The Qashqa'i of Iran


In spite of debilitating political and economic transformations in the 1960s and 1970s, a large proportion of the 400,000 Qashqa'i of southwestern Iran still are pastoral nomads. The revolution of 1978-1979 and the creation of the new Islamic Republic of Iran have permitted a rapid resurgence of tribalism and a resumption of extremely productive pastoralism. Such changes, resulting from state policies, extend throughout Qashqa'i history.

The Qashqa'i confederacy began in the eighteenth century as an amalgamation of diverse tribal groups. Individuals of Turkic Central Asian and Caucasian origins - the first Qashqa'i khans - served as de facto state officials, mediating between the tribespeople and the state. This has been the primary function of Qashqa'i leaders into the twentieth century.

The Qashqa'i people, composed of Turks, Lurs, Kurds, Arabs, Persians, and Gypsies, traditionally practiced a mixed economy of nomadic pastoralism (sheep and goats, with camels used as transport), cultivation (grains), and weaving. Their long seasonal migrations of 350 miles between lowland winter and highland summer pastures in the southern Zagros Mountains took them by Shiraz, southern Iran's major city and a market for Qashqa'i produce.

In the nineteenth century the Qashqa'i confederacy was relatively autonomous. The shahs of Qajar Iran were unable to directly rule tribally organized nomadic pastoralists and relied on the Qashqa'i khans and other tribal leaders to perform certain state functions in their areas, e.g., taxation, conscription, and the maintenance of law and order. The khans, who established a powerful political and economic base in southern Iran, were part of the local and national elite and figured prominently in Iranian national and international politics. At the turn of the twentieth century, the Qashqa'i khans supported the successful constitutional revolution against the despotic rule of the Qajar shahs, and during World War I their supporters fought British military forces imported from India.

In the 1920s and 1930s Reza Shah, father of Iran's most recent shah, enacted harsh policies against the Qashqa'i and other pastoral nomadic peoples and ethnic minorities in order to centralize and modernize his new nation-state. He executed, exiled and imprisoned Qashqa'i leaders, and Qashqa'i tribespeople fell under the authority of corrupt government officials. Reza Shah forced the Qashqa'i to cease their migrations and settle in villages; the areas chosen for settlement were inhospitable to nomadic pastoralism and agriculture and most Qashqa'i were unable to sustain adequate livelihoods.

In 1941 the British-Russian occupation of Iran forced Reza Shah's abdication, and Mohammad Reza Shah, his son, assumed the throne. Qashqa'i leaders escaped government confinement and returned to southern Iran to resume tribal and regional leadership. The Qashqa'i people abandoned their settlements and returned to nomadic pastoralism.

Mohammad Reza Shah, initially a weak ruler, did little to prevent the rapid resumption of Qashqa'i power in the region, and the Qashqa'i once again enjoyed a high degree of political autonomy. In the 1950s Qashqa'i leaders supported the popular prime minister, Mohammad Mossadeq, who had nationalized Iran's oil and who was then ousted through a CIA-supported coup because of his challenge to the shah. A strengthened shah, armed by increased support from the United States, in turn exiled Qashqa'i leaders, and the Qashqa'i people once again fell under oppressive state rule. They were disarmed and placed under surveillance by the military and secret police.

In the 1960s the shah began development and modernization programs that undermined Qashqa'i existence. Under Iran's land reform of 1962-1972, land was taken from the Qashqa'i and was given to peasants and already wealthy landholders who agreed to mechanize agricultural production. All pasturelands in Iran were nationalized; tribal land that the Qashqa'i had regulated and controlled became government land, and its use by the nomads was greatly restricted. From 1962 to 1979, Qashqa'i nomads were increasingly cut off from customary lands by cultivators and restrictive grazing permit policies that benefitted only the more urban-oriented, wealthy tribespeople. Some government programs establishing rangelands and hunting preserves totally prohibited productive use of land. The disarming and military control of the Qashqa'i permitted the invasion of their grazing lands by non-Qashqa'i commercial and village stock raisers. Qashqa'i migrations, placed under military control, were regulated by political rather than ecological factors, and flocks suffered accordingly. Newly paved roads, agribusiness complexes, and irrigation projects increasingly blocked migration routes.

Pastoralism became increasingly commercialized and emphasized market-oriented rather than household-oriented work and products. However, meat, dairy, and grain prices were heavily subsidized by the state, and most Qashqa'i, along with many of Iran's rural producers, were unable to find an adequate market for their products. State officials chose to import basic foods rather than to encourage local producers. Qashqa'i needs for cash exceeded their income. They were unable to increase pastoral production because of pasture shortage and were forced to buy fodder for their animals. Many nomads fell heavily in debt to urban moneylender-merchants, whose practices included interest rates of up to one hundred percent a year and below-market-value prices for pastoral products. Many Qashqa'i had to sell their flocks to pay their creditors, only to become hired shepherds for the same animals. Many Qashqa'i became impoverished.

During the 1960s and 1970s the Qashqa'i settled in villages, continued an impoverished nomadic existence, or undertook urban wage labor. Most Qashqa'i settled or planned to settle, aware that only land ownership and agriculture offered some security. They had difficulty finding affordable productive land, and increasingly the settlers depended on the wages of family members who worked in the city. Most settlers tried to combine agriculture with pastoralism and divided household labor accordingly; some members cultivated crops while others migrated with the herds. Those who continued nomadic pastoralism were poor and could not afford the expenses of settling. Many herded others' animals for low pay. Those who settled in urban areas to seek wage labor often lived in poverty and joined other poor migrants in expanding shantytowns. Pay was low, jobs were unskilled, and competition with other migrants (including foreign Asian workers - Afghans, Pakistanis, Filipinos - who accepted lower pay and worse conditions) was keen.

Few government programs aided the Qashqa'i during the last Pahlavi regime. The tribal settlement program was fraught with bureaucratic tangles and brought few benefits other than to those who were wealthy and well connected. Land reform did not provide land for nomadic pastoralists. The much touted national Health, Education, and Rural Extension Corps rarely reached the Qashqa'i. Government cooperatives only benefitted the wealthy, especially those who had cash to invest in fruit orchards. The national Agricultural Bank offered loans, but repayment was usually demanded in six months, and the majority of Qashqa'i had little cash.

Government-controlled, initially American-assisted tribal schools did not teach specific skills to help Qashqa'i children in a pastoral nomadic life, but prepared them for national integration and job training outside a pastoral nomadic context. Instruction in Persian, rather than Turki (the Qashqa'i language), was required. Schools attempted to instill in children sentiments of loyalty and obedience to the shah and the state and to aid their assimilation into a modernizing society controlled and dominated by ethnic Persians.

Such culturally imperialistic policies conflicted with other government efforts to enhance the appeal of Qashqa'i culture. The Qashqa'i and other non-Persian groups were increasingly regarded as relics of the past, even as curiosities, and the state used these groups to advertise the exotic nature of Iran and to demonstrate the extent of national modernization. Only when state officials believed that Iran was well on the road to development did they feel they could afford to exhibit publicly its "undeveloped" side. For citizens of a society rapidly undergoing modernization, urbanization, and industrialization, nomadic existence represented a way of life they were certain would soon be erased from the Iranian landscape.

During the revolution of 1978-1979 that ousted the shah and established the Islamic Republic under the Ayatollah Khomeini, many Qashqa'i rearmed, re-formed political ties, reactivated political groups, seized former lands, and expelled those who had taken over these lands under the shah's programs. Qashqa'i khans, in exile or under severe political restrictions since the 1950s, returned to Qashqa'i territory to resume tribal leadership and were enthusiastically greeted by many Qashqa'i.

The Qashqa'i khans, who are Shi'i Muslims, initially established ties with prominent clergy, including Khomeini, and other members of the new ruling elite. However, in 1980 they clashed over the arrest and expulsion of Khosrow Qashqa'i, the paramount Qashqa'i leader, from his popularly elected parliamentary seat. Khosrow escaped from prison, and, along with other Qashqa'i leaders who were also under threat of arrest, sought sanctuary in their mountain pastures and formed an insurgency against the regime. For two years Khomeini's revolutionary guards attacked the insurgent camp, and in 1982 they were finally able to kill, capture, or force into exile its most prominent figures. Khosrow was arrested, condemned to death by an Islamic revolutionary court, and then publicly hanged in Shiraz. Other Qashqa'i leaders were imprisoned, placed under house arrest and surveillance, or forced to go underground.

The Qashqa'i khans formed the insurgency expecting that the Qashqa'i people would join them in their struggle, as they had at other times when the khans had militarily supported or opposed state rulers or had fought foreign forces. Few Qashqa'i tribespeople, however, joined the khans in their insurgency in 1980-82.

Qashqa'i people had little reason to support or trust the new state rulers, but they had benefitted greatly by the shah's ouster and by the inability of the new government to impede their local activities. State officials made no effort to disarm the Qashqa'i; nor were Qashqa'i migrations or land-use patterns obstructed. No government programs were introduced for their benefit, but neither did the government interfere with their activities.

The same attitudes explain the response of Qashqa'i nomadic pastoralists to incipient movements among Qashqa'i leftists. With the shah's departure, Qashqa'i leftists of elite and/or educated backgrounds (often foreign educated) attempted to build a grassroots movement among the Qashqa'i masses. Many Qashqa'i were suspicious that foreign powers were at work and also feared that they would be unnecessarily drawn into confrontations with Khomeini's supporters, who were opposing leftists elsewhere in Iran with military force. Qashqa'i leftists offered little or nothing concrete to potential supporters and gained virtually no support. They abandoned their activities in Qashqa'i areas in 1980.

The situation in Qashqa'i territory remains far from resolved. The Islamic Republic, which has effectively ended the insurgency and eliminated major Qashqa'i leaders, has not developed any consistent tribal or pastoral policies. Its attempts to formulate and implement an "Islamic" land reform have not yet successfully addressed the issue of seasonal pastureland. Many Qashqa'i who had resumed full nomadic pastoralism continue to migrate and utilize customary pastures but are suspicious of the state's increasing power in rural areas. Many Persians and other non-Qashqa'i who had acquired land in Qashqa'i territory in the 1960s and 1970s are pressing for the restoration of their land rights, and some who support the Islamic Republic are receiving limited government assistance. Qashqa'i who currently occupy these lands lack effective mediators in the city or contacts with government officials to obtain rights.

However, demand in Iran for meat and dairy products is high and many Qashqa'i pastoralists are profiting economically. Prices of pastoral products have quadrupled since 1978, moneylending for profit (a practice that had been a cause of poverty in the past) is forbidden by religious injunction, and debts are reduced to the actual value of the goods or money borrowed. Pastoralism has become more profitable than many of the livelihoods adopted in the 1960s and 1970s. Wealthy Qashqa'i who had not joined the insurgency are being allowed to pursue private economic activities, including the development of orchards in tribal territory.

Settled Qashqa'i agriculturalists continue to have economic difficulties; the government still imports grain and subsidizes prices, and all who grow grain, Iran's primary agricultural crop, find it unprofitable to produce for the commercial market.

Urban Qashqa'i are not faring well under the Islamic Republic; they lack ties to local clergy and religious associations that help other members of the urban poor. The Qashqa'i have never been devout practicing Muslims, and their disinterest in expressing their piety publicly does not help them in the cities. Urban Qashqa'i at all socioeconomic levels and rural Qashqa'i settled in communities dominated by Persian Shi'i populations are increasingly subject to Islamic law as defined by the new republic, while nomadic Qashqa'i and Qashqa'i settled in Qashqa'i-dominated settlements continue to live according to their own codes of behavior. For all Qashqa'i, the future is unsure and relates directly to the ability of the existing regime to maintain or enhance its power and authority.

The situation for other nomadic pastoralists in Iran has some similar and other different characteristics. Those who are or who have resisted the establishment of a theocratically-defined central government in their areas continue to be subject to military attacks or threats by Khomeini's revolutionary guards; these groups include Kurds, Turkmen, and Baluch, all of whom are Sunni Muslims. Conflicts are often expressed as being "religious" in nature despite the basic political and economic motives underlying them. Other nomadic pastoralists in Iran - including Lurs, Bakhtiyari, Shahsevan, and Arabs - who are not currently politically organized against the central government in their areas are, like the Qashqa'i, able to conduct productive pastoral activities and have access to regional meat and dairy markets.

Most nomadic pastoralists in Iran occupy land that is marginally productive for agriculture and that has not been developed by either state or private interests. The current regime has demonstrated little desire to support economic development in these peripheral areas partly because they are home for non-Persian groups who are Sunni rather than Shi'i Muslims. In this the Islamic Republic is following the chauvinistic policies of its despised predecessors.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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