Consumerism & Freedom in Iran

A review of “Shopping for Freedom“ in der Islamischen Republik. Widerstand und Konformismus im Konsumverhalten der iranischen Mittelschicht, by Ariane Sadjed.

The title does not bear a question mark, but this dissertation (written in German) does question whether the expansion and liberalization of markets is normally accompanied by processes of democratization. As “freedom” is a central theme with regard to Iran – not only in political discourse, but also in scholarly studies – Ariane Sadjed decided to look behind the images shaped by the western media of Iranian consumers – specifically women – whose Western-style taste is often seen as a form of rebellion against the religious-political system in Iran. As a cultural and social anthropologist who also studied psychology, Sadjed analyzes the relationship between freedom and consumption/consumerism (or between repression/absence of freedom and absence of a lavish and fashionable market) – concepts frequently linked in Western media, which suggest that an attractive appearance combined with a chic outfit is synonymous with resistance or at least subversive behavior in a society like Iran’s.

It is precisely this assumption that leads the author to investigate the issue of modern consumption from various points of view. In order to provide a framework of reference, she deals with “religion in the modern age” in Chapter 1, more specifically with the relationship between religion and the state in the formative processes of modern nation-states (not only Iran), and the role of and/or connection with religion and nationalism. More precisely, she looks at Islam in the process of nation-building, probes into a new definition of shari‘a, the corpus of religion-based laws of Islam, and dwells briefly on the emergence of political Islam by suggesting that a monolithic cultural order, implemented top-down by an ideological secular state, led to the politicization of Islam (Egypt and Iran after the 1950s are quoted as examples) (p. 53). Sadjed concludes that political Islam has many facets beyond the religious sphere and that with the increasing social fragmentation of societies, many Muslims have come to consider Islamic parties not so much as an alternative to secular ones, but rather as a political alternative that will be judged according to its efficacy (p. 56). The debate is not so much whether the state should be Islamic or secular – the question, rather, is which system of government may better achieve desired goals and guarantee basic values. Thus, instead of rigidly curtailing public expressions of religion in order to implement the secular paradigm, and instead of suppressing Islamic movements at all cost, it seems reasonable to promote factors that support the plurality and flexibility of the respective (predominantly Muslim) society. Although Egypt from the nineteenth century onward is quoted as an example, that country might come to serve as such an example again in our time, given present dramatic developments.

This brief investigation into political Islam does not divert from the main topic of the dissertation – on the contrary, it is needed to better understand developments in the Muslim world in view of widespread regional upheavals. This side investigation is also most valuable in order to fit the developments in Iran – which crystallized in the Islamic revolution of 1979 – into the overall picture and to realistically assess its results in the form of an Islamic Republic for over three decades.

Moving on to “The Dream of Modernity in Iran” in Chapter 2, Ariane Sadjed describes and analyzes modernization processes in Iran during the twentieth century. Popular culture between elements of subversive style, consumption, and behavior on the one side and conformity on the other is often considered as an indicator of the level of resistance. The use of American cultural goods in countries other than the United States, especially in the so-called “third world,” is often misunderstood as a sign of rebellion against the ruling power. However, cultural objects in their essence cannot be “rebellious” or “conformist” – their meaning always depends on the social background of the recipient who decides over their use. Individualization and the “project of the self” (p. 74) is a key agent in modern liberal societies, with sophisticated methods of advertising that supplement traditional authorities and motivations with a modern system of information. That said, scientific analyses show that human beings are neither just helpless subjects of an ideological system nor are they fully self-governed.

With this introduction, the author starts a survey of two Iranian lifestyle magazines: Zendegi-e Ideal (“Ideal Life”) and Donya-e Zanan (“World of Women”) (p. 75). The carefully analyzed contents show that the idealization of a Western lifestyle is transported mainly through advertising imported “Western” goods – be they kitchen appliances or aesthetics in fashion or wedding parties, with a certain attention to environmental issues, designed for an upper middle class that can afford to buy more expensive products. These trends seem to be more pronounced in the magazine “Ideal Life,” while “World of Women” prefers to feature characteristics of Islamic culture and/or of a remote, glorious Iranian history. “World of Women” selects those elements of Western lifestyle that are compatible with its Islamic approach. Donya-e Zanan depicts modern Muslim women who control a household with modern technology and who are educated and basically independent – whether having a job outside the home or not.

Chapter 3 mirrors these features against the “modern capitalist state,” dealing also with the question of “democracy and capitalism” (p. 97). Especially useful is a closer look at “the Islamic revolution and the political economy of Iran since 1979” (p. 104) and “the economic program of the Islamic Republic” (p. 111). This section is preceded by an incisive review of the theories of the masterminds of the revolution, including Ayatollah Khomeini, the Constitution of 1979 and subsequent developments in the political arena. Needless to say, here ideals are confronted with realities. It is interesting to read about the differing economic “recipes” and priorities of the state and its institutions vis-à-vis the original egalitarian approach that had, last not least, varying religious-political motivations. Sadjed looks at the roles that the bazaar and religious endowments played and to a certain extent still play, and examines the Iranian economy and politics in transnational contexts, without forgetting the emergence of new social strata, especially “the newly rich.”

Religion, consumption and the question of (individual) independence are the main subjects of Chapter 4, touching on core topics of this scientific work by investigating individualism, concepts of individual liberties, discipline, and autonomy in conjunction with or in contradiction to religion and/or consumerism. Sadjed’s analysis and description of alternative ways of life, e.g. by artists or intellectual groups which, by their apolitical positioning, evade the political control of the state, is interesting (p. 156).

Chapter 5 compares “Western” and “Islamic” consumption. Sadjed unfolds the subject with a theoretical approach, identifying types and habits of consumption as a set of social markers. She moves on to “centers of consumption in Iran” (p. 167), contrasting the traditional bazaar with modern shopping malls.

Under the heading “Everyday Life in Tehran,” she describes her investigation of the consumption habits of 140 Iranians by an online questionnaire. Summarizing her results, she writes that religiosity obviously is a central value present in all groups: from persons with hedonistic and materialistic interests, ranging over the Western-oriented “bohemiens” with their alternative lifestyles, to the conservative upper middle class. Sadjed finds that persons with a priority for consumption – or a tendency towards consumerism – acknowledge social hierarchies based on material values, while religious persons rather refer to transcendental concepts. While under favorable circumstances both groups might accumulate material wealth, the first group tries to achieve individual self-expression by acquiring prestigious goods, while the latter, viz. more religious persons, seems to express its individuality through social engagement and welfare activities. Social rifts in Iran produce tensions similar to those of other countries. Since the country was linked to the global economy in the late 1980s, the gap between rich and poor has been increasing – ironically renewing social conflicts that the Islamic revolution had set out to abate or abolish.

In her conclusion, Ariane Sadjed suggests that in today’s Iran there appears to be no conflict between Islam and modernity. It is rather a specific form of modernity in which competing ideologies are expressed through the system of consumption or habits of consumption. Nowadays, one cannot differentiate between the “Western” consumption of the upper class and the “Islamic” consumption of the supposedly traditionalist lower strata of society, as was the case in pre-revolutionary times.

The author notes that politically formulated demands for reform – e.g. as voiced during the protests after the 2009 elections – received much less attention in Western media, compared to visual expressions of opposition. In the majority, those protests did not demand an end to the Islamic Republic, but rather reforms within the system – a process in which religious institutions and civil rights activists should have a role. It may make sense to strengthen the developmental resources of such a broad-based drive for reform, instead of an apolitical (and commercial!) projection of “freedom” in a barely aesthetical sense.

Liselotte Abid
Department of Near Eastern Studies
University of Vienna

Primary Sources

Ariane Sadjed’s survey (140 returned questionnaires)
Iranian Lifestyle Magazines Zendegi-e Ideal (“Ideal Life”) and Donya-e Zanan (“World of Woman”)
Literary sources as listed pp. 205 – 222
Online sources: review and others as listed pp. 222 – 223

Dissertation Information

Humboldt University Berlin, Philosophical Faculty III. 2011. 226 pp. Dissertation originally written in German. Primary Advisors: Christina von Braun, Gabriele Dietze.

Image: Photo by Author.


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