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Historian Beeta Baghoolizadeh Sheds Light On Iran’s Unique, But Forgotten, History Of Slavery

Nov 6, 2015

Iran only abolished slavery in 1928, but since then, it’s been largely erased from the national consciousness. Historian Beeta Baghoolizadeh, who studies Iranian slavery, says the taboo surrounding slavery and Iran’s effort to distance itself from its past is due to its precarious position on the world stage 87 years later.

“There’s so much riding on Iran’s reputation globally and internationally. Iranians don’t want to say, ‘Yeah, we had slavery too.’,” Baghoolizadeh said. “People in my parents’ generation – I’m an Iranian-American – were never taught about Iranian slavery. It was only their grandparents or great-grandparents who may have seen it, and that’s an interesting jump, and it’s an interesting generational gap to have educationally.”

Baghoolizadeh was born in Los Angeles, and raised by Iranian parents. She’s currently a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Pennsylvania, and one of three editors-in-chief of the Ajam Media Collective, a website dedicated to politics, culture, and news about Iran, Central Asia, and its diaspora communities.

Baghoolizadeh says Iranian slavery differs significantly from the more familiar American counterpart, which centered around the South’s agricultural economy. In Iran, domestic slavery was much more common, with slaves brought into the house to take care of children or cook, clean, and do other chores. Because they lived in such close quarters, slavery was very present in Iranian society.

“We’ll talk about a benevolent slavery – these were members of the family. They took care of them and they took care of us,” Baghoolizadeh said. “I would really like to push back against it because I think slavery is, at its core, a very cruel institution. So to white-wash it by saying, ‘Oh, they were members of the family,’ I think is unproductive.

Interview Highlights

On 1840s efforts to abolish Iran’s slave trade

In 1848 there was an agreement signed between the king of Iran, the Shah of Iran and Great Britain, and they agreed to stop the trade of slaves into Iran. Unfortunately, this particular king died a week later. So, it wasn't quite enforced. His son was less enthusiastic about the enforcement of the abolition of the slave trade, but we do see some contracts or some letters sent to the Gulf Coast recommending or asking the officials there to please stop bringing in slaves, please stop letting people bring in slaves. There's actually an interesting racialization happening because some of them say, "Please stop bringing the black people." So, you have a sense that, by the 1850s, black equaled slave and vice versa which is very interesting because the African community in Iran was never wholly an enslaved population. They were merchants. They were pearl divers and date harvesters. So it was a diverse community. But, because the slave trade had dominated the political landscape of this time, these two terms became synonymous. By the late 19th century and early 20th century, there was a growing realization that it's actually kind of embarrassing to have slavery going into the 20th century

On differences between Islamic slavery and Iranian slavery

There's not been a lot of research on Iranian slavery. So when people think about it without having researched it, they sort of refer back to ideals of Islamic slavery. Which, legally there are some frameworks for how to conduct enslavement, per se. So, there are recommendations to free your slaves. That's the first recommendation. Second recommendation is, if you don't want to free them, you should free them after seven years. The third one is all children born of a free man are free. So, if you have concubines and the master is free and the women are slaves, those children born of them would be free, and the mother would be free. But, of course, like any other system, there isn't strict adherence to these religious rulings and there's a lot of, you know, finagling to get the master's interest across. So, I've seen slave agreements with freed slaves and the master of a slave woman where they've been married, the freed men and the slave woman have been married, but the freed men has given up his right over his children to the master of the slave women. And so that is an example of how the system has sort of gone off the recommendations of Islamic slavery, and it's really turned into just capitalism on a smaller level.

On the ‘Afro-Iranian’ community and why the term is problematic

I've only seen academics use it. I don't think it's a term used by these individuals themselves. They would really identify themselves of Iranian first which, to me, says a lot about the assimilation process, which was important for them to assert their Iranian-ness. Whether or not that involved marginalization is a totally different issue because these are individuals of the southern part of Iran away from the cultural centers of Tehran where there's television and radio, but there is a greater presence. Even this summer when I was in Iran there are Afro-Iranian actors on TV. What's happening though is a lot of Iranian documentary makers and diaspora Iranian documentary makers - every generation there seems to be a new documentary made about the Afro-Iranian community of Iran and they sort of venture to the south and they're going to a new place and this is also problematic and also reflective of what they themselves have been exposed to. So, for example, there's a collection of photographs that was circulating the internet this summer and it was called Afro-Iran: The Unknown Minority and the reactions to these photos was so interesting because anyone from southern Iran (And southern Iran has a hefty population. It's not a deserted place.) was like, "Okay. Yeah. These are like our neighbors." People from other parts of Iran, as cosmopolitan as they may be, like Tehran or Isfahan or diaspora Iranians in Los Angeles or New York of Toronto - so many of them were like, "Oh my God! We have black people. This is crazy." And so it's an interesting reflection of what these people have been exposed to.

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FULL TRANSCRIPT

SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Beeta Baghoolizadeh, welcome to World Views.

BEETA BAGHOOLIZADEH: Thanks so much Suzette. It's great to be here.

GRILLOT: Well, Beeta you do some very interesting work on Slavery in Iran. You know, oftentimes, when we think of slavery, we don't think of that region of the world. Tell us a little bit about the history of slavery in Iran. I know you've written about it extensively - going back into the 19th century. Tell us a little bit about it.

BAGHOOLIZADEH: The history of slavery is an interesting one because, whenever you talk about slavery, people think plantation slavery, the South. In Iran, like much of the Middle East, they had domestic slavery. Iran was at the crossroads of slave trades from the North- the Caucasian slave-trade, the central Asian slave-trade and the Persian Gulf slave-trade from the south which brought in East African slaves. This was true up until the 1850s, and then the northern slave trades really petered off as Russia grew in power and the southern slave-trade sort of became the dominant presence of slaves in Iran.
GRILLOT: But it wasn't just a crossroads, right? So you're talking about the migration of slaves through, but there was a significant slave community in Iran where slavery was being used for labor in Iran.

BAGHOOLIZADEH: Oh, absolutely. I just meant that these were the different directions that slaves were brought in through. There were these different types of slaves brought in, men and women. You had what were classified as white slaves, what were classified as black slaves and you also had eunuchs as well. 

GRILLOT: So how were slaves primarily employed in Iran? Like you said, when you started our conversation, we think of plantation slavery. We think of slaves working in fields, manual labor obviously. So what were they doing in Iran? Same thing? Agricultural work? What were they employed doing?

BAGHOOLIZADEH: That's a really interesting question because it does differ a little bit. There were some instances of agricultural slavery, but the type of slavery I research and focus on mostly, and the type that was the most common in Iran, was domestic slavery. So, these were individuals who were brought into the home to help take care of the children or take care of the household chores, cook, clean and that sort of thing. Because they were living in such close quarters with the families, a lot Iranians would need to talk about the presence of slavery in Iran. We'll talk about a sort of benevolent slavery that looks at, you know, these were members of the family. We took care of them and they took care of us. And this isn't just an Iranian thing. There are people who do this with all types of slavery around the world and, I would really like to push back against it because I think slavery as an institution is, at its core, a very cruel institution. So, to sort of white-wash it by saying, ’Oh, they were members of the family,’ I think is unproductive.

GRILLOT: So, the issue of pushing back against this image of, "They were part of the family," but, like you said, they were living in close quarters, but they obviously weren't treated in the same way and they weren't free to come and go as they chose.

BAGHOOLIZADEH: Yeah, exactly. They were seen as property. There's not been a lot of research on Iranian slavery. So when people think about it without having researched it, they sort of refer back to ideals of Islamic slavery. Which, legally there are some frameworks for how to conduct enslavement, per se. So, there are recommendations to free your slaves. That's the first recommendation. Second recommendation is, if you don't want to free them, you should free them after seven years. The third one is all children born of a free man are free. So, if you have concubines and the master is free and the women are slaves, those children born of them would be free, and the mother would be free. But, of course, like any other system, there isn't strict adherence to these religious rulings and there's a lot of, you know, finagling to get the master's interest across. So, I've seen slave agreements with freed slaves and the master of a slave woman where they've been married, the freed men and the slave woman have been married, but the freed men has given up his right over his children to the master of the slave women. And so that is an example of how the system has sort of gone off the recommendations of Islamic slavery, and it's really turned into just capitalism on a smaller level.

GRILLOT: Now, are you talking about contemporary times? Slavery was abolished in Iran in 1928. Just making sure, since we're in present tense, that slavery was abolished. So, bring us through that abolition process, because, again, when we think of abolition we think of big movements to free slaves and to fight against all the things that you were just talking about - all of the injustices and all of the lack of following the rules of what you're supposed to do with your slaves or with freed slaves and when they connect with each other. So, take us through that abolition process and how that plays into Iran today.

BAGHOOLIZADEH: Absolutely, so efforts to abolish the slave trade began in the 1840s. In 1848 there was an agreement signed between the king of Iran, the Shah of Iran and Great Britain, and they agreed to stop the trade of slaves into Iran. Unfortunately, this particular king died a week later. So, it wasn't quite enforced. His son was less enthusiastic about the enforcement of the abolition of the slave trade, but we do see some contracts or some letters sent to the Gulf Coast recommending or asking the officials there to please stop bringing in slaves, please stop letting people bring in slaves. There's actually an interesting racialization happening because some of them say, "Please stop bringing the black people." So, you have a sense that, by the 1850s, black equaled slave and vice versa which is very interesting because the African community in Iran was never wholly an enslaved population. They were merchants. They were pearl divers and date harvesters. So it was a diverse community. But, because the slave trade had dominated the political landscape of this time, these two terms became synonymous. By the late 19th century and early 20th century, there was a growing realization that it's actually kind of embarrassing to have slavery going into the 20th century. And this was really because Iran was increasing its contacts with the West. They had their first ambassadorial trip to the U.S. around that time. Great Britain has always had a major presence in Iran. And so, politically, it became sort of unbecoming. There was also a change in what it meant to be a citizen, especially with the constitution revolution of 1906. Iranians became much more interested in redefining what it meant to be a citizen or redefining what it meant to be a mother of the nation. You wanted to raise your own children to become good citizens. And what does it mean if you're handing off your children to a slave to raise? So there are sort of philosophical changes in the social approaches to slavery. By the 1920s there's a change in rule. The Qajar Dynasty is thrown out. Reza Shah comes to power. Within three years of crowning himself, he's introduced his own legislation into Parliament asking there to be abolition of slavery, and, when it's a royally introduced piece of legislation, people are going to pass it. But there's still an interesting debate happening within Parliament. It's a very short debate. They passed the legislation abolishing slavery within the same day. But they say, "There's people who are against it," and really vouch for the values of slavery. These people were bringing in savages or were bringing in people from the jungle and this is a civilizing mission. So the same sort of rhetoric we hear with the Atlantic slave trade also existed in Iran as a civilizing mission. The people who were for the abolition of slavery really don't make that interesting of an argument. They just say, "Well you know we're a modern nation now, and we need to be modern, and a modern nation would be progressive in its values, and a progressive nation means you don't have slaves." Around this time, so this is 1928, it's passed the same day, within a few years there's sort of name laws of Iran and birth certificate laws of Iran. So when these freed men were given their identification cards they were also given Iranian citizenship. So they do have Iranian citizenship and they are assimilated into the nation in that sense. The greatest density of Iranians of African descent are located in southern Iran.

GRILLOT: So, today, there is still a significant Afro-Iranian community that still has this past and this connection to slave trade in the region.

BAGHOOLIZADEH: Yeah. Definitely. There's a presence and there's a community of sorts. The term Afro-Iranian is problematic in that I've only seen academics use it. I don't think it's a term used by these individuals themselves. They would really identify themselves of Iranian first which, to me, says a lot about the assimilation process, which was important for them to assert their Iranian-ness. Whether or not that involved marginalization is a totally different issue because these are individuals of the southern part of Iran away from the cultural centers of Tehran where there's television and radio, but there is a greater presence. Even this summer when I was in Iran there are Afro-Iranian actors on TV. What's happening though is a lot of Iranian documentary makers and diaspora Iranian documentary makers - every generation there seems to be a new documentary made about the Afro-Iranian community of Iran and they sort of venture to the south and they're going to a new place and this is also problematic and also reflective of what they themselves have been exposed to. So, for example, there's a collection of photographs that was circulating the internet this summer and it was called Afro-Iran: The Unknown Minority and the reactions to these photos was so interesting because anyone from southern Iran (And southern Iran has a hefty population. It's not a deserted place.) was like, "Okay. Yeah. These are like our neighbors." People from other parts of Iran, as cosmopolitan as they may be, like Tehran or Isfahan or diaspora Iranians in Los Angeles or New York of Toronto - so many of them were like, "Oh my God! We have black people. This is crazy." And so it's an interesting reflection of what these people have been exposed to.

GRILLOT: So that's what I wanted to touch on very quickly as we conclude is how it's treated today. How does Iranian history write or rewrite their own experience with slavery. You've written about how slavery has become un-Iranian and un-Islamic. Presumably there's some attempt to kind of disconnect their past.

BAGHOOLIZADEH: There's just such a taboo surrounding slavery. There's an effort to want to distance oneself from the history of Iranian slavery. That has a lot to do with the position of Iran today. There's so much riding on Iran's reputation globally and internationally. Iranians don't want to say, "Yeah, we had slavery too." To be honest, a lot of them probably don't know about it because it was such a project educationally to not just remove, but never insert anything about Iranian slavery within the curriculum. So, people in my parent's generation, I'm an Iranian-American, were never taught about Iranian slavery. It was only their grandparents or great-grandparents who may have seen it, and that's an interesting jump, and it's an interesting generational gap to have educationally. And then officially, there's really slow attempts. There are some new attempts and there's some new encouragement to sort of unearth this history and really try to rectify it, but in the past 50 years there's really been a distancing of oneself. And Islam sees all colors as equal. Iranians had Cyrus the Great and he freed all of the slaves maybe 3,000 years ago but there's so much in between that hasn't really been looked at.

GRILLOT: Well Beeta, thank you so much for being here to educate us about this really important topic that we don't often get to study. So thank you.

BAGHOOLIZADEH: Well thank you. It was so great. Thank you.

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