The Global Meets the Local in Iran’s Bazaars
Contestation between the global and the local has been a persistent theme in Iran’s bazaar community since at least the beginning of the 1900s when the influx of foreign-made textiles undermined traditional handicrafts. Abrahamian notes that the tax collector of Isfahan, reporting on the weavers’ guild, stated:
In the past, high-quality textiles were manufactured in Isfahan since everyone — from the highest to the lowest — wore local products. But in the last few years, the people of Iran have given up their body and soul to buy the colorful and cheap products of Europe. In doing so, they incurred greater losses than they imagined: local weavers, in trying to imitate imported fabrics, have lowered their quality. Russians have stopped buying Iranian textiles, and many occupations have suffered great losses. At least one-tenth of the guilds in this city were weavers, not even one-fifth have survived. About one-twentieth of the needy widows of Isfahan raised their children on the income they derived from spinning for the weavers; they have now lost their source of livelihood. Likewise, other important guilds, such as dyers, carders, and bleachers, have suffered. Other occupations have also been affected: for example, farmers can no longer sell their cotton for high prices.
The Bazaaris Embrace Politics
As a consequence of their discontent, bazaaris, members of the traditional middle class, played an active role in the nationalist and democratic Constitutional Revolution of 1906-1911. However, they did not support the Democrats, a party which urged that progressive forces lead the country in combating foreign capitalism. Rather, they supported the Moderate party which called for granting financial assistance to the middle class, especially the small capitalists of the bazaar. The party’s position also included the following: strengthening the constitutional monarchy; safeguarding religion; protecting family life, private property, and fundamental rights; and enforcing the shari’a.
Post World War II: Bazaaris Oppose the Monarchy
After World War II, the bazaaris consistently opposed the monarchy, playing a significant role in the Mossadegh crisis of the 1950s where they sided with the nationalists rather than the royalists. Later, even though the group benefited from the prosperity which existed from the mid 1960s onward, no governmental policies were designed to further its concerns. Most of the time, in fact, the government’s development policies were against its interests. A good example can be found in Isfahan’s carpet sector. Just as domestic demand was dropping due to the import of machine made rugs, and high priced imported wool was required to replace declining domestic supplies, government policy restricted the use of child labor, adding to the cost of production.
Isfahan’s Bazaar in the 1970s
In the 1970s, the bazaar remained an integral part of Isfahan’s commercial vitality. The city was still the center of Iran’s handicraft industry and the bazaar regulated as much as half this production. Though weakened throughout the Pahlavi period, guild elders — as leaders of independent trade and craft guilds — continued to assert authority over shop assistants, handicraftsmen, workshop employees, and small peddlers. In addition, bazaar moneymakers controlled approximately 15% of private sector credit. (This factor would become important as revolutionary forces took hold since independent economic resources allowed some associated with the bazaar to engage in strikes and other protest activities without losing their immediate livelihood.) Also, many merchants sold goods to outside shopkeepers on a credit basis, creating a dependent relationship that allowed them to exert influence on the city’s entire commercial sector.
The Resurgence (Rastakhiz) Party and the Bazaar
The longstanding relationships mentioned above were threatened when the Resurgence (Rastakhiz) party opened branches in the bazaar in an attempt to undermine traditional influences. The party organized students into vigilante gangs called “inspectorate teams” and sent them into the bazaars “to wage a ‘merciless campaign against profiteers, cheaters, hoarders, and unscrupulous capitalists.'”
The Guild Courts
Similarly, the so-called Guild Courts set up hastily by SAVAK gave out fines, banned traders from their hometowns, handed out prison sentences to shopkeepers, and brought charges against small businessmen. According to Abrahamian:
By early 1976, every bazaar family had at least one member who had directly suffered from the ‘anti-profiteering campaign’ . . . . The formation of the Resurgence party had been an affront to the bazaars; the anti-profiteering campaign was a blatant invasion of the bazaars. Nor for the first time, the bazaar community increasingly turned to its traditional ally, the ‘ulama’ for help and protection.
Party representatives forced donations from small businessmen, drafted a law to reform the guilds, and “supplanted the easy-going High Councils of Guilds with tightly controlled Chambers of Guilds: which were placed under the direct authority of the governor-general of the province. At the same time, the government directly threatened the economic base of the bazaar by setting up state corporations to import and distribute basic foods, especially wheat, sugar, and meat.
Furthermore, the government-controlled press began to talk of the need to uproot the bazaars, build highways through the old city centers, eradicate “worm-ridden shops,” replace inefficient butchers, grocers, and bakers with efficient supermarkets, and establish a state-run market . . . .
Relative Deprivation and Discontent
These activities were exacerbated by a “sense of relative deprivation caused by the tremendous gains made by industrialists connected with the Pahlavi court and considerable moral indignation caused by the disregard of Islam and traditional values under foreign influence.” Consequently the need to raise revenue in the face of declining oil revenues encouraged the government to levy higher taxes and cut bank loans to shopkeepers. Meanwhile, the cost of living continued to escalate.
Despite growing disaffection, it is important to recognize that a wide diversity of opinion existed within the bazaar community regarding government policy. Some shopkeepers supported the regime, while others responded more negatively to state policies that adversely affected their livelihood. Nevertheless, eventually discontent became pervasive, linked in large part to economic interests and many generations of foreign penetration. Parsa reports that, in Isfahan, bazaaris made the following statement:
The people of Isfahan have been subjected to the severest class inequality and repression. They have seen with their own eyes how their mineral resources and material and spiritual wealth have been plundered by a minority of dirty foreigners with the cooperation of internal servants; they have also seen how corruption and decadence have spread in the country . . . . Their actions have been responsible for poverty and moral decay.
These comments had little impact, however, since the regime had succeeded in severing the autonomy of bazaar organizations, leaving the mosque as the only channel through which mobilization for collective action could occur. Bazaari strikes and protests organized there provided a mechanism through which others could challenge the shah’s regime. Symbolically, bazaar closings signaled to other groups in society that conflict was underway, creating “opportunities for other adversely affected classes and groups to act collectively as well.” One such clique was comprised of the military and the homafars, both of whom had worked closely and cooperatively with F-14 engineers and technicians. I’ll talk about this group in my next post on Iran.
Photograph by Paul Keller