Printed in Women, Religion and Culture in Iran,
Eedited by Sarah Ansari and Vanessa Martin. London:
Curzon Press, 2001. Pp. 185-210.
PERCEPTIONS OF GENDER ROLES AMONG FEMALE IRANIAN IMMIGRANTS IN THE UNITED STATES
Ali Akbar Mahdi
The Immigration and Nationality Act in 1965 changed the landscape of American ethnic communities. Waves of new immigrants came to the United States with new values, norms, languages, and religions quite different from the ones in the past (Ungar, 1995). As has been the case, the older immigrants have always worried about the economic, political, and social impacts of the newcomers. The demographic, occupational, and educational characters of the new immigrants have generated new patterns of immigrant settlement, occupational mobility, and adaptation. These new patterns, along with the increasing cultural pluralism and multicultural developments, have generated new concerns about the wider and deeper impacts of immigration on the American population, namely male-female, parent-child, and family-society relationships (Sowell, 1996). The persistence of ethnic families and their impact on the cultural norms in the host society continue to remain a major concern of the immigration studies (McAdoo, 1993; Fukuyama, 1994; Mindel, et. al, 1998).
Studies on gender roles within the immigrant family and perceptions of gender roles among male and female immigrants are relatively new (Gabaccia, 1992; Hondagneu-Sotelo, 1994). Traditionally, sociologists have paid much attention to the structure of the immigrant family, its pattern of adaptation, and its mechanisms for survival in a new culture. Receiving little attention is how male and female immigrants perceive the gender roles they bring from the homeland as compared with those acquired in the host society. The emphasis on gender roles and power relations underlying them connects the micro and macro analysis and helps us to understand how ethnic values are mediated in the new host societies and what types of marital relations might emerge (Guendelman and Perez-Itriago, 1987).
The Iranian immigrant family in the United States is one of the latest varieties of the ethnic family. Given this familys high level of educational and professional achievement, the study of its male-female relationships, pattern of labor division and power allocation, and perceptions of gender roles warrant particular attention. Unfortunately, literature on Iranian female immigrants is scanty. What is available often consists of journalistic reports, ideological essays, or politically oriented statements. Recently, scholars have begun to study aspects of the Iranian immigrant family in the US (Abyaneh, 1986; Tohidi, 1993; Dallalfar, 1996 & 1994; Hanassab, 1991& 1998; Mahdi, 1999; Moallem, 1991; Mobasher, 1996; Vatankhahi, 1991; Zarrinnejad, 1992).
This study will add to this nascent literature by elucidating how Iranian immigrant women understand their gender roles within the family and society. Because these women left their homeland and had to rebuild their lives in a new society, one must examine how their views about their own roles and relationships inside and outside the family have evolved: Have Iranian immigrant womens perceptions of gender roles changed due to their geographical relocation and transformative experiences? Have they re-considered the issues surrounding womens status in response to political developments in their homeland during the past two decades? Have these immigrant women imported their traditional roles into their newly adopted environment? To what extent do their views on male-female interactions, sexuality, marriage, divorce, gendered child-rearing, and religious commands about womens status differ from those they held in Iran? What do Iranian immigrant women think about the traditions, values, and norms of their adopted society?
I will address these questions with reference to a survey conducted in the US during 1995-1996. The survey included 149 randomly selected subjects. I asked women how they perceive various gender roles in Iran and the United States, how they share tasks and power within their families, as well as demographic questions pertaining to their social status in the society. The data presented here includes partial results of the sample and illuminates the views of Iranian women in the United States and the shifts in their perspectives resulting from migration. This study demonstrates how Iranian women residing outside their homeland have moved away from the traditional perspectives attributed to them by some Iranian and Orientalist scholars.
Equally important, this study offers a forum for Iranian immigrant women to recount their experiences and to explain their perceptions of the everyday realities they live. Listening to these voices is crucial, for these women can and do express their own concerns -- rather than ceding that right to political groups who claim to speak for them. We need to learn first hand what attitudes, beliefs, concerns, and values these women have regarding their roles in the private and public sphere.
In 1995, I mailed to 821 households in 41 states a questionnaire comprised of 113 questions. This questionnaire posed a range of questions on decision making in the family, womens attitudes towards female gender roles in general, and their perceptions of gender roles in the United States and Iran in particular. The results of this survey paint a statistical picture of Iranian immigrant women who regard their roles inside and outside home as different from those ascribed to them by the religious and social norms of their homeland.
The Sample: The respondents included Iranian females randomly drawn from addresses of one cultural and two scholarly associations in the United States: The Iranian Cultural Society of Columbus, Ohio (680 addresses, 307 in Ohio, 373 in other states), the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), and the Center for Iranian Research and Analysis (CIRA). Although the latter two databases were biased because their records consisted of highly educated social scientists, the addresses from the Iranian Cultural Society contained a more diverse population. Drawing from this database was weighted in order to include more non-academician subjects in the sample. The selection of more subjects from the latter would have skewed the sample towards a higher number of people from Ohio. However, an examination of completed questionnaires shows a more diffused and distributed pattern among the subjects from various states.
Of the total 821 questionnaires mailed to selected addresses, 26 were returned due to incorrect addresses, and 52 were returned because there was no female at those addresses. Of the 743 remaining questionnaires, 158 (21.3%) were completed and returned. Originally, I intended to include non-Iranian women married to Iranian husbands as well as second-generation Iranian women who were born to Iranian families abroad. Although surveying such groups would provide an interesting basis for measuring the effects of migration, bi-cultural tendencies, and acculturation, the number of these respondents -- only 9 in the sample -- did not suffice for meaningful measurement. Consequently, I excluded non-Iranian and second-generation Iranian women from the study, leaving 149 completed questionnaires for analysis.
Profile of the Respondents: The respondents are Iranian female immigrants who have lived in the US an average of 16.05 years (Median = 15.98). Close to half (42.9%) of the sample are between the ages 31-40, and another 30.6% are between the ages 41-50 (See Table 1). A majority of them are married (73.2%), have children (78.4%), work outside the home (77.9 %), and regard their stay in the US as permanent (83.9 %). While 72.7% are Moslem, 14.4 % insist that they do not adhere to any religion (See Table 2).
Table 1: Respondents Age
Table 2: Respondents Religious Affiliation
Table 3 shows the occupational profile of the sample and national data on Iranian females declaring Iranian ancestry in the 1990 US Census sampling. While the number of professors, physicians, attorneys (professional specialty), nurses, researcher assistants, teachers, and technologists (service) in the sample are proportionally very high, businesswomen and corporate managers are under-represented. Although this reflects a bias in the sample, the national data on employment of female Iranians in the United States is neither accurate nor comparable with other ethnic groups in the United States (See Bozorgmehr and Sabagh, 1988; Bozorgmehr, 1998).
Table 3: Occupational Profile of Respondents and Iranian Women in the US
Occupational Category Sample (1996) Female Iranians in US (1990)*
Managers 8.8% 14.8%
Professional Specialty 47.4 27.8
Sales 6.9 16.8
Clerical 1.9 19.1
Service 20.2 14.7
Crafts 6.1 3.2
Workers --- 3.6
Housewife 7.0 ---
Student 1.7 ---
Total 100.0 100.0
Number of Employed 137
Employed 137 34,259
* Source: US. Census, 1990, Public Micro Samples (PUMS).
In terms of education, over 50.0% of respondents have graduate degrees, 32.9 % bachelor degrees, and only 3.4 % have just a high school diploma (See Table 4). Respondents husbands were even more educated, 72.6% possessing graduate degrees. While respondents had a median family income of $60-75,000, their own individual income averaged over $30,000 annually. Respondents earning less than $10,000 comprised 13.0 % of the sample. Those having no income also constituted 13.0% of the sample (See Table 5).
Table 4: Educational Profiles of Respondents and Iranian Females in the United States
Ed. Level Sample (1996) US (1990)*
None 0.0% --
Some Schooling 2.0 15.3
High School 3.4 21.8
Some College w/o degree 11.6 23.7
College Graduates 82.9* 39.2
* Source: US. Census, 1990, Public Micro Samples (PUMS).
** This is sum of three categories: Bachelors Degree 32.88%, Masters
Degree 26.71%, and Doctorate, 23.29%)
Table 5: Respondents Own and Household Annual Income
Income in Dollars Respondents Own Income Household
None 13.0% --
Under 5,000 7.2 --
5,001-10,000 5.8 --
Under 15,000 4.1
15,001-30,000 19.6 5.0
30,001-45,000 22.5 12.4
45,001-60,000 17.4 20.7
60,001-75,000 4.3 15.7
75,001-100,00 2.9 20.7
Above 100,000 2.2 21.5
N 138 121
Limitations of the Study
My efforts to generalize from the results of this research are subject to two limitations. First, although the composition of the chosen sample is not too uncharacteristic of the general Iranian population in the US, given the data bases used, the sample is highly skewed towards a more educated and professional population. Random sampling using more mixed and diverse population lists might have produced a more representative sample. As the data in Tables 3 and 4 indicate, the respondents are over-represented in categories of graduate degrees and professional specialization. Yet I/we must note that Iranian women in the US are not very representative of Iranian women in general. Iranian immigrant women are a select population possessing the educational and financial means to migrate to the US, and they have achieved relatively high socio-economic status among immigrants overall.
Furthermore, this study does not take into account the different migratory patterns among Iranian immigrants. The immigration experiences of Iranians have differed depending on social class, educational background, ethnic identity, and gender. Different migration trajectories generate various types of gender relations and roles. The cultural norms, traditions, and values of a society are neither monolithic nor static. Even among people of the same country, such factors as ethnicity, ideology, religion, and social class influence ones view of gender relationships. Although this study does not reflect these factors, I must acknowledge that a larger number of subjects in each of these categories might have shown observable differences in the views of women from varying ethnic, religious, and socio-economic backgrounds. We already know that religious background makes a difference in patterns of mate-selection and behavioral expectations in intimate relationships among Iranians (Hanassab, 1991 and 1998).
Findings: Shifting Away from Traditional Values in Search of New Roles and Rights
Examining answers to the questions about womens roles in family and society, I find that most Iranian immigrant women share a Western liberal view of womens role in society. They identify love as the primary basis for marriage, consider the wearing of a veil as a restriction on womens freedom, and perceive women as equal with men in all aspects of private and social life. They overwhelmingly oppose governmental involvement in defining rules for womens clothing and restrictions on womens activities. While their views on womens sexual behavior are grounded in an Islamic perspective, they tend to reject religious values as the sole guide for such behavior.
Immigrant women have strong opinions on various issues -- womens abilities, marriage, divorce, religious values, sexual freedom and interaction with men, socialization of children, the womens movement in the West, and career opportunities for women. Their attitudes about veiling, dating, governments role in deciding womens dress codes, and the stance of Islam towards women, are generally negative. They disapprove of how the Irans Islamic Republic has sought to define womens gender roles, deploring the status of women in their homeland.
With these broadly outlined findings in mind, I discuss below the perceptions of Iranian immigrant women regarding seven issues -- veiling, marriage, divorce, womens rights, male-female relationships, gendered child rearing, and the influence of religion on womens lives. The following analysis reports on the median and percentages of responses to a set of statements in a Likert-type five-point scale: (1) Strongly Disagree, (2) Disagree, (3) Neutral, (4) Agree, and (5) Strongly Agree.
1. Understanding Womens Issues: A consistent theme in the women studies literature is the specificity of womens issues and the lack of adequate understanding of these concerns by men. This theme does not escape Iranian female immigrants. The respondents demonstrate strong support for the statement that men do not have a clear understanding of womens problems (median = 4.16). Only a quarter of the sample is neutral or in disagreement with the statement (See Table 6).
Table 6: Respondents' Beliefs about Women and Men
Median Mode (%) N
* Women Equal to Men in Social and Private Life 4.78 5 (69.2) 146
* Women Better at House Work 2.41 1 (30.4) 148
* Military Jobs Not Appropriate 2.73 3 (36.7) 147
* Women More Emotional 3.97 4 (34.5) 148
* Men Better Leaders 1.58 1 (48.3) 147
* Men More Ambitious 2.61 1 (30.8) 133
* Men Do Not Understand of Womens Problems 4.16 4 (43.5) 147
2. Equality of Men and Women: Iranian immigrant women agree strongly that men and woman are equal and should be treated as such in both private and public life (Median = 4.78). However, they are divided on mens and womens skills and personality traits. The median for the statement women are naturally better at doing the house chores is 2.41. The same applies to their views on the ambitiousness of men versus women. The median for the statement men are more ambitious than women is 2.61. While they have reservations about what women can or cannot do, they uniformly disagree with the statement that men are better leaders than women (Median = 1.58). Thus, while these immigrant women show a higher degree of confidence in womens abilities in public life, they have not completely abandoned traditional notions of female skills and capabilities.
3. Feminism: Respondents were asked: If we define feminism as a movement in defense and support of womens rights, with which of the following would you identify yourself? Responses to this question are found in Table 7. Responses included 7.6 % Islamic feminist, 20.4% secular feminist, and 62 % who are not feminist but support womens rights. Women not identifying with any of the above descriptions made up 9.2 % of the sample.
Respondents are also divided with regard to the relevance of feminism to the lives of women in Iran. While close to 40% of the sample see no relevance, another 40% feel just the opposite to be the case, and the remaining 20% are unsure. Worth remembering is the fact that a lack of identification with feminism does not mean that these women oppose it. As responses in this survey indicate, the majority of these women are strong supporters of what we may call feminist ideals as defined in the West. The majority of these immigrants do not identify with the label of feminism, but more than half of them think that feminism has done more good than harm for Western women.
However, their support for womens rights does not translate into an embrace of feminism, as indicated by these womens responses to open-ended questions at the end of survey -- asking them to compare the status of women in Iran and the United States. Although these women believe in male-female equality and in the opportunities provided to women to enhance their status in society, they are not enthusiastic about the individualistic demands characterizing Western feminism.
Table 7: Respondents Identification with Regard to the Label Feminist
Secular Feminist 20.4%
Islamic Feminist 7.7
Not Feminist but Support
Womens Rights 62.0
4. Islam, the Islamic Government, and Control over Womens Lives: Islam is a comprehensive religion; life in both private and public spheres is regulated for the pious Muslim. The rights of the individual are subordinated to the welfare of the society. In the case of women, this takes a special meaning because womens and mens rights are perceived differently. Apart from the major differences in biology, capabilities, and responsibilities delineated in the Quran, Islamic jurisprudence (Shari`a) and religious traditions have elaborated on these differences, outlining specific roles for women and men in their private and public lives (Motahhari, 1976/1357).
Consequently, this researcher wanted to discover whether and to what extent Iranian immigrant women agree with general religious imperatives regarding female roles in the family and society. In light of the post-revolutionary Iranian leaderships efforts to re-define womens rights and roles according to Islam, I sought to find out how the respondents feel about these developments in their homeland. Since the revolution of 1978-79, the Iranian leadership has passed laws restricting womens clothing, relationships with men, presence in public sphere, choice of occupation and profession, as well as their rights to marriage, divorce, and inheritance (Vahidi, 1994/1373).
Answers to a series of questions on Islams treatment of women and its role in guiding womens sexual behaviors, suggest that Iranian immigrant women object to governmental regulation of womens clothing in public (See Table 8). The immigrant women are almost unanimous on this issue, more than on any other (Median = 1.18). Only about eight percent of respondents favor governmental involvement in deciding what women should wear in public. Another major area of agreement is the question of fairness in Islams treatment of women. Distinguishing between fairness and respect, about half (51.2%) think that Islam does not treat women respectfully, and over two-thirds (69.6%) that Islam treats women unequally (Median = 1.28).
Some 70% of immigrant women disagree that religion should guide a womans sexual behavior. They opine that women should have a voice in the interpretation of what religious texts say about them. On the issue of whether a Muslim woman should be able to marry a man of different religion, a taboo among devout Muslims, the majority of immigrant women are in favor; 65% agreed and 7.7% disagree. Regarding the status of women in the Islamic Republic of Iran, immigrant women are almost unanimously negative. 85% of the sample concurred that Iranian women are worse off under the Islamic Republic than under the Shahs rule. Only 7.1% rejected this assessment.
Table 8: Respondents' Views on Islamic Laws and Government
(1= Strong Disagree, 2= Disagree, 3= Neutral, 4= Agree, 5= Strongly Agree)
Median Mode (%) N
* Islam Fair to Women 1.28 1 (64.4) 143
* Islam Respects Women 2.20 1 (35.4) 144
* Women Should Have a Say
in Interpreting Religious Texts 4.38 5 (46.4) 138
* Government to Decide Womens Dress in Public 1.18 1 (73.2) 143
* Women Better under the Islamic Republic
than under the Shah 1.26 1 (65.7) 140
* Religion Should Guide Womens
Sexual Behavior 1.60 1 (47.9) 144
* Should Not Marry a Non-Muslim 1.86 1 (41.3) 143
5. Love, Sex, and Relationships: The issues of love, sex, and relationships between men and women generate much controversy within the immigrant population. Traditional Iranian family has not given primacy to love as the only basis for initiating marriage or to individual satisfaction as the main reason for continuing a marital union. Social class, tribal nexus, political alliance, and status mobility were among some of the major factors influencing marital selections (Mahdi, 1975). Moving from a traditional setting in which sexual and intimate issues are private in nature, these immigrant women find themselves in a society that approaches these issues both openly and differently. While most immigrants have shifted away from traditional Iranian views of love, marriage, and sexual relationships outside marriage, many are still ambivalent about these issues. Many profess modern attitudes while still continuing traditional practices.
For instance, at the time of marriage most people identify love as the major criterion for entering into the relationship. However, in reality it is not the major factor determining marriages, especially among the more traditional sectors of various socio-cultural groups in Iran. This survey reveals that the ideal of love as the principal determinant in a relationship is slowly taking hold among female immigrants but not yet fully. While over half of the sample (54.4%) see love as a basis for marriage, almost a third (29.4%) adopts a neutral stand on this issue. Moreover, while three-quarters of the respondents concur that there should be no difference in the amount of sexual freedom for men and women -- 8.33% disagree, and close to 20% are not sure about this matter -- they disagree about the effects of sexual freedom on society. Close to half of the respondents (47.2%) believe that sexual freedom harms both the individual and society, whereas 33.1% think the opposite and 19.72% are unsure. This same pattern is evident in respondents opinions about the demonstration of intimate affection in public arena, even between a husband and wife. While half (49.7%) of the respondents approve of such behavior, slightly over a quarter (28.7%) disapproves, and 21.7% take a neutral position.
6. Dating, Marriage, Divorce, and Husbands: As I have mentioned, more than half the respondents (54.4%) regard love as the principal determinant in a marriage. Although not unanimous on this issue, they overwhelmingly agree that a woman has the right to decide whether, when, and whom she wants to marry (92.42%). While they are more supportive of dating prior to marriage --61.1% approving versus 16% disapproving -- their opinions of non-martial sexual relationships between a woman and a trusted male friend is more mixed. While 40.9% approve of such relationships, 43.8% disapprove, and 15.3% are neutral. This attitude is consistent with their mixed responses to the idea of sexual freedom indicating that Iranian immigrants have not discarded all their native norms. Many still believe that the current inter-sexual practices in the United States leave women in a vulnerable position and damage their future prospects for establishing a long-lasting marital relationship.
Apparently, the respondents distinguish between adult and teenage dating -- a distinction quite understandable in the context of the traditional Iranian culture. Yet they are more liberal about their childrens sexual behavior than their own. Asked whether teenage girls should be allowed to date, 59.9% agreed, 21.8% remained neutral, and only 18.3% disagreed. However, when dating assumes any sexual connotation, the approval rate drops significantly. In other words, most Iranian immigrant mothers are willing to allow their female teenagers to date as long as it does not involve sexual contacts.
As for relationships with their husbands, Iranian female immigrants are adamantly opposed to traditional arrangements that stress hierarchy and division along public and private lines. The majority (80.2%) disagrees with the traditional view that a wife should generally obey her husband. This disagreement increases when the issue is the physical punishment of women by husbands -- even if this results from a womans own "disobedience." They categorically reject the notion that a husband can physically punish his disobedient wife by a rate of 97.2%. This is true of not only disobedience to husband but also of disobedience in the form of refusal to sexual intercourse a behavior for which Islam allows physical punishment by the husband. (See Ardalan and Khaksar,1373: 19).
Majority of Iranian immigrant women (78.3%) consider their satisfaction from marriage, especially sexual satisfaction, as crucial for family stability, and 69.4% regard their own careers no less important than their husbands career . The majority of them (53.7%) do not think that men should be the primary bread-winners in the family, as opposed to 27.9% with a contrary view. Only a few women have problems with the notion of their husbands staying home to take care of their children -- an idea that receives considerable disapproval by women and is generally
resented by men inside Iran. Just fewer than 7% of the respondents disagreed with the proposition of men staying at home and raising children while their wives work; 78.5% agreed, and 14.6% remained neutral.
Finally, the women were dissatisfied with traditional Iranian kinship obligations and arrangements in marriage. For example, only 3.5% of respondents agreed with the statement that a married womans obligations should include obeying her in-laws. Majority of respondents attributed the success of their marriages in the host society to the relative absence of interference by their in-laws. They voiced the same disapproval towards the traditional division of property in marriage. When asked about property ownership and financial assets owned by each partner, respondents were unanimous that property in the family should be shared by husband and wife equally, and they favored a joint bank account 71.5% agreed, 7% disagreed, and 21.5% were neutral.
For these respondents, divorce is the means of last resort for solving a family dispute. Both Iranian cultural and Muslim religious values discourage married couples from this practice. More importantly, women have traditionally been expected to sacrifice their own personal satisfaction and welfare for the sake of their family (Mostafavi, 1995/1374; Motahhari, 1976/1357). Historically, Iranian women have stayed in bad marriages to preserve family honor and save their children from the negative consequences of divorce. The data in this study indicates that the negativity associated with the breakup of a marriage, at least in the case of a bad one, is declining a phenomenon taking place in Iran too (See Mir-Hosseini, 1997). The majority of respondents (81.8%) reject the proposition that a woman should stay in an unhappy marriage. However, these women are still ambivalent about terminating a bad marriage when a childs welfare is involved. While half of respondents agreed that having children should not shape the decision to terminate a bad marriage, a third (30.7%) disagreed, and 12.9% did not indicate any preference. (See Tables 9 and 11)
Table 9: Views on Love, Sexual Freedom, Marriage, and Divorce
(1= Strong Disagree, 2= Disagree, 3= Neutral, 4= Agree, 5= Strongly Agree)
Median Mode (%) N
* Love a Determining Factor 3.62 4 (37.0) 138
* Obey Husband 1.48 1 (51.0) 143
* Physical Punishment
of Disobedient Wife 1.03 1 (95.1) 143
* Obeying In-laws 1.17 1 (74.8) 143
* Male Sexual Satisfaction
More Important for
Family Stability 1.44 1 (53.1) 143
* Having Joint Bank Account 4.24 5 (42.4) 144
* She Decides Her Marriage 4.78 5 (69.0) 145
* Pre-Marital Dating 3.86 4.5 (30.6) 44
* Child No Obstacle to
End a Bad Marriage 3.68 4 (35.0) 140
* Better Unhappy
than Divorced 1.36 1 (58.0) 143
* Wifes Career
Secondary to His 1.72 1 (44.4) 144
7. Views about the Veil: The practice of veiling has provoked controversy throughout this century both in and outside Iran. During the twentieth century, Iranian women have been forced by their governments to unveil and veil themselves; neither the veil's removal nor its use was voluntary. The decision was arbitrary and imposed by the full force of law in both cases (Jafari, et. al,1994; Mahdi, 1983). Consequently, I wished to learn Iranian immigrant womens views of this practice.
The data in Table 10 that the veil remains one of the most disliked aspects of the Islamic approach to womens public appearance. The majority of respondents strongly disagree with the statement that the veil is good protection for women -- 80%. The majority (73%) view the veil as an instrument that impedes womens movement. To many of these respondents, the chador symbolizes limitation and immobility, because it suppresses their physical and social abilities.
Table 10: Views about the Veil
(1= Strong Disagree, 2= Disagree, 3= Neutral, 4= Agree, 5= Strongly Agree)
Median Mode (%) N
* Veil as Good Protection 1.27 1 (64.8) 145
* Veil Limits Movement 4.47 5 (47.0) 142
* Women Should Determine
What They Wear in Public 4.76 5 (67.1) 147
Table 11: Views about Raising Children
(1= Strong Disagree, 2= Disagree, 3= Neutral, 4= Agree, 5= Strongly Agree)
Median Mode (%) N
* No Teenage Dating 2.23 2 (36.6) 142
* Socializing Daughters As Wife 3.32 4 (33.1) 142
* Sex-Neutral Child Raising 4.66 5 (59.7) 144
* Same Freedom for
Girls and Boys at School 4.71 5 (62.9) 143
* Girls Participation in Sports 4.79 5 (70.6) 143
* Separation of
Boys and Girls at School 1.88 1 (42.3) 104
8. Views About Raising Children: The majority of respondents agree that children, regardless of their sex, should be raised the same way -- 87.5%; enjoy the same amount of freedom while attending school -- 92%, and be able to participate in competitive sports such as volleyball and
basketball - 93%. The majority believe that girls and boys schools should not be separated (See Table 11). While Iranian immigrant women have become fairly liberal in their attitudes toward raising their daughters, they have not completely broken away from the ideal of motherhood as the principal and ultimate role for women. When asked whether mothers should prepare their daughters for becoming good wives, a cornerstone of the Islamic and traditional Iranian normative system (Haghjoo, 1371), the responses were mixed. Although a third of the respondents disagreed with such a view, 45.8% agreed, and 23.24% remained neutral. Asked whether motherhood is the highest status a woman can achieve, another major aspect of the Islamic ideology, results were similar: 43% agreed, 27.1% disagreed, and 29.9 remained neutral.
9. Womens Status in the West and Iran: This research posed a series of questions to elicit female immigrants responses to the Islamic ideology disseminated by their government at home, and shared by many non-Iranian Islamists. I formulated these questions as statements with four possible responses: The United States, Iran, Both, and Neither. The respondents identified the society in which the statement was most applicable, as shown in Table 12.
Arguably, the Iranian immigrant womens perceptions of American women and society are more realistic than those of their compatriots back home. These women live in the United States and closely deal with the realities of gender relations in the West. They have lost the idealistic views of both places. They know and have experienced both societies. To respondents in this survey, in terms of security in public arenas neither place is adequately safe for women, though they acknowledge a higher degree of safety in Iran. As illustrated in Table 13, over a third of the respondents considers public places in Iran and the US unsafe for women. Only a third, 28.8%, believe that public places in Iran are safe for women, and a smaller group of 15.8% finds public places in both countries safe.
Iranian immigrant women generally view Iran as an extremely restrictive society that demeans womens abilities and limits their movement, opportunities, and life chances. When asked where women endure more restrictions, a majority of 89.5% regard Iran as a more restrictive society. They agree strongly that women have more freedom of choice in the USA 89.6 per cent versus 11 per cent. (These percentages are the sums of those percentages for each country with the percentage number for the both category.) These women do not perceive as much respect for women in Iran as in the USA -- 27.7 % versus 66.7%.
More than 83% of respondents disagreed with the statement that Iranian women have more chance of becoming socially successful in Iran than in the US. (Median = 1.48) Close to half of respondents (46.5%) sees neither the United States nor Iran as a society that gives men and women equal career opportunities. Over half (52.1%) finds that US is the society in which such opportunities are more likely. Only 8.5% of respondents think of Iran as the only society with such equal opportunities. Female immigrants agree that womens work in Iran is not valued as much as mens work at a rate of 96.4%, but 63.3% endorse the fact that a mans work in the US is also valued more than womens.
Regarding the harassment of working women, the majority believes that it occurs in both societies -- 49.3%. Of the other half, 4.4% thinks that it happens only in Iran, 29.7% believes that it takes place only in the US, and 16.7% feel that it does not exist in either country. With respect to the objectification and commodification of a womans body, as well as its cultural manipulation by the cosmetic industry, a view widely held among Islamists (Haddad Adel, 1359, Khomeini, 1365, Vol. 3: 101 and Vol. 2: 44; Javadi Amoli, 1369), although 45% of respondents agree with the statement that The West has really turned women into an extension of the cosmetic industry, they view Iranian society as a more likely place for the treatment of women as sex objects -- 68.4% versus 61.2%. However, they felt that women are more likely to be viewed as a source of sexual provocation in the US -- 66.4% versus 53.2%. Women in the United States are also regarded to be more obsessed with their physical appearance -- 73.2% versus 52.8%. These responses correspond with most comments made by respondents comments cited toward the end of this paper.
Finally, worth noting is that many immigrant women have adopted a feminist view of American society and they demonstrated an increasing feminist consciousness. Close to 47% of immigrants think that neither Iranian nor American women are given equal career opportunities to compete with men. Close to a third of them disagree with the stereotype among Middle Easterners that perhaps American women are more obsessed with sex. Almost half of them believe that women in both societies are sexually harassed in the workplace. Over a third of them do not find public places in either society safe for women. Close to a quarter of them think that women do not have enough freedom of choice in either country. Although the majority of Iranian women in the sample dislike the Islamic Republic's policies regarding womens status and appreciate their enhanced socio-economic status in the United States, a sizable group remain critical of womens status in the host society as well.
Table 12: Perceptions of Womens Status in Iran and the US (Percentages)
IRAN US BOTH NEITHER N
* Women have freedom
of choice. 0.7 79.3 10.3 9.7 145
* Women are usually
treated with respect. 9.2 48.2 18.5 24.1 141
* Women have to live with
more restrictions. 73.4 4.2 16.1 6.3 143
* Women are obsessed with their
physical appearance. 9.9 30.2 43 16.9 142
* Women are viewed as a source of
sexual provocation. 18.2 31.5 35 15.3 143
* Women are safe
in public places. 28.8 22.3 15.8 33.1 139
* Many working women are
sexually harassed. 4.4 29.7 49.3 16.6 138
* Women think too
much about sex. 0.7 55.6 12.7 31 142
* A mans work is viewed
as more important
than womens. 33.8 0.7 62.6 2.9 139
* Women are treated
as sex objects. 28.1 20.8 40.3 10.8 139
* Both men and women have
for career success. 1.4 45.1 7 46.5 142
Table 13: Perceptions of Womens Status in Iran and the US
(1= Strong Disagree, 2= Disagree, 3= Neutral, 4= Agree, 5= Strongly Agree)
Median Mode(%) N
* Western Women as an Extension
of the Cosmetic Industry 3.26 4 (34.8) 141
* More Chance of Success for Women
in Iran than in the US 1.48 1 (51.0) 143
At the end of the survey, I requested that respondents offer their opinions on the most important difference(s) they perceive between womens roles in the US and Iran. Two-thirds of the sample addressed this question, and the majority of them elaborated on wide differences between the two societies -- regarding Iranian women as largely deprived of their rights, and the US as a place where opportunities are more readily available to women. Interestingly, however, even the most negative evaluations of womens status in Iran was followed by some reservations about American women and their roles in the family. Below, I present the voices of these respondents as divided into three categories -- those who have a positive, negative, or mixed view of women's status in Iran. I selected representative comments for each category. Worth remembering, however, is that these statements represent the attitudes of some respondents, but not a statistically significant position in the sample.
A) Positive view of womens status in Iran: Those who view what happens to women in Iran positively may themselves be classified into two groups with opposing views about the status of women in the US. The first group regards womens status in the US very negatively and claims that, in the words of one respondent, There is a lot of myth about womens freedom in the US. Women are more brainwashed in the US by TV and other indirect means. In Iran, at least, it is obvious and not unclear. This group sees American society as deceptive, hiding its patriarchal and exploitative intentions behind seemingly civilized laws. Here are four representative statements:
In Iran, you have more support from your family; children are much more respectful; more emphasis is put on a persons social conduct, graciousness, honesty, etc. than on ones looks, social class, or sexuality; and there is a better sense of security (financial, gender, health, etc.). In the United States, there is too much individualism; women are less secure; families are less stable; and there is too much excess in sexual relationships.
It is said that America is a civilized country. Is it? How much civility is there between blacks and whites? How did whites treat black women during slavery? As slave mistresses. White men continue to have the same view today. Since they cannot achieve their goals openly, now these men do so more subtly through the guise of sexual freedom, womens liberation, and so on. This is not freedom. This is sexual exploitation. This is like making women walk into their own rape chamber.
Yes, women in America are free. Free to have sex. I am against this freedom of sex, make-up, and gaze. A woman, as a role model for her children, should be covered, both in appearance and in heart. She can get any job she wishes but she must not sell herself. She must cover herself. Of course, I do not mean covering her hair. I mean, she should not avail her body for male vultures to take what they wish.
There is something scary about American culture, especially for Iranian women who have female children. The last thing that an American girl is prepared for is marriage. Family has taken a back seat in this country and women are going to end up paying for this because they are the ones who are abused, raped, and divorced. Loneliness and promiscuity are the ultimate punishments God has ordained for these women.
A second group adopts a more moderate position, conceding that the US provides better educational and career opportunities to women. However, they also contend that certain behavioral and normative patterns in the US are detrimental to the status of women, family, and society. Iranian women lament the excessive individualism and self-centeredness of the American society. American women put their own desires and wishes ahead of those of their family. For this group of respondents, sacrifice, self-denial, and morality are necessary personal qualities for motherhood:
In general, Iranian women are more concerned about the future. They put the interests of their family before their own interests...They are more loyal to their husbands/family and would stay in a `not-so-happy marriage for the sake of their children and their family reputation.
In the US, women do not realize that they have the power to keep the family together. If a family is not successful in staying together, it is usually the woman who is not flexible enough to forego some things in order to keep her family together. She has other priorities.
There are many differences. First, there is freedom, which is abundant in America and lacking in Iran. Second, there are opportunities for getting jobs and marrying someone based on love in America. Third, there is decadence, of which America has a lot and Iran some. Where in Iran can you find so many pregnant teenagers or children out of wedlock? America is a corrupt society.
For these respondents, sacrifice for the sake of their childrens future, loyalty to their husband, selflessness in marriage, and chastity among Iranian women gives them a more dignified status than that enjoyed by American women. While many of the respondents believe that women in Iran enjoy a higher degree of safety, respect, and dignity that are absent in the US, they do oppose the governments policies toward women in Iran. Many respondents prefer to blame traditions or patriarchal interpretations of Islam for the problems confronted by Iranian women. As one respondent declared:
In my opinion, womens status in Iran is not based on Islam. What is being done to women is not based on Islam. Those in the government misinterpret Islam and pay no attention to what God has offered women in Qur'an. Indeed, womens status in Iran is deplorable because men choose not to allow women to live according to Islam.
B) Negative view of womens status in Iran: The majority of Iranian women in the US, represented in this study, view womens status in Iran negatively. Despite their consensus on womens status in Iran, they manifest opposing attitudes on the status of women in the US. The respondents fall clearly into religious and secular camps. In discussing the difficulties and inadequacies of womens status in Iran, the secular group gives more weight to the role of religion and religious groups than to the role of outdated traditions and inappropriate socialization by parents.
Although the majority speaks positively on womens status in the US, a minority espouses a much more radical view of what is happening in the host society. This minority, 79.3% of which perceives itself as secular feminists, faults the US for its male domination in the political and legal realms, sexist attitudes prevalent in society, discriminatory policies at the workplace, and exploitation of females by the media and Hollywood. This groups language and reasoning about women's status in Iran are varied and powerful. Below, I have cited by theme representative comments by the respondents:
1. Women in Iran are treated as second-class citizens. They cannot think, act, and live for themselves. They have no voice. Decisions are made for them.
American women are more independent, have more opportunities and roles in society, and are less inhibited than Iranian women. They know what they want and can express their opinions and wishes freely at home and in society. They are not dominated by social norms, whereas Iranian women have to obey the rules set by society. Iranian women are under the influence of their fathers, brothers, and husbands . Important decisions are made by men, and women are rarely consulted and listened to about issues that concern both partners.
In the US, women obviously enjoy a higher degree of equality and have more control of their lives. However, this equality is mainly an illusion since we all know that women are not paid equally for doing equal work and house work and child-care is not divided between working couples. In Iran, on the other hand, women, as second-class citizens and child-producing tools (traditionally), enjoyed a temporary and shaky equal-opportunity period in the 1970s. But that period is gone and the men have managed, in the name of `Islamic respect for women to push women back to the kitchen where they like to see them. In other words, women all over the world have a long struggle ahead of them.
2. Islamic laws are outdated, disrespectful, and unfair to women. While some regard these flaws as the result of male clerical (mis-)interpretations of Islam and divest their religion from these shortcomings, others believe that these features are inherent to Islam itself. The former group believes that the ruling clergy has made a mockery of Islamic values and has turned the traditionally unfortunate situation of women into misery.
The difference is as wide as the space between the earth and sky. In Iran, a Muslim woman is forced to obey the oppressive, unequal, selfish rules of a womanizing, discriminatory, and illiterate Arab called Muhammad. She is treated like a commodity and is used as an instrument to satisfy the sexual desires of men. She has less rights, respect, and power than men and is viewed in the same light as retards, children, the penniless, and criminals. Her desires and wishes do not matter. I spit on this religion and these laws. I damn this barbaric tribe who came to Iran and turned this beautiful land of Mitra into a land of darkness and misery.
In todays Iran in which the Islamic laws are interpreted dogmatically and imposed by the wild, club-wielding pasdaran [revolutionary guardsmen], the role of women is seen as being a `sexual member of the family and a `foot-soldier for political rallies and theatrical political shows. Women in the US have an active and conscious role in society but in Iran they are an instrument for the government to make a Zaynab or Fatima out of them for its own political propaganda. Women who are fooled into this exercise are not representative of Iranian women but stand for the few poor or misguided people who are forced to accept these conditions in order to receive a monthly salary.
Iranian women have no financial security because of religious laws. This insecurity prevents women from being able to gain equality with men. Even though I am a Muslim woman, I think Iranian laws should be changed according to the time. Women should share family property. Even at the time of divorce, women should receive equal share. The time has come for women to unite and gain their rights.
3. According to traditional Iranian family values, women should serve as good wives and mothers, ignoring their own personal growth.
In Iran, women are tied up with family matters and house chores. Family members, especially in-laws dictate what a woman must do. When punished by their husbands, American women can resort to shelters. In Iran there are no shelters. You can only go to your parents home. But parents often refuse you safety and send you back to your husband with the expectation that you give in to your husbands desires and bear the burden of his abuse.
4. Opportunities are limited, and social and moral restrictions do not allow women to take advantage of even these limited opportunities. Women do not have much choice and freedom of action.
For an Iranian woman, restriction is the only framework within which she can think, feel, and act. Restricted at home by her parents or husband, and outside by almost everyone and in every aspect of culture in every corner of the society. Violating these restrictions often costs her dearly and may jeopardize her chances of even being recognized as a decent human. Iran is a land of kings, fathers, and boys and the Iranian culture is the epitome of misogyny.
5. Given the conditions of the Iranian women under the Islamic Republic, these women do not have a promising, independent future. They have been rendered dependent on men, the government, and religion for their identities -- a dependence that denies them the opportunity to chart their own course. The Islamic regime has reduced these women to saqir status -- the level of children.
In America, men and women are equal. But in Iran after the revolution, the personality and rights of Iranian women have been reduced below the level of those of animals. For example, look at the law of diyeh (blood money). No explanation by mullahs can justify this law and the way it treats women.
Iranian women have lost all their rights. They need their parents permission for attending school and getting married. They need their husbands permission for working outside of home or traveling outside of the country. Their husbands are privileged in divorce proceeding and child custody laws. Their brothers are privileged in receiving family inheritance. There is one thing that these women are privileged with in this world: Become a mother and be told that God has reserved the heaven for you!
6. The hejab or practice of veiling has reduced these women to a dark, shadowy, and invisible element in society without an identity of their own.
In Iran women are more limited in the society. No freedom of speech and action. They have to cover themselves with hejab -- an antiquated tradition from dark ages. They are punished with garment, even in the most tropical areas and in the hottest days of summer, simply because they are women and men cannot stop being whimsical.
7. Mens behavior towards women is aggressive, disrespectful, and often domineering. Spouse abuse is abundant and physical punishment is common, especially among less educated and rural men. Iranian men are chauvinist, even when they pretend to be feminist.
Iranian society expects women to sacrifice themselves for men and forego their rights. A woman cannot claim an independent existence after marriage, and serves only to satisfy mens physical and sexual needs. When hungry and in need, everyone in the family turns to her. Iranian men, no matter how educated they are, still think like their fathers, unless they are born with a grain of social justice . Iranian women cannot escape from the monstrous presence of their husbands and the ghost of their family . These men are spoiled by their mothers who expect their in-laws to care for their sons in the same manner. These men pretend that they are considerate, understanding, and egalitarian. They are wolves in lambs clothing.
8. Iranian society treats widows and single women harshly and unfairly. Since womens roles are defined within the context of family, those women who do not have or are not able to maintain a family are marginalized and viewed with suspicion and disrespect.
In America, you are viewed first as a person, then as a woman, then as a married person, regardless of having any children or not. In Iran, you are first a woman, then a wife, and finally a mother. If single or divorced, then you are the victim of gossip and accusation, a prey for sexual predators, and a wretch worthy of everyones pity.
C) Mixed views on the status of women in Iran and the US: A third group of respondents adopts a middle-ground position, emphasizing the positive and negative aspects of both societies for women. They believe that Iranian women are capable, smart, and independent. They think that women will take advantage of opportunities if and when they find them. This group argues that opportunities for and restrictions on womens activities may be found in both Iran and the US. What matters is the recognition of womens capabilities.
This third group contends that Iranian women in the US have lost sight of the fact that much of what is offered to women in the US is illusive and often harmful to womens dignity. Iranian women in the US, says one respondent, pay too much attention to appearances and ignore facts. The US has taken steps towards removing inequalities experienced by women, but it has made mistakes on the way such as ... overt feminism and getting hung up on the sex-related issues only. It still has ways to go to reach the true meaning of equality. Some are more concerned about broader issues such as excessive individualism and independence, the erosion of family values, and the lack of respect for adult authority. These respondents are often even-handed in their criticisms of womens status in both societies. While some blame the cultural and social structures of both societies, others put more stress on womens agency and volition in altering their own situations.
As an Iranian-American woman, I think that I have faced sexism in both cultures. While sexism may seem more blatant in the Iranian culture, I would contend that life in the US with its capitalist culture and excessive individualism presents challenges to Iranian women as well.
In the United States women live under a civic religion which legally establishes the ideal of equality. However, equality can never be achieved. Men and women are different. As a result of this `paper equality women are free to try to establish a semblance of this in society. In Iran, Islamic law (as opposed to Islam itself) constricts and devalues women. Women are kept under by those claiming a certain understanding of Islam. However, these people are using selective interpretations by men insecure in their control in the public arena and therefore seeking to achieve a greater degree of control in private arena Both societies are flawed. The goal of both should be `gender parity rather than `gender equality.
Conclusion: Iranian Women Immigrants, Defying Stereotypes
The public perception of Iranian women in the US, especially after the revolution, has been largely negative. At least three factors have contributed to this perception of Iranian women -- the takeover of the American Embassy in Tehran in 1979; Betty Mahmoudis book, Not Without My Daughter, then a film based on this book; and the persistent images of Iranian women marching on the streets of Tehran chanting anti-American slogans. Iranian women seemed like backward masses cloaked in the darkness of a chador and traditional beliefs.
The dominant religious and cultural discourse in Iranian society has consistently promoted conservatism in gender and sexual relations (Shahidian, 1996). However, this discourse reflects neither the realities of Iranian society, past or present, nor the views of Iranian women, in or outside of the country. Regarding Iranian women, there is a discrepancy between the ideology and reality, the ideal and the actual state of affairs, both inside and outside of Iran. While Islamic rules forbid pre- and extra-marital affairs, they have always occurred in Iran, although in varying degrees and indifferent forms.
At a structural level, the political and economic developments of 1970s and the subsequent political mobilization of women during and after the revolution have had profound effects on gender relationships in Iran. In the late Pahlavi period, despite the popular belief and ideological claims of traditionalist sectors within society, the increasing presence of the women in the labor force and educational institutions, coupled with more progressive family laws, altered gender relations irrevocably (Mirani, 1983).
Although the revolution and subsequent reinvigoration of private and public patriarchy by the ruling clergy resulted in the rolling back of female rights, these events also accelerated changes in gender relations, requiring greater determination on the part of women. Arguably, the revolution itself has unleashed an unprecedented level of awareness, energy, and vision among women, as evidenced by their cultural and political activities in Iran (See Paidar, 1995; Mahdi, 2000). Even in todays Islamized Iran, women believe in and demand much more freedom in their relationships with their male counterparts in and outside the home (See Mahdi, 1995, Hooglund, 1995, and Rouleau, 1995).
The attitudes of Iranian women in the United States, as represented in this study, defy the stereotypes found in the Western societies. Although some of these women are ambivalent about gender roles and relations in the US, they clearly hold more liberal views than their counterparts in Iran, even more liberal than their husbands opinions of these matters (Ghaffarian, 1987). They are generally supportive of gender equality in the family as well as in society. They perceive gender distinctions as increasingly less relevant to their lives, especially as it relates to occupation, property ownership, child-care, decision-making, and power-sharing in and outside home. They generally disapprove of traditional restrictions on womens social and physical mobility, especially the veil. They favor more egalitarian relationships between spouses and are disdainful of any interference by outside forces -- whether religion, government, parents, or in-laws.
Iranian immigrant women lament the status of Iranian women in the Islamic Republic. They regard their departure from Iran as a form of liberation from various restrictions imposed on them by cultural traditions, social customs, and theocratic government. Most of these women consider Iranian society traditional with regard to sex, dating, marriage, divorce, and gender relationships. Most espouse liberal attitudes of gender relationships, sexuality, and female status in the society. Although they believe that Islamic societies have treated women unfairly, they are divided on whether this injustice is due to Islam itself or male (mis-)interpretations of the Islamic scriptures.
Despite their liberal attitudes, Iranian women immigrants have neither abandoned all their cultural values nor accepted all elements of the dominant value system governing gender relations in the United States. Iranian immigrant women have similar concerns about their roles within the family and the larger society as women in Western societies, but they are more cautious and selective in their embrace of feminism as a model for redressing gender inequality within the Iranian family. While supporting womens rights, most of them do not call themselves feminist. Many criticize the individualism of American women, believing that more sacrifice and dedication preserves a marriage, especially when there are children involved.
Although they value the egalitarian relations between male and females, they are more ambivalent about the degree of sexual interaction, especially among their teenagers. They proclaim egalitarian attitudes towards the sexes but do not necessarily translate these into specific actions in various aspects of their lives. There is a gap, albeit a declining one, between these womens attitudes and their behavior, as demonstrated in their gendered approaches to female education and socialization.
Migration has been a source of autonomy for these women, providing them with better opportunities for education, employment, personal freedom, and even divorce from difficult marriages. These women depend less on their husbands as they gain their own income, reduce or suspend obligations to their husbands families, and escape the patriarchal control of their own immediate families. As other researchers have demonstrated (Kamalkhani, 1988; Bauer, 1991; Tohidi, 1993), migration to new lands has meant a breakdown of traditional norms for Iranian women. All in all, while Iranian immigrant women are moving away from traditional understandings of gender roles and sexuality, they are developing their own unique synthesis of attributes and values representing the cultural realities of both their past and present. The cultural and social characteristics of their newly adopted society and the structural fragility of their identities in a liminal zone allow them to pick and choose freely from their inherited and adopted realities (Naficy, 1993; Mahdi, 1998). The challenge for researchers is to gain a better understanding of these womens identities and to measure the extent to which their attitudes are translated into practice. Further research is necessary to understand marital arrangements between these immigrants and their husbands, how they renegotiate and restructure the original relationships, and what kind of identities they develop for themselves both in and outside of both their families of orientation and reproduction.
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