Iranian Americans

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Date: 2014
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Iranian Americans

Mary Gillis


Iranian Americans are immigrants or descendants of people from the country now known as the Islamic Republic of Iran in the Middle East region of Asia. The country is bounded on the north by the Transcaucasian and Turkistan territories of the former Soviet Union, along with the Caspian Sea; on the east by Afghanistan and Pakistan; on the west by Iraq and Turkey; and on the south by the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean. Most of Iran is an arid geographic plateau located about 4,000 feet above sea level; the plateau is spotted with mountains where the annual snowfall provides much of the water needed for irrigation during the hot spring and summer months. The country occupies 635,932 square miles (1,648,000 square kilometers), an area slightly smaller than the state of Alaska.

According to the CIA World Factbook, in 2012 Iran was the eighteenth most populous nation in the world, with almost 79 million people. The majority of Iran's population converted to the Islamic religion after invasion by Arab tribes in the seventh century CE. Of the 98 percent of the present-day population that is Muslim, 89 percent are members of the Shiite sect and 9 percent belong to the Sunni order. There are minority Christian, Jewish, Zoroastrian, Mandaean, and Baha'i populations as well. While 61 percent of the population is Persian, there are smaller populations of Azeris (16 percent), Kurds (10 percent), Lurs (6 percent), Balochs (2 percent), Arabs (2 percent), and Turkmen and Turkic tribes (2 percent). Iran's gross domestic product ranks just outside the top 8 percent of the countries ranked as of 2012. Approximately 45 percent of the population works in the service sector, 31 percent in industry, and about 25 percent in agriculture. The state's control of the economy—and the inefficiency of the state—hampers the growth of the private sector, which is limited to small workshops, agriculture, and services. Oil constitutes a major part of the government's revenue.

Between 1950 and 1977, about 1,500 Iranian immigrants (along with about 17,000 nonimmigrants) per year entered the United States, but the vast majority of Iran's emigrants left their homeland immediately before or during the Iranian Revolution in 1979. For the period 1978 to 1980, the average number of Iranians annually entering the United States as nonimmigrants increased to more than 100,000. Because many immigrated to the United States for social, political, and religious reasons rather than for financial opportunity, and many came with assets and education, Iranian Americans tend to be highly successful. A great number have advanced levels of education, earn substantial incomes, and work in prestigious occupations.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey estimates for 2009–2011, the number of U.S. residents of Iranian descent was 464,691. Estimates by other groups are even higher. While the largest segment of Iranian Americans—48 percent—lived in California, especially in the Los Angeles metropolitan area, 7 percent lived in New York; 8 percent resided in Greater Washington, D.C., including Virginia and Maryland; and almost 7 percent lived in Texas.


Early History The ancient Persian empire, founded by Cyrus the Great in 546 BCE and carried on by Darius the Great from 522 to 486 BCE, became the largest, most powerful kingdom in the history of civilization to that point. At its peak, it encompassed lands that have since become Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Jordan, Cyprus, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, and the Caucasus region. For the most part, Persian rulers led with love rather than fear. Cyrus issued the first declaration of human rights, banned slavery in all conquered territories, and established tolerance of other cultures and religions, and his successor, Darius, instituted a building program that resulted in a canal between the Nile River and the Red Sea and an improved road system. The superpower fell in the fourth century BCE when Alexander the Great swept through the region on his way to India. Still, the advanced Persian sciences, literature, and learning seduced the leaders of more than one invading army in the years to come.

After having a vision at the age of thirty, the Persian prophet Zarathushtra (called Zoroaster by those in the West) founded the religion of Zoroastrianism in the sixth century BCE. Unlike other religions in Iran at the time, which worshiped many gods and promoted an oppressive class structure in which princes Page 434  |  Top of Articleand priests controlled the people, Zoroastrianism advocated for one supreme power and forwarded the concepts of good, evil, and judgment day. Influential to the history and culture of Persia, the ancient religion also served as the basis for the development of Judaism, and by extension, Christianity and Islam. Arabs began invading Iran during the seventh century CE, however, imposing the Islamic religion over the Iranian people. By the eleventh century the religion of Islam dominated the plateau.

Iran's strategic location, bridging the Middle East and India, has determined its history as one of invasion by foreign armies. The Mongolian emperor Genghis Khan invaded in the thirteenth century and the Turkic conqueror Timur in the fourteenth. Various native rulers controlled the region over the next centuries. The Safavids ruled from the early sixteenth century until 1736. Their founder and first ruler, Shah Ismail, tried to unify the conglomeration of loosely united tribes scattered through the land by converting them to Shiism as the state religion. During this era theologians laid the basis of Shiite theology as it is currently practiced in Iran; also, since then, Shiism has been a badge of Persian identity in the Islamic world. By the end of the eighteenth century a Turco-Iranian tribe called the Qajars ruled the area known today as Iran.

Modern Era The Qajars governed Iran until the 1920s, when Reza Shah (1878–1944) took over the government and established the Pahlavi monarchy. In 1935 he changed the country's name from Persia to Iran because Persia (Pars) was technically the name of only a single part of the entire country, while the historical name for the whole country had been Iran. In 1941 Reza Shah, whose sympathies leaned toward the Nazis at the start of World War II, was forced to abdicate to his son, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi (1919–1980), by Britain and the Soviet Union, which had established a presence in the country in order to block Nazi influence in the region. Some consider the first episode of the Cold War to be the Soviets' refusal to remove their troops from Iran until forced to do so by the United States and the newly formed United Nations (UN) in 1946.

Iran, which possesses as much as 10 percent of the world's oil reserves, became an even more significant player on the political scene worldwide as oil began to dominate the postwar world market. It was through its oil contacts that Iran gradually became Westernized, a process consciously accelerated during the “white revolution” of 1962–1963, when various reforms were enacted (including giving women the right to vote and to hold public office) and opposition—increasingly centered on the religious community—was suppressed.

Although Iran was officially a constitutional monarchy, in practice the shahs ruled as absolute monarchs. After 1962 Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi's rule became even more autocratic. The Iranian Revolution of 1979, however, toppled the Western-backed government of this second Pahlavi Shah, who had led the country for nearly four decades. At this point Iran officially became an Islamic republic governed by the laws of the Quran and the traditions of the Shiite religion as interpreted by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1902–1989). Khomeini was the nation's official spiritual guide (faghi) and leader (rehbar) until his death a decade after the revolution, when he was replaced by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (1939–).

Iran experienced severe economic, social, and cultural turmoil throughout the twentieth century, particularly in the years leading up to the 1979 revolution. Since that time the country has restricted its people's freedom of religion and struggled to work out the details of its dedication to the teachings of the prophet Muhammad in everyday life and in specific government policies. The country fought an expensive border war with Iraq from 1980 to 1988 and saw several million of its wealthiest and most highly educated citizenry, who did not support the new regime or suffered persecution under its policies, immigrate to the West.

The rift between conservatives and reformists in Iran widened upon the 2009 reelection of conservative president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (1956–). Suspecting voter fraud, supporters of reform candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi took to the streets to protest in Iran and around the world. Although the protests in what came to be known as the Green Movement started peaceably on June 13, they grew in violence over the next few days. The government conducted a partial recount but did not annul the vote.

Iran's suspected nuclear program has led to external tensions as well. Iran started building its first nuclear reactor with Russian help in the southern Bushehr province in 1975. In 2002 U.S. president George W. Bush proclaimed Iran part of the “axis of evil” (along with Iraq and North Korea), accusing the country of developing nuclear weapons for terrorist activity. When Barack Obama succeeded President Bush in 2009, he softened the rhetoric around Iran's nuclear activities, although Washington continued to suspect Iran of developing weapons of mass destruction. President Ahmadinejad claimed that the country's nuclear ambitions were peaceful and intended for energy production only. Just two months after the UN voted to impose a fourth round of sanctions on Iran in 2010, Tehran began loading the Bushehr reactor with fuel, citing huge advances in its crusade to create nuclear energy. Tensions between Iran and the UN escalated into a UN ban of Iranian oil imports in July 2012. Although the European Union buys 20 percent of Iran's oil exports, the ban did little to slow the country's nuclear program.


The bulk of Iranian immigration to the United States occurred in two back-to-back phases: before the 1979 Iranian Revolution and after. The first phase, which

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CENGAGE LEARNING, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED U.S. Census Bureau, 2009–2011 American Community Survey

started around 1950, consisted mainly of supporters of the monarchy and college students coming to the United States to equip themselves for the oil-rich industrializing Iran. The second phase, from 1978 to the present, has been primarily exiles, political refugees, and asylum seekers, including a disproportionate number of religious and ethnic minorities such as Jews, Zoroastrians, Armenians, Assyrians, and Baha'is, all of whom suffered persecution under the Islamic regime. Young men avoiding service in the Iran-Iraq War (1980–1988) are also included in this group, as are women and families emigrating for political and educational reasons. The first phase consisted of 34,000 people; the second, 330,000, according to the Migration Policy Institute. According to the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey estimates for 2006–2010, the states with the highest numbers of Iranian Americans are California, New York, Texas, Maryland, and Virginia.

The number of Iranian-born immigrants admitted to the United States peaked in 1990, when 24,977 received permission for permanent residence, according the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Yearbook of Immigration Statistics. The majority settled in California, especially in Los Angeles but also in the San Francisco metropolitan area. Others moved to New York and Washington, D.C., as well as Dallas, Houston, Chicago, Boston, and Seattle. The relationship between Iranian Americans and the surrounding population since the 1979 revolution appears to be one characterized by fear and prejudice on the one side and anger and sadness on the other. Those adhering to the Islam religion in particular are often subjected to a kind of nationwide backlash that identifies all Muslims as violent fanatics or terrorists. A 2008 national public opinion survey of Iranian Americans commissioned by the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans (PAAIA) and conducted by Zogby International revealed that almost half of the Iranian Americans surveyed had either experienced or knew someone who had experienced discrimination because of their ethnicity or country of origin. Discrimination came from airport security officials and immigration officials, as well as in social and business contexts. Most Iranian Americans—85 percent—thought there needed to be greater understanding between Americans and Iranians. Despite the discrimination, foreign-born Iranian Americans are among the most highly educated and well-paid immigrant groups in the United States.


The official language of Iran is Farsi, known in the West as Persian, which combines the ancient Persian language with many Arabic words and is written with Arabic characters and script. Turkish and Turkic dialects are also spoken in several areas of Iran. The nomadic tribes that migrate vertically every spring and Page 436  |  Top of Articlefall from the Zagros mountain range to the surrounding lowland plains speak a variety of other languages and dialects.

The prestige accorded those fluent in a second language—especially French or English—in Iran meant that conversations held in public or on social occasions were rarely conducted in Persian; prior to the 1979 revolution, this attitude was carried over to the American context, reflecting the long-standing Iranian fascination with Western culture. As a result, most Iranians speak English with some degree of fluency upon arrival in the United States. In fact, 80 percent of Iranian American households speak both English and Persian, and 20 percent speak exclusively English.

Anthropology professor Diane Hoffman has noted, however, that since the 1979 revolution, and thus for the majority of Iranian immigrants in the United States, the attitude toward use of the Persian language has reversed itself. This has resulted in a resurgence of interest among immigrants in traditional Persian culture and literature. Hoffman has argued that the resistance to speaking English among Iranians living in the United States indicates a renewed pride in their own cultural heritage as “a response to the twin threat to cultural identity posed by the revolutionary changes in Iran itself and the stresses of living in the United States.”

Although Iranian immigrants have taken more pride in their native heritage since the revolution, their children are assimilating steadily into American society. English is becoming the main medium of communication and, although Persian remains a spoken language at home and within community settings, generations born and raised in the United States read and write it less and less even while retaining spoken fluency and cultural mores associated with the language.

Greetings and Popular Expressions Common Farsi greetings and other expressions include the following:

Salam (or, more informally, Cheh)—Greetings; Khabar?—What's new?; Cheh khabareh?—What's happening?; Khoda Hafez—Goodbye; Loftan—Please; Mamnoon am—Thank you; Khabeli nadereh—You're welcome; Inshallah—If God be willing; and Maashallah—May God preserve (often used with expressions of admiration or by itself to express admiration of someone).

Other expressions of admiration include: Cheghadr ghashangeh!—How beautiful!; Kheili jaleheh—Very interesting; and Aliyeh!—Great!


As in Iran, most Iranians in the United States are Muslims, the great majority associating with the Shiite rather than the Sunni faction. According to PAAIA, 40 percent of Iranian Americans identify with Islam; 20 percent identify with Christianity, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, and Baha'ism, in equal proportions; and the remaining 40 percent identify with no religion in particular. Minority religious groups in Iran often establish new religious organizations once they arrive in the United States. While some Muslims do as well, most take up practice at neighborhood mosques with Muslims from other parts of the world. Assyrian Christians from Iran and their descendants have established their own churches or share those with Assyrians from Iraq and Syria. Zoroastrians from Iran share fire temples with Zoroastrian immigrants from the Indian subcontinent. The same holds for Iranian Jews who have settled in Los Angeles, New York, Houston, and other major U.S. cities near other Jewish immigrants. Many Iranians, though, tend to be secular, while identifying with Islam for the way it has shaped the values and worldview of most everyone in their home country.

While many Shiite Iranian Americans do not necessarily attend communal religious events or services in the United States, they often do respect the Islamic creed and follow Muslim traditions during ceremonies such as wedding and funerals. On the other hand, Iranian Baha'is, Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians tend to be more culturally and religiously conservative than their coreligionists in the United States.


Because of hostilities between the United States and Iran and the economic and social opportunities available in the United States, Iranian Americans have varying responses to their new country. Some try to assimilate to the new culture completely, aided by the fact that they tend to be educated and economically advanced, while others try to withdraw, doing their best to associate only with other Iranian Americans. Whereas foreign-born Iranian immigrants sometimes resent American pop culture, their children, born on U.S. soil, typically embrace it with much more ease and sometimes have trouble relating to the culture and memories of their parents.

Despite their tendency to assimilate, many Iranian Americans maintain strong ties to their homeland, often idealizing it and feeling a deep sense of nostalgia for it. Most consider their ethnic heritage very important, and many still have immediate family in Iran with whom they communicate several times a week or month, according to a 2009 survey by the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans. In addition, the second generation of Iranian Americans has shown a renewed interest in Iranian language and culture and has set about creating identities that incorporate both their American and Iranian heritages.

Cuisine Iranian cuisine draws heavily from the culinary traditions of ancient Persia but also includes influences from ancient Greece and Rome along with numerous other Asian and Mediterranean cultures. Traditional Iranian cooking adheres to the principles Page 437  |  Top of Articleof balance and contrast. Compared with many other Middle Eastern cuisines, Iranian food contains less salt and oil and is less aggressively spiced so that no single taste dominates. It is thought that a harmonious arrangement of colors, spices, aromas, and textures strengthens the body and mind.

Rice is the staple of the Iranian diet and may be prepared simply by boiling the grains in water with salt and oil or by steaming them in such a way that a golden crust (tahdig) forms at the bottom of the pot. The tahdig is typically garnished with saffron and perhaps barberries, an acidic berry, or orange peels along with almonds or pistachios. This combination is then added to the top of the servings of rice. Tahchin, another of the more complex rice dishes, consists of rice, yogurt, beaten eggs, and saffron steamed with meat and either eggplant or spinach.

The main meal of the day often consists of rice with lamb and an assortment of garnishes. Chicken may be substituted for lamb, as may fish, which is especially popular in the northwestern villages by the Caspian Sea. The meat may be steamed with the rice or grilled on a skewer and served as a kabab alongside the rice. Plain white rice with skewered meat, known as chelo kabab, is perhaps the most common meal in the country. A more elaborate meal may include a serving of herbs and greens, known as sabzi khordan, or “edible greens.” Sabzi khordan may include a combination of mint leaves, chives, parsley, and dill and may come with walnuts, feta cheese, and naan, a round, flat bread cooked over a bed of heated stones. Iranians also eat a thick bread called barbari, as well as n-é shirm (dough mixed with milk) and a crispier form of this bread called n-é rhani (dough mixed with butter). In addition to sabzi khordan, dolma, or grapes leaves stuffed with a mixture of meat and rice, is another popular side dish.

Iran is famous for khoresh (a word that derives from the Persian verb meaning “to eat” and refers generically to stew), the composition of which often varies according to the season. For example, khoresh na'najafari is a spring stew that may be seasoned with chopped mint, parsley, rhubarb, almonds, and sour grape juice. Perhaps the most famous of these stews is khoresh fesenjan, a fall stew consisting of a thick, dark sauce made from ground walnuts and pomegranate juice usually served with duck. In winter, eggplant and apricots may be added to this base. A plain yogurt is likely to be served with these stews.

For dessert Iranians eat a wide variety of ice creams, which may be seasoned with saffron and rose-water, and confections, which are usually moist and delicate and may be topped with glazed fruits. As with many other people in this part of the world, Iranians are fond of baklava, a pastry made from phyllo dough, sugar, and ground nuts, topped with a light syrup.

Iranian Americans tend to prefer the more carefully prepared meals of their homeland to American fare, which they often find to be bland and uninspiring. However, many Iranian Americans, especially those who arrived before the 1990s, have experienced difficulty finding the ingredients required to make an elaborate Iranian meal. With the proliferation of specialty food stores, the required ingredients are now available in many midsized and small American cities. Even so, many traditional Iranian dishes take a long time to prepare, and Iranian Americans who prefer Iranian cuisine to American food are more likely to have simple rice and kabab dishes than seasonal stews. Iranian restaurants are common in major metropolitan areas, such as New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. However, because U.S.-Iranian relations have been acrimonious since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, Iranian American restaurant and shop owners are likely to call their establishments Persian rather than Iranian.

Traditional Dress Women in Iran are required to dress extremely modestly, covering their heads and bodies with fabric as a symbol of modesty, privacy, and morality. The hijab—the scarf that covers a woman's hair and neck—is a controversial aspect of Islamic culture, and public conformity is often considered a signal of fluctuations in the political atmosphere. During the reign of the Westernized Pahlavi monarchy, women were discouraged from wearing the chador (the enveloping robe that ensures women's hair and skin are hidden from view), and among the upper and middle classes the garment came to be associated with oppression. After the revolution, although the chador itself was not mandated, it was required that all women appearing in public obey the dictates of modesty in covering themselves completely, including wearing the hijab.

Upon arrival in the United States, most Iranian women cease wearing the chadors and hijabs they wore in their home country, adopting more American ways of dressing, which offer much more freedom and choice. While most embrace a more Westernized style of dress, many maintain a sense of modesty, opting for clothes that offer more coverage than typical American styles. Their children, however, often in reaction to the more modest practices of their immigrant parents, are embracing Western clothing.

Holidays The most significant Iranian holiday is the holy month of Muharram. Muharram focuses on the seventh-century martyrdom of Hussein ibn Ali, the grandson of the prophet Muhammad, who is considered the rightful heir to the caliphate (religious leadership) by Shiite Muslims. Muharram is a period of mourning and penitence as all Shiite grieve the murder of Hussein, his family, and his followers at Karbala. The first eight days represent the period they were besieged in the desert; the eighth and ninth days of Muharram are thus the most intense days of this holiday. The tenth day, Ashura, is the height of the Muharram festival. Muharram is the first month

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An Iranian American woman dances at the Fourth Annual Persian Parade in New York City. The parade celebrates Nowruz which means New Year in the Farsi language. The holiday symbolizes the purification of the soul and dates back to the-pre Islamic

An Iranian American woman dances at the Fourth Annual Persian Parade in New York City. The parade celebrates Nowruz which means New Year in the Farsi language. The holiday symbolizes the purification of the soul and dates back to the-pre Islamic religion of Zoroastrianism. RICHARD LEVINE / ALAMY

of the Islamic calendar, which is a lunar calendar; so with respect to the Western Gregorian calendar, the month shifts from year to year.

Muharram festivities include processions during which banners or commemorative tombs are displayed; narrative readings are performed; and, most importantly, ta'ziyeh (mourning songs)—traditional plays in honor of the martyrs of Karbala—are enacted in every village. Despite the essentially religious subject matter of the ta'ziyeh plays—which traditionally depict the death of Hussein and his family or related events, such as the awful fate that awaits their assassins in the afterworld—“they are political as well as religious ceremonies during which a community reaffirms its commitment to the shared set of social values inherent in communally held religious beliefs,” according to Milla C. Riggio in her 1994 essay Ta'ziyeh in Exile: Transformations in a Persian Tradition. Food is often shared throughout the performance of the play, reinforcing the communal feeling among the audience, and the audience interacts with the players onstage by singing along, crying, and beating their breasts in sorrow or penitence. Many Iranian immigrants to the United States observe the Muharram rites modestly and without the passion plays of their counterparts in Iran.

Held on the spring equinox in March, Nawruz—the Persian New Year—is another holiday many Iranian Americans celebrate. In Iran, Iranians cook, clean, and buy new clothes in preparation for the thirteen-day festival. They set their tables with decorations and flowers and mark certain occasions during the celebratory period with ceremonies such as jumping over a bonfire. Even if Iranians in the United States do not have the means for full-fledged Nawruz celebrations, they often take time out to remember their native country, tune in to Iranian radio and television stations, and contact loved ones from home. Nawruz remains the most cherished and widely celebrated of all holidays among Iranian Americans, irrespective of creed, background, and outlook.


Although most of the Iranian population is not of Arab ethnicity, all Muslim Iranians—the vast majority of the population—share a common religious tradition with other Muslims of the Middle East, Arab and non-Arab. Muslim society in general is centered on extended family networks headed by the father. Traditionally, business and political life as well as social life have been determined by the family network. According to Helen Chapin Metz in Iran: A Country Study, “Historically, an influential family was one that had its members strategically distributed throughout the most vital sectors of society, each prepared to support the others in order to ensure family prestige and family status.” Thus the family is at the center of the individual's economic and political as well as social and emotional life. The extended family is enlarged through marriage with other Muslims and continues through a strong tradition of family inheritance. “On the whole,” says Metz, “this heritage of social grouping and family values characterized the value system of immigrant Muslims.”

Iranian American families have undergone change, however, as they have become more and more assimilated in the United States. The extended family network, which traditionally provided one's social identity as well as the all-important comforts of the private domain, is often not possible for immigrants, some of whom have left most or all of their family behind. In addition, the values of the new country, where women enjoy much more freedom and equality, have undermined the male dominance in the traditional Iranian culture.

Changes in the characteristic Middle Eastern family structure in the North American context have resulted in part from the loss of power that had Page 439  |  Top of Articlebeen accorded to elders as purveyors of important cultural knowledge and to the father as head of the family. The knowledge elders possess may not be considered relevant in the context of immigration. Power relations are sometimes reversed when the second generation finds it necessary to instruct the first on various aspects of the new culture or to represent the family to the outside world due to their greater knowledge of English. Furthermore, influenced by the culture around them, members of the second generation often desire greater freedom to determine their own lives, while their elders struggle to maintain control over the family. One area that has not changed is adherence to the Islamic law to take care of the elderly when they cannot take care of themselves.

Gender Roles Women of the middle and upper classes—many of whom had adopted secular, Westernized values—were among those most affected when the conservative Islamic government came to power with the revolution in 1979. Strict enforcement of the traditional dress code might extend to flogging for violations such as wearing makeup or nail polish, even if covered by sunglasses and gloves. Throughout the 1980s the official attitude toward Iranian women, as indicated by police enforcement of the dress code through patrols and roadblocks, varied somewhat by region (women are more severely restricted in rural areas than in Teheran, the capital city) and with fluctuations in the political realm. Although Iranian women believe they are allowed more independence than women in other Middle Eastern countries, this is still far less than was accorded them before the revolution, and the inconsistency with which the laws have been applied is nerve-wracking.

Still, social change in Iran is coming about in spite of the state, according to Iranian American feminist scholar Valentine Moghadam. Although the legal and economic systems in Iran still favor men over women, Moghadam describes patriarchy in the country as “in crisis,” as a feminist press proliferates and more Iranian women attend university and work outside the home (albeit at nongovernmental jobs).

In the United States, Iranian women enjoy many freedoms not accessible to them in their home country. Most Iranian American women hold more liberal views about gender roles than their counterparts in Iran, supporting equality on both the familial and societal levels, according to sociology professor Ali Akbar Mahdi (“Perceptions of Gender Roles among Female Iranian Immigrants in the United States”). They do not see gender distinctions—related to work, property ownership, childcare, decision making, and power sharing, both inside and outside their homes—as relevant to their lives, and they do not support outside forces, be they political, religious, or familial in nature, that restrict their relationships with their spouses.

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The ta'ziyeh is an epic religious pageant, often centered on mourning, performed in the Middle East, but most elaborately in Iran. Iranian American director Mohammed Ghaffari, however, has staged traditional ta'ziyeh plays in Europe and the United States. In her study of his adaptation, Milla C. Riggio discusses the ways in which Ghaffari has altered the plays because of the differences between American and Iranian audiences. Because his American audience could not—or would not, given the constraints of Western theater-going—verbally respond to the spectacle onstage, the play's traditional “call for vengeance against the cultural as well as religious enemies of Shi'ism” was not available to Ghaffari. Instead, the director transformed the community-affirming message of the play into a personal expression of his feelings about his own exile. This was achieved in part by altering the traditional costuming, action, and theme of the play, “which abstracted and universalized the idea of cruelty rather than localizing it in Shi'i martyrdom,” argues Riggio. “Replacing the call to martyrdom with a mystical dance which affirms the beauty of his life while recognizing human cruelty, Ghaffari displaced the communal values of the ta'ziyeh tradition in favor of the existential experience of the isolated individual,” Riggio concludes. Essentially, rather than the ta'ziyeh being represented as a passionate martyrology of Shiites versus Sunnis, Muslim Iranian Americans seek to view it as a link to their past, to their lost country, and to their Islamic faith.

The father, as head of the family, is considered responsible for the family's social, material, and spiritual welfare, and in return expects respect and obedience from his wife and children. Many women help support their families by working outside the home, and those who worship tend to do so in the mosque instead of in the privacy of their homes. “This has meant that the essentially separate worlds of Muslim men and women in the public spheres have now become fused,” Azim A. Nanji remarks in his 1994 essay “The Muslim Family in North America.” However, even within the Islamic Republic of Iran, women are ever-present in the workplace alongside men—albeit often, but not always, wearing the hijab—and those practices that entered Iranian society under the Pahlavi dynasty remain strong within the Muslim Iranian American community. Separation based on gender was not present in Iran for Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, Baha'is, or Mandaeans, however, and so Iranian immigrants from those communities have no taboos against interactions between men and women.

In 1990 about 48 percent of Iranian American women living in Los Angeles worked outside the home. By 1997 even more women led more Western-style lives: they had pursued college educations and careers as professors, businesspeople, and doctors Page 440  |  Top of Articleand specialists in hospitals. Sometimes traditionalists shunned these women. Still, Iranian American girls, especially of the second generation, saw the possibilities of life in the United States and wanted to take advantage of them. Some protested family rules that decreed more freedom for their brothers. For example, many Iranian American families prevented their daughters from attending college outside of their home city or state. The family pressure had the potential of being psychologically damaging. Yet some families embraced Western ways for their daughters, arguing that her potential lifetime earnings could take the place of a dowry.

Groups have sprung up to help first-generation Iranian American women with the transition to American life, especially those in a problematic marriage. Organizations such as the Coalition of Women from Asia and the Middle East offer help by providing shelters, counseling, and legal assistance to victims of domestic violence and others.

Courtship and Weddings In Iran marriage, often within the extended family network, is encouraged at a young age both officially and unofficially, and although multiple wives (as many as four) are allowed for men by Islamic law, it has often been discouraged both by the government and by the family. In addition, the Shiite religion, the predominant sect of Islam in Iran, allows the practice of temporary marriage, or muta. Muta is not practiced by Shiites in the United States. Iranian Muslim women are forbidden to marry non-Muslims, as it is feared the woman and her children will most certainly be lost to Islam, but Muslim men may marry non-Muslims if they are Jewish or Christian, on the assumption that the woman will convert to Islam and raise the children according to Islamic law. Iranian Americans are increasingly marrying outside their faiths and communities, and immigrant parents are finding it less likely that they will be permitted to choose the partners their children wed in the United States.

The relationship between the Iranian American population and the surrounding population since the 1979 revolution appears to be one characterized by fear and prejudice on the one side and anger and sadness on the other.

Relations with Other Americans Due to the oil shortage experienced in the United States in the 1970s, the romanticized or exotic image of the Middle East, cultivated by such fairy tales as Aladdin and the Magic Lamp and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, was replaced by a negative stereotype of greedy oil-men and of terrorists driven by Islamic fundamentalism, as noted in “Media Blitz” (Scholastic Update, October 22, 1993). When Iranian political radicals kidnapped fifty-two Americans in 1979 and held them hostage for more than a year in the American Embassy in Teheran, Iran's capital city, anti-Iranian sentiment in the United States grew, and Americans began to associate Iranians with hate and destruction. The arrest of four Muslim immigrants for the bombing of New York City's World Trade Center in 1993 and the devastating attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C., by Islamic terrorists in 2001 further reinforced the negative stereotypes of Islamic cultures—though none of the perpetrators were Iranian. Iranian Americans by and large have little sympathy for Islamic fundamentalism of either the Sunni or the Shiite varieties.

Some Muslims blame the American media and popular culture for propagating negative stereotypes about their culture and religion. For example, Disney's popular film Aladdin (1992) features a Middle Eastern character who sings about cutting off ears as legal punishment and calls his homeland “barbaric.” The 1984 book Not Without My Daughter and its 1991 movie adaptation, about an American woman and her daughter escaping from Iran, reinforce negative stereotypes by portraying Iranians as demonic. Middle Eastern critics of American popular culture point to the preponderance of Arabs or Muslims in the role of villain in movies and television shows in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Furthermore, in “Media Blitz,” these critics contend that through the media's reliance on such terms as “Islamic terrorists” and “Islamic fundamentalists,” Americans are encouraged to confuse the few Islamic radicals who espouse violence with the majority of the adherents of the Islamic religion, who reject violence.


It is common for Iranian Americans to achieve notable success both academically and professionally. According to the American Community Survey's estimates for 2009–2011, 92.2 percent of Iranian Americans over the age of twenty-five were high school graduates, and 58.7 percent reported having a bachelor's degree or higher. These figures are higher than the national average (85.6 percent and 28.2 percent, respectively). In addition, the American Community Survey indicated that Iranian Americans had higher earnings than the overall U.S. population. Iranian American men working full-time earned an average of $93,242 (while the national average was $64,502), and Iranian American women with similar employment situations earned $69,008 (while the national average was $46,560). Finally, 54.3 percent of Iranian Americans worked in management or professional occupations (compared with 35.9 percent for all Americans). Many Iranian Americans have excelled in the fields of law, medicine, education, art, the media, and sports.

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An Iranian American taxi cab driver in Miami Beach, Florida.

An Iranian American taxi cab driver in Miami Beach, Florida. JEFF GREENBERG / ALAMY


Shiism has traditionally shown a disdain for both secular authority and direct involvement in political life. Iranian leaders of Twelver Shiism (Ithna 'Ashariyah), the dominant form of Shiism, have followed the ancient tradition of remaining separate from the world's political concerns, avoiding the ministering of justice, and seeking a spiritual victory in defeat. There is also a tradition of revolt against injustice within Shiism, however, and an inability to suffer the corruption of political figures except when to protest would put one's life in danger. This stance is known as taqiyah (“necessary dissimulation”) and is traced back to Ali, Muhammad's son-in-law, who quietly accepted the promotion of three others to the caliphate before him in order to avoid civil war. In The Shiites: Ritual and Popular Piety in a Muslim Community (1992), David Pinault identifies taqiyah as a “guiding principle for any Shiite living under a tyrannous government too powerful to be safely resisted; one may give an external show of acquiescence while preserving resistance in one's interior, in one's heart.”

Iranian Americans generally participated little in U.S. politics for more than two decades after their arrival, but in the twenty-first century they have become more and more involved in American politics, running increasingly for public office at both state and national levels. Of the 80 percent of Iranian Americans registered to vote in 2008, 50 percent were registered as Democrats, 12.5 percent as Republicans, and 25 percent as independents, according to the 2008 national public opinion survey of Iranian Americans commissioned by PAAIA and conducted by Zogby International.

Iranian Americans have become more involved in the electoral process in the twenty-first century as well. The Iranian American Political Action Committee raises money for the federal, state, and local campaigns of candidates attuned to domestic issues affecting Iranian Americans, regardless of party.


Academia Vartan Gregorian (1934–), a former university professor and president of the New York Public Library, served as president of Brown University from 1989 to 1997 before leaving to head the Carnegie Corporation of New York. He has received honorary degrees from seventy universities in the United States and received the National Humanities Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, among other honors. His 2003 autobiography is titled The Road to Home: My Life and Times.

Business Pierre Omidyar (1967–), the founder and chairman of the eBay online auction site, was born in France to Iranian immigrants and raised in Maryland. He wrote his first computer program at the age of fourteen, graduated from Tufts University in 1988 with a degree in computer science, and worked at Claris, an Apple Computer subsidiary before starting eBay, a service that revolutionized online commerce.

Fashion Bijan Pakzad (1940–2011) was a fashion designer of exclusive men's apparel and perfumes who ran an exclusive, by-appointment boutique on Page 442  |  Top of ArticleRodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, California. He dressed a number of extremely influential people, including many heads of state.

Film Bob Yari (1961–), born in Iran and raised in New York City, produced Hollywood movies including Where the Red Fern Grows (2003), Laws of Attraction (2004), and The Illusionist (2006). His 2004 film Crash won the Academy Award for Best Picture.

Journalism Roxana Saberi (1977–), born in New Jersey to an Iranian father and a Japanese mother, is a photojournalist who made headlines when she was arrested in Iran in 2009 and charged with espionage and possessing classified information, both which she denied. She was held for five months before being released. Her 2010 book Between Two Worlds tells her story.

Literature Sadeq Chubak (1916–1998), considered one of the foremost modern Iranian writers, is the author of short stories, novels, and dramatic works frequently involving characters from the lowest strata of society.

Sports Andre Agassi (1970–) was a dominant professional tennis player for two decades during the 1990s and 2000s. He won his first competition in 1987 and won Wimbledon in 1992. He won numerous other Grand Slam competitions, including the U.S. Open in 1994 and the Australian Open in 1995, and he won a gold medal in the 1996 Summer Olympics. He hit a career slump in 1997, later citing a drug problem, but then made a comeback in 1999, winning the U.S. Open that year and the Australian Open numerous times. He retired from tennis in 2006.

Stage and Screen Comic actress Nasim Pedrad (1981–) joined the cast of Saturday Night Live in 2009. She was born in Tehran, Iran, but immigrated to the United States with her parents at the age of two. She graduated from the UCLA School of Theater in 2003 and has had roles in various movies and television shows.


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Asre Emrooz

An Iranian daily newspaper published in the United States.

16661 Ventura Boulevard
Encino, California 91205
Phone: (818) 783-0000 or (818) 783-2829

Iran Nameh

A quarterly academic journal published by the Foundation for Iranian Studies.

Hormoz Hekmat, Managing Editor
4343 Montgomery Avenue
Suite 200 Bethesda, Maryland 20814
Phone: (301) 657-1990
Fax: (301) 657-1983

Iran Times International

A weekly newspaper in English and Farsi.

Javad Khakbaz, Editor and Publisher
2727 Wisconsin Avenue NW
Washington, D.C. 20007
Phone: (202) 659-9869
Fax: (202) 337-7449
Email: or


A magazine focusing on art, science, philosophy, history, and cultural issues.

Jahanshah Javid, Publisher
2220 Avenue of the Stars #2301
Los Angeles, California 90067

Par Monthly Journal

A monthly publication in Persian by the Par Cultural Society.

P.O. Box 703
Falls Church, Virginia 22040
Phone: (703) 533-1727

Persian Heritage

Quarterly magazine published by Persian Heritage, Inc.

Shahrokh Ahkami, Editor in Chief
110 Passaic Avenue
Passaic, New Jersey 07055
Phone: (973) 471-4283
Fax: (973) 471-8534


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Radio Iran 670AM KIRN

Los Angeles–based Iranian radio station, with live streaming online.

Jim Kalmenson, General Manager
3301 Barham Boulevard
Suite 300
Los Angeles, California 90068
Phone: (323) 851-5476


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American Institute of Iranian Studies (AIIrS)

Nonprofit, nongovernmental consortium of U.S. universities and museums founded in 1967 to promote the interdisciplinary study of Iranian civilization and United States-Iran cultural dialogue.

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Erica Ehrenberg, Executive Director
118 Riverside Drive
New York, New York 10024

Iran Freedom Foundation

The Iran Freedom Foundation (IFF) is a nonprofit organization founded in August 1979 by Ali A. Tabatabai and organized under the laws of the state of Maryland. The fundamental purpose of the IFF is to protect and enhance the human and civil rights of Iranians and to promote the establishment of a secular constitutional democracy in Iran.

M. R. Tabatabai, President
P.O. Box 34422
Bethesda, Maryland 20827
Phone: (301) 215-6677

Phone: (301) 335-7717
Fax: (301) 907-8877


National Council of Resistance of Iran

A coalition of democratic Iranian organizations opposed to the dictatorship in Iran. It organizes opposition worldwide through diplomatic efforts and demonstrations and strikes in Iran.

Maryam Rajavi, President-elect

Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans, Inc. (PAAIA)

PAAIA is a nonprofit, nonpartisan, nonreligious organization that advocates for Iranian Americans on domestic issues in front of lawmakers and the American public. It strives to promote intercultural understanding and involve Iranians in the democratic process at all levels.

Adrienne M. Varkiani
1614 20th Street NW
Washington, D.C. 20009
Phone: (202) 828-8370


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American Institute of Iranian Studies

Founded in 1967, the American Institute of Iranian Studies is a nonprofit consortium of universities and museums to promote the interdisciplinary study of Iranian cultures and Iran-U.S. relations. It is the sole organization in the United States committed to funding Iranian studies research.

Dr. Erica Ehrenberg, Executive Director
18 Riverside Drive
New York, New York 10024 Email:

Center for Iranian Studies

Academic research center with an active publication program. Founded in 1968 by Professor Ehsan Yarshater, the Center sponsors or arranges art exhibitions, film screenings, musical performances, and occasional lectures for students, staff, and the community, but the main focus of its activities is an extensive program of scholarly publications and several related projects.

Ehsan Yarshater, Director
Center for Iranian Studies
Columbia University
450 West 116th Street
New York, New York 10027
Phone: (212) 851-9150

Iranian Studies Group at MIT

The Iranian Studies Group at MIT conducts research on cultural, social, economic, and political issues related to Iranians and Iranian immigrants. The nonprofit academic organization publishes its work to inform public dialogue and policy regarding Iran.

Salome Siavoshi, President of the Executive Board
Iranian Studies Group
Massachusetts Institute for Technology
77 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, Massachusetts 02139


Ansari, Maboud. The Making of the Iranian Community in America. New York: Pardis, 1992.

Hoffman, Diane M. “Language and Culture Acquisition among Iranians in the United States.” Anthropology and Education Quarterly 20, no. 2 (1989): 118–32.

Katouzian, Homa, and Hossein Shahid, eds. Iran in the 21st Century: Politics, Economics & Conflict. New York: Routledge, 2008.

Kelley, Ron, ed. Irangeles: Iranians in Los Angeles. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

Mahdi, Ali Akbar. “Perceptions of Gender Roles among Female Iranian Immigrants in the United States.” In Women, Religion and Culture in Iran, edited by Sarah Ansari and Vanessa Martin, 185–210. London: Curzon, 2001.

Metz, Helen Chapin, ed. Iran: A Country Study. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government, 1989.

Moossavi, Homayoon. “Teheran Calling.” Progressive 52, no. 4 (1988): 34.

Nanji, Azim A. “The Muslim Family in North America.” In Family Ethnicity: Strength in Diversity, edited by H. P. McAdoo, 229–42. Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 1993.

Pinault, David. The Shiites: Ritual and Popular Piety in a Muslim Community. New York: St. Martin's, 1992.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3273300095