Domesticity and Consumer Culture in Iran (2012) -- Book Review

"An individual's class status was defined not so much by the ways in which he or she used a chair [...] but by whether one actually owned a chair." -- from 'Cold War: economies of desire and domesticity' 
Domesticity and Consumer Culture in Iran: Interior Revolutions of the Modern Era (Iranian Studies)
By Pamela Karimi 

I found this book randomly browsing the shelves of the library and the title was incredibly fascinating-- promising more about houses, living places, and the warmth of real people. I also thought it would be illuminating for a project I'm working on, since in many ways Iranian culture can be considered, even if tangentially, similar to other cultures of the Middle East. I had in the past months also greatly enjoyed Marjane Satrapi's Perselopis and Chicken with Plums, and in the past days the subtle and generous character studies in the film About Elly.

The first thing that struck me was that this book presents multiple perspectives of every phenomenon, making it one of the least biased texts I have had the pleasure of reading. On one hand it highlights the negative repercussions of the cultural imperialism that the United States had on Iran, which had the effect of reducing people from being proud of their heritage and culture into a cringing, embarrassed version of themselves, riddled with class consciousness and mimicry of the perceived "superior" nation. Yet, on another hand it clearly demonstrates the improvements and advancements which occurred directly as a result of US influence in Iran.

One example of this sort of double sided impression has to do with the way living arrangements were pre-US and post-US influence. I was surprised to feel ambiguously about this particularly because I'm partly through reading National Geographic's The World of Islam which has a picture of a typical Iranian household before it's "modernisation" -- and the living situation initially from the description in the book and pictures such as the one below struck me as inhuman, sordid, and absolutely repellent. The typical Iranian house in the 1920s was divided into the andarūn, reserved for only females and where all the cooking and washing is located, and the bīrūnī reserved only for males and which is furnished more affluently. The segregation is complete, even between members of the same family. Sons are sent to live with their fathers from a very young age and grow up largely within the bīrūnī. 

On the other hand, and what the surface reading fails to illuminate, is that the houses are constructed this way for reasons that the US failed to understand and simply attributed to segregation. As quoted in the book, the "traditional house was a self sufficient micro community in itself[...]herbs and vegetables often grown in the courtyard, much of the meat and dairy products came from the animals raised on the premises[...]multiple functions took place in a single room and the overall arrangement of the interior was based on kin relations."

The extent in which cultural relativism can confound one can be seen in the dress of the typical Iranian woman of the past. Here in the picture we see them wearing long amorphous black gowns, yet their opinions of European clothing, which in many ways could be described as the opposite, are the furthest from positive. One Iranian woman quotes,
"How could they [European women] wear something like a cage (corset) with bones in it to make their waists narrow? In reality they are a prisoner in their costumes...They talk of freedom of women in Europe, yet it seems to me that they lack any because so many rules and regulations exist for eating, drinking, dressing, sleeping, and even just existing." -- from The Hovel, the Harem, and Hybrid Furnishing. 
 In the end it seems to me that what women in both the Western and Easten discourses seemed to lack was the agency to decide how they wanted to dress -- chaddor or not, corset or not. The people of Iran were faced with the same issues -- yes, I believe their way of living had much to be improved upon -- but it was their choice to make, and it disturbed me to read some of the examples of the ads that conflated being Western to being Modern -- as though the typical Iranian (who at that time in the 20s wasn't used to sitting on chairs) -- was somehow backward, uncultured, and not worthy of respect. In the same way, when women were 'liberated' in Iran, they were forced out of their veils -- rather than it being a choice. In every aspect it seemed their actions were governed and dictated by external rather than internal forces -- either their own government or one outside.

The awkward clumsiness of so much changing and the people of Iran (un)adapting is probably best illustrated in two remarkable examples in the book. One was about an American Christian missionary who was invited to dinner to a wealthy Iranian family's house. The furniture and architecture of the house was completely Western, but she was shocked to see standing in the kitchen, two lady servants plucking a chicken, feathers flying everywhere on the marble counter in a manner very authentically Iranian.

The other example has an interesting relation to this blog as it was about an Iranian film which was afterwards censored and banned for its content. The film was titled Under the Skin of the Night (1974) and related the story of a poor Iranian man who meets an American girl. They find a connection between themselves and decide to have sex. However, as a bachelor he lives in the squalid joined housing of other poor workers like him, as he cannot afford individual housing, nor is he allowed to rent a hotel night due to his circumstances (even though she is willing to pay for it). They spend the night roaming the glittering city searching for a bed. It's a highly symbolic tale, and it ends with the man standing in front of a model home with beds advertised, staring at the bed and imagining the American girl naked on the bed. From the corner of the street, other homeless men watch him watching the bed with the girl next to him.

This kind of jarring of two worlds, the ache and unfairness and lack of words to express is what's best illustrated in this book -- it's extremely difficult for me to summarize in any way the contents of this book yet if I had to, it would be this, the total significance of the private life in social, economic, and political contexts of modern Iran and the interplay between local aspirations and the foreign influences all of it wrapped up in the role of consumables and objects, things as simple but as revolutionary as a chair.

I liked: The ambiguity. No easy answers or explanations. Nothing was set in stone yet everything was examined like a documentary. Wide wide scope.

I disliked: I would have liked to hear more voices from the Iranian women, and maybe some discourse on how their answers may have been influenced by other voices rather than their own. So for example, the Iranian lady who critiqued European dress to be imprisoning, it would be nice to hear why she thought her tent-like clothing was freeing.

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in history, culture, sociology, women studies, or an interest in the Middle East or Iran. It's a powerful, engaging book which can be easily appreciated by a scholar of the field as much as by someone seeking to learn something new. Since the book is composed of four different essays by different writers we get a breadth of voices and opinions, especially helpful in a book of this sort. History should never be composed of one voice, and the beauty and strength of this book is in the polyphony of voices here. Absolutely wonderful. 


  1. Thank you for this very generous review. I am grateful for your wise comments and I appreciate your careful reading of the book. Please just note that this is a monograph and not an edited volume.
    Thanks again for your interest in my work!
    Pamela Karimi

  2. Thank you for your kind words and my apologies for the confusion. I've corrected it now. --M.

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