Iranian americans

by Mary Gillis


The Islamic Republic of Iran occupies 635,932 square miles (1,648,000 square kilometers) on the Asian continent. 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 a 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.

Although most of the country is arid and desert-like, the majority of the population is located in the area around the Caspian Sea, which has a hot and humid climate. As of the early 1980s, approximately one third of the population was occupied in agriculture, one third in the service sector, and another third in manufacturing, mining, construction, and utilities. Unemployment grew throughout the 1980s, however, reaching an estimated 28.5 percent in 1986 due to the nation's faltering economy in the face of the ongoing border war with neighboring Iraq and the drop in worldwide oil prices.

Iran is the nineteenth most populous nation in the world, approaching 50 million people in the late 1980s. Nearly half the Iranian population is ethnically non-Arab, being considered direct descendants of Aryan invaders of the second century B.C. Other significant ethnic groups descend from ancient Arabic and Turkish conquerors; there are also smaller populations of nomadic tribes, including Kurds, Lurs, Bakhtiari, Qashqa'i, Mamasani, Khamseh, Shahsevans, Baluchi, and Turkomans.

The majority of Iran's population converted to the Islamic religion in the seventh century A.D. after invasion by Arab tribes, and the Shi'i sect of Islam has predominated since the sixteenth century. Most of the population (98 percent) is Muslim, and fully 93 percent are members of the Shi'i sect. The remaining Muslims are members of the Sunni sect of Islam. There are minority Christian (about 300,000), and Jewish (about 25,000 in 1984) populations, as well as Zoroastrians (about 30,000) and Baha'i (about 350,000). The latter two religions originated in Iran, but practitioners of both have been subjected to persecution by officials of the regime that came to power with the revolution in 1979. In 1987, there were 270,000 Bahais in Iran and 7,000 in the United States, of which 1,000 were identified as Iranian immigrants.

In discussing possible reasons for the paucity of material available on the Iranian immigrant community in the United States, Diane M. Hoffman summarized its basic characteristics: "The relative recency of the large-scale influx of Iranians (many of whom arrived in the late 1970s and early 1980s), their relatively affluent socioeconomic background, their great religious, political, and ethnic heterogeneity, and their lack of well-defined geographic communities and internal cohesiveness are characteristics that make their status as a minority community somewhat problematic."

This attitude parallels the traditional self-image of the Shi'ism as a minority that must fight off a hostile majority, a paradigm taken from the martyrdom of Husain, commemorated annually during the month of Muharram. Among Shi'i leadership, this attitude evolved into "a quietist stance," according to David Pinault, which entailed "silent opposition to worldly powers, coupled with spiritual authority among a persecuted and excluded minority." Pinault noted that when the Shi'i leadership took political power in 1979, it was able to tap into the traditional Shi'i stance by "portraying the Iranian nation as a righteous minority menaced by powerful external enemies who seek to deprive it of its proper place in the world." A similarity may be found in Hoffman's description of the attitude of the Iranian high school students in Los Angeles in particular.


Iran's strategic location, bridging the Middle East and India, has determined its history as one of invasion by foreign armies. Aryan invaders of the second century B.C. established Zoroastrianism as the dominant religion in the area, lending the people their distinctive ethnic heritage as well as their name. Alexander the Great swept through the area in the fourth century on his way to India, followed by Arab invaders in the seventh, who spread the teachings of Muhammad. By the eleventh century, the religion of Islam dominated the plateau and the advanced Persian sciences, literature, and learning had seduced the leaders of more than one invading army, including Genghis Khan in the thirteenth century and Tamerlane 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 their conversion to Shi'ism as the state religion. During this era theologians laid the basis of Shi'ite theology as it is currently practiced in Iran; also, since then, Shi'ism has been a badge of Persian identity in the Islamic world. By the end of the eighteenth century, a Turkish tribe called the Qajars ruled the area now known as Iran.


The Qajars governed Iran until the 1920s when Reza Shah (1878-1944) took over the government and established the Pahlavi monarchy. 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), in 1941 by Britain and the Soviet Union, which had established a presence in the country in order to block Nazi influence in the region. Some see the first episode of the Cold War in the Soviets' refusal to remove their troops from Iran until forced to do so by the United States and the newly formed United Nations in 1946. Iran became an even more significant player on the political scene worldwide as oil began to dominate the postwar world market—Iran possesses as much as ten percent of the world's oil reserves. 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 in the religious community—was suppressed.

Prior to 1979, Iran was ruled by a constitutional monarchy; however, it was in name only, not in practice. Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi changed the country's name from Persia to Iran in 1935 under a directive of Iran's representative abroad who believed that the province under which Persia was named (Pars) was only a single part of the entire country, while the birthplace of the Aryan race was Iran. After 1962, Iran became less a constitutional monarchy and more a one-man dictatorship. After the revolution, which toppled the Western-backed government of the Shah, who had led the country for nearly four decades, Iran officially became an Islamic republic governed by the laws of the Koran and the traditions of the Shi'i religion as interpreted by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1900-1989). Khomeini was the nation's official spiritual guide ( faqhi ) until his death a decade after the revolution; he was replaced by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in 1989. Iran has 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 struggled to work out the details of its dedication to the teachings of the prophet Muhammad in everyday life and in specific government policies while fighting an expensive border war with Iraq and seeing several million of its wealthiest and most highly educated citizenry emigrate to the West.


It is difficult to trace immigration to the United States from the region designated by the modern world as the Middle East because of the way in which immigration officials on both sides have kept records. Prior to 1900, the destination of all those leaving the Ottoman Empire was officially Egypt, as the West was considered off-limits; upon arrival in the United States, these immigrants were indiscriminately labeled "Arabs." After 1900, when the popular term became "Syrians," and as late as 1930, all Middle Eastern immigrants were both officially and unofficially designated as Syrians. It appears that more than half of those who immigrated to the United States before 1950 were Lebanese, and 90 percent of the total were Christian, despite the overwhelming predominance of Islam in the Middle East.

The first wave of immigration from Iran to the United States, corresponding to the period 1950-1977, was relatively insignificant in terms of numbers of immigrants. Annually, about 1,500 Iranians entered the United States as immigrants during this period, along with about 17,000 non-immigrants, including students and visitors. The vast majority of Iran's emigrants left their homeland just prior to or as a result of the 1979 revolution, and are often considered de facto political refugees, though they lack that official designation. For the period 1978-1980, the average number of Iranians entering the United States as non-immigrants annually increased to more than 100,000; it is believed that the difference between the figures for the two waves of immigration is explained by the presence of exiles and refugees from the Islamic fundamentalist regime that overthrew the Shah.

Although non-Muslims form a tiny minority of the Iranian population in Iran, non-Muslim religious minorities appear to be overrepresented among Iranians in Los Angeles, where the largest Iranian population outside Iran is concentrated. The reason for the large number of religious minorities among Iranian immigrants compared to their proportion in the feeder population appears to be fear of or actual religious persecution under the fundamentalist Islamic government. For example, at its height, the Iranian Jewish population numbered 90,000 and enjoyed greater freedom and power than in any other Muslim country. But despite Ayatollah Khomeini's assurances of their safety under his government, several Jewish leaders were killed during the regime's early years, and 2,000 Jews leaving temple after Friday night services in 1983 were rounded up and imprisoned. By 1987, an estimated 55,000 Iranian Jews had received permission to emigrate. In 1992, 35,000 of those potential immigrants had settled in Los Angeles, New York City, and in Europe; however, the stream of Iranian Jewish immigrants had slowed considerably by the early 1990s and a few had even returned to Iran to reclaim their former lives and property as living conditions there eased.

Several sources have noted than an estimated two to three million Iranians have fled their homeland since the 1979 revolution; of the more than one million Iranians scattered across the United States, approximately 600,000—as of 1998—are located in southern California. According to U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Services figures through 1991, estimates on Iranian immigrants are much lower, totaling 200,000 Iranian immigrants entering the United States since 1978. The difference in these figures may be the result of counting only those who entered the country as immigrants, leaving out the large numbers of those entering officially as non-immigrants, including students and visitors. This group is often characterized as the former "elite" of Iran, highly educated and skilled professionals of various religions and ethnic backgrounds, many of whom have been financially successful in the United States.

There is some evidence to support the statement, however, that most Iranians who came to the United States did not intend to stay permanently. Only ten percent of those born in Iran and residing in Los Angeles at the time of the 1980 census had become naturalized citizens, and only 18 percent of those admitted into the country that year were relatives of resident aliens. In 1992, more than 100,000 Iranians had returned to their homeland since 1989, due as much to the economic recession in the United States as a state-sponsored campaign that urged reconciliation with the "secular experts." One Iranian questioned pointed to the reversal in the government's attitude toward secular experts as a recognition that the Iranian economy will never recover under the direction of religious experts alone.


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 by anger and sadness on the other. Those belonging to the Muslim religion in particular are often subjected to a kind of nationwide backlash that identifies all members of their religion as violent fanatics or terrorists. In 1985 a proposed religious and cultural center for Muslims to be built in central Oklahoma was abandoned due to the protests of local citizens who feared the project would establish a site for a terrorist network in their midst. In addition, the U.S. government has often reinforced the stereotype that all Iranians are potential terrorists. According to an article in Maclean's magazine in 1984, some in the American State Department feared any attempt by the United States to protect its interests in the Persian Gulf during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s would inspire "'sleeping' terrorist cells in the ranks of Iranian exiles and students" living in the United States ("Iran's 'Sleeping' Threat," Maclean's [June 4, 1984]). And in 1987, the Nation reported that Iranian visa and green-card holders constituted one of the groups targeted by the American Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) for a proposed "contingency plan" intended to identify "potential alien terrorists and undesirables" and remove them from the country ("The Untouchables," Nation [March 21, 1987], p. 348).

In response, many Iranian Americans feel a "deep sense of helplessness and alienation" in a culture that appears to understand them little and care less for their fate, according to Homayoon Moossavi. "We are, for the most part, only the subject of ridicule by political cartoonists and second-rate comics. We are treated as a faceless mob. This drives us mad, makes us angry and bitter," Moossavi concluded. Prior to the 1979 revolution, many Iranians would try to conceal their identity by identifying themselves as Persians or by speaking in English. Although some believe that this was to avoid American discrimination, the primary reason was a fear of Iran's State Organization for Intelligence and Security (SAVAK). This organization operated freely abroad, especially in the United States, to punish so-called dissidents or anti-Shah groups.

Acculturation and Assimilation

Although there is little data pertaining specifically to Iranian Americans and their struggle with assimilation into the surrounding culture, most Iranians in the United States are Muslims. Azim A. Nanji has identified several areas of conflict between the traditional Muslim and the secular American cultures. The most significant difference between living in a predominantly Islamic society and living in the United States is the lack of social support for the shariah, the Muslim code of conduct which has evolved over the centuries and which governs every aspect of one's life, from the most private to the most public.

In addition, the place of the extended family network at the center of Muslim life, which traditionally provides one's social identity as well as the all-important comforts of the private domain, is often not possible for immigrants, who may have left most or all of their family behind. Furthermore, Nanji noted, women may experience the greatest changes in the new environment due to the more frequent necessity of working outside the home. "This has meant that the essentially separate worlds of Muslim men and women in the public spheres have now become fused," Nanji remarked, adding that Muslim women in America tend to participate more actively in the mosque, though traditionally women pray primarily in the home.

Finally, Nanji identified Muslim youth in the United States as an area for deep concern among Muslim families. Peer pressure to experiment with drinking, dating, and other aspects of the lives of secular American adolescents which are forbidden by Islam, as well as pressure from the school system to practice individualistic values such as self-reliance and independent thinking—values that contradict the family-centered Muslim tradition— are sources of anxiety to Muslim parents. In response to these concerns, Nanji noted, some Muslims have attempted to recreate a totally Islamic

This young Iranian American boy is celebrating the Persian New Year.
This young Iranian American boy is celebrating the Persian New Year.
atmosphere in the North American context by building schools, mosques, and communes.

Hoffman suggested that unlike other immigrant groups, degree of language acquisition and length of residence in the United States indicate only the most superficial identification with the surrounding culture for Iranian Americans. Indeed, most Iranian immigrants speak English with some degree of fluency upon arrival in the United States. 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 Farsi; this attitude was carried over to the American context, reflecting the longstanding Iranian fascination with Western culture prior to the 1979 revolution. Indeed, despite a statistical downturn in education level of Iranian immigrants pre- and post-revolution, Iranian immigrants as a group display an extremely high incidence of English proficiency, particularly compared to other recent immigrant groups, according to Georges Sabagh and Mehdi Bozorgmehr in their study of the demographic, social, and economic characteristics of the Iranian immigrant community in Los Angeles.

Hoffman noted that since the 1979 revolution, however, and thus for the majority of Iranian immigrants in the United States, the attitude toward use of Farsi has reversed itself. This has resulted in a resurgence of interest among immigrants in traditional Persian culture and literature, and a new insistence on using Farsi in public and in private unless compelled to use English by an authority figure (for example, a teacher), or by the exigencies of the situation itself (for example, if one or more people present do not speak Farsi).

Hoffman 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." Just as the native population was able to maintain its distinctive culture despite centuries of invading armies, so in the United States, Iranians seem to cling to their ethnic heritage in the face of pressures to assimilate. Hoffman found that Iranian immigrants were often less interested in acquiring knowledge about American culture than they were in learning more about their own cultural heritage. Among Iranian American high school students in Los Angeles, Hoffman found both an acknowledgement of the necessity to acquire proficiency in English in order to achieve scholastically and a resistance of the typical association of language acquisition with value acquisition. Among the Los Angeles students and businessmen studied by Hoffman, "American work culture, and perhaps the notion of work as applied to self, such as in the philosophy of self-help or self-development, were the only domains in which Iranians enthusiastically espoused American values."


Due to the oil shortage experienced in the United States in the 1970s the romantic or exotic image of the Middle East, based on such fairy tales as "Aladdin and His Magic Lamp" and "Ali Babba and the Forty Thieves," became a negative stereotype of "greedy Arab oilmen" and of terrorists crazed by Islamic fundamentalism, as noted in "Media Blitz" ( Scholastic Update, October 22, 1993). Iranian Americans in particular have been subjected to the latter stereotype because of the political radicals who held 52 Americans hostage for more than a year in 1979 in the American Embassy in Teheran, Iran's capital city. And when four Muslim immigrants were arrested for the bombing of the World Trade Center in New York City in 1993, one Middle Eastern immigrant remarked in "Media Blitz" that "this trial is not about the guilt or innocence of a few men. All Islam is on trial."

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 features a Middle Eastern character who sings about cutting off ears as legal punishment and calls his home "barbaric." Middle Eastern critics of American popular culture point to the recent predominance of Arabs or Muslims in the role of villain in movies and television shows. Furthermore, these critics contend in "Media Blitz" 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.


The most significant Iranian holiday is Muharram, which focuses on the seventh-century martyrdom of Husain, the grandson of the prophet Muhammad, who is considered the rightful heir to the caliphate (leadership of the religion) by Shi'i Muslims. Muharram is a period of mourning and penitence as all Shi'ites grieve the murder of Husain, his family, and 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 Muharram festival.

Muharram festivities include processions during which banners or commemorative tombs are displayed, narrative readings are performed, and most important, ta'ziyeh khani (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 Husain 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. 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.

In her study of a ta'ziyeh performed in the United States, Riggio emphasized the ways in which Mohammed Ghaffari, the play's Iranian American director, altered the original play because of the differences in the American versus the Iranian audience. Because his American audience could not—or would not, given the constraints of Western theatergoing—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 community-affirming message of the play was transformed into a personal expression of the director's 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," argued 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 concluded.


Hejab, modest garb appropriate for women, is a controversial aspect of Islamic culture, and public conformity to its dictates is often considered a signal of fluctuations in the political atmosphere. During the reign of the Westernized Pahlevi 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 except for the skin of the hands and face. Although no data was found on the degree of conformity to hejab among Iranian women in the United States, given what is known about the high socioeconomic status of most Iranian Americans before immigration, it is unlikely that wearing the chador would be widespread among this group.


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 in the country. The nomadic tribes that migrate vertically every spring and fall from the Zagros mountain range to the surrounding lowland plains speak a variety of other languages and dialects. Iranian immigrants to the United States are more highly educated than most immigrant groups; this fact, along with the prestige associated with the use of such foreign languages as French or English in Iran, has meant that the majority of Iranian Americans report a high level of proficiency in English. Sabagh and Bozorgmehr concluded that "Iranian migrants as a whole probably have a better command of English ... than most other immigrants in Los Angeles."


Common Farsi greetings and other expressions include: Salam !—Greetings!; or, more informally, Cheh khabar? —What's new?; and Cheh khabareh? — What's happening?; Khoda Hafez —Good-bye; Loftan —Please; Mamnoon am —Thank you; Khabeli nadereh —You're welcome. Inshallah —If God be willing; Maashallah —May God preserve, is 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!

Family and Community Dynamics

Although half the Iranian population claims a non-Arab ethnicity, all Muslim Iranians—the vast majority of the population—share a common tradition with other Muslims of the Middle East, Arab or non-Arab. Muslim society in general, according to Nanji, is centered on extended family networks headed by the father. Traditionally, business and political life as well as social life has been determined by the family network. According to 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, this heritage of social grouping and family values characterized the value system of immigrant Muslims." The family has undergone change, however, as Iranian Americans, especially the women, become assimilated in the United States.


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. Marriage, often within the extended family network, is encouraged at a young age both officially and unofficially, and though multiple marriages (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 Shi'i religion, the predominant sect of Islam in Iran, allows the practice of temporary marriage, or muta. 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. These religions are traditionally considered kin to the Muslims, but intermarriage is nevertheless allowed on the assumption that the woman will convert to Islam and raise the children according to Islamic law.

Changes in the characteristic Middle Eastern family structure in the North American context have resulted in part from the loss of power that had been 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 its 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. Other changes among immigrant families include a decrease in the likelihood that marriages will be arranged.


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 make-up or nail polish, even if covered by sunglasses and gloves. Throughout the 1980s, the official attitude toward 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. Still, a woman may be censured or fined for wearing perfume, letting some hair escape from her chador, or for speaking to a man in public in an animated fashion. Although Iranian women believe they are allowed more independence than women in Saudi Arabia, 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.

Nevertheless, the sphere of women's power primarily remains the home, extending only to the initiation of social activities there and in the mosque. Nanji refuted the "stereotype of Muslim women as either concubines or oppressed baby-making machines," stressing that despite the interpretation given the laws of the Koran governing women by the most conservative adherents of Islam, "in the overall context of Muslim history and society, the status and role of women accorded with the larger view of the integrity and vitality of the family as the cornerstone of all social relationships." That is, though the home has traditionally been the seat of women's power in Islamic cultures, and is frequently perceived to be the only sphere where it is appropriate for women to assert themselves, the role that home life plays in Islamic cultures is central to all other aspects of the social structure.

It has been suggested that, among Iranians in Los Angeles at least, the authority of women within the family actually decreases after immigration. Parvin Abyaneh noted that 66 Iranian families in Los Angeles were surveyed on the following four points: amount of time women spent doing housework; amount of help women received while performing household chores; degree of control women had over family income; and, amount of control women had over major family decisions ("Immigrants and Patriarchy," Women's Studies 17, 1989). Survey results showed that Iranian American women spend more time doing household chores, receive less help with these chores from their husbands (or others), and have less ability to control the way family income is spent in the United States than when they resided in Iran. Although Iranian women exert little influence outside the home before immigration, that sphere of influence appears to deteriorate after migration to the United States.

Not all Iranian American women led such circumscribed lives. About 48 percent of Iranian American women living in Los Angeles worked outside the home in 1990. By 1997, many women led more western-style lives: they had pursued college educations and jobs. Iranian American women worked as professors, in business, and in hospitals as doctors or other specialists. Sometimes these women were shunned by traditionalists. 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 helped by providing shelters, counseling, and legal assistance to victims of domestic violence and others. Few Iranian American women expressed a desire to return to Iran.


Although Shi'ism predominates, there are several minority religious groups in Iran. Less than ten percent of the Iranian population practices the Sunni version of Islam, a sect that differs from Shi'ism in its attitude toward the imamate, the spiritual descendants of Muhammad. Bahaiism is the second largest religious minority in Iran. Formed in the nineteenth century as an offshoot of Shi'ism, the Baha'i religion believes in pacifism and equality of the sexes, and maintains that all people are brothers. Shi'i leadership officially regards the Baha'i as heretics and, except during the reign of the Pahlavi dynasty, Bahais have been persecuted in Iran. The country's Christian population includes Catholics, Anglicans, and Protestants of mainly Armenian and Assyrian descent. Although this primarily urban population has not suffered official persecution by the government of the Islamic Republic, it has been subjected to many Islamic-oriented laws and to government oversight in its schools, both of which often impinge on the traditional practice of the Christian religion. The small population of Iranian Jews has an ancient history, and was officially recognized in the constitution set down by the revolution of 1979. Nevertheless, the Iranian government's unfriendly relations with Israel have influenced the treatment of its native Jewish population, and many have emigrated to the United States and Israel. The small population of remaining Zoroastrians are also officially recognized by the Iranian constitution and have not been officially persecuted by the government.

The Islamic Republic of Iran tolerates some religious variation, as long as it does not act against the government or the sanctity of Islamic values. The vast majority of Iranians practice the Islamic faith, which originated with Muhammad (572-632 A.D. ), who came to believe he was the prophet of Allah, the one true God. Islam, which means "submission to God," requires the belief in God and His Prophet, the recitation of prescribed prayers, the giving of alms, the observance of the feast of Ramadan, and the making of a pilgrimage to Mecca.

The Muslim religion is divided into two main sects, the Sunni, which predominates worldwide, and the Shi'i, which is the minority sect except in Iran, Iraq, and in parts of India. The Shi'i sect of Islam was established in the first years after Muhammad's death when a dispute arose over leadership of the religion. The Sunnis restrict accession to the caliphate to members of the tribe of Muhammad; the Shi'ites restrict right of accession to members of Muhammad's family. The origin of the name Shi'i is thus Shi'at Ali (supporters of Ali), Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law.

Employment and Economic Traditions

Of Iranian immigrants residing in Los Angeles, nearly 30 percent identified themselves as students in the 1980 census. According to Sabagh and Bozorgmehr, because students are younger than the average Iranian immigrant, generally have greater facility with the English language, tend to work fewer hours than non-students, are less likely to be self-employed, and have a lower occupational profile and consequent lower level of income, their inclusion in a statistical profile of Iranians residing in the United States is believed to distort the group profile. Significantly, this study revealed a higher incidence of self-employment among Iranian immigrants than among Korean Americans, an immigrant group reputed to have one of the highest rates of entrepreneurship in Los Angeles. Fully one-third of the Iranian immigrants in Los Angeles, regardless of when they entered the country, reported that they were self-employed. Furthermore, later immigrants—those who fled Iran due to the revolution—tended to bring a great deal of money into the United States with them, and reported a significant income from interest and rental properties. Fluctuations in the American economy have affected this group to the extent that the downswing in the economy in the late 1980s, along with the relaxation of conditions in Iran, had encouraged as many as 100,000 Iranians to return to their homeland. Iranian American women living in Los Angeles in 1990 had an employment rate of 48 percent, compared with a 27 percent rate in 1980.

Politics and Government

Shi'ism has traditionally shown a disdain for both secular authority and direct involvement in political life. Iranian leaders of Twelver Shi'ism ( Ithna 'Ashariyah ), the dominant form of Shi'ism, 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 Shi'ism, 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. Pinault identified taqiyah as a "guiding principle for any Shiite living under a tyrannous government too powerful to be safely resisted; one may given an external show of acquiescence while preserving resistance in one's interior, in one's heart."

The U.S. government was concerned with the political sympathies of Iranians residing in the United States throughout the 1980s but no material was found implicating Iranians in terrorist acts in this country.

Individual and Group Contributions


Vartan Gregorian (1935– ) is a former university professor and president of the New York Public Library who has been president of Brown University since 1989.


Bijan (1940– ) is a fashion designer of exclusive men's apparel and perfumes.


Sadeq-i Chubak (1916– ), considered one of the foremost modern Iranian writers, is the author of short stories, novels, and dramatic works.


Lotfi Mansouri (1929– ) is a Canadian theatrical director who directed the Canadian Opera Company from 1976 to 1988, and has directed the San Francisco Opera since 1988.



Asre Emrooz Daily Newspaper.

Address: 16661 Ventura Blvd., #212, Encino, California 91436.

Telephone: (818) 783-0000.

Fax: (818) 783-3679.

Iran Nameh: A Persian Journal of Iranian Studies.

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

Contact: Hormoz Hekmat, Managing Editor.

Address: 4343 Montgomery Avenue, Suite 200, Bethesda, Maryland 20814.

Telephone: (301) 657-1990.

Fax: (301) 657-4381.


Online: .

Iran Times International.

A weekly newspaper in English and Farsi.

Contact: Javad Khakbaz, Editor.

Address: 2727 Wisconsin Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20007.

Telephone: (202) 659-9868.

Fax: (202) 337-7449.


Magazine focusing on art, science, philosophy, history, and cultural issues.

Contact: Korosh Bozorg, Editor-in-Chief.

Address: 2220 Avenue of Stars #2301, Los Angeles, California 90067 .

Telephone: (310) 553-8150.

Iranian Studies.

Contact: R. D. McChesney, Editor.

Address: New York University, Department of Middle Eastern Studies, 50 Washington Square South, New York, New York 10003.

Telephone: (212) 998-8902.

Fax: (212) 995-4689.


Online: .

Par Monthly Journal.

A monthly publication of the Par Cultural Society.

Address: P.O. Box 703, Falls Church, Virginia 22040.

Telephone: (703) 533-1727.

Persian Heritage.

Quarterly magazine published by Persian Heritage, Inc. with a circulation of 15,000.

Contact: Shahrokh Ahkami, Editor in-Chief.

Address: 1110 Passaic Avenue, Passaic, New Jersey 07055.

Telephone: (973) 471-4283.



Contact: Mary Helen Merzbacher, General Manager.

Address: 419 Lovett Boulevard, Houston, Texas 77006.

Telephone: (713) 526-4000.

Organizations and Associations

American Institute of Iranian Studies.

This organization of educational institutions seeks to improve Iranian studies programs and facilitate the research efforts of Iranian and North American scholars of Iranian studies.

Contact: Dr. Marilyn R. Waldman, President.

Address: c/o Ohio State University, History Department, 106 Dulles Hall, 230 West 17th Avenue, Columbus, Ohio 43210-1311.

Telephone: (614) 292-1265.

Fax: (614) 292-2282.

Iran Freedom Foundation.

This organization opposes the Islamic Republic of Iran, and attempts to protect human and civil rights in Iran and help establish a secular, constitutional government there by disseminating information to the media, universities, and political institutions, and at demonstrations and gatherings.

Contact: M. R. Tabatabai, President.

Address: P.O. Box 422, Bethesda, Maryland 20817.

Telephone: (301) 608-3333.

Fax: (301) 608-3333.

Iranian B'Nei Torah Movement.

This is an organization for rabbinical students seeking to aid Iranian Jews in the United States and Israel in their religious, charitable, and educational requirements.

Contact: David Zargart, President.

Address: P.O. Box 351476, Los Angeles, California 90035.

Telephone: (310) 652-2115.

Fax: (310) 652-6979.

National Council of Resistance of Iran.

This is a coalition of organizations opposed to the rule of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his successors in Iran and favoring their replacement with a democratic government. Organizes opposition worldwide through diplomatic efforts and demonstrations and strikes in Iran.

Contact: Dr. Masoud Banisadr.

Address: c/o Representative Office in the U.S., 3421 M Street, N.W., Suite 1032, Washington, D.C. 20007.

Telephone: (202) 783-5200.

Society for Iranian Studies.

This is an organization of students and scholars of Iranian studies intended to promote scholarship in the field.

Contact: Hamid Dabashi, Executive Secretary.

Address: c/o Middle East Institute, Columbia University, SIA Building, Room 1113, 420 West 118th Street, New York, New York 10027.

Telephone: (212) 854-5284.

Sources for Additional Study

Bill, James A. The Eagle and the Lion: The Tragedy of American-Iranian Relations. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1988.

Hoffman, Diane M. "Language and Culture Acquisition among Iranians in the United States," Anthropology and Education Quarterly, 1989.

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

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

Kordi, Gohar. An Iranian Odyssey. Serpent's Tail Press, 1993.

Milani, Farzaneh. Veils and Words: The Emerging Voices of Iranian Women Writers. Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 1992.

Moossavi, Homayoon. "Teheran Calling," Progressive, August 1988.

Nanji, Azim A. "The Muslim Family in North America," in Family Ethnicity. Newberry Park, California: SAGE Publications, 1993.

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

Riggio, Milla C. "Ta'ziyeh in Exile," Comparative Drama, spring 1994.

Sabah, Georges, and Mehdi Bozorgmehr. "Are the Characteristics of Exiles Different from Immigrants?" Sociology and Social Research, January 1987.

Wright, Robin. In the Name of God: The Khomeini Decade. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989.

User Contributions:

Sayyed Mahdi Hoseinyzad
Thanks for all inofrmation and great job. Just a small commnets I think it was good if we could talk a bit about Iranian Traditional Music. In California we have graeat groups as well as in Iran. Just a hint Thanks
This is a wonderful website with such great information! I am planning on finding the mentioned books for additional study in order to learn more about my parents' experiences in Iran. Please continue to update this website as I will be checking it frequently now that I know it exists. Damet Garm!
I like your information on this site I hope more people realize that Iranians are not terrorists. Iranians are very cultured. Many of them students I was looking for IranianAmericans sites you came up
I m Polish women and I m looking for my Iranian friend. His first name is David. His last name unfortunately I lost. He was born in Tehran in Iran in 1964. In 1989 he was living in Vienna in Austria. He was asylum seeker. He has black eyes and black hair. He is about 180 cm tall. In autumn 1989 he left Vienna and he went to the USA. Since autumn 1989 he lives in the USA. I would love to find him.
e mail
Priscilla Herd
I am interested in learning how to create the wonderful headpiece that the men in your culture wear. I am preparing costumes for a drama where some of the characters wear ancient traditional Persian clothing. I would appreciate your help with this. Thank you.

kaitlinyaneliz morales
It was interesting it helped me on my homework for project
I have some magazines from the time when Iran was governed by the Shah. Where can I dedicate them to. I live California

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