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Society

The population of Iran was estimated at 66,622,704 in 2002. This figure is more than double the 1975 population of 33,379,000. Between 1956 and 1986 Iran's population grew at a rate of more than 3 percent per year. The growth rate began to decline in the mid-1980s after the government initiated a major population control program. By 2002 the growth rate had declined to 0.8 percent per year, with a birth rate of 18 per 1,000 persons and a death rate of 5 per 1,000. In 1998, 44 percent of the population was under age 15, 53 percent was between 15 and 64, and only 4 percent was aged 65 or older.

Overall population density in 2002 was 40 persons per sq km (105 per sq mi)

 

. Northern and western Iran are more densely populated than the arid eastern half of the country, where population density in the extensive desert regions is only 1 percent of the national average. In 2000, 62 percent of the population lived in urban areas. About 99 percent of rural Iranians resided in villages. Only 240,000 were nomads (people without permanent residences who migrate seasonally), a fraction of the 2 million nomads counted in 1966.

 

Tehrān, the country’s capital and largest city, serves as the main administrative, commercial, educational, financial, industrial, and publishing center. Iran's other major cities include Mashhad, a manufacturing and commercial center in the northeast and the site of the country's most important religious shrine; Eşfahān, a manufacturing center for central Iran with several architecturally significant public buildings from the 17th and 18th centuries; Tabrīz, the main industrial and commercial center of the northwest; Shīrāz, a manufacturing center in the south near the ruins of the ancient Persian capital of Persepolis; and Ahvāz, the principal commercial and manufacturing center in the southwestern oil region.

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A:   Ethnic Groups

Iran’s population is made up of numerous ethnic groups. Persians migrated to the region from Central Asia beginning in the 7th century bc and established the first Persian empire in 550 bc. They are the largest ethnic group, and include such groups as the Gilaki, who live in Gilān Province, and the Mazandarani, who live in Māzandarān Province. Accounting for about 60 percent of the total population, Persians live in cities throughout the country, as well as in the villages of central and eastern Iran. Two groups closely related to the Persians both ethnically and linguistically are the Kurds and the Lurs. The Kurds, who make up about 7 percent of the population, reside primarily in the Zagros Mountains near the borders with Iraq and Turkey. The Lurs account for 2 percent of the population; they inhabit the central Zagros region. Turkic tribes began migrating into northwestern Iran in the 11th century, gradually changing the ethnic composition of the region so that by the late 20th century East Azerbaijan Province was more than 90 percent Turkish. Since the early 1900s, Azeris (a Turkic group) have been migrating to most large cities in Iran, especially Tehrān. Azeris and other Turkic peoples together account for about 25 percent of Iran’s inhabitants. The remainder of the population comprises small communities of Arabs, Armenians, Assyrians, Baluchis, Georgians, Pashtuns, and others.

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B:   Language

Modern Persian is the official language of Iran. An ancient literary language, Persian was written in the Pahlavi script before the Arab conquest in the 7th century. A new form written in the Arabic script developed during the 9th and 10th centuries; this is the basis of the Modern Persian language used today (see Persian Language; Arabic Language: Arabic Script). As recently as 1950 there were several distinct dialects of spoken Persian, but due to the spread of public education and broadcast media, a standard spoken form, with minor regional accents, has evolved. Important languages of minority groups that have their own publications and broadcast programs include Azeri (a Turkic language of the Altaic family), Kurdish, Arabic, and Armenian.

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C:   Religion

Jafari Shia Islam has been the official religion of Iran since the 16th century. Followers of Shia Islam disagree with Sunni Muslims (see Sunni Islam), who form the majority of Muslims in the Middle East and the Islamic world, over the rightful succession to the Prophet Muhammad, the founder of Islam. Iran’s 1979 constitution assigns to the Shia clergy important political leadership roles in the government. An estimated 93 percent of all Iranians follow Shia Islam, and nearly all are members of the Jafari group. Because Jafaris believe there are 12 legitimate successors, or imams, to Muhammad, they are often called Twelvers. Most of the remaining population belongs to other Islamic denominations, primarily Sunni Islam. In towns where there are mixed Muslim communities, religious tensions have surfaced frequently, especially during major religious observances. Sufism, or Islamic mysticism, is popular among Shia and Sunni Muslims seeking spiritual interpretations of religion. Iran also has small communities of Armenian and Assyrian Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians. The Baha’i faith, which originated in Iran during the 19th century, has several thousand secret followers, even though it has been a target of official persecution since the Islamic republic came to power in 1979.

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D:   Education

Public primary education was introduced in Iran after the country’s first constitution was drafted in 1906. Predominantly an urban system, it expanded only gradually and did not include secondary education until 1925. At the time of the 1979 Islamic revolution, only 60 percent of Iranian children of primary school age, and less than 50 percent of those of secondary school age, were enrolled in public schools; overall adult literacy was only 48 percent. Since 1979 the government has given a high priority to education, with programs focusing on adult literacy, new school construction, and expansion of public colleges and other institutes of higher education. By 2001 literacy for all Iranians aged 15 and older had reached 94.6 percent. The literacy rate was higher for males (96.6 percent) than for females (92.5 percent); the rate was also higher in cities than in rural areas.

Both the public education system and an expanding private school system consist of a five-year primary school cycle, a three-year middle school cycle, and a four-year high school cycle. Education is compulsory for children between the ages of 6 and 11. All villages now have at least a primary school, and 89.6 percent of primary school-aged children were enrolled in school in 1996. Dropout rates begin during middle school and increase significantly during high school. In 1996 only 74.2 percent of secondary school-aged children were enrolled in secondary school. Dropout rates are significantly higher in rural areas, where there is a shortage of high schools within easy commuting distance. Although educational opportunities for girls improved after the revolution, the dropout rate is still higher for girls. Although 87 percent of girls of eligible age attended primary school, only 69 percent attended secondary school.

Iran has more than 30 tuition-free public universities and many other institutes of higher learning. These include medical universities and specialized colleges providing instruction in teacher training, agriculture, and other subjects. In all, only 17 percent of Iranians of relevant age were enrolled in institutions of higher learning in 1996. Tehrān serves as a center for higher education, with more than 15 universities and numerous colleges and institutes. Other important universities are located in Hamedān, Eşfahān, Shīrāz, and Tabrīz. In addition to the public system, Iran has a private system of higher education that consists of theological colleges and the Islamic Free University, which has been developing campuses in cities throughout the country since its establishment in the late 1980s.

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E:   Social Structure

Iranian society in the early 20th century consisted of a narrow ruling elite (the Qajar dynasty monarch and his extended family, court-appointed officials in Tehrān and provincial capitals, major landlords, and chiefs of large nomadic tribes); a middle tier, including urban bazaar merchants, the Shia clergy, and artisans; and a large, poor segment comprising mostly share-cropping peasants and nomads but also some town dwellers engaged in service-sector trades. Following the overthrow of the Qajar dynasty in 1925, Reza Shah Pahlavi implemented wide-ranging economic development programs that stimulated the industrialization and urbanization of the country. These changes led to the emergence of two new, urban social groups: a middle class of professionals and technocrats (technical experts) and a working class engaged in manual and industrial labor. Reza Shah’s son and successor, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, continued the development programs, and the two new social groups gradually expanded.

By the late 1970s, however, the professional and technocratic middle class had divided into secular and religious factions. Both groups contributed to the overthrow of the shah in 1979; the secular group objected to the autocratic rule and economic corruption of the monarchy, while the religious group feared that the shah’s embrace of the West threatened traditional Islamic morality. The religious middle class, in alliance with the Shia clergy and under the leadership of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, gradually split from the secular middle class and consolidated power after the revolution. This group pursued an accelerated industrialization program, causing further expansion of the middle-income population from 15 percent of the total population in 1979 to 40 percent by 1996. The working class also expanded, while the peasant and nomad populations decreased; together these three low-income groups accounted for 53 percent of the population. High-ranking officials, physicians, and entrepreneurs made up the upper-income group (7 percent of the population).

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F:   Way of Life

Codes of personal conduct and group behavior that far predate the Islamic conquest of the 7th century continue to influence Iranian culture. Enduring cultural values include obligations to extended family, hospitality toward guests, and striving to act morally. However, social changes during the 20th century have affected these values. For example, the new professional middle class began living in nuclear family (consisting only of father, mother, and children), rather than extended family, residences. Busy lifestyles in large cities and eight-hour workdays proved incompatible with the custom of spontaneously inviting friends home for a meal. The increase in educational opportunities for girls since 1979 raised expectations among women for work opportunities outside the home. The rapid expansion of the middle class since the revolution has stimulated the growth of a consumer society in which various material goods are perceived as status symbols.

The 1979 revolution was heavily imbued with religious rhetoric. Its leaders subsequently banned many forms of entertainment that they considered sinful, including casinos, nightclubs and dance halls, movies that featured nudity or sexual themes, and musical genres such as pop and rock. For more wholesome entertainment, the government encouraged Iranian traditional and Western classical music, new films emphasizing family values, and recreational and sports facilities segregated by gender. Both men and women were required to dress modestly in public. For women, modest dress, or hejab, meant covering their hair with a scarf and having no exposed flesh other than their hands and faces; for men it meant wearing long trousers and long-sleeve shirts.

The population gradually adapted to the various restrictions and continued to enjoy pre-revolutionary leisure activities such as attending sports events, especially soccer, the national pastime. The general decline in public entertainment venues contributed to an increase in home entertaining. Popular foods at such gatherings include fresh seasonal fruit, greens, and nuts. Also popular are traditional Iranian dishes of steamed rice served with minced lamb and chicken kebabs cooked over charcoal or with traditional stews made with simmered meat, fruits, legumes, and spices. Tea is always served to guests in the home and the workplace; fruit juices and carbonated beverages also are popular. The sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages has been prohibited since 1979, although there is a black market for bootleg vodka and wine. Other general recreational and leisure activities include hiking, picnicking, watching television and videos, and making seasonal visits to Caspian Sea beaches and various historical sites and religious shrines. In large cities, shopping and attending movies, concerts, theaters, museums, and poetry readings also are popular.

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G:   Social Issues

Although government programs have reduced the number of families with annual incomes below the officially defined poverty line from 47 percent in 1979 to 19 percent in 1996, poverty continues to be a major social problem. To lessen the impact of poverty, the government provides low-income families with various subsidies for food, fuel, and utilities. Health care services remain inadequate in rural areas. Another serious social problem is the widespread recreational use of illegal drugs, especially among young men, despite the government’s heavy use of the print and broadcast media to educate the public about the harmful effects of addiction and drug-related crime.

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H:   Social Services

Public social services in Iran include a national health insurance program that provides free or low-cost health care in government-run city hospitals and village clinics. A social security program, funded by a special tax on wages and salaries, provides pensions for retired public sector employees and some private sector employees. It also provides survivor benefits to widows of deceased retirees and veterans killed in action, disability payments to family heads incapacitated by work-related injuries or catastrophic illnesses, and special payments for minor-aged children of deceased workers. Numerous private organizations also provide various social services for low-income people.

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