The Qashqa’i, an important tribal confederacy of approximately 400,000 people in the Zagros Mountains of southwestern Iran, are one of Iran’s national minorities. They speak Turkish and are Shi‘i Muslims. The nomads’ low-altitude winter pastures and high-altitude summer pastures are separated by hundreds of kilometers, and the spring and autumn migrations each last from two to three months. In the 1960s and 1970s, the regime of Mohammad Reza Shah pressured many Qashqa’i to settle in villages and towns and abandon nomadism. But influential Muslim clergy in the Islamic Republic of Iran criticized this process, and a high-level government agency is in charge of reversing some of the deleterious effects of the Shah’s regime and bringing beneficial services to the nomads. I had lived with Qashqa’i nomadic pastoralists for over a year in 1970 and 1971, and for shorter durations in 1977 and in 1979, after the revolution. In May 1991, accompanied by my five-year-old daughter, I went back to document changes that had occurred in the past 20 years at the state and local levels.

Several hours after arriving in Qashqa’i summer pastures, I spoke privately with a young nomad whom I had known as a schoolboy in the 1970s. I asked him about the hezbollahis (partisans of God), Revolutionary Guards, and soldiers and volunteers in the war with Iraq. I wanted to be able to offer condolences to the families of those who had died.

I was shocked and deeply saddened when the man told me that 17 young men in this tribal group of approximately 1,000 people had been killed in the war. His nephew was among the martyrs. I remembered the nephew from 1971 as a toddler cared for by two older sisters while his mother wove, and then in 1977 as a boy in the tribal school.

The young man left to help kinsmen load lambs into hired trucks for transport to Isfahan for sale. When he returned, he sat down to talk about the hezbollahis and Revolutionary Guards or Pasdaran. I had known all of them, and was surprised by most of their names. Before 1979, few Qashqa’i had expressed any interest in the formal institutions of Islam or its clergy, and they had tried to avoid all contact with the state. For the nomads, the term hezbollahi identified men who had become “religious,” the ones who now prayed. I also understood the term to indicate men who supported the Islamic government in some fashion. The term pasdar signified a more formal role: uniformed and government-paid revolutionary guards with specific tasks and posts.

Two young men, recently nomads but now settled in a village, came to pay their respects to the former tribal headman. Their uncle was arranging a marriage, and these men needed the former headman’s support and use of his vehicle. I was pleased to renew our acquaintance and reminisce. I gave them an album of photographs I had taken of them in the past, and we enjoyed talking and laughing about other photos I had brought. They played a card game with my daughter, found yarn to make a leash for her partridge chick, and later brought her a newborn kid to care for. One man proudly wore a new sweater depicting an American cowboy lassoing a calf and the phrase, in English, “Let’s Dancing,” stitched above.

Several days later, I heard that these two men were among the most extremist (tond ro) of the hezbollahis and Pasdaran. I would never have guessed it from their behavior and attitude. I asked the headman about the two. Both had fought in the war, he replied, and were now employed in a town where they felt obligated to demonstrate support for the government. He said that the two men were trying to make a place for themselves in a settled society organized by a new set of rules.

The Revolution’s Impact

The revolution against Mohammad Reza Shah, the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979, and the devastating eight-year war with Iraq have had far-reaching effects on the Qashqa’i. Other changes that they have undergone were probably inevitable and would have occurred under any government. The nomads of the group I visited played no direct role in the revolution against the Shah. A few men said they watched and sometimes joined demonstrations in the towns where they had attended school. All the nomads supported the ouster of the Shah and the promised end of the abuses of power of his agents. They were initially receptive to Khomeini, but even from the start they were skeptical about any beneficial changes for them. A Qashqa’i man remarked to me in 1979, just after the revolution, “So what if the clergy and the leftists forced the Shah to leave? Another ‘shah’ will come along and nothing will change for us.”

Despite my predictions 20 years ago that most of the nomads would probably be forced to settle in villages and towns within a decade, many continue to move seasonally between winter and summer pastures and to rely on pastoralism for their livelihood. They gradually adopted vehicular transport and eventually sold all their camels. Some nomads did settle, but most retained an economic interest in pastoralism. At the beginning of spring, the nomads send their sheep and goats with shepherds to high-altitude summer pastures, hundreds of kilometers away from their winter pastures near the Persian Gulf. Most of the people remain behind in winter pastures until early May, when they hire large trucks to transport themselves and their household goods to summer pastures in the north or northeast. New roads, some paved, now make this a one-day trip. They pitch their goat-hair tents as before. When the herds arrive, the people resume milk production and soon wean the lambs and kids. Pastureland is limited, largely because of encroachments by non-Qashqa’i agriculturalists and overgrazing by non-Qashqa’i livestock investors. So the nomads have increased their reliance on fodder they cultivate and purchase. They continue to grow wheat (for bread) and barley in winter and summer pastures. Most have planted apple trees in summer pastures and sell apples commercially.

In September they again hire trucks to transport people and household goods back to winter pastures. Most also transport their herds by truck then because of insufficient autumn grazing along the migratory routes. In winter pastures they occupy small, rudimentary, two-room stone houses they built in the 1980s, in the same spots where they had formerly pitched their goat-hair tents. The winter’s cold, rain, wind, snow and mud make it an uncomfortable time, and they say they are happy to have substantial shelter. The new government had set up and now fills water tanks in these pastures when needed, and the nomads no longer fear water shortages as in the past.

Different agencies of the Islamic Republic, particularly Jihad-e Sazandegi (Construction Crusade), have undertaken projects the Shah’s regime could also have implemented but did not, and have rectified problems caused by that regime. “Life,” many nomads stated, is more comfortable now than before, and they credit the new government. Changes include new and improved roads, additional primary schools, formal education beyond primary level, houses, bathhouses, improved access to water, veterinary services, health services, modern medicine (especially antibiotics and birth control), stores and rationed goods. Urban Iranians complained about government rationing of supposedly scarce goods, but the nomads were glad to acquire goods they would not have had otherwise. Under the Shah, the nomads had been losing their access to pastoral and agricultural land, compelling them to settle in villages and assume new, in their view demeaning, livelihoods in low-paid agricultural and other wage labor. The new government permitted the nomads to cultivate crops and plant orchards on their pastureland, previously forbidden, allowing them to diversify their economies, meet new market demands, and still remain nomadic and reside on their cherished lands. The new government also allowed the nomads to build houses in their seasonal pastures, another activity forbidden by the Shah’s government. In 1991 they had greater control than before over the land upon which they depended, and changes in local land use and tenure increasingly secured their access. The new government employed many of the tribespeople who had received formal education under the Shah’s regime to serve as local officials responsible for teaching, veterinary services, overseeing the building of roads and bathhouses, local security, administration and liaison with government agencies. In the process, it lessened corruption and bribery. Practically all the Shah’s agents had been urban Persians who exploited and harassed the people they were supposed to serve. Many nomads said that having tribal people, sometimes their own kin, dispense government services was the most important change for them.

Aspects of Identity

High government officials held mixed opinions about the desirability of permanently settling the nomads of Iran. Many saw the process as inevitable, but they were not harshly forcing it along, as the Shah had done. Some high-level clergy and others supported nomadism and quoted Khomeini’s laudatory proclamations that (nomadic) tribes, “the treasures of the revolution,” constitute one of the armed forces (sepah) that defend territory, the faith, and the faithful (the army, Pasdaran and Basij militia being others). The deputy minister of the agency that brings services to Iran’s nomads was himself born and raised a nomadic pastoralist, and he values the livelihood and lifestyle and assesses their needs by maintaining contact with them.

The Shah had instituted various programs to “Persianize” and unify Iran’s ethno-linguistically diverse citizenry, and to instill notions of patriotism to the Iranian nation-state among people for whom these concepts were alien or unacceptable. His ouster ended or altered many of these programs, but the Qashqa’i and many other ethnic and tribal peoples continue to be concerned about their political, economic and cultural rights.

Many Qashqa’i developed an enhanced sense of their own ethnic identity after the revolution because of the new government’s struggle against and execution of their paramount leader in 1982. Although very few Qashqa’i joined in the insurgency he led, most saw the attacks against it as an assault against the collectivity. The government also discredited the khans of the Qashqa’i tribes because of what it considered to be their “feudal” practices and because of the association of many of them with the insurgency. It managed to eliminate them as mediators and brokers, the culmination of a process begun by Reza Shah in the 1920s. (A change in national politics could
prompt a resumption of Qashqa’i tribal and confederational leadership, as had occurred in 1941 and 1979.)

The government also banned activities crucial to Qashqa’i identity on the grounds that they were immoral or anti-Islamic. Some of these — public dancing, traditional music and a stick-fighting game performed to music — had helped define the Qashqa’i as a distinctive people. Many Qashqa’i women were obliged to adopt a more concealing head covering and hence alter part of the attire that marked their identity. With the revolution, however, Qashqa’i men had seized the right to bear arms, which they have kept (the Shah had disarmed them in 1966). Men now prominently display their weapons, and wear their distinctive two-flapped felt hats. The new government did not forbid the wearing of ethnic or national dress.

The nomads’ major complaints in 1991 were similar to ones they had during the Shah’s regime: illegal land seizures and incursions, decreasing pastures, absence of comprehensive land reform, and bureaucratic corruption and incompetence. The state exacted a heavy human and economic toll from the nomads during the war with Iraq, and economic extractions have continued under what the nomads consider to be false pretenses. Armed Persian Pasdaran, for instance, toured winter and summer pastures to collect a lamb from each tent; they claimed they needed the income to build a mosque where they were posted, but instead used the proceeds for personal gain.

In 1991 the nomads had weathered many of the political and social changes brought about by the Islamic government, but they faced some economic problems, especially escalating prices for necessities. The price of services — for example, motorized transport between winter and summer pastures — had doubled in a few years, and they feared the consequences if this trend continued. They no longer had other options, for they had sold their camels and reduced their other pack animals to the two or three needed to haul water and fuel or bring produce to vehicular roads or towns. With their own increasingly diversified economies, however, they did seem better off than many other middle- and lower-class Iranians. They produced some of their own food as well as goods in great market demand such as meat and dairy products. Women responded to an expanding local market for their woven goods. Although the nomads appreciated these economic trends, they did not receive full price for these goods; urban Persian merchants and moneylenders still exercised considerable economic leverage over them.

What has happened to these nomads with the introduction of a specifically Islamic government? Unlike many of Iran’s minorities, the Qashqa’i are Shi’i Muslims, and have not experienced some of the political problems and discrimination that many Sunni Muslims and non-Muslims have.

New Affiliations

The most important transformations have been new sources of power and authority derived from Islamic and state institutions. Many customary tribal leaders at the local level were still influential, but new and competitive ones have emerged from the same groups. Qashqa’i Pasdaran and hezbollahis — supporters of the Islamic state — had ties to government officials, received government favors, and became politically influential at local levels and beyond. Men whose sons were Pasdaran also became influential. Men who fought in the war with Iraq received a social recognition from the surrounding dominant society that enhanced their local standing. Those with sons killed in the war received death benefits and monthly stipends. These privileges, combined with the respect due the fathers of martyrs, often elevated them in the political hierarchy. Men on government salaries (teachers, Pasdaran) received economic and political favors from outside. Two young men entered theological school — nearly unprecedented in Qashqa’i history. If the Qashqa’i were represented by their own formally trained religious men, some said, their relationship to the state would benefit.

Not all nomads approved of these new affiliations with external authorities and institutions, and they disagreed among themselves about the government. (Before 1979 they were united in opposition to the Shah’s regime.) Some did not ally with either side. They noted that the current state of politics would possibly pass. Supporters and opponents of the current government related to one another with caution and unease. They were still intermarrying, however, and attempting to bridge the political gaps among them. Women and children were a main conduit of information between new political factions.

The impact of the Islamic state was visible in the dress of most Qashqa’i women and girls. They used to wear a diaphanous head scarf, but local revolutionary committees insisted that they conceal their hair. Most women and girls responded in part by wearing large and dark thick scarves that kept their braids from showing. By wearing scarves tied under the chin, they could no longer don the multicolored headbands that distinguished Qashqa’i attire. But they neither covered their hair in front nor concealed their bodies in the ways demanded of urban women, even when they went to town. Urban Qashqa’i women commented to me that they admired the freedom of expression that these other Qashqa’i women were determined to maintain. Qashqa’i women were never secluded or much restricted in movement, and in 1991 they were more mobile than before, in part because of new roads and motorized vehicles.

Qashqa’i schoolgirls were required to wear “modest” attire, and they had to abandon customary Qashqa’i dress consisting of multiple gathered skirts, loose tunics, short form-fitting jackets and diaphanous head scarves. In pants, full-skirted overdresses, overcoats or long jackets, and dark head scarves, they became indistinguishable from village girls. (Classes in Qashqa’i tribal schools were co-educational, unlike in urban and most village schools.) The group’s one female Qashqa’i schoolteacher was required to dress in full compliance with government regulations, all her body except face and hands covered with layers of black cloth. At home with her family, she added a colorful patterned scarf to her other head coverings.

An elderly woman, formerly nomadic but now a villager, stopped wearing Qashqa’i dress a short time after the revolution and adopted full “Islamic” dress (as defined by the state). Her many sons were said to be extremist hezbollahis, and volunteered to fight Iraq. Then her cherished grandson was killed in the war. Full of anguish, she resumed wearing Qashqa’i dress. “I wore Islamic dress,” she said, “but what difference did it make? Now I am forced to wear black [in mourning].”

Women did not attribute the changes in their dress to Islam per se, but rather to the demands of the state in power. They noted that sanctions would be brought against their kinspeople if they did not make these changes.

The public and personal religious lives of these Qashqa’i nomads were partly changed by the coming of an Islamic state. Very few nomads prayed before 1979, and few did in 1991. In 1991, no one fasted during Ramadan except recent settlers who had close contact with town dwellers. As before, they gave alms in customary, not formally Islamic, ways. Only one man, a recent settler, made a pilgrimage to Mecca. None of the other settlers or nomads could afford it; few had any desire to go. Many of the young men did fight the “holy war” against Iraq, as conscripts and as volunteers, and those who survived said they regretted joining the war.

Children who completed the five years of formal education in the tent schools and continued in town schools were taught some Arabic and instructed in Islam, as had been the case under the Shah’s regime. Funerals were conducted as customary, except that some families added a ceremony at the nearest mosque. They used an urban clergyman to write marriage contracts; before 1979 any literate nomad simply copied someone else’s contract and brought the copy to a city for a clerical signature.

Usury is forbidden by Islamic law, but that did not seem to trouble the otherwise conspicuously pious urban merchants and moneylenders who continued to calculate high interest rates for the goods they provided on credit and the money they loaned to the nomads. They now sought to conceal the ways they collected interest. A nomad was obligated to give a “gift” of money or pastoral products to a moneylender after repaying a loan. Its cash value corresponded exactly with the then-current rate of interest for the period the loan was in effect. The annual percentage was less than the 100 percent the merchants and moneylenders collected in the 1960s and 1970s, largely because of recent sanctions against them by the clergy.

The nomads’ changing attitudes toward health care reflected the inexorable changes of the twentieth century mingled with the effects of an Islamic state. Nomads no longer hesitated to seek what passed in Iran as “modern” medical care. Men and women alike traveled to towns and cities to seek help from doctors, hospitals, clinics and pharmacists. Previously they had relied on their own and itinerant medical practitioners. The nomads heard that some clergy declared that the treatments of these practitioners represented ignorance and superstition, had nothing to do with Islam, and were forbidden. The itinerant healers who used to visit Qashqa’i camps no longer practiced openly. Few women placed protective amulets on their young children as they did in the past, because, they said, they were not sure if they were efficacious any more. By refusing to use the amulets they had associated with Islam, they quietly and symbolically protested against external interference in their personal religious lives.

Many Qashqa’i nomads harbored a deep bitterness toward the several million Iranians who fled Iran since 1978 and who, in the nomads’ eyes, abandoned them to face the new state alone. The nomads said that if these Iranians had stayed and resisted, a different form of government and society would exist today. But the nomads also remained skeptical about any state acting fully in their interests, and they responded to the new imposed changes as they have often responded in the past — with resiliency and ingenuity.

Author’ Note: I am grateful to officials of Iran’s Jihad-e Sazandegi (Construction Crusade) for their assistance. My research was assisted by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and from the Joint Committee on the Near and Middle East of the American Council of Learned Societies and the Social Science Research Council. I appreciate the helpful comments of Gene Garthwaite, Leonard Helfgott and Mohammad Shahbazi on this article. During my brief stay in Tehran and Shiraz, I adhered to the minimal standards of dress, which included a loose overcoat and a large head scarf. Among the nomads, I did not wear the overcoat. My daughter did not need to wear a head scarf. (My article, “With My Daughter: Experiences of a Five-Year-Old among Nomads in Iran,” is forthcoming in Natural History.)

How to cite this article:

Lois Beck "Qashqa’i Nomads and the Islamic Republic," Middle East Report 177 (July/August 1992).

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