A Discussion with Roksana Bahramitash, Director of Research, University of Montreal

With: Roksana Bahramitash Berkley Center Profile

December 2, 2007

Background: This conversation between Roksana Bahramitash and Katherine Marshall took place on December 2, 2007 as part of the preparatory work for a December 17, 2007 conference in Doha examining the role of faith-linked organizations on social and economic development in the Muslim world. In this interview, Bahramitash shares how her experiences working to promote literacy in post-revolutionary Iran led her to explore the role of faith-based organizations in development and in the informal economic sector across the Muslim world. She discusses the reach of informal women's organizations and microcredit systems in countries like Iran, Indonesia, and Turkey, and suggests that development initiatives must not ignore the Islamist groups that provide social safety nets within communities.

What path has brought you to your current position, and how has it involved you in working with faith-based organizations and international development?

I have worked throughout my career with grassroots organizations, initially in Iran, then more broadly. My interests focus especially on informal Islamic organizations and on women and microcredit.

I was born in Iran in a very secular family living under the regime of the shah. In the period before the shah was deposed and the revolution began, that is, during my teenage years, I was very politicized, largely inspired by literature coming from the Soviet Union. However, there was no possible way for me to get directly involved in the political movement at that time. Thus, I would describe myself as politicized but not active. 

After the revolution, I wanted to be involved in the work of development and particularly to contribute to improving women's development and their access to economic resources. I joined Khomeini in his jihad against illiteracy, and thus worked from the base of mosques, primarily with peasant women. These were the heady early days of the nationwide jihad, and many things were possible then which could not have happened under the shah. Specifically on literacy, there had been government-led literacy campaigns in villages, and they had involved much money, effort, and international support; there were also programs for women's health and education, but they were not successful. This was in large measure because they took place in a very secular framework, in keeping with the then very secular nation. They created resistance especially among rural women.

I personally worked on the literacy programs. I was excited to be part of it as it was a mass-based program, well able to reach out to peasants. I was very conscious that class background was a barrier to the effectiveness of programs because the managers had a middle class and secular outlook. I saw that the focus of the literacy and other programs in the mosque helped remove barriers. I helped set up a day care program in the mosque which continued to perform after I was gone, run by women for women.

My life took new directions after 1991, and I moved to Canada. I won a scholarship to study at a university in Canada and was also able to go overseas without my husband, a rare event at the time. However, midway through I found myself in Canada in 1991 with no means of support and four children to raise. In parallel I was troubled by how the revolution was unfolding. The ideas behind it, focused on social justice, were admirable, but around me I saw more and more focus on profits and on distribution of income to leaders and not the poor. I stopped being active and lost faith.

I had difficult years as a refugee in Canada, without support, and knew what it was to be poor and to fight welfare agencies for essential support. But I was able find work and then to continue my studies. I got back on my feet slowly, got my Ph.D. and postdoctorates, and was recognized with awards and published a book. There was a lot of damage to me physically and emotionally, but now I am working as a freelance researcher with several live projects.

I hope you write your story!

I have a book prospectus for a novel based on my life and am negotiating that possibility.

How did the movements of women take shape, and why do you think they were so successful?

After the revolution the situation for many veiled women, who had been excluded from everything, changed, and new avenues were open to them. The changes were led by religious leaders, starting with Ayatollah Khomeini, who asked them to become involved. Given traditional norms, men were initially uneasy about seeing their wives leaving the house and being involved in social campaigns, but when the religious leaders presented it as their duty to allow their wives to be involved with literacy campaigns, attitudes changed. Basically men were forced by religious leaders to let their wives go out of the house and participate. For the women, learning to read and write at mosques was also seen as a religious duty. The campaigns were very successful. Literacy dropped at a phenomenal rate. A major element in the success was that the campaigns were religiously faith-based.

Another very important initiative at this time was for family planning and reproductive health. Again, there had been ambitious programs under the shah during the 1970s, extending into the 1980s. The campaigns pushed for a two-child family and attracted lots of aid. However, the message failed to filter through. The IDRC [International Development Research Centre] and WHO were involved in a pilot program, based at Shiraze University, which was more successful but was interrupted by the revolution. Then, there was a confusing period when Marxists and a left inspired largely by Latin America and a form of liberation theology were critical of family planning and specifically the shah's programs. The conservatives who were further right on the spectrum were also critical. Thus for a time left and right agreed with the result that all reproductive health programs were banned. This led to major problems and specifically the huge population explosion in the in 1980s. There was recognition that Iran faced a problem, and thus a major change in approach. The constitution itself supported reproductive health rights, religious leaders were mobilized, issued fatwas pressing for family planning, and a remarkable program took form.

In rural areas, the program centered on young women who were trained to work as health workers (behvarz) in villages to teach women about reproductive health. In urban areas, the dynamics was different. In urban areas, the program relied entirely on volunteers. The program was highly successful, and it was entirely and intrinsically grassroots. The volunteers distributed condoms, pills, and leaflets. The key to success was pious women advising other pious women in the private space of their homes. Fertility per woman dropped from 7.0 in the 1970s to 2.2 in 2002; the United Nations has referred to Iran's performance on family planning as a miracle. However, the experience is not widely known, in part because of outside hesitations motivated by its reliance on religious authorities.

The literacy and family planning grassroots movements in many cases grew into parts of national NGOs, which began to take shape nationwide from the early 1980s. They gradually evolved and have come to be part of the international dialogue about family planning.

Family planning is looked at now as a human right in Iran. The changes started as a religiously motivated movement and became part of the broader international development movement only later. Mobilized women realized how important it was to work together in the national program.

That experience in turn gave them the confidence to form NGOs for other causes. The program and movement have developed, and now an essential part is classes for couples before they can get a certificate of marriage. Couples have to have sex education, including information about condom use, before they can marry. More recently, there has been an effort to extend marriage certificates to temporary marriages (sigheh) as means to prevent HIV spread.

How do you follow developments in Iran?

I work now as a scholar and am writing a book on female employment in Iran. My work on formal employment led me to investigate the importance of the informal economy, with a focus on the informal economy's impact on women, including faith-based finance and microcredit. I have a grant from the Canadian social science research council (SSHRC) that allows me to do continuing research in Iran. My program involves focus groups and interviews in these areas.

How does these informal women's organizations work?

There is a large, largely separate, parallel shadow economy in Iran today. As an example, the World Bank has identified the huge social safety net that operates in Iran, but its dimensions and how it works remains largely unknown. That is my area of focus.

Women from low-income neighborhoods are involved in raising huge amounts of funds for social purposes. When I was there one group, as an example, was able to raise some 2,000 dollars for an eye operation for a member. These funds are raised as charity, and the groups are remarkable effective at both fundraising and distribution. They operate in ways that are directly helpful and also preserve the dignity of the beneficiary. And it is women who play the important role. They work with families and community stakeholders. They have the information as they know who needs money, and they also know how to get it.

This system is tightly connected to religious values and religious institutions. There are different systems that work through the mosques, though, some run by men but others by women. This parallel system run by women translates into important empowerment in their sphere. I have concluded that it is a real mistake to look at poor Islamist women as victims. They have their own ways of empowering themselves.

The systems are complex and very locally based. They involve both the exchange and the care economies and are based on family and kin. Almost all of this takes place over the heads of the planners, and they capture almost none of the information about it. There are systems of rotating credit, for example.

Does this system use banks?

That depends, and there is a broad continuum and a wide variety of financing techniques, ranging from a cash basis to reliance on the mosques to support transactions to use of banks. In most cases they explicitly use Islamic finance techniques, meaning interest-free loans. There are systems of rotating credit within groups.

The more formal and established microcredit and enterprise systems tend to be male dominated. They are significant and are quite well known and researched. It is the informal systems that involve women that are little known and documented. Most researchers are middle class, from the elite, and they have difficulty researching and understanding the systems. There is an implicit bias in academia against religion, and this has led to overlooking faith-based grassroots development initiatives. This is reflected in academic work.

Why is that?

As in Turkey, there is great hesitation to recognize the role that religion plays, and a major role of class which introduces barriers. Under the shah this was explicit and very widespread, but it is still very significant today. The result is that there is very little research involving low-income communities and about the role that religion plays there. There is still a huge residue of secular traditions. This applies obviously to the diaspora populations, but also to people living today in Iran.

The approach to religion is very much class-based. Religion is particularly important for the poor, emotionally and practically. Its role and importance can readily be seen in Iranian politics. Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won election largely on his promise to address social issues and redistribute income. His opponent focused much more on economic reconstruction and not economic justice.

It is easy to see the differences in life in Iran's large cities (Tehran has 17 million people, remember). I went to the anniversary of the 1979 revolution, a major event with millions of people taking part. This is an implicit vote for the regime and millions of people were there, but there was no CNN, no BBC, no record of a huge number of people who attended this national day. (I have pictures of it.) At the conclusion of the march most of those who attended the march took the metro going to the poor sections of the city, while I took the metro leaving for uptown, where the middle class lives. From the early times of the revolution, people who went to the mosques were almost all low income. These class issues show up in many ways, and it is the middle classes who have means to leave Iran and to voice more clearly their secular opposition. If you want to reach the poor you need to understand these issues; in many settings the poor are effectively invisible to many even in Iran today.

There are real parallels with liberation theology approaches in many settings, among them Lebanon, where it is easy to miss seeing the important role that religion plays for the poor and thus to fail to understand the appeal of an organization like Hezbollah.

You use the term Islamist. What do you mean by it?

My main meaning is a practicing Muslim. But yes, it does have a political connotation also. It involves an effort to encourage others to become more Islamic. It is important to understand these attitudes and approaches. Whether we like them or not, we need to appreciate that these forces play important roles in community-based development. We need to document them much better.

What do you see as priority questions for this kind of research?

There is much that obscures the understanding of women's roles in poor Muslim societies. The issue of women's public roles comes up again and again. There is so much emphasis on civil and political rights in the international community. These concerns speak primarily to the middle classes and to secular society. The main concerns of religious communities and poor women is not civil and political rights but economic and social. Those who are struggling for existence, including those who migrate, are most concerned about how they can get help with social services, especially education and help when they face emergencies.

What are challenges for education in Iran, and how does that affect these communities where religion is so important?

The religious establishment is little involved in education in Iran because there are so many public schools, but they are important elsewhere, for example in Lebanon. Islamist groups play a key role.

How does the organization of these groups work? Are the community groups linked to one another, and how?

Again, there is a wide spectrum, from very small and informal to large, complex, and networked. The pattern I have observed most often is that a group will form in a particular neighborhood, among people who have come from a specific village or smaller city. They tend to settle together and use their own dialect and networks. Today there is wide use of the phone, including cell phones. There is a lot of gathering, so that the women in the community know how everyone is doing. The communities are closely knit. This gives them special strength in their access to fundraising in cities. In these large cities, there are many who do not get services.

One neighborhood where I am working has a major drug and prostitution economy. It is interesting that the criminal and social safety net communities work in parallel in the same neighborhood. This has been true throughout the past 35 years.

There are sometimes bridges that form between neighborhoods. Some of the links come through NGOs.

Iran has a huge number of NGOs, of many types. Some tend to be more low income, religiously based, while others are more secular. I do find the continuing importance of class distinctions quite shocking. There has been very little study of exchange of information within and between these communities. No one is doing that kind of research. But it is clear that there are links. During the Khatami period, the government was active in supporting these developments, through forums, conferences, etc., and through NGOs. Because of the sexual segregation that continues in Iran, women's NGOs flourish. The system does offer some real advantages for women because it gives room for women to have power within organizations and in the professions, also.

How are the mosques involved?

The mosques have men's and women's branches, and there is a host of activities around them. This includes lots of economic support. Many activities take place around the mosques. Some are turned into schools, but the main role is that the mosques are gathering places, and these serve the role of informal information exchange. Women learn about each other through going to the mosque and religious festivals. There are many festivals, Shi'a, general and very specific.

A development I am witnessing is the development of these festivals and celebrations. Women lead them for other women, recite the Qur'an, and there is sometimes singing, Sufi songs, drums, and candles. The middle class tend to perform these religious festivities as a spiritual exercise, and they are more inclined to be Sufi in type, but the low-income women have more established religious festivities. They are in effect Islamic parties. And they are so beautiful and moving that they are catching on in wider circles. They are becoming a bit trendy.

Thus women come together to eat and network. There is much economic activity that comes together around these events. There is a wide array of important all-female economic trades. One example is hairdresser, but in one community I learned that women are also working there as estate agents. They may have no shop or office, but there is a huge market of both consumers and sellers, that take a wide variety of forms. They run private concerts, for example, and fashion shows. Food processing, catering, and hairdressing are all important.

Thus, to reiterate, the informal economy is extremely important, and it is little-documented and very much related to sexual segregation. There is huge money and big business involved when the middle class comes into the picture, though in poor communities it is mostly about charity and survival. In Iran where unemployment is so high the informal economy takes on special importance.

What are the financing mechanisms involved, and how do they involve religious principles and the mosques more instrumentally? Is the money collected considered zakat?

I do not research zakat; it is more male oriented. Zakat is formal Islamic tax. What is much more common is that funds are considered charity, or garza al hassaneh and a loan with no interest which good Muslims with financial resources place at the disposal of those who are in need of cash. Often terms of repayment are flexible; there is no collateral other than moral responsibility, and if the person is unable to repay, it can be forgotten. This is an effective system of microcredit. Funds are raised and distributed by women through the mosques. Another term used in Iran is nazr, which is a common term that brings blessings to those who give.

Women are rarely the breadwinners, so they are not likely to do zakat. Zakat is more of a male thing, while women do nazr.

How did you become involved in Indonesia, and how does it compare to what you saw in Iran?

I worked on projects in Indonesia just after the East Asian financial crisis, thus in 2000, under a Canadian CIDA [Canadian International Development Agency] project. I was working with Islamic higher education association on women's roles. There are two major Islamic women's groups. One is largely middle class (Muslimat), the other more popular (Fatayah). I was most interested in the latter. It is very large and is heavily represented in rural areas and in poor communities. I was struck by a similar class dynamic to what I had seen in Iran. Indonesia's women's organizations have had similar success with family planning. It too uses volunteer women from low income backgrounds. A significant difference is that the Indonesian program was partly funded by the Ford Foundation. Iran had no outside funding and was purely faith-based and volunteer. Indonesia's programs are thus better documented and have received much more recognition of work they were doing internationally.

But the mechanisms and ways the women worked and their links to the religious institutions were rather similar.

As you look at the Berkley Luce FBO project and December consultation, what are the issues you would most like to see addressed?

The role of women in the informal sector is an important and neglected issue, and it ties in closely to religious institutions and ideas. We could discuss the ways faith-based organizations of an Islamist nature are involved in grassroots work. The issue is that this community-based work is invisible in most settings and is not viewed as the social support it should be. There is a major need for research, especially in the field of social anthropology.

What are the policy implications? What can be done to support or encourage these systems?

Recognition of their efficiency and importance is a major first step. This can start with the ministry of women's affairs. They should recognize that women are helping as a safety nets. There are steps that could encourage job creation and with setting up businesses. Too much effort and funds go now to emergencies and consumer goods, so efforts could be made to encourage and facilitate investment.

There is much that could be done through training programs, for example around microcredit. Accounting is an example.

This could make a difference for unemployment. Governments do not know how to address job creation. Clinics could advise on how to improve entrepreneurship, marketing. There are possibilities to work with NGOs as cooperatives. Cooperatives are important economic institutions under the constitution. They could receive help with computers. Women are often highly skilled (68 percent of university students today).

This also means that women's skills need to be recognized. There is much unemployment among educated women, including from poor communities. Since the government cannot generate employment, it is up to the informal economy.

The development community tries to parachute projects. From what I have seen there are huge gaps in understanding of what can work. The approach needs to focus on what works, on indigenous and sustainable initiatives.

The major bias against religious organizations in international organizations needs to be addressed. In places it is not even possible to have a discussion. Yet more and more women are joining Islamist groups because economic issues and rights are what is most important to them, and the Islamist organizations cater to them.

Any concluding thoughts?

I think documentation of women's role in the informal sector in low-income neighborhoods as part of social safety net is very critical. There is a need for action research which will produce policy prescriptions. I have been involved in a few international development initiatives and am often disappointed by the fact that these initiatives are parachuted on communities. People in London, New York, Ottawa, and Washington, D.C. formulate policies and allocate funds and start a project without considering existing resources. This is particularly critical in the Middle East because religion is a major social and political force. Yet, because of secular bias, development initiatives overlook the role faith-based organizations of Islamic types play in social safety nets and poverty alleviation and the role women play in them. In my opinion one-size-fits-all has limitations, and now that Islam is a major mobilizing force in many parts of the Muslim world, it needs to be taken seriously. Development initiatives need to be engaged with Islamist groups which provide social safety nets, or else they will face serious challenges.

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