When I was interviewing Afghan refugee writers and intellectuals in Iran in the mid-2000s, I soon realized that there was a gulf between their occupations and their aspirations. [1] The young poets who were the subjects of my research in the northeastern city of Mashhad often earned a living as manual laborers, construction or factory workers, or small-time street vendors. Some had woven rugs or made handicrafts as children, or engaged in other piecework in small workshops. They came together to read their poetry and short stories to each other on Fridays, their one precious day off. Most of them—both men and women—had benefited from at least a secondary education in Iranian state schools, and most hoped to continue on to university. Over time, many were able to derive more of their income from knowledge or creative work: as teachers in informal refugee-run schools, or as editors, graphic designers or journalists. Yet in the low-income quarters of Mashhad known as the pa’in-e shahr or downtown where they lived, they continued to rub shoulders with other refugees working in dangerous, back-breaking jobs. The younger siblings of the family I knew best had the leisure time to excel in poetry, oil painting, music, theater and scholarship, while the two oldest brothers worked in skilled construction jobs to support the rest. Their nearest neighbors, whom they sometimes invited on family outings, were a widow and her four children, all of whom worked together at a brick kiln for a few dollars a day.

Such contrasts and incongruities were also commonplace among the Iranians I met: the taxi drivers with three university degrees but no job prospects; the impoverished family that still remembered distant aristocratic origins; or the many ambitious, secular professionals who had migrated to Tehran from the provinces and whose parents were deeply pious small farmers or shopkeepers.

Iranian society seemed highly stratified, and status was correlated both to wealth and employment status on the one hand, and to a number of spatial, cultural and lifestyle attributes on the other.

Iran has undergone a wholesale “class reshuffling” in the almost four decades since the 1979 revolution. [2] Indeed, this “reshuffling” was the continuation of a reconfiguration of social structure in Iran that has been ongoing for at least the past century. One of the few studies to examine changes in class structure (mostly through the Marxist lens of relations of production) after 1979 found a constantly evolving situation, involving upward mobility for some in some periods with downward mobility for others, and dramatic reversals of fortune. [3] The effects of post-revolutionary policies include an enormous increase in the number of people receiving higher education, coupled with the inability of many university graduates to find good jobs due to the slow growth of the private sector. This gap has led to the emergence of a large group of young, educated, urban and dissatisfied would-be middle-class people; meanwhile, a “regime class” ideologically aligned with the state and dependent on government rents has also developed. [4] The consequences of these contradictory movements seem still to be playing out, both in everyday life and on the national stage, and they are as much cultural as they are economic.

A closer look at educated Afghan refugees in Iran, a group of marginal non-citizens, offers a unique perspective on the opportunities and exclusions the Islamic Republic has created. At the same time, what I interpreted as the beginnings of a process of class differentiation within the Afghan community enabled me to see how the cultivation of certain cultural dispositions can be used as a marker of higher status even when economic capital remains scarce.

Up to 3 million Afghans arrived in Iran in the 1980s. After more than three decades, they have no path to naturalization, and close to 1 million who are documented remain de facto “persons of interest” to the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Iran.

Afghan refugees in Iran suffer from two types of exclusion: they are both legally denied citizenship and many other rights, and socially denigrated. They have had a very mixed experience in Iran. When they arrived, revolutionary ideology held great promise for many, particularly Hazaras and other Shi‘a who had suffered discrimination in Afghanistan. In the 1980s and early 1990s, the welfare benefits and educational opportunities available to Afghans illustrated the populist revolutionary idealism of the state, and the refugees were welcomed as fellow Muslims in need. Afghan men also filled the labor market gap left by the millions of Iranians who fought in the war with Iraq. As a result of their access to Iranian public services, including free schooling or literacy programs and public health services, hundreds of thousands of Afghan children and adults became newly literate or even well educated. They absorbed “modern” ideas about hygiene, health and reproduction; began to dress, live and eat Iranian-style; and transformed their views and practices of religion, civic participation and the public role of women. Thousands of Shi‘i Afghan men completed religious studies in the seminaries of Qom and Mashhad. Women in particular have benefited from a more liberal attitude to their rights than in Afghanistan and tend to be more reluctant to repatriate than men.

From the mid-1990s onward, however, Afghans continued to be needed as a labor force, but their various entitlements began to be scaled back and their precarious legal position helped to ensure that their labor remained cheap and disposable. It was a clear example of “opportunity hoarding” [5] and social closure along citizenship lines, but also a way, whether intentional or not, to guarantee the extraction of maximum profit from Afghans’ labor. Clerics aside, Afghans have been barred from working in all but a handful of menial occupations (notably construction, agriculture and brick-making), leading to pervasive poverty. They have legal restrictions on their mobility and endure onerous and costly bureaucratic requirements to ensure their continued legal residence in Iran. Those who fail to do so or who have never been documented suffer periodic roundups and deportations that have left many in a permanent state of insecurity.

There is a striking level of intellectual and cultural activity and determination to improve one’s lot in Afghan neighborhoods, notably in the more visible communities of Mashhad. Most Afghans migrated to Iran to seek a better life, and they are determined to seize the available opportunities. One way to do so is through adopting a strategy of quiet assent to the indignities of their position, working hard in the available occupations and gradually accumulating economic capital in order to fund the spiraling costs of modern consumerism and social reproduction. The second is to acquire social and cultural capital through education and cultural activism, and here the opening up of literacy programs and state education to Afghans proved truly revolutionary. In Mashhad, it seemed that in every lane there was a tiny backyard computer or English school. There were film clubs, women’s groups, arts schools, private libraries and, most importantly, unofficial refugee-run primary and secondary schools catering to undocumented Afghan children who could not attend state schools—or documented ones who could not afford school fees. The overall sense I got in these communities was of an overwhelming aspiration to upward mobility, and great frustration when such striving was thwarted by restrictions tied to citizenship requirements.

The upward push continues nonetheless, and there are several reasons for it. One is that in what is still largely a newly literate population, education confers a rapid jump in prestige and symbolic capital, even if skilled manual workers often earn more than irregularly employed knowledge workers. But it can have economic rewards, too: refugee poets, writers and artists can win cash prizes at state-wide cultural festivals, while those with good English or computer skills can hope to obtain lucrative NGO jobs in the event of a return to Afghanistan. Indeed, I witnessed what I identified as the beginnings of a micro-process of class differentiation taking place between those Afghans who were deprived of both cultural and economic capital, and those who at least managed to gain cultural capital. Such differentiation would explain the dedication with which the latter group cultivated their newly acquired cultural dispositions as they aspired to become a new Afghan proto-bourgeoisie. The forms of cultural capital cultivated by these young people in their aspiration to improve their status were not unlike those pursued by middle-class Iranians: literary, musical and artistic activities; sports and outdoor recreation; blogging and social networking; a taste for consumer goods and information technologies; and a preference for romantic love and companionate marriage over family-arranged marriage, signifying a greater sense of individualism.

The case of Afghan refugees is therefore an interesting one with which to track the “class reshuffling” of post-revolutionary Iran. The educational successes of many Afghans—many of whose forebears were illiterate peasants in rural Afghanistan—are evidence of the truly revolutionary opportunities for social mobility that a heavy investment in mass public education has created in Iran. But, in a situation of economic crisis and unemployment, the state has chosen to use legal exclusions to protect the interests of middle-class Iranians in particular. At least two sub-classes have emerged in this non-citizen class: a poor “precariat” that continues to be exploited for its manual labor with few social benefits, and a proto-bourgeoisie with high levels of cultural capital but low levels of economic capital, who cannot hope to work legally in their professions in Iran. The disaffections of both these groups and the lack of a positive outlook for the future are helping to fuel the enormous increase in Afghan migration to Europe that we are presently witnessing.


[1] For background, see Zuzanna Olszewska, The Pearl of Dari: Poetry and Personhood Among Young Afghans in Iran (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2015). For more reflections on class and status in Iran, see Zuzanna Olszewska, “Classy Kids and Down-at-Heel Intellectuals: Status Aspiration and Blind Spots in the Contemporary Ethnography of Iran,” Iranian Studies 46/6 (2013).
[2] Sohrab Behdad and Farhad Nomani, “What a Revolution! Thirty Years of Social Class Reshuffling in Iran,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 29/1 (2009).
[3] Farhad Nomani and Sohrab Behdad, Class and Labor in Iran: Did the Revolution Matter? (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2006).
[4] Asef Bayat, “Tehran: Paradox City,” New Left Review 66 (2010).
[5] Charles Tilly, Durable Inequality (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).

How to cite this article:

Zuzanna Olszewska "Class Reshuffling Among Afghan Refugees in Iran," Middle East Report 277 (Winter 2015).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This