The Transmission of Cultural Values in Persian Bahá'í Families
by Stephen Licata1997
This paper examines the ways in which a select number of immigrant Persian Bahá’í families have carried their cultural values to the United States, how this move has affected the development of their children, how the parents have interacted with the larger society and what effect participation in the American Bahá’í community has had on the cultural adaptation process. The data for this study were drawn from a survey of parents and children conducted in 1997 and from the author’s personal experience with this cultural group. For the purpose of this study, the survey was constrained to two-parent households in the Los Angeles, California area with at least one employed breadwinner fluent in English, both parents immigrant Persian Bahá’ís, and at least one English-speaking child of school age available to participate in the survey.
The goal of this study was to ascertain the cultural identity of the Persian Bahá’í parents and their children and note areas of congruence and divergence. The survey asked participants to respond to a variety of statements concerning perceptions about Persian culture, their involvement with the American school system, marriage and child-rearing, and overall level of activity in the American Bahá’í community. The questions included both topics unique to each group as well as a few questions in common to form the basis for a comparison by generation.
Overview of the Bahá’í Faith
The Bahá’í (ba-HIGH) Faith is a world religion based on the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh (ba-HA-oo-LAH) [1817-1892] that began in Persia (now Iran). The Bahá’í faith is the most widely spread religion in the world today after Christianity and claims approximately six million adherents in over 200 countries and territories. The central principles of the Bahá’í Faith are the oneness of God, the oneness of mankind and a common spiritual foundation to the world’s great religious systems. Arising from these principles are several social teachings embraced by all Bahá’ís, regardless of culture: the independent investigation of the truth; the equality of man and women; the abolition of all forms of prejudice; science and religion must be in harmony; universal compulsory education; the use of an international auxiliary language; the protection of cultural diversity; and that there is a spiritually-based and practical solution to the world’s economic problems (Bahá’í International Community 1992).
The Bahá’í community has no priesthood but is instead organized around democratically elected governing bodies at the local, national and international levels. To date the Bahá’í Faith has avoided many of the division and schisms that fractured previous religions that followed the death of the founder. This is important for the Persian Bahá’ís of this study because in addition to being members of a mother culture they can also claim membership in what many historians are now coming to recognize as the first truly cohesive, global community.
History of the Persian Bahá’í Community
The Bahá’ís are the largest minority group in Iran, numbering approximately five hundred thousand persons. Nonetheless, since its inception in the mid 1800’s, the Persian Bahá’í community has suffered consecutive waves of persecution in the country of its origin. Within the first twenty-five years, many thousands of adherents were systematically executed by institutions of the Islamic state in the name of preserving traditional Islamic values. Bahá’u’lláh himself was exiled from the country in 1852 and eventually passed away in Akka (near Haifa, Israel), still a political prisoner (Zahoori 1990).
The most recent wave of refugees of Persians to the US has resulted from persecutions connected to the 1979 Iranian Islamic Revolution. The US Congress and United Nations have condemned these pogroms, including a recently uncovered Iranian government mandate to destroy the Persian Bahá’í cultural roots in Iran and abroad. These persecutions continue despite Bahá’í teachings and impartial testimony of outside groups that obedience to government and reverence for Islam are cornerstones of the Bahá’í faith. Almost all the families participating in this survey have fled to the US (or remained here) as a direct result of this latest wave of persecution.
Results of the Survey
Two separate questionnaires, with twenty-five questions each, were developed by the author for this study. The participants were asked to respond to a variety of statements about culture and family life, schooling and Bahá’í community life, with a range of possible responses: “Strongly Agree” (True), “Generally Agree”, “Generally Disagree” or “Strongly Disagree” (False). The numerical results of this survey are included at the end of this paper. The children were asked to fill out one version of the questionnaire individually while the parents were asked to complete their questionnaire as a couple.
Each of the eight families surveyed could be described as “middle class” or “upper middle class” and in about one-half of the families the breadwinner was self-employed. The gender of the children was 8 males and 9 females. Their ages ranged from 10 to 31 years old, with a median age of 15.7 years. All the parents surveyed were Persian and Bahá’í and all the children and parents are active, English-speaking members of the Bahá’í Faith.
Cultural Self-Identification of the Children
As a group the children do not consider the local Persian immigrant population as their primary source for new friends and acquaintances but they do very much enjoy some aspects of Persian culture (food, music) in their leisure time outside the home. Though almost all the children have attended some kind of special Persian language or cultural classes, they are split on their enthusiasm for speaking the Persian language (Farsi) with friends outside the home.
Children and the School Environment
Children and Life Choices
Within the Persian Bahá’í household, nearly all the children report that their parents expected them to officially declared themselves members of the Bahá’í community at the age of maturity (15 years old). The children generally (though not wholeheartedly) consider their parents to be good examples of what it means to be an active member of the Bahá’í community. All the children report attending at least one Bahá’í function a month apart from family functions.
Cultural Adaptation by the Parents
The parents see aspects of the Persian culture such as language, music and food as an important gift to their children but are not overly worried that American culture might be somehow making their children “less Persian”. They do not, however, support the notion that it would automatically be easier for the children to grow up as good Bahá’ís back in Iran, even if the persecutions magically stopped. As for their own adaptation to American culture, the parents view their children as an important but not the only significant factor.
Parental Expectations for Children
Involvement in the American Bahá’í Community
Perceptions of the Persian Immigrant Community in
One conclusion from this study is that for this limited group of families, the acculturation process is moving along fairly smoothly and with benefits to both parent and child. With regard to cultural values in the home and expectations for marriage, the children and parents are in remarkably close agreement. The parents have made significant efforts to inculcate an appreciation for Persian heritage into their children and can claim some success in this matter. There is no evidence of the extreme cultural reactions sometimes seen in refugee families: total abandonment of the home culture by children ashamed of their parents’ heritage (Cummins 1986) or the formation of xenophobic enclaves with a very limited circles of associates. A combination of factors such as a generally high level of parental education, a relatively adequate economic condition, and regular access to non-Persians through the American Bahá’í community all seem to have mitigated the social and psychological pressured normally experienced by refugees.
The culturally supportive nature of the Bahá’í community and the role of English in the home are also important factors for this group of families. As noted by Geula (1991), the Persian language and customs can serve as the “glue” to maintain family unity (and contact with relatives back in Iran) while the acquisition of English serves to improve the economic prospects and “global citizenship” of the children. As Bahá’ís, the parents of these children not only appreciate the utility of this outward-looking bi-culturalism, they actually advocate it. This sense of mission separates them from their non-Bahá’í countrymen who may have come to the US for purely political or economic reasons.
In fact, the Persian Bahá’í community has a long tradition of (willingly) leaving Iran to demonstrate the efficacy of the Bahá’í teachings by moving as “pioneers” to towns and village around the world. A few of the children surveyed have been sent abroad by their parents ion “teaching vacations” and at least one family has actually vacationed overseas for this same purpose. This suggests that within the context of the American Bahá’í community these Persian families find enough support for their mother culture that they can embark on developing a family sub-culture of their own, something that Popenoe (1988) states is a powerful element of trans-generational family unity.
In summary, this survey of a limited number of Persian families suggests that it is possible for immigrant families to find support for their traditions within a generally indifferent American society. paradoxically, as in the case of the American Bahá’í community, such a support system can engender loyalty to a broader spectrum of humanity. In the process of children becoming “world citizens”, the fears of parents regarding cultural inheritance subside because through this paradigm the children are actually able to carry abroad and contribute to human society the best that the mother culture has to offer.
Bahá’í International Community (1992) The Bahá’ís. Bahá’í International Community Office of Public Information, New York.
Cummins, Jim (1986) A framework for empowering minority students. Harvard Educational Review 56 (1), 18-3.
Geula, Keyvan (1991) The role of an international auxiliary language in the cultural welfare of ethnic families in transition: Presentation of a board game for teaching Persian to the Persian children abroad. Unpublished Master of Science research paper, University of La Verne, California.
Popenoe, D. (1988), cited in Geula (1991). Distributing the nest: Family change and decline in modern societies. In P. Rossi &n M. Useem & J,D, Wright (eds.) Social Institutions and Social Change. Hawthorne, New York: Aldine de Gruyter.
Zaboori, Elias (1990). Names and numbers: A Bahá’í history reference guide. Caribbean Printers Limited, Jamaica.
Appendix: Survey Results
Results of the Survey on Cultural Values in the Persian Bahá’í Family
(Number of Respondents shown for each statement)
Please read the following questions and
choose one of the following responses that best represents