The Last Episode of an Iranian Teacher’s Bag: Children’s Lives as the Smaller Copies of their Parents’ in Contemporary Iran
How can the desired culture of a dictatorial system be transmitted from one generation to another? The focus of dictators on children could be an answer. Factually in such a system, children are located in a value system which teaches them what to do or what not to do in purpose of being good for the political system since the very beginning of their lives. In Iran, the traditional educational system teaches children to act as adults; people who are able to discern which action is bad and which is good. The exceptions are usually the ones who deconstruct the cultural/political structure and begin to resist based on their agencies. In the present paper, we argue the process of education (formal and informal) in Iran based on two sets of material cultural remains. The first is the Qajar (nineteenth- and early twentieth-century photos of children) and the second is the school compositions of 19 students found in the bag of a teacher who died in the devastating earthquake of Bam in 2003, in South Eastern Iran. The bag was found during a contemporary archaeological project.
KeywordsDictatorial systems Traditional society Childhood Educational systems Iran
They want nothingness—whether they admit it to themselves or not—than a fundamental transformation indeed a weakening and cancellation individual, they do not tire of enumerating and accusing the evil and malignance, the wastefulness, the costliness, the extravagance of the previous form of individual being; they hope to administer more cheaply, less dangerously, more homogenously, and more uniformly, when only large bodies and their limbs remain (Nietzsche 1997).
The Beginning: Tehran, Photography Studio Museum
We wonder why. Why are these photos so uniform with no diversity? Why are people so similar to one another? Why don’t the children practice childhood? The children have been made to pose for the photographs as if they were adults! Is the photographer really the person who commands?
Our investigation of the museum is coincided with our study of the Bam excavation project, an excavation conducted five years after the earthquake (2007). The focus is on Bam’s ruined houses. In one of the houses in a peripheral neighborhood, we discovered 19 essays of 8–9 year-old female students in a teacher’s handbag buried under the ruins. The teacher never read the students’ writings. The topic, “What do you do at home?” portrays a day in the lives of Bam’s girls, students from the society’s lower socio-economic ranks. Having read the writings and extending the study on Qajar and early Pahlavi material culture (especially photos) we understood that in Iran, the definition of child as “the miniaturized model of an adult” has changed into a cultural pattern over a long period of time starting at least from the Qajar period (1779–1925).
Our research investigates the process in the long-term taking “the archaeology of recent past” as the main approach. Qajar children’s pictures can be used as good sources of information on costumes, material culture, and even body gestures. Coupled with the Bam excavation results—especially its material cultural remains—can be used to interpret the meanings and cultural concepts of child and childhood. Bam ethnoarchaeological information is also useful as a complementary source.
In a society like Iran with long-term experience of traditional and modern dictatorships, explaining the process in which the self is being shaped is complex. Dictatorship makes all aspects of life political. It mandates the control and intervention of all private and public aspects of life (Rush 1992). The dictator system always tends to destroy the self (Canetti 1960) as a dictatorial system expects pure submission. Some individuals, however, resist being the puppets of the system. Thus, the process is comprised of “imposition and resistance.” So, despite the constant attempt of the government to control the citizens’ bodies and minds, some individuals always act as opponents (see Papoli Yazdi et al. 2013). These individuals stop the complete domination of the dictatorship. In this article, the opponents and the ones who resist the system are not accessed. Rather, the ones who obey the system and who reproduce it from the parents to children, from generation to generation, are at hand. Noticeably, this is not a positive/negative, black and white view of Iranian society, but an explanation of a process resulting in a portrait that is ideal for the dictators. Our research investigates the symbolic violence directed against individuality.
Individuality is a controlled dimension of self in dictatorial systems. It is controlled during a process. Each person enters a jungle of symbols after birth and learns a collection of necessities and forbidden items (see Hamner and Turner 1990; Pachler et al. 2009) usually unconsciously. Individuals tend to maintain independence from others and attend to self (Markus and Kitayama 1991). In contrast, the dictatorial system seeks to destroy the existing individuality within people by transforming them into insignificant atoms of the mass (Alpers 2003; Ebenstein 1962). In such a system, the process begins from childhood. The child learns what he/she must do and what he/she must not do within a traditional setting. In most cases, the person doesn’t have any knowledge about the meanings of this value system (Lehtonen 2000). In most cases, the individual has some practical, conscious knowledge (Haugaard 2002; Kus 1984) about the performance of prescribed patterns. Alternatively, he/she will educate his/her children based on this value system. Therefore, such a value system is reproduced generation after generation (see Beng Tan 2006; Bourdieu and Passeron 1990).
A good example is the existence of different words for one concept in Persian. The child learns a certain usage of each word in her/his communication with others. As soon as a child can speak, the adults start the process with telling them sentences such as “hey, you are a real man,” or “a real lady.” Hence, the parents themselves are reproducing themselves and the system in which they have grown up (Fowler 2004). Though the idea of childhood is a modern concept (Ariès 1962) and one certainly linked to post-industrialism cultural, social, and economic changes, but according to the evidence found in Bam, it seems that the idea of controlling the self during childhood is being continued in traditional regions of Iran.
In Iran, boys are supposed to hide their emotions. It is no exaggeration to say that controlling/suppressing is among the first learned items of an Iranian child (Arasteh 1969; Osanloo 2009). As a general process, a person learns to accept some social responsibilities (see Loeffer Friedel 2003) that are normally “unconventional” for his/her age (from either a personal or a public point of view); s/he learns to give up playing, entertainment, and paying attention to oneself (see Ballestrem 2004), especially in the more traditional contexts of small towns, villages, and between ethnic minorities. Therefore, individual creativity is gradually eliminated and a harsh unification process starts to develop (Gregor 2009; Radel 1975). The child unconsciously decides what she/he must be in the future. She/he learns the principles of rank (Kucukaydin 2008) and the proper behavior associated with them. Such principles govern human relations like a formula (Hollander 1988; Welch 2003). They act as a basis for defining bad and good, evil and goodness (see Arthur et al. 2010; Williams 1994).
In a black and white value system in which propaganda clearly designates its borders, if a child doesn’t learn the values in family, she/he learns it in the educational system. Approaches toward order, social conformity, and rivalry are part of this propaganda (Baehr 2010; Westheimer 2009). The Iranian educational system takes students’ individuality and makes them memorize information with ignorance of their interests and talents (see Kandel 1995). It brings about the ruin of individuality and agency, and as a long-term process, it creates a mass society. The subject of this process is usually the “body” as the focus of creating individuality (Podgórecki 1996). Conformity is exerted on the body. Therefore, bodily material culture and even bodily gesture and postures can be studied as with the Qajar photos. The extreme sameness in appearance surprised us.
The process of destroying individuality has not been studied archaeologically in Iran, and data related to conformity is yet to be perused (see Babayan 2002; Rahnema 2011). Although the tendencies toward centralization by the Iranian governments from historical eras to contemporary times have been often discussed, the omission of individuality in the authorization process has not yet been explored. On the other hand, the subject of such studies (conventionally) has generally been adults. In societies like Iran, however, the issue can be investigated through social groups, including children.
In Bam, the excavation of ruined houses revealed the writings of members of a female primary school. The writings show similar behaviors of children after school, while at home. The writings indicate expectations of traditional society that define little girls as mature women. We examined the Qajar and Pahlavi childrens’ photos to investigate process and contextually. The investigation showed that conformity is recognizable even through the childrens’ costumes. It seems that children have been made to enter the adult world from early ages. The substantial number of registered marriages occurring at young ages until the 1950s substantiates this conclusion. As a result, children had to accept responsibilities that were too heavy for their age, since the age of first pregnancy, for instance, could be about 14 even in 1961 (Fathi 1985).
Generally, the dictator oligarchic system and tradition both train individuals in the purpose of omitting individuality. Any confrontation with such a system is described as deconstruction, violation, and sedition leading to social implications, including being rejected (Shlapentokh 2007). The political justice system in dictator regimes tries to focus on the evildoer’s base motives and to punish his or her intention rather than just their acts (Linz 2000).
It should be noticed, though, that in all such processes, the dictatorial system manages to produce soldiers who might resist the systematized pattern. However, as the omission of individuality occurs within the process, and local tradition usually covers its political implications, the change in norms usually takes too much during the process. Sociocultural traditions seriously influence the rate of change.
What you Must Be!!!
Maryam: Leila! what do you think? Why do these photos resemble each other?
Leila: We have a famous Zoroastrian phrase: There is just one way, the way of truth!
This refers to the omission of individuality and choice. It is the language of tradition. The one who speaks is tradition in Iran. Tradition determines how you should behave, wear clothes, and even how you must pose for a picture in a photographic studio. Our tradition is the tradition of conformity. But how? How does it exert and reproduce conformity? The answer: by practice! Tradition needs certain behavioral patterns to reproduce itself. Once a child is born, they practice these patterns over his/her lifetime.
Bam, Jan.2004: A House in the Hafez Abadi Neighborhood
The woman gets up and slowly goes to the back room. The back room is full of odds and ends, from a toolbox to athletic equipment and a dresser. The woman’s husband, Mr. Hafez Abadi is so interested in repairing the household so he has collected many things, believing all of them are useful. Because the house is that of a teaching couple, many educational books are present.
Mrs. Qaderi goes toward a pile of clothes. She takes her uniform and handbag. She gets dressed in silence and prepares herself to go out; it is a cold winter morning.
Mrs. Qaderi (The family names of Iranian women do not change after marriage) enters the third class of the primary school in a deprived neighborhood, puts her bag on the desk, and proposes a writing topic to the girls: “What do you do at home?”
Leila: Teacher! Should we write about all the activities we do at home?
Mrs. Qaderi: That’s right!
[after a pause of some time]
Mrs. Qaderi: Children! Just about a quarter has left!
Zainab is the first one. She has written just a few sentences.
Zainab: As soon as I start studying, my mother asks me to make tea.
Maryam: When I come home first, I say hello to mom and do the housework. Teacher! I want to be a doctor or a teacher in the future.
Ranjbar: I do the dishes and cook at home. Sometimes I do washing too. My brother’s eye has been injured by a bullet. The doctors decided to cut off my father’s hand.
Elham: My parents are ill. We have to do the housework.
Khakzad: First, I change my clothes, then I serve lunch, next I tidy things up and sweep rooms and the yard, after that I do the dusting and finally I brush my hair.
Nasiri’s writing is slightly different. It is written on a tidy carefully separated piece of paper, in a quite legible handwriting.
Nasiri: I take a rest after school. My mum asks me about the next day's school program. Then she wants me to study and my elder sister helps me.
Farrokhi: I take a rest at 1 a.m. and then study. I make tea and do the dishes after 7 a.m.
Mozhde: I do the housework after doing my homework.
Khakpour: (Her essay is just like a letter). My mother works out; so, I do the dishes and after that, I can play.
Neda: I do the dishes after lunch, sometimes; I also have to do the washing. My father has passed away, so I cry in my room. Nobody loves me. We don’t have TV. I have to bear a lot of pain. Everybody can wear new clothes but I can't. Goodbye, I don’t have any more words.
“We swear to God, teacher, that we have problems, so we can’t study well.” The children cannot be children. Childhood is a strange concept for them; they have never practiced it. They have always been treated like adults. Their lives are just smaller models of their mothers’.
The children, in their short essays, have talked about a father’s broken hand, family problems, a recently escaped father (back from jail), and a deviant brother. They have written about their crises, about their longing for studying. Some students couldn't read their essays out in class, so Mrs. Qaderi gathered all their essays and put them in her bag, 19 sheets of paper in total. Most of the papers are composed of just a few words; most of them are drafts full of mistakes. Some of them even have no names on them. Mrs. Qaderi has a quick look at them; a nameless essay is finished with these words: “I bear terrible pain at home because my father does some bad things, he has just got freed from jail, and we have serious family problems.” Mrs. Qaderi thinks to herself: “I'll take the paper home tonight, maybe tomorrow which is Friday and I am free, I can get round to correct them…I'll give them back their essays on Saturday,” but the Saturday never came. The little girls’ essays remained in the teacher’s bag under the ruins for five years, until a hot summer day when their compatriot archaeologists pulled them out from the ruin and read them over in that back room.
The Qajar Dynasty (1779–1925) was the time during which Iranians first experienced modernity (Rajaee 2007), when a group of modernized intellectuals gathered to formulate a draft for revising certain principles of the constitution. In mid 1800s, Qajar kings begun to travel to Europe, and this was a way by which modernization—such as photography, cameras (Graber 1997), ballet, concerts, and so forth—could be imported to Iran. However, in the early 1920s, the Qajar Dynasty collapsed, even though modernity and Westernization movements emerged and became reenergized (Naficy 2011).
The monarchy system of Qajar was based on centralization (Amirahmadi 2012) and suppression of opposition even in the form of violent executions (Ansari and Martin 2002). The new materials of life changed the lifestyle of the Qajar people, at least those in Tehran and among the wealthier classes (see Shahshahani 2011). One of the signs of such a change was the love of being portrayed by photographers. Before then, portraits were only painted, and were restricted to the wealthier classes. With the advent of photography, the faces of ordinary people —the elderly, children (Akaskhane Shahr 2006), and women—began to appear in photos.
Tehran, A Photography Studio
Photography studios (Akkas Khane) were places usually used by the upper and middle social classes to take family or individual portraits. High-class people were generally interested in taking portrait of their children, especially their sons. In this research, we investigate Qajar and early Pahlavi photos. The following narration is an imaginative on based on the photos of a photographer working in a late Qajar-period studio taking portraits.
Tehran, Naser Al-din Shah Reign (1848–96): A Photography Studio
The photographer comes out of the darkroom with a photo in his hand, a picture of two boys leaning against the back of a chair. The photographer goes toward his desk and picks up a photo of a middle-aged man on a seat. He smiles with satisfaction whispering “what a beautiful photo! Their faces and gestures are as grave as their honorable father, so are their costumes!”
Maryam (categorizing Qajar photo): I always get confused if this child is Ahmad Shah or Mr. Amini’s son?
Leila: Because they are quite similar… I got confused too; I can’t recognize the girls either! I have the same problem with them!
Maryam: You are right…there is almost no difference between them
Leila: What do you think? Why is that?
February 20, 1892
February 22, 1892
Today I went to Dar Ol-fonoun School first; Dar Ol-fonoun students were standing in a queue to take a group photo. Students’ costume included a long coat and a Qajar hat; it was the very costume I was wearing. Some costumes were clearly loose. I think they must have once belonged to their elders. The teachers believed the students must be serious to have a good photo. I asked them to look at the lens seriously and steadily. I took 10 photos.
Today, in the afternoon, the Aminis came to the studio to get a photo of their ten-year-old son. The boy had put on a European frock coat, leather hat, and shoes. I sat the little boy on a seat.
Mr. Amini asked me to take a photo appropriate for their social prestige. I told the boy to be solemn and not to look at the camera. It became an excellent photo.
February 28, 1892
February 28, 1892
I want to choose a photo as the best one. I think it is Prince Ahmad Mirza’s photo. He sat seriously in front of me. He posed so professionally that I thought he is a real actor. According to his behavior today, I believe he will be a good king.
The children would always appear in formal gestures and costumes in Qajar photos. Nobody has taken a photo with a slack suit and no child plays or smiles. All the clothes are formal and heavy. For example, a ten-year-old girl has appeared with a wedding dress in a somber mood instead of being naughty and playful while laughing.
“Exclusion of individuality” for the benefit of adults in Iranian traditional culture is meaningfully clear at least since the Qajar period. There is no children-specific costume design, shoes, or even children’s spaces (like private rooms or toys) in Qajar lifestyle. Childish costume design is an imported phenomenon dating back to the Pahlavi era (1925–1979). Although children’s material culture (especially toys and clothes) is produced nowadays, the process of conformity is still continuing in the form of behavioral patterns.
In the essays written by Bam’s children (from low socioeconomic ranks), the absence of material items such as toys or concepts like playing is noteworthy. Altogether, the omission of individuality (Bird 1999; Devane 1948) is a pattern for all social ranks. In urban institutions such as school and mass media, it plays a key role (Arendt 1973), as it does in low socioeconomic-rank families (often unconsciously).
Research demonstrates that in the middle classes the situation is a bit different, as the children can often practice childhood. On the whole, conformity crossed class borders, it influenced everyone, from Ahmad Shah (last Qajar King) to the Bam children, from the Qajar children to Bam’s little girls. Ahmad Shah, a ten-year-old boy, appeared in the shape of a man, and a nine-year-old Bami girl acted as a woman, with her essays being confiding. The writing style of such essays has the style of a housewife from the lower class rather than that of a child. The earthquake, very probably, took the life of most of the little girls and their teacher’s. (Ethnoarchaeological research of lower classes’ residential architecture indicates that it was instable and bore the highest level of destruction). Even if the children had survived, could they live like children?
Contemporary excavations show that the childhood period in Bam, especially of lower-class girls is short, usually covering the ages before school. An external viewpoint of childhood is clearly expressed in clothing, behavior, and even the speaking of desires. The use of Hijab (cover) for children is one of the best proofs supporting the issue.
The typical ways of treating children cannot be easily explained according to the social understandings of the age because it is a kind of reductionism. In a traditional structure interested in conformity, age is a conventional concept whose meanings and borders are changed whenever any opposition to the structure appears. In addition, a child does not have an adult’s intellectuality, even though she/he must behave like an adult.
Altogether, the removal of individuality is a benefit to a closed structure interested in dictatorship, dominance, and control (Ciepley 2006; Spielvogel 2010). Such structures create individuals without individuality. Such a person can easily be a puppet in the hands of the dictatorship.
Dictatorships appear in traditional societies (Friedrich 1964). Tradition makes for submissiveness, passivity, and the omission of what is natural in people’s minds (Corner 2009; Peterson 2004). Censorship (McCormick and MacInnes 2006) manifests itself in children’s lifestyles, in gestures, bodily postures, costumes, behavior, and what creates personality and self. Censorship mostly influences the body. Once it controls the body, individual life, movement, and experience domains reduce dramatically; hence, playing turns into a strange concept for Bam little girls as does smiling for Qajar’s children in the photos.
Exerted limitation is practiced by traditional patterns, making the child ready for more submission in the future. Among all the photos, only one person is really himself: a boy posing with a gun and laughing easily. His gesture and laugh deconstruct the structure of conformity. Hypothetically, Naser Aldin Shah is the subject of this photo but the boy’s smile breaks his “discursive presence” and makes the eyes of the viewer turn toward him.
Discussion: Removing Individuality Ex Parte Dictatorial System
The concept of children as small adults has been observed archaeologically in traditional societies (e.g., Park 1998). Though it can be hypothesized that in a complicated dictatorial society such as Iran, the children learn long-life stereotyped roles in a process of socialization (see Baxter 2005). The frameworks of which can be elucidated as socialized behavioral frames of use for the system.
Dictatorship needs mobilization more than anything (Arendt 1968). It requires people who develop and upgrade the ideological nature of the dictatorship and are always ready to self-sacrifice for it. In such an atmosphere, child must learn, however unconsciously, to put themselves in a second-degree ex parte dictatorship. The child does not practice playing with toys and to move from practice to praxis from the beginning (for dictator practice, see Sartre 1985; also see Baxter 2005; Makariev et al. 1999). She/he must bring up another infant: his/her brother or sister. In such praxis, the child is set within an endless process of signification, a circle with no end. She/he learns to transfer her/his learning to her own child. Taken together, both the Qajar-Pahlavi data and the essays unearthed in the course of the excavation bespeak similar atmospheres, albeit with a 100-year-time difference.
During this period, the reproduction of the control of individuality can be recognized. The center of this space is the dictator monologue (Brueggemann 1991; Makariev et al. 1999; Mole 1997). This monologue shows itself in behavior such as clothing and social appearance; cultural elements subtly transferred as traditions. The child is encouraged to be serious. The word “smile/laugh” is sometimes replaced with an informal, fairly impolite Persian phrase: “your mouth is always open.” Costumes are usually of a limited color range, and they are the smaller version of the adults’ dress. The child faces a top-down monologue commanding what he/she must and must not do. Differences, even if they exist, tend to be homogenized (Adams 2001). Therefore, the child is involved in an eternal circle of signs whose objectivities are associated with a reward and punishment system. To obey this system is necessary for survival.
In Persian, words such as “childish” (Bacheghaneh), “child” (Bacheh), and so forth are metaphors to indicate inexperience and simplicity, not necessarily purity. A person who behaves honestly, expresses their emotional outlets or practices freely is called a “child.” The general behavioral framework of a child is rather defined: only one way is possible. According to this framework, the child misses the possibility of various other experiences.
To create a self-reproductive circle, dictatorship positions “individuals” in an endless chain of monologues that never end even by death. The deployment of these concepts in language puts the child in a jungle of symbols that are not necessarily objective. Such a training process changes the Iranian child to a bitter, complex, actor-like, humorous yet serious person. This special kind of death, called janfeshani [lit., dedicating one’s life willingly], can appear in death as territorial integrity. This is called “martyr,” and is a particular ideology or reproduction of new soldiers.
On the other hand, people as the main objects of dictatorial violence ensure the practical survival of the dictatorship. They transfer the dictatorial ideal lifestyle most of them have institutionalized as cultural traditions generation by generation. The child finds deconstruction the only practical alternative for survival. If he/she wants to be freed from the training circle that has entirely surrounded them, he/she must escape the logic that caused them to experience the stifling situation during their whole life. That is why most Iranian deconstructionists encountered irreversible social punishments and severe backlashes (see Dabashi 2001).
We should first disclose that English is not our native language, and that we received considerable editorial assistance from La’ya Alinia and Mohammad Amerian. We convey our gratitude to Omran Garazhian, Mariam Naeimi and Arman Masoudi.
Any errors in this paper remain our own.
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