented laws and regulations that were perceived as interfering with personal liberties.

The middle class was divided by other issues as well. Before the Revolution, an extremely high value had been placed upon obtaining a foreign education. The new political elite, however, regarded a foreign education with suspicion; accordingly, many members of the middle class who were educated abroad have been required to undergo special Islamic indoctrination courses to retain their jobs. In some cases, refusal to conform to religiously prescribed dress and behavior codes has resulted in the loss of government jobs. As a result of these tensions, thousands of Western-educated Iranians have emigrated since 1979.

The Working Class

The working class has been in the process of formation since the early twentieth century. The industrialization programs of the Pahlavi shahs provided the impetus for the expansion of this class. By the 1970s, a distinct working-class identity, kargar, had been established, although those who applied this term to themselves did not actually constitute a unified group. The working class was divided into various groups of workers: those in the oil industry, manufacturing, construction, and transportation; and mechanics and artisans in bazaar workshops. The most important component, factory workers, numbered about 2.5 million on the eve of the Revolution, double the number in 1965, and they accounted for 25 percent of Iran's total employed labor force.

The workers within any one occupation, rather than sharing a common identity, were divided according to perceived skills. For example, skilled construction workers, such as carpenters, electricians, and plumbers, earned significantly higher wages than the more numerous unskilled workers and tended to look down upon them. Similar status differences were common among workers in the oil industry, textile manufacturing, and metal goods production. The heaviest concentration of unskilled workers was in construction, which on the eve of the Revolution employed 9 percent of the entire labor force. In addition to relatively low wages, unskilled construction workers had no job security.

The unions played only a passive role from the viewpoint of workers. Under both the monarchy and the Republic, union activity was strictly controlled by the government. Both the shah and the government of the Islamic Republic considered strikes to be unpatriotic and generally suppressed both strikes and independent efforts to organize workers. Although strikes played an important role in undermining the authority of the government during the final months of the monarchy, once the Republic had been established the new government embraced the view of its royalist predecessor regarding independent labor activities. Thus the government has considered strikes to be un-Islamic and has forcibly suppressed them. A long history of factionalism among different working- class occupational groups and between skilled and unskilled workers within an industry traditionally has contributed to the relative success of governments in controlling the working class.

The Lower Class

Members of the urban lower class can be distinguished by their high illiteracy rate, performance of manual labor, and generally marginal existence. The lower class is divided into two groups: those with regular employment and those without. Those who have regular work include domestic servants, bath attendants, porters, street cleaners, peddlers, street vendors, gardeners, office cleaners, laundry workers, and bakery workers. Thousands work only occasionally or seasonally at these or other jobs. Among the marginally employed there is much reliance on begging. In the past, some members of this group also resorted to prostitution, gambling, smuggling, and drug selling. Since the Revolution, there have been severe penalties for persons convicted of moral offenses, although newspaper reports of the uncovering of various crime rings would indicate that the new codes have not eliminated such activities.

At the time of the Revolution, it was estimated that as much as one- third of the population of Tehran and one-quarter of the population of other large cities consisted of persons living on the margins of urban society. Life was typified by squalid slums, poverty, malnutrition, lack of health and educational facilities, and crime. In 1987 there was no evidence of measures undertaken by the new government to alleviate conditions in the urban slums.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress