Tehran’s inequality trap

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It is December 27th, 2016. The Iranian newspaper Shahrvand publishes a report from Nasir Abad cemetery. It is located in the suburb of Shahriar, in Tehran Province. In the pictures, by Saeed Gholahoseini, it is possible to see empty tombs, about fifty men and women living inside.

They are homeless, seeking shelter from the cold, they sleep in the shriveled niches, up to three or four at a time. During the day they turn away, begging for some money, going in search of food or drugs, as Shahravand reports. It is a forest of grooves in the ground thatreceives them and tells us about the inequality trap in today’s Iran. Photos bounce on social media, in a few hours raise a public debatein the country.

At 8 pm multi-awarded film director Asghar Fahradi,from the columns of his Facebook wall, publishes a long open letter to President Hassan Rouhani. “I’m choked by shame,” Farhadi writes. “Why and when” do we come to this?, the director asks. Twenty-four hours after,Rouhani replies. “Who can accept that dozens of his countrymen who have suffered social ills take refuge to graves at night because of homelessness?”, he says. And again: “It is unbearable for the government and for the people.” He calls for anti-corruption campaign, he appeals to social solidarity.

The 2017 electionswill be held in May, it is likely that the president will run for a second four-year term. And post-sanctions Iran, which has resurfaced on the global markets, after years of economic difficulties and which is trying to get back on its feet, must deal with the social inequalities and poverty.

Social justice against poverty: numbers and history

Almost forty years ago, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini mobilized the 1979 revolutionaries in the name of the mostazafan, the oppressed. Today the rhetoric of social justice is back either in the dominant political discourse and in the Iranians’ demands.

Behind the news headlines, the reality is much more complex. Nasir Abad’s images tell us about a portion of the country, but the numbers and history help us to shed light on a multifaceted context that has evolved over time and is in constant transformation.

The social differences between town and country

Observing poverty and inequality in Iran through the binary lens urban reality/rural reality is essential to explain the different distribution of wealth, and thus to understand the gap between rich and poor both in the cities and in the countryside.

In 1977, under the Shah, 25 percent of urban households and 43 percent of rural households were living below the poverty line. Immediately after the revolution, the poverty rate decreased and then increased again during the last four years of the Iran-Iraq war. The numbers drop in the Nineties, known as the “reconstruction” era and the years of economic reforms.

As explained by the researcher Djavad Salehi-Isfahani in the Journal of Economic Inequality, compared to the pre-revolution period, levels of poverty have greatly reduced thanks to the Islamic Republic social policies. Nevertheless, social inequalities still represented a problem for the following governments, despite the rise of the middle class and the increasing levels of education in the country.

During the two terms of the reformist President Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), the data on poverty constantly decreased by more than two percentage points each year. Conversely, with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad administration, the situation gradually worsened, because of cuts in public subsidies (it was intended as a reform for wealth redistribution, but it later revealed as a failure).

Hence, in 2014, after years of mismanagement, soaring inflation and because of the international sanctions against Tehran’s nuclear program, seven million Iranians were living below the poverty line.

Tehran’s bipolarity as an emblematic case

Beyond the urban-rural dichotomy, to tell the profound social differences in terms of education, health and wealth redistribution, Tehran is a case in point. As one group of researchers in a 2012 study, published in Social Science & Medicine, a special characteristic of the Iranian capital is a “persistent bipolarity in terms of social perspectives.” The southern part of the city is more afflicted than in northern Europe by illiteracy, child poverty, unemployment and poor access to public services.

The current challenge

If the images of grave sleepers have rightly raise such an urgent and politically unbearable debate, according to a group of researchersin Iran the redistribution of resources is fairly equitable both in urban areas than in rural areas, and either in northern and southern Tehran, but health is still a challenge. And there is still a lot to do.


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