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Cultural Understanding: The Basseri of Iran

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Introduction

Various definitions of the term “culture” have been proposed by various scholars, but anthropologists and other behavioral science scholars see it as “the full range of learned human behavior patterns” (O’Neil, 2006).  In his book titled Primitive Culture, Taylor described culture as a complex entity, which is made up of knowledge, morals, laws, beliefs, customs, pieces of art and any other aspects and habits that are acquired by people of a given society (Tylor, 1903). Based on these two definitions, culture can be considered a composition of various human ways of life that are adopted by people occupying a common geographical location for the sake of their survival.

As such, societies’ primary modes of subsistence can be perceived as a major factor that affects other cultural behaviors in those societies. In order to explain this point of view, this paper has studied the pastoral mode of subsistence in the Bassseri community in Iran to assess its impact on community’s kinship, social organization, and gender relations.

Modes of Subsistence

Modes of subsistence refer to the main economic activities through which a community gets food to feed its members. Historically, there are four main modes of subsistence adopted by traditional communities. These included pastoralism, foraging, agriculture, and horticulture. Nowak & Laird (2010) define pastoralism as a lifestyle adopted by a community that involves herding of various animals for the purpose of survival, using animals as source of food and means of producing monetary value from animals’ existence.

Community Background

Basseri community is one of the five Kamseh communities, which inhabits the area around Persian Gulf in Iran. They are pastoral nomads occupying approximately 210, 000 square kilometers of land in the Far province of Iran. Due to hot and humid climate of this region, Basseri people have adopted a nomadic lifestyle. They usually migrate along the mountains and steppes around Shiraz town. This habit defines them in political terms rather than geographic or ethnic terms (Khanam, 2005). It is estimated that the number of migrating Basseri people is approximately 16,000 individuals all living within Iranian nation (Barth, 1961).

Their flock consists of horses, camels, sheep, and goats among other cattle from which they get skin, wool, and milk for their survival. Despite frequent hot and dry weather, this region receives some short precipitations that make it possible to grow vegetation necessary to feed community’s herds. Mountainous surroundings are the reason for these precipitations.

Kinship

Coon (2009) defines kinship as a close connection within a community. It is marked by a sense of belonging in individuals forming different units within that community. This sense of belonging is based on various relationships, such blood relationships, which connect parents and their children together forming a family. Marriage has also been another type of connection in a community that together with blood relationships forms a bigger unit of genealogical kinship. Additionally, mutual understanding among different people in a community can bring them together by bond of trust to form a close relationship of historical or cultural kinship within a community.

As pointed above, the pastoral mode of subsistence in the Basseri community has affected their stability in geographical area. The nomadic way of life causes them to keep migrating from one geographical area to another in search of pasture and water for their cattle. This has resulted into loose ties between members of this community in any permanent dwelling place. This culture needs temporary structures such as tents as the form of family shelter.

Culturally, the primary social unit in Basseri community is a nuclear family sharing a tent. Their nomadic lifestyle has made the entire community perceive tents as units within a society that describe people who belong to a given nuclear family. The society expects every tent to be independent in terms of its production and consumption. The male is a head in a family and the representative of each tent in the next social unit - camp (Amanolahi, 2003). The pastoral mode of subsistence is the sole reason for the formation of closer relationships between different tents that join up to make small herding units in camps.

Biological or blood kinship in the Basseri community is considered in three different points. Agnatic kinship is given more preference compared to the matrilateral and affinal kinship. In the matters of succession, the agnatic relations or the patrilateral kin is given predominance. A son of a Basseri is considered a Basseri even if the mother comes from a different tribe. On the other hand, woman’s offspring losses rights of the Basseri tribe when she marries outside the tribe.

Historically, winter season has been associated with shrinking of camp sizes, usually to a range of 2 to 5 tents per herding unit, otherwise referred to as camps. It is in these herding units that cultural kinship of the Basseri community is manifested. The size of these camps is expected to grow to accommodate 10-40 tents during other times of the year. Regardless of unstable nature of community residence, the kinship bond between members of a camp as supportive neighbors remains constant (Amanolahi, 2003). During migration in the search for new pasture, members of these camps move as a block, without scattering beyond 200 000 square miles. The sense of belonging and kinship in these camps makes every member accountable for each other since they are all driven by one common factor, which is love for each other and dependency on cattle for their livelihood.          

Social Organizations

Social organizations within the Basseri community are largely affected by nomadic lifestyle, where the core point of interaction lies in the survival of their herds and entire community. Basic social organizations are camps (herding units) composed of politically independent tents.     

Economically, every tent within these camps held rights of their overall movable assets including their flock. However, the efficiency of herding calls for the formation of herding units (Barth, 1961). As it was discussed before, the shrinking of camp sizes to a maximum of 5 tents and minimum of 2 tents per camp is a result of harsh weather conditions during winter seasons. Despite the weather, close relationship created by love for their livestock forces the Basseri community to live together.  It is the responsibility of every member of the camp to always be a good neighbor. As such, these people always consult each other regarding the issues of migration, economic factors, and the selection of campsites. The camps endeavor to live based on daily unanimous agreements, which are created in various ways such as by coercion or mutual consent through a number of compromises for the sake of the whole camp (Khanam, 2005).      

Coon (2009) noted that the community moves in relatively compact groups in accordance to the agreed plan, usually on the new solar or Persian year, which is after every 120 days. The knowledge of a shared interest and dependency on herding makes social interaction so close that it helps to build solid trust among all members. During the migration, one member of the tent, who is responsible for driving the herds, has also the major influence in deciding where all people will camp every evening of the migration. In addition to the place of camping in the evening, this member has the power to decide on matters of the route to the agreed destination on the behalf of the whole camp (Amanolahi, 2003). All other members riding on the loaded donkeys are expected to obey his decisions.    

According to Nowak & Laird (2010), marriage in the Basseri community is considered an affair that concerns every member of tents, which the bride and the groom come from. It is not just an agreement between the two people alone. Here, the sense of communal belonging and responsibility brought about by pastoral lifestyle remain the guiding principles. Just as in the case of other social and political affairs, the leader of a tent preserves the power and right to make arrangements for any marriage of any member of his tent in consultation with the leader of the other tent, from which the bride or the groom comes. The pastoral culture makes other members respect the decision of the tent leader, usually the husband in that nuclear family.

Their common love and value for herds lead them to form a tradition to set certain kind of bride price and divorce or widow’s insurance to be paid by the groom. Major components of the bride price are the herds of a certain number as agreed upon and a prearranged portion of the groom’s estate as the divorce or widow’s insurance.

In order to maintain stability, the Basseri community designed their marriages in a manner that is likely to keep the tents in a stable and continuous nomadic way of life. After marriage, the new wife moves to the groom’s tent since men are meant to inherit their father’s wealth (Coon, 2009). As such, the newly married man and his wife stay in the man’s paternal ‘home’ to continue caring for his and his father’s herds.

Within Basserian camps, there is usually no formal division of labor, but male and female roles are relatively clear. During their migration and resettlement everybody participates in the packing and loading of tents’ households after spending many hours preparing for the migration (Barth, 1961). The assumption is that every member of the tent has the responsibility to take care of the tents’ properties, especially the cattle. Even when travelling to the new location, one member of the tent is entrusted with the responsibility of driving the herd on foot, while the rest of members ride on top of loaded donkeys.

Despite the fact that there is no formal division of labor, female members of the tents have relatively fewer chores to perform as compared to men. This is due to the fact that herding is a harder job and, therefore, best done by men. Barth (1961) associates high fertility rate of the female members of this community with the fewer chores and their healthy nutritious diets. The external relations and acquisition of other goods, not produced by the Basseri community, is entirely shaped by their pastoral way of life. They usually depend on trade with agricultural communities in order to get flour, which forms part of their daily diet.

The leadership and ranking within the Basseri community is largely determined by the value and nature of economic activity, which is pastoralism. Men being stronger and older members of the tents become leaders of nuclear families occupying every tent. Such men are representatives of their respective tents in the leadership of the herding units or the camps. At the camp level, there is a recognized leadership structure formed by both administrative and political factors.

There may be 2 types of leaders in a camp. The headmen (katkhoda) formally recognized by the Basseri chief should lead the camps. However, in the absence of a recognized headman, there is an informal leader (riz safid), who is chosen based on common consent of all members of the camp (Coon, 2009). The nomadic pastoral lifestyle of this community is the reason for this arrangement because, sometimes, the headman may not reside in any given camp. Due to the need for leadership in the community, this arrangement is made to bridge any leadership gap that is likely to appear in the life of a nomadic community. In the case where there is the riz safid, he would be under a headman residing in a different camp.

Political system is strong central structure under the headship of the Basseri chief. The chief has almost absolute authority over every member of the Basseri community. The chief assumes the powers and influences of the headmen but do not delegate any of his powers to them. The nature of gifts of the chief to the headmen, such as horse riding and weapons, characterizes Basserian pastoral mode of subsistence. Nevertheless, to some degree, headmen also bear political powers, which form a link between the Basseri chief and the members of the community.        

Gender Relations

The Basseri community has clearly defined gender roles due to the nomadic lifestyle of this community. Men, specifically husbands, have a responsibility and authority to head every tent in which they live. In addition to this authority, men are the sole decision makers in the matters arising in the tents, whereas other members of the nuclear family in such tents are to obey the decisions made by these men. Women, on the other hand, are expected to take care of the family in their respective tents. They are expected to carry out all domestic chores in the family since men and boys take care of the livestock (Nowak & Laird, 2010). Among women’s domestic chores preparing food, mending and washing clothes, spinning, and weaving take the center stage. 

Boys, as the young males in their respective tents, are usually responsible for herding and at other times, they join boys from other tents in herding their flocks together. The pastoral mode of subsistence in the Basseri community made its members to value boys compared to girls because boys are supposed to take care of the family herds as opposed to girls, who are majorly seen as source of livestock wealth during their marriage (O'Neil, 2006). The youthful men in the society are also expected to protect both the community and their livestock against external attacks from other communities. Due to this subordination of girls and women, the females of the Basseri community have limited authority in any matter, even in choosing their own marriage partners. In order to increase family efficiency in the light of their nomadic life, men and boys supply water and wood for preparing family meals.

Conclusion

Every community is characterized by its own culture that usually differs from one community to another. However, every cultural behavior of any community is affected by its primary mode of subsistence. It is a common knowledge that man needs food in order to live. Therefore, every community would value the activity that provides food to its members. The result is that every other activity or behavior in that community will be shaped in line with that primary mode of subsistence.

The pastoral mode of subsistence in the Basseri community has shaped every aspect of life and behavior in this Iranian Community. Here, kinship, gender relations, and socio-political organizations are construed to preserve this valuable source of life. In order to understand and carry out any anthropological study, the understanding of this influence should be made a priority.

In conclusion, it is important to state that more studies and researches should be done in this field in order to bring out the effect of other modes of subsistence in addition to elaboration of other pastoral communities in other regions of the world. This study was limited to one single mode of subsistence and more specifically - Basseri culture. 

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