Modernizing the household

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)”

By the mid 1930s the Company was increasingly faced with the exigency of finding ways to house its enormous workforce, but it also had to adapt it to the stringent technical exigencies and special demands of modern industry. Once trained and familiarized with the rigors of their industrial jobs, permanent workers became valuable assets, human capital, that needed to be retained, to be kept relatively content, dependent on their wages, and docile. The designed spaces of the city increasingly became an instrument for achieving these goals. The details of the urban design, from the layout and architecture of the houses to the types of material used in their construction, the variations in the designed and organized spaces of entertainment and leisure, the types of walls and enclosures surrounding residences and their heights, the length and width of streets and alleys, the morphology of planned formal neighborhoods, and the types of kitchens, lavatories, and amenities made available collectively or installed in individual units, etc. were all intentional elements of a mechanism of spatial socialization in the Company enclaves.
The French geographer Xavier de Planhol has argued that the walled-in row houses of the workers were designed to duplicate “native architecture” and a sense of privacy, rooted in “Islamic values”.[62] In fact, far from adhering to the local rural and pastoral domestic architectural forms these row houses were designed with two apparent purposes in mind: first, the mass production of a great number of cheap and durable residential units and, second, to directly intervene in the domestic space of the family and to modernize it.[63]
For one thing there were essential elements of local domestic architecture missing from these designed Company housing for workers. The tiny courtyards and high walls prevented air circulation, a great inconvenience in the atrociously humid and hot summer months. The widespread use of new or modern construction materials, such as bricks, roof plates, concrete, and metal frames, instead of adobe, reeds, rushes, and lumber (from palm drees), were faster, standardized, capable of being industrially mass produced, and cheaper; but unlike traditional materials they did not have the ability to modify extreme seasonal and climatic fluctuations. As a result, these Company houses depended on modern amenities, such as electricity, fans, some form of air conditioning, and heaters (gas and electricity were provided exclusively by the Company, and at its discretion), over time became common features in Company housing. The provision of these modern amenities, as well as sewerage, piped water, and medical facilities, helped to augur in new notions of personal hygiene and public health.
In Company towns the monopoly ownership by the Company of the means of production, as well as of reproduction, is the main instrument of social control. In other words, both occupation and the source of income – as well as real estate, housing, and social services – are in the monopoly of the Company. In market societies the household, aside from being the smallest social unit, plays a key role in in shaping the “individual”, and in placing him/her within larger networks of social relations necessary for the continued accumulation of capital. For this reason larger institutional powers, especially the state and organized capital, consistently attempt to penetrate the household and to shape and regulate it according to their norms and interests. This intervention often requires the imposition of radical change upon existing household organizations, and sometimes even the prevention of the survival of these older forms.
The rigidly fixed residential architecture of the Company housing in the enclaves of Abadan and Masjed-Soleyman, prevented the accommodation of large extended families, the basic unit of social life in the region. Nor did it allow the use of the domestic space for alternative economic and productive activities that were prevalent throughout the region, such as the maintenance of livestock and poultry for the production of meat, dairy, and eggs, or vegetable garden plots. The small, one- or two-roomed houses were not even practical for traditional handcrafts, such as kilim weaving. All these activities, quite widespread in the region up to this day, are crucial for allowing the household to act as an autonomous economic unit by providing additional income and food supplements. As importantly, these economic activities also happen to be the realm of the economic agency of children and, especially, women.
Overall, the designed domestic architecture of the Company enclaves promoted the nuclear family as its privileged unit, but it also altered gender roles within the household, as well as the other major division of labor between different generations. In this setting the adult male becomes the sole legitimate economic agent, in the sense of his productive activity being socially validated through the labor market. The workplace was thus separated and set apart from the place of residence, and the result of the male wage earner’s economic activity would return to the household in the monetary form.
The other consequence of this spatial division of labor was to make the house the exclusive domain of the wife/woman, but at the same time to deprive it of the economic and productive activities it previously allowed. At the same time, domestic space also became a boundary between the private and the public domains, and thus a physical constraint for women who could no longer easily and routinely cross the porous boundaries of the household space into the public arena as economic producers in their own right[64].
This spatial and gender division of labor effectively imposed a new role of homemaker upon women living in Company enclaves, and in many ways dramatically limited their former social roles. Contrary to the “traditional” extended household of pastoralist and agrarian local societies, the “modern” nuclear family was a social form imposed by the domestic architecture of Company enclaves. For one thing, the Company housing architecture curtailed the number of children and other generations or relatives who could live under the same roof, primarily because of the shortage of space and the architectural design of the houses. Ordinarily, the only other generation who could reside in these houses were the children who, instead of participating in collective household productive activities, were sent out to schools (vocational and regular) in order to eventually replace their parents at home, at the workshop, the refinery, and the oil fields, after several years of disciplined training and socialization[65].
This modernization of the family, gender, and women has been a mainstay of “modernity”. However, its early imposition from above in Khuzestan’s company towns set the stage for its replication as a desired model of development later on across the country, long after the AIOC (Anglo Iranian Oil Company, as APOC came to be renamed after 1933) had relegated its role to the oil Consortium and the Iranian state in 1953. The anomie and social problems mentioned have remained acute in the newer and smaller company towns of Khuzestan and elsewhere, such as the agroindustrial model villages of Dezful, the sugar-cane plantations of Haft-Tappeh, the steel town of Mobarakeh, the copper-mining town of Sarcheshmeh, the industrialmachinery town of Arak, etc. This is especially the case for women, where geographic isolation and their seclusion in the household is not relieved by the large scale of the urban setting and the diversity of city life, as it was in Abadan and Masjed-Soleyman.[66] .


Notes & References:
62. De Planhol, “Abadan”.

63. See Hayden, The Grand Domestic Revolution; Yeoh, Contesting Space in Colonial Singapore; Donzelot, The Policing of Families; Michelle Perrot, ed., A History of Private Life: From the Fires of Revolution to the Great War, vol. 4 (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1990); Crawford, Building the Workingman’s Paradise: The Design of American Company Towns.

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

65. On the social impact of the modernization of the extended household in Khuzestan see Ehsani, “Urban Provincial Periphery in Iran: Revolution and War in Ramhormoz”; Goodell, The Elementary Structures of Political Life.

66. For the case of the sugar-cane plantation in Haft-Tappeh see Ministry of Agriculture, Tarhe Eskane Karkonane Vahedha-ye Haftgane-ye Tarhe Tose’e-ye Neyshekar va Sanaye-eJjanebi (Tehran, 1990). On Dezful’s agribusiness towns see Goodell, Elementary Structures of Political Life. On planned industrial townships in Iran see Azam Khatam, “Molahezat-e Ejtema-yi dar Makan-yabi va Ehdas-e Shahrha-ye San’ati”, Ettelaat Siasi-Eqtesadi, 53/54 (1992), pp. 59-60. Khatam’s research is based on fieldwork and interviews with many residents of several company towns in Khuzestan, Arak, and Isfahan. See also J. Varesi, Do Negaresh be Sakht-e do No-Shahr dar Shahrha-ye Jadid-e Iran (Tehran: Ministry of Housing and Urbanism, 1994).


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