How Najeeb are You?
Reflections on Persian-American Girlhood
In Farsi, the language spoken in Iran, there is a word: najeeb. This means pure and virginal, and Persian girls are told they must meet these standards to maintain the value of their families. There are no rules, however, regarding a man’s purity.
Since the Iranian revolution in 1979, many Jewish families have settled in the United States, mostly in Los Angeles, California, and on Long Island, New York. The children in these families may have a hard time balancing their Persian identity with their new American one. The girls, especially, may find conflicts with what their parents consider to be important values versus what Americans generally do. Dating, premarital sex and marriage are explosive issues, particularly between parents and young women in their teens and 20s.
Recently I interviewed three Jewish women about how conflicts affected their lives as part of a cross-cultural study of Muslim, Baha’i and Jewish young women whose Iranian-born families had settled in the United States. All of their parents spent at least the early part of their lives in Iran and, therefore, were socialized as Persians. The women were all between 19 and 22 years old, were college students and live or have lived away from home—an unusual situation for Persian girls.
Listen to their words. Many of them express pain; at other times they look at their communities with varying amounts of sarcasm and respect. You may find some of their words offensive. They talked candidly and generously about gender roles, double standards, sex, curfews, alcohol, interracial dating, homosexuality, birth control, “husband material,” careers, reputation, feminism, secrets and guilt. I’d like to thank all of the women who shared their souls with me and allowed me to feel their conflict.
Many of the tensions in their lives revolve around male/female relationships. These include the issues of premarital sex, marriage and interracial dating. Almost all of the women interviewed have parents who are homophobic. None of these women learned about feminism through their parents. They had to discover it on their own, and some have very negative connotations of the term. Most of these parents have higher and more specific expectations for their future sons-in-law rather than for their own daughters’ careers. Some of these women lie to their parents on a regular basis in order to live their lives the way they want to.
Has leading this “double life” caused them trauma? Some young women admitted that they were not able to concentrate on schoolwork or other matters because they were worried all day that their parents were mad at them. Or perhaps they were feeling guilty about something they did or lied about. They felt that their mental energy was being consumed by what should be trivial matters.
What does this dual experience mean for the next generation of Persian-American women? Will they have to lead double lives? Will they allow their daughters to do openly what they themselves have had to hide from their parents? Will more openness mean compromising Persian traditions? Does Persian tradition leave room for feminism, or will these women always feel like they will have to choose between the two? There is no translation for the word “feminist” in Farsi, but perhaps the concept of najeeb can be replaced by a new concept of “tarafdar hugug-e zanan”—literally, an advocate for women’s issues. Perhaps we can use this phase until a word for “feminist” is created. Someday we’ll find that word, because we have already found our voice.
Mishana, 20, the middle child. Raised in Los Angeles. Both parents are Jewish. She was born in the United States. Her mother has been here for 25 years and her father has been here for 40 years. She has two brothers.
Shadi, 20, an only child. Raised in Los Angeles. Both parents are Jewish.
Rachel, 20, has one older brother. Raised on Long Island. Both parents are Jewish and have been in the United States for 17 years.
Can you talk about the gender roles and double standards in your family?
Mishana’s brother is allowed to date someone out of his religion. In high school she was not allowed to date anybody. “Now, I am allowed to date to search for my husband. My brother presently has a girlfriend out of our religion who has a key to his apartment and answers the phone.” Nonetheless, she says, “my brother thinks I am favored because I am the only girl and because they buy me more material things [to make her more attractive to potential suitors]. One day my whole family spent the entire day looking for me to buy the perfect dress for my cousin’s wedding.”
Shadi has similar issues in her family. She is not allowed to date. “But if I were to, I am not allowed to say anything to anybody including my American friends because my parents feel that it will get around. When I am at a party or somebody’s house, I am expected to go to into the kitchen and not act like a guest.”
Rachel has the same difficulties. “There has been a complete double standard in my household which commenced when I hit puberty.” Her brother was always allowed to stay out much later than she was and her parents didn’t always keep tabs on where he was. “It was assumed that whomever I dated might be marriage material.” Her parents always spent more money on her clothes and pressured her to wear fancier outfits to the Persian parties while her brother got to wear jeans if he wanted. The chores in the household pretty much got divided when she reached puberty as well. “It is important for me to know how to be a hostess, set the table, and of course, serve tea. My brother had to mow the lawn, do the car stuff, and learn how to sit and watch TV while we [the women] cleaned up.”
What were the rules your parents had regarding your virginity, boyfriends, male friends and curfews?
Mishana starts, “The rules of virginity were unspoken until one day when I asked my parents why I had to be a virgin and my brother didn’t. They answered me by telling me I had something that could be broken whereas my brother had nothing to lose. If they found out I wasn’t a virgin—not that I’m not a virgin—I think I would be mutilated.”
When Shadi was 13 her father told her, “Virginity is a gift that you will give your husband on your wedding night.” This value was not mentioned only once to her. “These virgin talks always seem to occur over dinner. They don’t understand how I can get sick from this or become prejudiced from the food. This type of Indian food always reminds me of our sex talks.” Still, Shadi had a secret boyfriend for eight months before her mom found out. “One day she came into my room and told me she needed to know the nature of our relationship. I told her we were boyfriend and girlfriend and she flipped out. She said “I hope you didn’t go to bed with him.” But at that point it was already too late. Her reaction made me feel dirty even though I knew I shouldn’t feel that way. I even sometimes still do.”
From the time Rachel knew about sex she knew she wasn’t allowed to have it until she was married. Her virginity was also discussed at the dinner table. Her mom would always judge her friends on how najeeb they were. When Rachel was in seventh grade, her mother did not like one of her friends because she plucked her eyebrows. This was a sign to her that this girl was not pure. Now Rachel has been dating a guy for two years and is reminded about once a week that she is not allowed to have sex with him. “The funny thing is, he is 24, the same age as my brother. So if my brother is allowed to have sex, which he is, how come my boyfriend can’t? Once in a while they ask how my boyfriend could handle not having sex. Was he normal? Was he gay? I’m thinking, what do they want from me? I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t.”
Did your parents talk to you about birth control?
“My mom never told me what a period was, so she definitely never told me anything about birth control,” said Mishana, reflecting the silence of all three mothers. “She did however tell me that if I used a tampon, I would be losing my virginity.”
Are you allowed to date men from other races?
Interracial dating is not an option. Shadi comments, “If I were allowed to date he would have to be Persian, Jewish, rich, educated, and from a good family. That pretty much erases everybody of a different race, class, religion, nationality, gender.” Rachel is definitely not allowed to date people of other races. “I wondered if I met an Ethiopian Jew what they would do?”
Is there compulsory heterosexuality in the Persian culture?
Shadi believes so. “I know who I am supposed to date. When I go to a party, I have to have my legs waxed and my hair straightened.” Rachel agrees, “I encounter tons of compulsory heterosexuality every time I go home or talk to them on the phone…. I just got my senior photos and my parents said, the next time you have professional photos done, you will be wearing white. I don’t have a choice of whether I want to get married or not. It’s really stressful. Luckily I am in a very committed relationship with someone who I can see spending the rest of my life with. If I didn’t, I know I would have to be dealing with chastegars.” Chastegars are men who come to the house to court these women. “Usually,” says Rachel, “it’s 30-year-old men courting 20-year-old women. The family gets totally involved and there is no privacy.”
Once when Rachel was a freshman in college, a good female friend and she slept in the guest room together in a double bed and her parents got very angry, “I couldn’t understand it. It’s like they don’t want me to have intimacy with anyone. At the time, I had a boyfriend, so they knew that I was at least interested in boys.”
What do your parents hope for in a son-in-law?
The expectations are high—and specific. Mishana says, “They want me to come home after college and spend year with them so that I can be in eshtemah [Persian society]. This is so I can find a husband….He should be between four to six years older than me, Jewish, and come from a good family name. He has to be a professional and educated but they don’t want a businessman.”
Shadi’s parents are just as specific. “My husband has to be older but not too much older (not more than 8 years). He has to be well-established, from a good family that is well off, very family oriented, and well educated.”
Rachel answered, “My parents definitely have set criteria for my husband. For them, the ideal husband must be at least four years older than me, preferably more, a doctor, tall, from a very good family that had no contact with the concept of divorce, Persian, Jewish, a wealthy background, and who can put a down payment on a house when we get married. If I found a guy like that, it would be ideal if I was engaged around the time of my college graduation.”
Are the expectations as high for your careers as for your marriages?
It does not seem so. Mishana’s parents want her to get a graduate degree but afterwards to stay home to take care of the kids. Once her children are grown, maybe she will have a career. Shadi’s parents have similar views. “They don’t encourage me to be a doctor like I want to be. They want me to be educated but they expect my husband to provide for me and for me to provide the primary care for my children.” Rachel’s parents’ views conflict with one another. “My parents both expected me to go to college. My mother would be happy if I got my B.A., got married, had kids, and never had to work a day in my life. My father on the other hand wants me to get married, go to graduate school, and work but make my priority my children. “
Persian women have to deal with protecting their reputation and that of their family. How important is that to you?
Mishana starts by referring to the word for reputation in Farsi—aberooh. “I can’t wear anything above mid thigh. [My parents] want me to dress in a more feminine manner. I have to find the perfect medium between slut and grandma. I can’t be seen out in public with guys because the Persian community may see me. It’s hell to be in L.A. and be Persian.”
Rachel has similar problems. “My parents are very obsessed with my reputation. Not too many relatives outside of immediate family know about my boyfriend. If they did, my parents think that it will be spread around the whole Persian community and when it comes time for me to get married, I won’t be able to because everyone will think that I am a slut. When relatives come over, my mom hides the pictures of my boyfriend and me.”
How much discrepancy Is there between what you do and what you tell your parents that you do?
Mishana hid a boyfriend for two years from her parents. “They don’t know anything about my social life. I make my own set of rules but they leave me no choice. I think they’ve raised me with enough morals to make my own decisions.”
Shadi also hides many things from her parents including that she has had sex. Also, “I won’t tell them I am interested in women. I won’t tell them I have lesbian or gay friends, but I hide lesbian friends more because,” she says sarcastically, “‘you know they are all recruiters.'”
Rachel also lies. “I have lied to my parents so much that I can’t even count. I do it not so I hurt them but so I don’t hurt them. They don’t want to know the truth. I’ve found out the hard way. Almost all of these lies deal with people of the opposite sex. Other than those issues, I am a really good daughter and have done everything they expect of me. That’s why I almost can’t wait till I get married so that they hopefully will accept everything about me and I won’t have to hide anything from them.”
Do you feel guilty, shameful, or resentful because of these lies?
“I resent the culture for putting this barrier between us,” says Shadi. “If they saw me as a whole person, our relationship would be better and they would be much prouder of me, if they could move past their Persian cultural socialization. If I told them things like I was not a virgin or that I liked women, they would make me feel dirty. I don’t have any shame about what I have done but I know if I told them they would shame me.”
Rachel says she feels guilty constantly. Almost everything that involves her boyfriend is a lie. Her boyfriend and she must go over everything together to make sure that they have the same story. She spent two months contemplating whether or not she was going to have sex with her boyfriend. “I would lie awake at night every night, for hours, wondering if I could live my Persian life not being a virgin. I was wondering how I would keep it from my parents and what they would do if they found out. I finally decided that I was in love. I cared for this man and that I was going to live my life for myself. I resent the culture for making me doubt my decision. I resent my culture for making premarital sex taboo for women but praising men who have it. I resent my culture for making me feel like I am a second-class citizen and that I do not have desires like my brother does.”
The names of the women in this story have been changed to protect their confidentiality.
Pegah Hendizadeh Schiffman is a human resources consultant. She left Iran with her family during the Revolution and was raised in America.
Virgin, or Slut?
by Sarah Blustain
Two decades after the Iranian revolution, the children of Jewish refugees in America are coming of age. They have been raised in an old, patriarchal culture in their homes, and they have absorbed American values around them.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the conflicted sexuality of the community’s young women, the subject of a documentary-in-progress by 25-year-old New Yorker Tanaz Eshaghian. Eshaghian, born in Iran and raised in the United States, is interviewing young women like herself, 23-27 years old, about how they view their own sexuality. Her efforts are bold in a culture that tends, she says, “to hide everything.”
Among her questions for the women: How do they balance the Iranian expectation of virginity until marriage with American freer standards of sexuality? Is there a double standard in the treatment of boys and girls? How much guilt is associated with sex for these young women? And what, in their definition, makes someone a “slut”?
Eshaghian also plans to query others within the Iranian Jewish communities. As we went to press, she was flying off to Los Angeles in search of interviews with—among others—doctors who offer their services reconstructing hymens.
“If any Iranian girls that have suffered the consequences of breaking away from the community would like to participate in the documentary,” comments Eshaghian, “please contact me.” 212-529-0965; email@example.com.