Focused Discussions, Race & Society, Regional Studies

Social Change in Post-Khomeini Iran Working Group I

Social Change in Post-Khomeini Iran Working Group I

On October 20–21, 2012, The Center for International and Regional Studies launched one of its new research initiatives for the 2012–2013 academic year, “Social Change in Post-Khomeini Iran,” through a two day working group held in Doha. Over the course of the two day meeting, international and regional scholars addressed political, economic, and social aspects of ongoing domestic transformations within the Islamic Republic. Via a multidisciplinary approach, the working group offered in-depth analysis of the evolution of Iranian society in the post-Khomeini era, highlighting contemporary social and cultural trends.

Working group participants debated sources of the Iranian regime’s legitimacy, its survival strategies, and how successfully it has penetrated society over the past twenty-three years. The group discussed the role and functions of prominent state institutions, such as the Velayet e Faqih and bonyads, along with economic and political elites in contemporary Iran. The Velayet e Faqih has been seen as gaining increasing political power rather than religious influence during the post-Khomeini years. While many grand ayatollahs in Qom have rejected the authority of the Velayet e Faqih, its institutional strength and capacity extend throughout the Islamic Republic. Acting as parallel institutions to the state, the bonyads have also flourished and serve as both economic and political sources of state power. By addressing the needs of disadvantaged economic stakeholders, the bonyads serve to build a core of populist support for the regime. While the bonyads are commonly viewed as inefficient and corrupt, their distribution of state largesse aids the regime in developing a social base and in spreading its power to marginalized, rural parts of the country.

Some participants posited that both the political and religious legitimacy of the regime are in fact quite narrow within Iran, with the silent majority of the population rejecting the logic and essence of the system. Participants argued that there has been a social evolution in Iran that belies the ideological discourse often associated with the Islamic Republic. Through clientelism and institutional penetration, the regime in Iran has developed its capacity; however, most scholars agreed that Iranian society presents a dichotomy between how people live their lives and what the state wants to impose on its citizens. Some scholars attributed the gradual rise of liberalism within Iranian thought and society in the post-Khatami era to the deficiency of the Iranian state in garnering ideological support. This has also given rise to positive individualism within society, where religion as a political reference point is on the decline, and tolerance for the differences of others is a growing trend amongst the youth. Modernizing family dynamics, gauged through the lower birth rate, the rising age of marriage, and decrease in gender inequality perceptions indicate that Iranian society has transformed dramatically in the post-revolutionary years.

The participants also discussed the religious and secular intellectual trends from the pre-revolutionary era to contemporary times, in terms of religious orthodoxy and heterodoxy, religious reform and innovation, and secular critique. Within religious orthodoxy and heterodoxy the trends were marked by transformation from quietist traditional Islam in the pre-revolution era, to empowered and state-sponsored, ultra-orthodoxy in present times. Within religious reform and innovation, the liberal reading of Islam transformed into a radical reform movement as seen with disenchanted reformists in the Green Movement of recent years. Secular critique is viewed to have transmuted from liberal nationalism to liberal secularism.

During the past twenty years, Iran has experienced shifts and transformations in its growing economy. The gradual transition from a government-run, closed economy to a relatively diverse and open economy has led to an economic mindset guided by a nationalism based on technology. The participants discussed the securitization of commercial decisions coupled with techno-based nationalism and how this has had a relatively positive impact on enterprise development in Iran. The business community in Iran is increasingly focused on efficiency, profitability, and innovation. Contrary to common negative perceptions of the impact of international sanctions within the country, the scholars also deliberated the multi-faceted impact of sanctions on business development. Although average Iranians certainly suffer from sanctions, being cut off from regular import tracks has spurred entrepreneurs to diversify their activities, and has also led to a greater regionalization of Iranian businesses.

Iran exhibits a mixed socio-economic picture; it maintains the 10th highest ranking in the Human Development Index of the Middle East, as well as a middle-income status among developing countries. The lack of deep pockets of poverty and the fact that the state has ensured access to basic needs of food, electricity, and water, have meant that holistic understanding of the conditions of the poor in Iran have been overlooked. Additionally, the current framing of marginalized youth in the broader region depicts them as disenchanted with social and political life, drawn to more radical forms of political Islam. These speculative conclusions that the poor are more likely to be radicalized are not backed by empirical evidence. Broader scholarly efforts are needed to examine how urban poor in Iran have responded to poverty and marginalization. In terms of education, Iran is performing relatively well with declining levels of gender and geographic inequality. However, the current youth bulge in Iran is similar to that in countries around the region, where the inability of the labor market to absorb the youth bulge creates visible employment problems for young people exiting the educational system.

The participants also discussed the transformation in terms of demographics, and how this impacts Iranian society. Lower birth rates and the low male-to-female ratio, in combination with rising standards of education for women, have all led to delayed marriages. In the context of women’s status and marriage, the scholars delved into discussions on legal development in terms of the Islamic Republic’s reinstitution of family law and family courts and their consequential impact on the status of women within society. Some of the family laws, with particular reference to the divorce laws, were viewed by the working group members as having the unintended consequence of leading to the individuated subjectivity of women due to their increased litigating role. The continuous modification of marriage laws in Iran was regarded by the discussants as coming from different levels within society.

As a highly literate society, Iranians have appreciated poetry, prose, and non-fiction across the generations, and have continuously produced literary works against a political backdrop. Regarded as political and social commentary, the participants discussed post-revolutionary literature, with particular attention to women writers and the role of gender. In the post-Khomeini era, Iranian women writers have been on the rise and have been representative of a variety of socio-economic backgrounds. Women writers abroad have also been active actors in Iranian social and political commentary. The diaspora community as a whole, which is in constant transnational flows between the host and homeland, has contributed greatly to both the local and international discourse on life in the Islamic Republic.

Article by Dwaa Osman, Research Analyst at CIRS