Persian Bahá'í Women in the United States – Do They Feel Freer?
The past 23 years have seen the Islamic Republic of Iran, established after the revolution in December 1979, attempt to graft democratic principles onto religious laws. After the Shah’s departure and Khomeini’s arrival, the revolutionaries worked to establish the new laws, with the political left aligning in some ways with the extreme clerics. Out of the instability and confusion, and to the dismay of, and even doom for, those on the left, a totalitarian state emerged headed by an oppressive Islamic dictatorship in place of the overthrown royalty. (Nafisi, 2003). Its constitution covers Muslims, protects certain religious minorities, and defines women’s rights all in accordance with the Shari’a (Koranic law). Six clerics along with six jurists comprise a Guardian Council that dominates the Iranian government. The hard-line clerics headed by a supreme Ayatollah to monopolize the interpretation of Islamic texts (Abdo & Tyler, 2003).
Many fled Iran during and just after the revolution, including Bahá’ís who anticipated poor treatment under the new regime, 10,000 of whom came to the United States. This paper examines the experiences of an extremely muted group, Persian Bahá’í women, who were asked to compare their new lives in the United States with their previous ones in Iran. It will look at their experiences as members of a minority religion in an Islamic theocracy, and as women in a country that severely limits women’s freedom of choice. Finally, it will compare their feelings about life in Iran with life in the United States.
The Bahá’ís – at 300,000 the largest non-Muslim religious minority (including Judaism, Christianity and Zoroastrianism) – have no place in the 1980 Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, as they are considered to be infidels. When asked in an interview in 1978 if the Bahá’ís would receive religious or political freedom under an Islamic government when he returned to Iran, the Ayatollah Khomeini said, “They are a political faction. They are harmful. They will not be accepted.” (Kazemzadeh, 2000, p. 541). In fact, under Khomeini, the Iranian government closed Bahá’í schools, banned their books, and ceased to accept the legality of their marriages. More than 200 Bahá’ís have been put to death since 1978, including the death by hanging of nine women and a 17-year-old girl who refused to recant their faith (Kazemzadeh, 2000). The most recent execution was 1998 and several Baha’is are currently imprisoned. Further, Bahá’í property was confiscated, their leaders murdered, and they were banned from schools, universities, workplaces, and even from cemeteries (Nafisi, 2003).
Repression of the Bahá’í Faith is not new. It began at its inception in the mid-19th century and was well established even before the revolution that ushered in the Islamic theocracy. Irked because Bahá’ís refused to deify the monarchy, the two Pahlavi shahs allowed the Muslim clergy to attack them, as long as the attacks did not create any civil disturbances. Bahá’ís are typically accused of being unpatriotic and agents of foreign powers (Kazemzadeh, 2000).
Persian women gradually enjoyed more rights during the 20th century –Reza Shah passed an unveiling law in 1936, though in 1941 his son allowed women to choose whether or not to veil themselves (Aghajanian, 1994). The unveiling law indicated a reduction in the clergy’s power (Nafisi, 2003). Bahá’í women chose not to veil themselves. In the earliest years of the Revolution, the power of the clergy was still unclear, but when the Islamic aspect of the new government was fully entrenched, the wearing of the chador was reinstated as Islamic law.
In 1963 women attained the right to vote and to be elected to Parliament. However, two women who rose to the rank of cabinet minister were sentenced to death after the revolution (Nafisi, 2003). The legal age for marriage was raised from 9, at the end of the 19th century, to 13 and then to 18, until in the 1960s, women’s rights in Iran resembled those of women in Western democracies. After the revolution, 9-year-old girls can be married, adultery and prostitution are punishable by death (Nafisi, 2003). Women have no right to custody of their children, except for infants. Bahá’ís have no legal rights at all – their marriages are not even recognized by the Constitution.
Only half of all Persian girls are enrolled in high school (Aghajanian, 1994). In 1986, 52 percent of females and 71 percent of males were literate, meaning that they could read at the first grade level. Females must attend all-girl schools, with female instructors. In college, women are barred from nearly half of the available majors, including hard sciences, math, and engineering, thus at the elementary levels, girls’ schools lack teachers in the hard sciences ( Higgins & Shaor-Gaffari, 1994). All Bahá’í faculty were fired right after the Revolution., so some Bahá’í faculty members resorted to providing college level instruction to their children in private homes in an alternative open university. Eventually comprised of 150 faculty members serving 900 students, it was finally shut down and its equipment was confiscated in 1998; 36 of the faculty were arrested (Kazemzadeh. 2000). Several are in jail.
Just under 30 percent of Iranian women work outside the home, mostly in entry level positions, with only 5 percent in management positions (Baltimore Sun, 2003). Employment has always been limited, but now with jobs so scarce that women have quit so that men could work (Aghajanian, 1994). When the Iranian government nationalized or confiscated most of its industries, including agencies, factories, banks, companies and other associations, with 80 percent of its capital now owned by the government, Bahá’ís were dismissed from government employment They were even commanded to repay all their salaries (Kazemzadeh, 2000). Most privately operated businesses are small retailers and trading firms that are based in bazaars. Bazaaris comprise a group of businesses, built around a mosque, that donate a portion of their earnings to the mosque, thus creating close ties between the businesses and the clergy. Marginalized groups like women, Bahá’ís and Zoroastrians, are left out of this bazaari system but have turned to the service economy that grew in the 1990s opening up areas that bazaaris do not tackle (Baltimore Sun, 2003).
This paper explores the experiences of Persian Bahá’í women now living in the United States to see whether and in what ways they felt more free in their lives as ex-patriates. Besides comparing their experiences here with those that they recall from Iran, this paper frames them experiences against a backdrop of the current reality of Bahá’ís in Iran.
It is difficult to find Persian Bahá’ís living in the United States who fled Iran after the Revolution. Until the past few years, it was impossible for Bahá’ís to exit Iran by legal means, because they were denied the rights of citizenship, including the right to a passport. Thus, until the election in 1998, the only way for Bahá’ís to leave Iran was to recant their faith, which jeopardized their standing in the Bahá’í community. Most of the respondents emigrated from Iran before the Revolution, several in response to a directive issued by the world governing body of the Bahá’í Faith centered in Haifa, Israel, that warned Bahá’ís to leave Iran “before the doors closed.”
I interviewed seven women during the spring of 2003, asking them to compare their lives in the United States with what they experienced in Iran, focusing on how much freedom they have experienced as women and as Bahá’ís. All respondents are mothers, ranging in age from 27 through 66. They arrived in the United States from as long ago as 1972, through 1998.
Name Age Arrived in US
Atahieh 66 1986
Mitra 34 1987
Samileh 27 1998
Sharighih 55 1972
Shahin 42 1984
Shiva 41 1979
Vajiheh 60 1982
Fundamental to the women’s experience in the United States is their sense of religious freedom. As mentioned, Bahá’ís in Iran lack the basic rights of citizenship, as well as the freedom to assemble and to observe al but the most private of their religious practices. Mitra said,
You cannot imagine. Have a rough time over there. When I went back last summer they have more freedom than 16 years ago we been there. They can have a [19-day] Feast [the community’s regular religious and business meeting] and [the government knows] they have a Feast. Back 16 years ago we couldn’t have a Feast…right now they can get around 15, 20, 25 people can get a feast. The Muslim people not bothering them.
Other respondents echoed this relief at being able to associate freely with other Bahá’ís, something that was punishable by death after the revolution, and was not always safe even before. For example, Atahieh recounted how, when she was a child in the1950s, a barber, pressured by the Mullahs, refused to cut her father’s hair because he was a Bahá’í. Shahin, too, recounted how people stood outside her father’s business and heckled, preventing shoppers from entering the store.
Sharighih points out that the revolution served to formalize and legalize social currents that already prevailed:
Revolution really was the actual imposing what did exist. It wasn’t something that all of a sudden it didn’t exist yesterday. They just tried to impose and implement it seriously. It was a law and now you were forced to practice.
As mentioned previously, a radical clerical element attained power and were allowed to impose their interpretations of the Koran on the population. Before the revolution, they voiced their opinion but lacked ultimate authority.
All of the respondents mentioned the access they had to education compared to Muslim women, even though Bahá’ís were eliminated from the university system. Atahieh says that Muslim girls don’t have to be educated, but that her father stressed that educating girls was more important than educating boys. Her mother, who was uneducated, wanted her daughters to be educated. Shahin says that Bahá’ís had schools in every city, and that before the revolution, Moslems sent their children to those schools. The primary motivation for the respondents to leave their homeland to be able to go to university, or so that their children could go.
I knew some of them, They were in university just a few years away from being doctor. They couldn’t finish university because of [being Bahá’í] [Mitra]
When the revolution was about to start, the universities were closed. I wanted to go work as a receptionist in a doctor’s office. [My father] said he’d pay me the salary that I’d earn working. He pushed me to get education as far as I can [Shiva].
Samileh whose family remained in Iran, was barred from university study, but was able to study in the private homes of Bahá’ís, eventually obtaining a degree in pharmacology.
Lack of legal protection for women is a sad but common theme throughout the world. The experiences of the respondents illustrate how governmental systems that favor men can harm women. One case from the 1950s illustrates how this, coupled with religious intolerance, destroys families. Atahieh told about a married Muslim man one day decided to be a Bahá’í. As soon as the government found out, the State annulled his marriage – the Muslim wife had no say in the matter – and gave his custody of their baby girl, after stripping her of her clothes. Atahieh’s family offered to raise the girl. Atahieh points out that when girls were born in Iran, the father would leave home for a few weeks, presumably in grief that he his new child is a girl.
Atahieh says that in Iran, Muslim women must serve the men first before themselves, and that the Koran allows for beating women. Mitra says,
They think men is the boss over there. In the house, or outside. Women really cannot talk. They have to obey or whatever.
Atahieh notes that Bahá’í women push their children to study more than Muslim women do. Shahin says that her father “treated her like a queen.” She learned to speak out, from childhood, and believes that she should be equal to her husband.
Even though living in a country not know for its liberality toward women, the respondents do not perceive themselves as subordinate to men, but as equal partners. One says that in Iran, Bahá’í girls and boys could mix freely, whereas Muslims could not, and girls could speak to crowds. In Iran, Bahá’í women enjoy a higher status in their families and among their religious community than do Muslim women. The difference is so great between the two that Sharighih says, “It’s like taking the Appalachian to Hollywood.” She notes, however, that even in the United States, women and men are far from equal.
Still even the relative freedom of Bahá’í women within their families was curtailed. Shahin says that Bahá’í girls should not deviate too much from the Muslim norm, “Otherwise we would be ridiculed. We would be called slut.” Sharighih echoes this opinion:
If the females [in the Bahá’í community] was exceeding what was expected for women in that culture – not exceeding, crossing the boundary of the expectation of the society – you would be considered a slut.
Atahieh lived for a year under Khomeini, before perceiving that conditions for Bahá’ís were going to worsen, and she took her children to India, without her husband. In fact, it would be seven more years before he was able to leave the country and get a visa. She reports that he has never given her credit for having the better plan.
Going to a wedding without her scarf but wearing makeup, Vajiheh’s cousin was arrested and jailed for 11 months. Samileh says that women in Iran today are usually very careful to wear the scarf, available in different fabrics and patterns. She adds that at home, they are not required to cover themselves and instead “are very comfortable,” indicating that wearing the scarf can be a burden. Mitra agrees with this. When she visited Iran last summer, she had to wear the required traditional clothing:
Female there have a rough time over there they should cover themselves whether they like it or not. They can’t wear a skirt. I been there last summertime. A little bit my feet was showing and they came to me they said, “You can’t show your feet. You got to cover all the way.” They can’t wear whatever they like to. They don’t like it like this.
Shiva and Shahin left Iran as young women in 1979 and 1980 respectively, to pursue their university education outside of Iran. Both now hold professional jobs. Shiva, who hails from an affluent area north of Tehran, says that when she was growing up, most of the families were traditional, with the mother raising the children and keeping the house.
Vajiheh, now working for low wages as a seamstress, was such a housewife in Iran in the 1970s, with a husband with a lucrative job with the airlines. She says that the pre-revolutionary life she recalls in Iran was “100 percent better” economically than it is here because women didn’t have to work. Shiva notes that the infrastructure was lacking then to support working mothers, (as it was in the United States in the 1970s). However she perceives that because Persian Bahá’í women tended to be better educated than their Muslim counterparts, it was probably more likely to find them working outside the home than Muslim women. Samileh says that before the revolution, Bahá’í women could obtain many good jobs, but now they must work in private places. She notes that Bahá’ís are currently not allowed to work in a government job, and since many companies have been nationalized, that eliminates many possibilities. Trained as a pharmacist, she was unable to flee the country until recently.
Some had been in hospital working. They said, “Because of Bahá’í, you can’t work anymore.” They said, “We’re Bahá’í. We can’t change our religion because of job.” And they say, “That’s your choice. You’re going out.” Not few of them. Lot of them is like that…No matter, man or woman.
Sharighih’s widowed father remarried, and his second wife had been employed since she was a girl. When they married, Sharighih’s Bahá’í father forced her stepmother to stop working – it didn’t matter whether or not she wanted to. His prestige in society demanded that he observe certain rules, even though the Bahá’í Faith proclaims the equality of women and men.
Atahieh recounted how her family raised an adopted child and her classmates assumed it was her own baby and taunted her. She now considers the taunting she received from Moslems as child’s play. Shahin says she felt like an outsider when she went to school.. Mitra concurs, adding that as a Bahá’í she was “pointed at as a bad person” and didn’t feel safe. Teachers in school harangued Bahá’ís, and other children could not be seen talking to Bahá’í children. In the United States, Mitra says,
I feel free, I feel good. I feel like no different between men and women here, no prejudice here. I feel safe and good.
Samileh who lived in Iran the longest after the revolution, said that
Before revolution we didn’t have any problems with religion…Some Islam people don’t like Bahá’í people…In America, I think this country is freedom, and I enjoy because if they ask what is your religion they say, “Oh Bahá’í – is good. ‘ Before I didn’t hear. I enjoy this country.
All say they enjoyed friendships with Moslem women in Iran as well as in the States. Vajiheh recalls that she knew all her neighbors, not like her life here, and that all celebrated the new year together. Some of her former neighbors even came to find her after they left Iran.
Sharighih says she was absolutely an outsider, even within her own family which was half as she says “fanatic or devoted or orthodox” Moslem and half Bahá’í. The Moslem relatives considered the Bahá’í relatives impure. But she says that she has
a different philosophy about prejudice…if a person does something knowingly I call it prejudice. This was the teaching of their religious leaders, so it wasn’t what they wanted to do probably, it was what they were asked or forced to do. If I do something personally, that’s prejudiced. But if I have been taught all my life ‘stay away from Chinese’ I have never been given the opportunity to get to know them. there’s a big difference between knowingly doing that and being forced to do.
The respondents all have a strong self image. They are not afraid to speak. Perhaps that is a characteristic of women who leave Iran. They are culturally Persian and proud to be so, but perceive themselves as different from Moslems primarily because their beliefs are different, and because the Moslems treat them as different. Their grandparents were Moslem, so in other respects they were of the same cloth as their Persian Moslem neighbors. However, they were raised and educated differently since childhood. They say that it is always apparent who were the Bahá’ís in Iran as they are “totally different” than Moslems.
They also feel like they are American, although some admitted that here they feel that they are perceived to be foreign by others. Another does not associate much with Moslems and reports that she feels different from them because they see her as different – in their mind they know she’s a Bahá’í and what that means in the context of Iran. “It’s not like melting. I feel distance. You cannot feel like you know them.” They love—even miss – their homeland, but now feel like they “belong to the world.” One says that she feels like an American except when people regard her as an outsider by “the way they look at you.” Sharighih says that most of her adult life has been in the United States. So she’s American; but she is also Iranian, a culture she loves and enjoys but she has the ability to choose.
What might account for their strong self-concept, coming, as they do, from a country where they were oppressed in several ways? “Academic universal categories, formulated by Anglophone western theorists, do not help explain the lived experiences of most women the world over” (Afshar, 2000).
There is a generational difference in the responses. The older respondents focused on the traditional female role of childrearing and housekeeping they recall in Iran, and compared this role with what they have encountered in contemporary American life. They value strong families. Indeed, it is possible that the status they enjoyed in their families and among the Bahá’í community has given them voice. Despite the persecution her family endured, Vajiheh says that she never felt oppressed. She attributes this to her easy-going attitude and her belief that life is too short, and that “If you ignore the bad things, life is good.”
The main difference they see is respect for elders. They mostly say they perceive few differences between the United States and Iran – one says that the biggest difference she sees is that in the United States, children leave home when they turn 18 and move away, but in Iran, they like to keep them close. Another says that both in Iran and in the United States today, children have too much freedom. Another says that it’s easier to go grocery shopping here because stores are plentiful and she has a car. In Iran she had to take public transportation and carry the bags. She laments that American food quality is not as good as in Iran, though she find American clothes more fashionable. In Iran, though, you can “live like a king” if you have just a little money.
It seems that though the respondents felt persecuted, they did not feel oppressed. This may be a function of their belief system, or it may be a function of their memories painting a rosy glow around their pasts. Certainly they left Iran rather than stay. Now, like so many immigrants before them, acclimated to the religious freedom they enjoy and the higher sense of equality, the respondents perceive few differences between the cultures.
What the women miss most about Iran, is what many are nostalgic about in the United States – a golden past in which generations intermingled and children showed respect to their elders. Now, when they are free to pursue careers and education and to practice religion, they return to the province that has been a perpetual female concern – what happens to the children.
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