Illusions of Segregation: Servants and the Politics of Domestic Households

Braim, Abadan 1940's Source: BP
Braim, Abadan 1940’s
Source: BP
Credit: Kaveh Ehsani, Leiden University
From “The social history of labor in the Iranian oil industry : the built environment and the making of the industrial working class (1908-1941)”

Illusions of Segregation: Servants and the Politics of Domestic Households
As it turned out Greenhouse’s urgency in the autumn of 1925 had not been misplaced. The climate and major political events conspired to postpone the whole affair. The rainy season came and made large-scale construction impractical. The Majles voted to depose the Qajar Dynasty and appoint a new monarchy, headed by Reza Shah Pahlavi. The political transition was so momentous that it put the whole affair on hiatus as far as the central government was concerned, but not for the Company, who faced the double urgency of addressing critical sanitary conditions, coupled with the desire to take exclusive control of urban space.
In 1926, the Company prepared itself for a long-term re-organization given the new circumstances (Chapter 5). The discussions and meetings between directors in London, and field managers in Iran were arranged around John Cadman’s official visit for the coronation in April 1926. Arnold Wilson highlighted some of the essential matters up for review during Cadman’s visit. Chief among these were: “The new market and the main gate are essential features of the sanitary and housing improvement…the selected site aims at moving [the new] bazaar away from insanitary lower section of the Sheikh’s village and to fit it into the sites where new villages are being erected… Sewerage (waterborne) will be extended to these new villages.”[142]

Once again the themes that dominated Company plans were erecting gates, segregating space, creating exclusive sanitary conditions, and providing an urban infrastructure (waterborne sewage) only for these Company areas. The fact that dumping the human sewage from Company areas into the river where it would infect the water intake of the rest of the “native city” a few hundred meters downstream was an inconvenient fact that was often acknowledged on scientific grounds, but ironically did not undermine the segregationist plans (It will be recalled that at this stage only 7 piped water public outlets had been established for the entire Shahr, which Company correspondence estimated to have a population of 25 thousand). As we have seen, on numerous occasions Company officials had stressed the fact that urban sanitary prevention measures had to be inclusive and universal, otherwise they simply would not work. Europeans, skilled Indian workers, and casual Iranian workers shared the workspace of the refinery and had to physically interact on a quotidian basis. For another thing, European expatriates were heavily dependent on domestic servants for cooking, cleaning, disposing of garbage, gardening their lawns, washing their cloths, carrying their goods, attending and caring for their children, etc. These routine everyday physical interactions simply undermined the scientific justification for racial and class spatial segregation, and revealed them for what they were: The urban design of a built environment for the maintenance of unequal relations of power and dominance based on racial and class differences.
Although there is more material available for the post-WW2 period, I have not come across specific information regarding servants and domestic workers during this interwar years. Nevertheless, through routine and casual references found in archival materials over the years, we know that servants and household domestics always formed significant numbers in Abadan. In the last years of the AIOC operations before nationalization there were more than two thousand servants working for
Europeans in Company areas[143]. Many servants lived in the Shahr, or routinely interacted with people there. Initially many domestic servants were Indians, especially cooks from Goa were highly appreciated. After the re-negotiated 1933 Oil Agreement, the Company committed to replace Indian workers with Iranians, but as in 1920 and 1922 when the striking Indians had been expelled (Chapter 5), this new attempt to replace Indians did not create problems only in the workplace, but also in households where skilled cooks were deemed essential for domestic comfort and culinary satisfaction:
“Lack of good cooks depresses men further…Iranians are bad cooks, but eager to learn…they have no experience of a varied diet and do not present food in appetizing form. They only know how to fry and boil… Even if the cookery schools train many, they can’t get to serve 500 bungalows. A man can’t be expected to go home and prepare or supervise his own food…the cook’s position is perhaps today the most irritating factor in the food position at Abadan… [Given that by late 1930s Abadan had many married couples in residence it was important not to take things too far:] It is not suggested, at the moment, that the lady inhabitants of Abadan should actually do their own cooking in the cookhouses attached to the bungalows. But they can supervise the preparation of food and control the cook”[144].

This report is rich on so many levels – and one does wonder about the statement by an Englishman about bland cooking – but more significant are the politics of gender, the division of household labor, and the perceived role of the “lady” of the house, topics of great significance that will be analyzed elsewhere (in chapter 7 I touch upon the politics of household in the Company enclaves, but a fuller treatment of the topic will be undertaken in a future study). However, what we need to emphasize here is that the notion of spatial segregation justified on the grounds of sanitation was merely an illusion, obfuscating and reinforcing the underlying unequal relations of power in an industrial city. To the extent that fresh food was available it had to be produced and purchased locally, which was one of the reasons for the urgency of building a modern bazaar. Servants purchased food and prepared it in the European areas. They cleaned, kept order, and did the laundry. Even in married couples’ quarters there were routine and physical everyday interactions with domestic workers, who may have appeared invisible when crossing the rigid fences and gates raised around the Company areas to keep out contamination. Consequently, the illusion of ensuring protection from epidemic hazards by enforcing and maintaining spatial segregations with the indigeneous population did not jibe with practical realities.
In the aftermath of the 1933 re-negotiated oil agreement, Iran’s insistence on the further Iranianization as part of the new Concession led to significant changes in the built environment, as the provision of housing and urban amenities for Iranian employees became a new requirement. JM Wilson, the Company architect and urban planner, proposed the development of an “Abadan Garden City for the mixed population of first, second, and third class employees”. As the explicit exclusion of Iranian nationals from Company benefits was becoming politically untenable, hierarchical distinction by assigned employment grade became the new norm for access to urban amenities and living conditions. The idea of “the garden city”, it will be recalled, was initiated by Ebenezer Howard at the turn of the century, as a utopian utilitarian solution for overcoming the urban malaise of class strife, inequality, and unsanitary living and working conditions, by creating garden cities in the countryside, combining workplace and living quarters by employers and employees side by side[145]. As quickly as it was conceptualized, the idea had become the inspirational basis of the rising urban planning movement in the era of social reform, but not as Howard had intended. The idea was adopted as the basis of residential suburbanization for the middle classes in Britain and the US; and of planned exclusive areas in the colonies[146]. The original idea of organically combining work and everyday life in the same selfsustaining green geography was dropped. Women, in particular, became highly isolated and alienated in these posh spaces where they were relegated to domestic work only or, as was suggested above, to the task of overseeing servants doing the household tasks according to prescribed middle class standards[147].
J.M. Wilson was a Scottish architect who had served as assistant to Edwyn Lutyens during his reconstruction of Delhi. The most prominent architect of the turn of the century, Lutyens had been among the first to implement a gentrified version of Howard’s garden city idea for building middle class suburbs around London’s Hamspted Heath. He then implemented the concept on a much vaster and imperial scale to Delhi by creating exclusive enclaves148. His assistant, JM Wilson, was later hired to design buildings in colonized Iraq after WWI, building the Baghdad train station and the university there. He was then engaged in 1925-1926 to oversee a much grander project, not for an Imperial employer, but for a private corporation APOC, to develop long term urban development plans for Abadan. This was one of the largest company town projects in the world[149], excluding the equally massive projects that were taking shape in the Soviet Union during the 1930s[150].
The idea of designing new urban areas for “a mixed population” of Europeans and elite Iranian employees sat very uneasily with the Company directors. The plans were for the development of Bawarda and additional parts of Braim into major housing estates for clerks, staff, and higher skilled artisans. D. Jameson, the General Manager, objected to Wilson’s proposal expressing his fear of contamination: “We will encounter great trouble for that area in case of epidemics, since there is much communication there that are not under Company’s control… it is preferable to have the European staff isolated from others. In other eastern countries Europeans live apart as they don’t have the same immunity to disease as natives do”[151].
Bawarda, in particular, was considered with hesitation due to its proximity to the Shahr: “Bawarda is not ideal for a European area, as when cholera broke out it would be all around there, and many inhabitants of the ‘new colony’ would be carriers of typhoid and dysentery”. Elkington, the General Manager at Abadan, was particularly concerned that “the large number of servants already in the Bungalow area (Braim) are probably already carriers”.
However, with the new agreement imposing “Persianization” on the Company, avoiding the risk of contamination to Europeans could no longer function as a scientific justification for maintaining the racial and class system of power that kept being reinforced through spatial segregation. Jameson remarked, “One of the greatest difficulties in the future would be that every Persian who could read or write would imagine that he was a first class employee.” Brewster reassured him that some degree of segregation would always be maintained: “Even if the whole Company were completely Persianized, there would still be class distinctions, and the executives would move to the present Bungalow Area (Braim)”, an accurate prediction of what transpired in the following years[152].
The sanitary idea continued to act as justification for spatial segregation, and became a permanent feature of the built environment of oil. While maintaining explicit racial segregation became increasingly untenable due to political circumstances over the following years, other forms of spatial hierarchy by rank, employment status, and social class persisted and became ingrained into the urban fabric of the refinery city and imbued its habitus. We will now return to our story of the decisive period of transition in 1926-1927, to close the story of the bazaar and see how the urban frictions and struggles developed and shaped Abadan in its aftermath.


Notes & References :
141. “Note on Abadan Bazaar position”, no date, no author (probably A.T.Wilson), BP 71183

142. A.T.Wilson: “Some matters suggested for Sir John Cadman’s attention while on visit to Persia”, Dossier 2, Letters from A.T. Wilson to A.C. Hearn, 23 February 1926, BP 71183

143. “Preventing the flood Workers to Oil Regions, Finding Employment for Abadan’s Unemployed, Restarting the Refinery”, 1950-1951, INA 240017450

144. William D.D. Jardine: A report on the food facilities at Abadan and the Fields”, 1937/1938, BP 49700

145. Ward, “The Garden City Tradition Re-Examined”; Peter Batchelor, “The Origin of the Garden City Concept of Urban Form,” Journal of Society of Architectural Historians 28, no. 3 (1969): 184–200; Hall, Cities of Tomorrow.

146. R.K. Home, “Town Planning and Garden Cities in the British Colonial Empire 1910-1940,”
Planning Perspectives 1990, no. 5 (1990): 23–37.

147. Aldridge, “Only Demi-Paradise? Women in Garden Cities and New Towns”; Hayden, Redesigning the American Dream.

148. Irving, Indian Summer.

149. I have analyzed the development of company towns elsewhere. On average, industrial and mining company towns were built for relatively small populations of employees, averaging around 5 to 10 thousand. Abadan was on an altogether different scale, and the fact that a significant segment of the population always remained excluded, but adjacent to the Company areas, defined its hybrid character and political and social dynamics. See Ehsani, “Social Engineering and Modernization in Khuzestan’s Company Towns”; Margaret Crawford, Building the Workingman’s Paradise: The Design of American Company Towns (London: Verso, 1995); Oliver J. Dinius and Angela Vergara, eds., Company Towns in the Americas: Landscape, Power, and Working-Class Communities (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2011).

150. Stephen Kotkin, Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization (University of California Press, 1997).

151. “Visit to Persia, February/March 1934: Notes of meetings held at Abadan, 22 February to 1 March 1934”, Volume 2,

152, BP 67590 152 Ibid.

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