Shahsevan - Sociopolitical Organization

No trace is left of the eighteenth-century organization of the Moghan Shahsevan as a centralized tribal confederacy of some ten thousand families under a single family of paramount chiefs. The family split in two before 1800, dividing the confederacy into the Ardabïl branch and the Meshkin branch. The former branch soon settled and dispersed in and around the city of Ardabīl and in some other parts of Iran. In the mid-nineteenth century, the Meshkin branch of the chiefly family also settled, and the powerful tribes of the region, mostly of the Meshkin branch, were organized into a shifting series of clusters and coalitions under rival chiefs. The chiefs were very much weakened under the Pahlavi dynasty (1925-1978), and the tribes they led lost much of their cohesion. The authorities now attempt to deal directly with the communities and their elders. The thirty-odd Shahsevan tribes today vary in size from two to three communities (fifty families) to twenty-five or more (nearly a thousand). Few contacts, and less than one in ten marriages, are made between tribes, each of which feels itself different in subtle ways from the others. The chiefs no longer have the arbitrary power over their followers that they once enjoyed, but several of them and their families remain a privileged class, distinct from ordinary nomad society.

Social Organization. Community activities are directed by the elder, who has the difficult job of dealing with the authorities. Either he or his son is expected to be literate. Members of the community look to his life-style as a source and symbol of their honor, and he should be wealthy enough not only to entertain important visitors but also to provide lavish entertainment at feasts. There are wide differences of wealth among the Shahsevan. An elder may own several hundred sheep, five to ten camels, and some donkeys and horses, whereas a poor kinsman may own only fifteen sheep and two camels and have to work as a shepherd or supplement his income by casual labor or petty trading. The elder will ensure that all members contribute to the welfare of a family that has fallen on particularly hard times.

Political Organization, Social Control, and Conflict. An elder rarely displays his authority. Instead, with most members of the community, he uses skillful persuasion. Disputes, especially those involving women, are not discussed openly but are resolved if possible by private communications between elders and participants. Women have their own leaders, who act somewhat differently. Shahsevan women do not wear veils; they do, however, cover the lower part of the face in the presence of unrelated men. This rule is strictly observed by newly married women; young girls and older women are more casual. Women past childbearing age may reach positions of considerable respect, and a few become influential leaders, comparable to the male elders. Women leaders are consulted privately by the male elders, but among the women they exercise their influence in public, at feasts attended by guests from a wide range of communities. At feasts, men and women are segregated. While the men are enjoying music and other entertainment, the leaders in the women's tent are likely to be discussing matters of importance both to men and women, such as marriage arrangements, disputes, irregular behavior among community members, or broader subjects bearing on economic and political affairs. Opinions are formed and decisions made, which are then disseminated as the women return home and tell their menfolk and friends. This information network among the women serves a most important function for the society as a whole.

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