Feeding Moral Relations: The Making of Kinship and Nation in Iran

Wellman, Rose, Anthropology - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
McKinnon, Susan, Department of Anthropology, University of Virginia
Bashkow, Ira, Department of Anthropology, University of Virginia
Handler, Richard, Department of Anthropology, University of Virginia
Milani, Farzaneh, Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures, University of Virginia

Feeding Moral Relations: The Making of Kinship and Nation in Iran, draws on 15 months of ethnographic research within the households of pro-regime Shi’i Iranians (or Basijis) to examine how Islamic concepts of purity and morality are shaping social relations at the level of both kinship and nation. Since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the imperative to protect and create the inner purity of the Shi’i family and nation in the face of impending outside corruption has been a driving force in national politics. Through an intensive investigation of everyday life in the rural town of Fars-Abad and of numerous Shi’i national commemorations in urban Tehran and Shiraz, I explore how Basijis strive to constitute this inner purity by strategically channeling and containing two vital aspects of Iranian sociality: food and bodily substances such as blood. Indeed, while previous scholars have noted the special significance of bodily substance in Islamic family law and the striking display of spilled agnatic blood in Islamic national rituals, my research delves more deeply into the cultural logic of bodily substance in Iran to explore how bodily substances such as blood both naturalize and sacralize claims to common descent, purity, and closeness to God. In addition, my research goes further to show that food provides another key vehicle for imbuing relations of kinship and citizenship with the qualities of purity and spirituality. Apparent in everyday and ritual acts of cooking and feeding within the home, and also in the widespread pious sharing of votive food in national contexts, food works alongside bodily substance in the spheres of both kinship and nation to connect constituents to each other and to the divine. Food, I argue, is not merely transformative of individual family members or citizens, it (re)constitutes and demarcates the moral family and nation as against political and moral others.

Feeding Moral Relations explicitly challenges narratives of modernity that relegate kinship to the domestic domain and assume a secular model of the nation-state. I argue not only that the ideas and practices of kinship can inform nation making, but also that both kinship and nation can be shaped by the same religious and moral concerns. Indeed, although scholars have begun to address the interrelation of kinship and nation, they have largely focused on how the bodily substances of kinship—such as blood and genes—have come to have significance for the nation. While I build on these studies, I also apply more recent insights of kinship theory that move beyond the boundaries of bodily substances to query how other forms of kin making, such as feeding or prayer, may have relevance for the nation. Finally, in the context of the increasing mutual demonization of Iran and the U.S. in contemporary politics, this work provides a nuanced portrait of what the Islamic Republic of Iran looks like from the standpoint of its rural Basiji supporters, a powerful and frequently misunderstood section of Iranian citizenry.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Iran, kinship, food, nation, Shi'i Islam, cultural anthropology
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