The Transmission of Cultural Values in Persian Bahá’í Families
by Stephen Licata

Introduction

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
Nearly all the seventeen children in the survey were raised her in the United States. Their cultural self-identification split evenly on the notion of being “more Persian than American” with a majority considering themselves “about equally Persian and American”. One ten-year-old girl insisted rather emphatically that she is “a world citizen” and was uncomfortable with being placed in any one national category. Nonetheless, in one-half of the families both of these notions could be found among the children. In one family, though, the two oldest respondents (sisters, aged 26 and 31) chose to strongly disagree with both these statements, as did the only child of another family.

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
The majority of the children have attended private primary or secondary school at some point but as a group are split on the perception that the school system is supportive of their Persian culture. One high school girl identified a male instructor who dislikes Persians in general but views her as “a nice exception”. While just a few children have experiences problems with other students because of prejudice against Persians, all of them report no difficulty in sharing their Bahá’í Faith with their classmates or speaking up to correct someone who has confused them with Persian Muslims. With regard to “fitting in” into the school milieu, the group is split on the notion that it is easier to get along with Americans than non-Bahá’í Persians (i.e. Muslims), or that their parents involvement in school has made a big impact on their acculturation. Although explaining Persian family values to their friends can sometimes be difficult, neither the Persian culture nor the Bahá’í belief system (with its emphasis on sexual abstinence before marriage) appear to be a social obstacle.

Children and Life Choices
The children reported little if any parental pressure in how they selected their friends and a s a group are split on the notion that social class and education are the dominant factor in the process in choosing friends. For a potential spouse, however, the clear preference is to marry another Bahá’í, even if that person is not a Persian. In fact the group as a whole is very much against the notion of marrying someone simply because of culture. Nearly all the children, however, expect to live with their parents until they get married and expect their children, in turn, to be able to speak Farsi.

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
In addition to leaving their homeland to avoid persecution for being Bahá’í, nearly all the couples surveyed suffered a period of separation from family members as a results of their forced emigration. In one case, a father managed to get his family safely out of Iran before the Islamic Revolution, only to become detained again when he went back to take care of personal affairs. He eventually escaped in secret through Pakistan with other countrymen.

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
The parents as a group would prefer their children (daughters a bit more than sons) to live at home until they get married, though they realize that this may not be possible, especially as it pertains to the child attending a good college. The parents are very strongly in favor of their child marrying another Bahá’í and are definitely against the notion of marrying someone just because the person is an Iranian. They overwhelmingly expect that their grandchildren will speak Farsi.

School Involvement
The parents as a group believe that the schools (both public and private) do not do enough to promote spiritual values in the curriculum or to encourage their children’s Persian heritage, Nonetheless, all but one parent actively participates in school-related activities e.g. PTA, fund-raisers) and all the parents generally feel comfortable sharing with other (American) parents the role the Bahá’í Faith plays in their lives.

Involvement in the American Bahá’í Community
All the parents consider themselves active Bahá’ís and interact at least once a month with non-Persians through their local Bahá’í community. In general, they do not fear that heir children will fail to grow up to be active Bahá’ís. All but two couples agree that being Bahá’í has made it easier for them as parents to adapt to life in the US.

Perceptions of the Persian Immigrant Community in the US
While the parents do not report any real difficulties in interacting with non-Bahá’í Persians in the US (i.e. usually Muslims) they do believe that the Persian Bahá’í immigrant community in this country is noticeably distinct from the Persian Muslim immigrant community. This survey did not ask them to elaborate on these differences, though most parents attribute the distinct Persian Bahá’í cultural identity to social class and education, not necessarily to difference in religion.

Conclusions

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.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

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 your opinion:
“Strongly Agree” (SA) “Generally Agree” (GA), “Generally Disagree” (GD), “Strongly Disagree” (SD)
QUESTIONS FOR THE PARENTS (Please respond as a couple)
SA
GA
GD
SD
1. The parents of this family are both Bahá’ís.
8
 
  
0
2. The parents of this family are both Persian.
8
 
  
0
3. Our family left Iran to avoid persecution related to the 1979 Revolution.
4
 
  
4
4. Our family left Iran before persecution of the Bahá’ís became a major problem.
7
 
  
1
5. Leaving Iran caused some family members to be separated for a time.
7
 
  
1
6. Most or all of our children were born and raised in the US.
7
 
  
1
7. Our children have played a big part in helping us adapt to the American culture.
1
4
2
1
8. A big part of being Persian is the ability to appreciate and practice the fine arts (music, cooking, dance, art).
3
4
1
0
9. We are concerned that the influence of American culture is making our children “less Persian”.
1
4
3
0
10. It would be easier for our children to maintain Bahá’í values back in Iran, were it not for the persecution.
1
2
4
1
11. It is O.K. if a son moves out of the house before he is married, if he can afford it.
0
5
3
0
12. It is O.K. if a daughter moves out of the house before she is married, if she can afford it.
0
3
2
3
13. We would prefer that our children marry another Persian (even if he/she is not a Bahá’í).
0
0
5
3
14. We would feel comfortable if our children married another Bahá’í, regardless of culture.
3
5
0
0
15. We expect our grand-children to speak Farsi.
4
3
1
0
16. The curriculum at our child’s school does not place enough emphasis on spiritual values.
5
2
1
0
17. As parents, we regularly participate in school-related events (PTA, fund-raisers).
5
2
1
0
18. We freely discuss with other school parents the role of the Bahá’í Faith in our family life.
2
6
0
0
19. Our children’s school actively respects and encourages their Persian heritage.
1
1
4
2
20. As a family we participate at least once a month in the Bahá’í community with non-Persians.
8
 
  
0
21. We sometimes are concerned that all our children will not be active Bahá’í as adults.
0
1
4
3
22. Being Bahá’í can make it difficult to associate with Persian Muslims in this country.
1
1
4
2
23. The Persian Bahá’í community is noticeably distinct from the other Persians in the US.
2
6
0
0
24. Cultural differences between Persians in the US are mostly due to social class and education, not religion.
2
5
1
0
25. Being Bahá’í has made it easier for us as parents to adapt to American culture.
2
4
0
2
 


QUESTIONS FOR THE CHILD
SA
GA
GD
SD
1. I consider myself more Persian than American.
8
 
  
9
2. I consider myself to be about equally American and Persian.
12
 
  
5
3. I enjoy things about Persian culture (food, music) in my free time outside the home.
14
 
  
3
4. I expect to find my closest friends among other Persians.
2
4
6
5
5. I have attended special classes to appreciate Persian culture (e.g. Farsi language, music).
14
 
  
3
6. I like to speak Farsi with my Persian friends outside the home.
3
7
6
1
7. I have attended a private grade school/high school.
5
 
  
12
8. I feel that teachers and administrators at school respect and encourage my Persian culture.
5
7
3
2
9. I have had problems with other students because of prejudice against Persians.
4
 
  
13
10. I feel comfortable discussing the Bahá’í Faith with my classmates.
5
12
0
0
11. My parents’ involvement with school has helped me fit into the American culture.
2
5
4
6
12. My parents pretty much let me choose my own friends.
7
5
3
2
13. I generally get along better with Americans than with non-Bahá’í Persians.
9
0
7
1
14. If people mistake me for a Muslim, I speak up right away to correct them.
12
5
0
0
15. I sometimes have trouble explaining Persian family values to my American friends.
2
7
4
4
16. I sometimes feel a conflict between being a Bahá’í and wanting to “fit in” with my friends.
4
1
5
7
17. It is better for a Persian to marry another Persian (even if he/she is not a Bahá’í).
0
3
3
11
18. It is better for a Bahá’í to marry another Bahá’í , regardless of culture.
10
6
1
0
19. I think the Persian family culture is sometimes too strict with children.
5
4
4
4
20. I would like to live (or did live) with my parents until getting married.
12
 
  
5
21. I think that a person’s social class and education determine whom he/she will pick as friends.
5
5
6
1
22. I expect that my children will be able to speak Farsi.
13
2
2
0
23. I participate in Bahá’í activities at least once a month apart from my parents.
17
 
  
0
24. My parents expect(ed) me to declare myself a Bahá’í when I become fifteen years old.
14
 
  
3
25. I look to my parents as examples of what it means to be an active Bahá’í.
10
5
1
1
 



About the Author

Stephen Licata in an aerospace engineer who lives and works in Pasadena, California with his Peruvian wife Juliana and their one-year-old son Jimmy. This paper was written in 1997 as Stephen completed the UCLA certificate program in Teaching English as a Foreign Language. Stephen and Juliana often give public talks on Baha’i family life and travel frequently in the hope that they can impart to their son the same world citizenship perspective enjoyed by many of the young people in this survey. Stephen may be reached by e-mail at sjlsre@aol.com.


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