Critique, No. 15, Fall 1999

Trading Places: Changes in Gender Roles within the Iranian Immigrant Family

Ali Akbar Mahdi

Humans are the products of their environment and the socio-cultural forces that shape that environment. Moving away from the safety and stability of life in their homeland, immigrants seek new identities and develop strategies to cope with the demands of these new social and cultural forces. Settling in a host society is never easy. Immigration involves various forms of sacrifice and adjustment. These changes are much harder for those who have left their homeland involuntarily and find the culture of their host society incompatible with that of their native origin. Of the changes an immigrant has to face, changes in the family and gender roles are the most difficult and consequential ones because they involve not only changes in the identity and behavior of individual immigrants but also in relationships with their intimates. The most significant among these changes is the role reversal for members of the family.

Social Roles, including family and gender roles, never are fixed. They are negotiated within the new circumstances and are renegotiated if there is any further change in those circumstances. Given the drastic changes in male-female relationships around the world in the past three decades, gender roles have become increasingly a contested site of power, thus open to discursive and situational conflicts and negotiations. (1) Although fluid and constructed, the implicit and explicit assumptions regarding one's rights and obligations in a marital relationship serves as a framework for interaction and a basis for construction of one's identity in a partnership. These roles serve as "scripts" defining rules of interactions in the context of marriage and courtship. The definitions given or assumed for these roles often are internalized and enacted as normative expectations that create constraints and possibilities for individual action.

Role changes and reversals in any circumstances and for anyone have important, sometimes poignant consequences. Under normal circumstances in a homogeneous community, this kind of change proceeds gradually without much difficulty in adjustment. However, in the case of a first generation immigrant, both the pace and the intensity of the change is very high, making it difficult to respond without a great deal of individual hardship and cultural agonies. In the scenario of role reversal in an immigrant family, changes in roles are accompanied with cultural shock, assimilation and counter-assimilation processes, identity deconstruction and reconstruction, and the struggle to establish a new life in the host country. Immigrant studies have been tracing tactics and strategies used by immigrants to establish their new life. (2)

Although the study of immigrant families has gained a great deal of attention in the past two decades, the Iranian immigrant family remains largely unexplored. The story of their identity reconstruction and their attempt to create a space in American social life is a new and interesting chapter in the history of immigration to America. The immigration of Iranian families to the United States is a relatively new phenomenon. Most Iranians who came to the United States during the period of 1950-1980 were students seeking higher education. Because of the 1979 Revolution in Iran, many of these students either found it difficult to go back to their homeland or preferred to stay in the United States. In addition to these students, there were also thousands of secular Iranians, especially those of upper and upper-middle classes, who either were forced to leave their country for exile or voluntarily fled the negative consequences of the newly established theocratic state in Iran. (3)

The majority of these Iranian immigrants have college educations and work in high-skilled professions. According to statistics from the 1990 U.S. Census Bureau, Iranian immigrants are among the most highly educated immigrants and their income in some professions exceeds the national average for that profession. (4) According to the statistics reported in the San Francisco Examiner, 51 percent of all Iranians in the United States have graduate degrees, compared to approximately 21 percent for the American population as a whole. (5) Most of these Iranians received their education from Western educational institutions or attended Iranian universities modeled after the Western system. Therefore, it is reasonable to say that Iranians living in the United States already have been partially assimilated to the modern, secular, Western values and outlooks. This article attempts to shed light on one aspect of changes in the lives of these Iranians, namely role changes in their families.

The Importance of Family for Iranian Immigrants

Family plays a central role in Iranian society. It is the institution to which the individual relates the most and from which he or she receives his/her identity. This fact that the family is central to the social status of the individual and serves as the foundation of social life in Iran is not lost to the Iranian immigrants who have left their homeland. Family continues to serve as a familiar refuge against the unfamiliar world of the host society. It serves as a buffer to cushion that which challenges against the most cherished and unchangeable normative and behavioral aspects of immigrants' lives and it also serves as an intermediate institution to aid in smoothly adopting new values, norms, and behaviors. Iranian immigrants living in the United States still value family and family relations highly and attempt to protect its integrity and cohesiveness against the forces of disintegration in the host society. Despite such efforts and determination, however, the immigrant family is not immune to the structural pressures of the new culture and society. The lack of family support and a strong social network in the newly adopted country necessitates role adjustments from all family members. The prevalent individualism in American society imposes a higher degree of individual autonomy on family members and rewards the individual achievements of members. This is antithetical to the collectivistic tendencies present in the traditional Iranian family. Iranians' responses to these demands and constraints are often synthetic, combining elements of both cultures and representing continuity and change. As a recent immigrant population, Iranians have begun to define and give a new meaning to their own presence in this country--a synthetic meaning which bears the residues of two lands, two environments, two people, and two different cultures. The composition of these new identities, the meanings attached to them, and the strategies used for survival, provide a ground for the better understanding of group survival in a new environment.

Although this article delineates some of the changes and emerging patterns of interaction and identity within the Iranian immigrant family in the United States, there is something more at work here--something that cannot be detected easily in statistical averages and general trends. It is the experiences of individuals and the diversity of their exposure and entanglement with a large and diverse society like the American one. There can be no definitive definition of the typical Iranian American man or woman immigrant. While each may be subjected to similar structural conditions, the ultimate outcome of their experiences is based on their individual feelings and collective interactions within the communities in which they live.

Theoretical Observations

Before discussing changes and adaptations in the Iranian immigrant family in detail, it is important to make some theoretical observations. First, several changes in the immigrant families are generic changes taking place in all urbanized environments and the Iranian immigrant family has been subject to these changes even prior to its arrival in the United States. Industrialization, urbanization, expansion of educational opportunities, greater social and occupational mobility, and a higher standard of living and its associated higher social expectations, all have continued to produce a series of changes affecting men and women throughout the world, especially among those of middle and upper social strata. (6) In the case of women, these changes include participation in the labor force, higher educational achievement, access to previously male-dominated fields and careers, higher levels of political consciousness and participation, higher rates of participation in physical education activities and competitive sports, marrying at older ages and having fewer children, establishing careers and maintaining autonomy, and--in the case of a bad marriage--resorting to divorce with much greater ease.

These changes in women's lives, in turn, have resulted in changes in the status of men within the family and indeed in the whole society. There have been noticeable changes in the roles of men and women at home. Familial responsibilities have been changing for a long time. As noted by several scholars, (7) men's "breadwinner status" has been declining and their responsibilities at home, as well as their identity, have been changing. The new patterns of gender interactions in a host society inevitably leaves its marks on the newcomers. In this case, changes in gender roles occurring in both Iranian and American society over the past five decades have had tremendous effects on these Iranians who have chosen to live in the United States as their adopted country.

Second, researchers have studied "reversed-role" families since the mid-1970s. They have been found not only in the United States (8) but also in Sweden, (9) Australia, (10) and Israel. (11) Even though this type of family, characterized by a full-time employed mother outside of home and a full caretaker father at home, is neither the focus of this article nor a representative of Iranian family in the United States, it is archetypical of the kind of changes in status and relationships of males and females emerging globally. My reference to this type of family is because of the direction of changes taking place in male-female relationships.

Third, not all social scientists agree that the changes experienced by the members of the immigrant/ethnic families are necessarily different from those experienced by the dominant groups in the host society. Acknowledging the historically unique experiences of these immigrants, they believe that the difference between the experiences of these ethnics and those who have been here long enough to be a part of the dominant majority is a matter of degree rather than kind. (12) The first experience of these families in migration is cultural confusion and normlessness. The opportunity to avoid traditional restrictions, combined with restrictions imposed by the new environment, compel these immigrants to develop a comfortable blueprint for their own identity. This identity, however, cannot be very different from the modalities of identities available in the host society. In fact, as Robert Merton argues, in a normless environment a group often develops symmetrical norms that are compatible with the dominant values in that environment. (13) In the case of Iranians, the traditional authoritarian family relationship gives way to a much more egalitarian interpersonal and marital relationship.

Still, the specific norms and values these immigrants bring to American society and the ways in which they synthesize these norms with the dominant values of their host country have crucial impact on the success of these immigrants in assimilating to their new home. (14) The compatibility or incompatibility of immigrants' norms and values with the dominant values of the host society determines the way these immigrants integrate into their host society and forge a new way of life in a society significantly different from that in their country of origin. The attributes of ethnic culture always are mediated through the family. These values concern not only the relationships between family members but also their achievements, lifestyle, and educational and occupational aspirations.

Fourth, changes in the immigrant family structure and relationships are dependent on a host of factors that are not the subject of discussion in this article. These include the immigration laws and reception patterns of the host society, the political atmosphere and relationships between the home and host countries, the time of the immigrants' arrival and the manner of their entry into the host society, the stage of the immigrants' family life cycle, the length of their migration from their homeland, and the age, sex, ethnicity, education, and occupational skills of family members at the time of arrival. (15) Coupled with the political and socio-economic class of the immigrants, these factors have important influences on the kind and degree of changes these immigrants experience in the host society. Therefore, it should be remembered that although the picture of the Iranian immigrant family in the United States illustrated in this article is accurate, it is quite general and does not reflect the variations that might exist among Iranian immigrants of various ethnicities (Arab, Kurdish, Persian, Turkish, etc.), religions (Bahai, Christian, Jewish, Moslem, Zoroastrian, etc.), and socio-economic classes.

Fifth, the United States is a highly industrialized society whose unique cultural and structural features do not leave immigrant families within it unaffected. The new environment within which the immigrant family finds itself is quite different from the one existing in Iran. Many aspects of the traditional Iranian family are being challenged by the socio-economic conditions of life in America. Even those who are determined to maintain their native socio-cultural patterns of relationships find themselves forced to adjust to the structural and cultural imperatives of their host society. Given the normative, expressive, and behavioral differences between Iranian and American families, the task of bridging the gap between these two is not easy. Quite often immigrants deal with these gaps in very unique and creative ways. For instance, arranged marriage--a declining but continuing feature of the Iranian family at home--is almost unheard of among Iranians who have lived long in the United States. However, not being able to find a desirable woman for partnership in America, some Iranian men would arrange to have a suitable bride from home brought over to the United States. (16) This is a new phenomenon on which there is little data and needs investigation.

With these observations in mind, what are some of the specific sociological changes within the Iranian immigrant family? In what follows, I will demonstrate these changes in spousal and parental roles within this family. This will be done by drawing from two field surveys conducted during 1995-97 in Iran and the United States. Early in 1995, a questionnaire comprised of 113 questions was designed and mailed to 821 households in 41 American states. This questionnaire asked a range of questions on decision making in the family, women's views on and attitudes toward female gender roles, and perception of gender roles in the United States and Iran. The results of this survey provided a picture of Iranian women whose views of women's roles inside and outside of home differed from the typical roles ascribed to them by tradition, religion, and society. At that point, it was not clear whether this difference was due to the changes that had taken place as a result of migration to the United States or of changes that had taken place globally, regardless of these women's migration to a new country. It was decided to undertake a similar study in Iran in order to determine the significance of the new information about the Iranian women. With that purpose in mind, the same questionnaire was translated, slightly modified to account for socio-political and cultural differences between the two environments, and taken to Iran for distribution among Iranian women.


The respondents in the United States sample included Iranian females drawn from three lists of addresses: The Iranian Cultural Society of Columbus, Ohio (680 addresses, 307 in Ohio, 373 in other states), The Middle East Studies Association, and the Center for Iranian Research and Analysis. Although the latter two data bases were biased because their records consisted of a highly educated population, especially interested in Middle Eastern studies, the addresses from the Iranian Cultural Society contained a more diverse population. Drawing information from this database was weighted in order to include more non-academic subjects in the sample. The questionnaire was mailed to the 821 randomly selected addresses. Fifty-seven of these questionnaires were returned because there were no qualified respondents in the household. Of the 743 remaining questionnaires, 158 (21.26 percent) were completed and returned. Nine questionnaires, filled by non-Iranian women married to Iranian men, were excluded, thus leaving the study with 149 completed questionnaires to be used for the analysis.

In the case of the Iranian sample, it became clear that it would be impossible to have a representative random sample without government support and a good amount of time and money, not available to this researcher at the time. Also, the sensitivity of women's issues along with the political and cultural mistrust of a male social scientist by both the government and many women themselves, especially when the researcher is employed by a United States academic institution, made it harder to think of an open research strategy. As a result, it was decided to resort to a macro snowballing strategy, contacting people in six cities in order to distribute the questionnaires in five settings: educational institutions, administrative offices, medical and health care facilities, factories, and neighborhoods. Sites were selected on the basis of availability of a connection, possibility of simultaneous distribution and collection of questionnaires, and security considerations. In each site, questionnaires were given to all available individuals, except those who wished not to participate. Non-participation was reported only in four sites and in each case it did not surpass 15 percent. Reasons for non-participation were lack of trust, fear of persecutions by the government, and possible disapproval by subject's husband. For those who were not able to read and write, the questionnaire was administered by an interviewer.

Since the project had turned into a convenient sampling, efforts were made to maximize the sample by increasing the number of subjects. A total of 1,100 questionnaires were distributed, of which 1,028 were in good order. Given the volume of questionnaires, the security concerns, and the problem of non-randomness of the sample, half of these questionnaires were randomly selected. As a result, the current sample includes 514 subjects randomly selected from 1,028 completed questionnaires.

Profile of Respondents

Respondents in the US sample are Iranian female immigrants who have lived in the United States an average of 16.05 years (Median = 15.98). Close to half (42.9 percent) of the sample are between the ages 31-40 and another 30.6 percent are between the ages 41-50. A majority of them are married (73.2 percent), have children (78.4 percent), work outside the home (77.9 percent), and regard their stay in the United States as permanent (83.9 percent). While the majority are Muslim (72.7 percent), 14.4 percent insist that they do not adhere to any religion. The number of professors, physicians, and businesswomen in the US sample is proportionally very high. Of course, this reflects a bias in the sample. In terms of education, over 50 percent of respondents have graduate degrees, 32.9 percent bachelor degrees, and only 3.4 percent have just a high school diploma. Respondents' husbands were even more educated, 72.6 percent possessing graduate degrees. While respondents had a median family income of $60-75,000.00, their own individual income averaged over $30,000.00 annually. Respondents making less than $10,000.00 comprised 13 percent of the sample, and those having no income also constituted 13 percent of the sample.

Respondents in the Iranian sample are females mostly born in major cities (68.99 percent), as opposed to 25.53 percent born in small towns and 5.49 percent born in villages. Compared to the US sample, respondents in the Iranian sample are much younger. More than half of them are under 30 years old. Half of them have never married (48.48 percent) and work outside the home (54.44 percent), mostly on a full-time basis (68.22 percent). While 92.58 percent are Muslim, 1.65 percent insist that they do not follow any religion. Educationally, over 60 percent of these women have attended college. Like the US sample, their husbands are even more educated, 50 percent having graduate degrees. Occupationally, teachers and clerical workers represent the largest groups in the sample. A third of this sample, even many college educated ones, do not work and are categorized as "housewife." As for income, some 3.17 percent of the sample with an annual household income below 150,000.00 tomans are considered poor, 26.19 percent with annual household income between 150,000 and 540,000.00 tomans as lower class, and 25.79 percent with an annual household income above 1,200,000.00 tomans as upper middle class. The remaining respondents (44.85 percent) may be considered as middle class.

Changes in Spousal Roles

In the traditional Iranian family, men are the primary wage earners. They provide for their families and demand respect and obedience in return. The general Iranian-Islamic culture also supports men as the authority figure and the source of family livelihood, thus making them responsible for its well-being. Traditional notions of manhood are very much attached to this provision of income for the family and assuming the responsibility for decisions affecting the fate of its members. (17)

Migration, however, has challenged these traditional bases of men's authority. Women have become more educated and are actively participating in the labor market. Their high educational achievement and occupational success have undermined male authority and diminished their roles as sole wage earners in their families. Immigrant men often share the task of providing for their families with their wives and thus have lost the monopoly on decision making in the family. Women's educational and economic gains have provided them with resources that translate to power and status inside and outside the family. This is, of course, a relative phenomenon. The increase in power and status of women is in direct correlation with their level of ambition, education, and social class background. Also, the increase in female autonomy and power at home has not reduced their homemaker's role proportionately. Certainly there is an increase in male participation in the household tasks. However, the rate and pace of this change is much slower than other changes. As data from the US survey shows, immigrant women still bear the major responsibility for house chores and child-care (see table 1).

Table 1. Mean Percentage of Task-Sharing in the Iranian Immigrant Family as Reported by Wife in the US Sample

                                                                   Wife                   Husband                      Children                     Others

Shopping                                                      74.2                        25.6                              1.2                              0.2

Cooking                                                         81.5                       15.9                              0.6                              2.5

Cleaning                                                        63.1                        20.8                              2.6                             12.4

House repairs                                               21.2                        63.5                            2.5                               14.5

Car maintenance                                          15.7                       63.1                              1.1                              19.1

Sew/Iron/Laundry                                       71.6                       17.1                              3.4                                7.3

Financial planning                                       42.1                       56.1                             0.8                                 0.7

Caring for children                                       73.9                        25.3                           0.9                                  0.6

Chauffeuring kids                                        68.7                       28.5                            2.6                                  0.8

Garden/Lawn Care                                       35.2                        53.7                           3.5                                  7.7

Also, it should be remembered that although the labor participation and professional mobility among Iranian women in the United States have been increasing and have resulted in a decline in the authority of men at home, it is not evident that women's labor participation has acquired a primary significance in the provision of family income. As mentioned by Bozorgmehr, compared to other female immigrants, the rate of female participation in the labor force is low. (18) Men still are the major source of family income, despite the variations in their share in different households. Within my sample the wages and incomes of women were far less than those of men (see table 2). This was particularly true for men engaged in corporate and entrepreneurial activities. Where one sees some comparable income between husbands and wives is in dual career families with professional, medical, and educational occupations.

Generally speaking, women in the traditional Iranian society were treated like subjects and second class persons rather than decision makers and autonomous individuals. There was a general assumption among traditionalists that, as wives and mothers, women did not need socialTable 2. Married Respondents' Personal and Family Income in the US Sample

Income Level                          Personal                          Family (Combined)

                                                Percent                                      Percent

None                                                 16.1                                     0.0

Under 5,000                                        7.1                                     0.0

5,001-10,000                                       7.1                                      0.0

10,1001-15,000                                   4.0                                      2.0

15,001-30,000                                   18.2                                      4.8

30,001-45,000                                   18.2                                      9.8

45,001-60,000                                   19.2                                    21.6

60,001-75,000                                     5.1                                    15.7

75,001-100,000                                   2.0                                   20.6

Above 100,000                                  3.0                                   25.5

Total                                               100.0                                 100.0

Note: N = 102

identities independent of their family identity. This notion still is prevalent among the Islamicists in Iran who have been trying to reduce the independent identities of individual women from movies, and literary and educational materials (19)--a sad reality which finally has prompted President Mohammad Khatami's Minister of Education to take some corrective action against "the depiction of women in high school textbooks." (20)

In the traditional Iranian family, a woman's social and individual identities were often shadowed by a man's and, by and large, defined by her relationship to him as a wife, sister, daughter, or mother. Her happiness was to be measured by her husband's happiness. Her husband's failure was partially hers as well. Her achievements in life were defined more by her husband's and children's achievements than by her own. Whether as a wife or a daughter, she was at her best when she was at the service of her husband or father. (21) She was present to help men achieve their emotional, social, occupational, and spiritual goals. So she offered her man any kind of help, whenever and however he needed it. On their part, men took the services and help of their women for granted. They viewed their wives' attachment to them as sources of material and nonmaterial support and they knew they could rely on their women whenever they needed assistance, services, care, and support.

In the new environment of American society, such services and forms of support are not automatically assumed. Such an expectation is neither possible nor granted. Men may still receive a higher degree of support from their wives in their careers and social standing, compared to prevailing norms of male support in the host society, but they cannot take that support for granted as much as they could in Iran. Among professional couples, the support may actually turn into competition. Many men find themselves in competition with their wives for success and social status--a feature I will return to later.

Finding themselves in an environment where most native cultural norms neither apply nor receive any patronage, immigrant men and women are hard pressed to adapt their expectations to the new rules of conduct and to create new modes of relationships and family environment. Given the high educational and occupational achievements of immigrant women, their financial independence from their husbands, acceptance of individualistic values of the American society, competitive nature of the work environment in the United States, and their determination to remove all the traditional limitations on their individual growth, immigrant women have begun to demand a great deal more from their husbands in caring for their children and home affairs. Role differentiation within the family is moving away from a traditional hierarchical division of male-dominated/female-subordinated roles toward a complementary one. Husbands and wives are beginning simultaneously to assume expressive as well as instrumental roles. Data from surveys within the Iranian immigrant family reveal that men are taking a more active role in the household chores, including shopping, cooking, and cleaning (see table 1). Women also are participating actively in the roles traditionally performed by men, such as managing family finances, attending to family business, and even caring for the family car. Iranian women are seeking openly equality in doing household chores, in child-rearing, decision-making, ownership of family property, and even in their sexual relationship. To get a sense of these changes, similar statistics from the Iranian sample are presented in table 3.

Table 3 shows that in six out of ten activities within the family, men's and women's roles have changed in opposite directions. Where women have become more involved, men have shown less involvement and vice versa. In two areas of house chores (cooking and cleaning) and child care (caring for children and chauffeuring them to their activities) men's involvement has increased dramatically. Interestingly, men's increased participation in the family household is accompanied by a decline in most activities by the children.

While the traditional family did not leave much room for the growth of women's individual self-esteem, the new family in migration has provided an opportunity for women to advance their self-esteem by

acquiring many skills and participating in occupations denied to them in

Table 3. Comparison of Mean Percentage of Task Sharing within the Iranian Family in Iran and the United States As Reported by Wife

                                                                                                  Iran                   United States             Percent Change

Shopping                           Wife                                              53.9                        74.2                                     +27.3

                                            Husband                                       42.8                         25.6                                   -- 40.1

                                            Children                                         2.3                         1.2                                      -- 47.8

                                            Others                                            1.6                           0.1                                    -- 93.7

Cooking                             Wife                                               82.2                       81.5                                    -- 0.85

                                           Husband                                        8.8                          15.9                                    +44.6

                                           Children                                         0.7                          0.6                                    -- 14.2

                                           Others                                            1.9                           2.5                                    +24.0

Cleaning                            Wife                                                72.7                        63.1                                 -- 13.2

(floor, rooms, etc.)            Husband                                        15.7                        20.8                                  +24.5

                                           Children                                          2.9                          2.6                                  -- 10.3

                                           Others                                             7.4                          12.4                                  +40.3

House repairs                   Wife                                                 14.8                        21.2                                  +30.1     

                                           Husband                                          62.2                         63.5                                  +2.0

                                           Children                                           4.2                              2.5                              -- 40.4

                                           Others                                              16.8                          14.5                              -- 13.6

Car maintenance               Wife                                                 12.8                          15.7                               +18.4

                                            Husband                                         70.0                          63.1                                -- 9.8

                                            Children                                           3.8                           1.1                                -- 71.0

                                            Others                                              13.8                         19.1                               +27.7

Sewing/Ironing/                 Wife                                                 76.7                         71.6                               -- 6.6

Laundry                               Husband                                         14.6                          17.1                              +14.6

                                             Children                                           2.0                              0.8                             -- 60.0

                                             Others                                              5.2                               0.7                             -- 86.5

Financial planning &         Wife                                                 36.0                            42.1                              +16.9

management                        Husband                                         64.3                            56.1                             -- 12.7

                                             Children                                           1.0                               0.8                              -- 20.0    

                                             Others                                              0.1                              0.7                                 +85.7

Caring for children             Wife                                                 81.0                              73.9                              -- 8.7

                                             Husband                                         13.4                              25.3                               +47.0

                                             Children                                          2.0                                0.9                                -- 55.0

                                             Others                                             1.3                                 0.6                                -- 53.8

Chauffering kids around  Wife                                                67.4                               68.7                                 +1.8

to their classes/activities  Husband                                       26.0                               28.5                                  +8.7

                                              Children                                        2.3                                 2.6                                  +11.5

                                 Others                                           1.2                                0.8                                   +33.3

Gardening/Lawn care         Wife                                               29.6                              35.2                                  +15.9

                                              Husband                                       51.8                               53.7                                  +3.5

                                              Children                                         0.9                                  3.5                                  +74.2

                                              Others                                            15.7                                7.7                                 -- 50.9

their native land. (22) While many find themselves forced to enter the labor market despite many disadvantages and socio-cultural barriers (especially for those with more religious and traditional social outlooks) many others have chosen career paths as a source of identity and livelihood regardless of their husbands' financial and career status. Immigration has had its exactions, but it also has had obvious compensations. It has afforded women many forms of freedom: from the religious restrictions imposed by a theocratic state, from the expectations and constant supervision of their parents and in-laws, from fear of rejection by and isolation from society, from the mores and folkways of their homeland, and from the normative demands of culturally homogeneous Iranian neighborhoods. Although these freedoms have been beneficial to both men and women, women have gained most from them. Since the type and nature of newly acquired roles by women are much more extensive than those acquired by men, the depth and extent of role reversal is greater for women than for men. At the same time, the negative effects of these changes on men have been more severe than on women--a topic discussed later.

New roles for women are accompanied by a high degree of stress but greater satisfaction and realization of their potential. Often being younger and thus more adaptable than their husbands, these women take better advantage of the new educational and professional opportunities in the host society. Their new roles are a challenge for themselves as well as their husbands. However, based on the reports of strains and maladjustments in the Iranian immigrant family, it seems that women demonstrate a higher degree of adjustment to their new roles than men. Of those women who have reported satisfaction with their experiences in the host society, many describe their homes as a battle ground in which they confront their husbands' anger and frustrations. (23) Men who fled Iran due to political or religious persecution often left prestigious and lucrative positions behind and came to find themselves unwelcome in the job market in the Unites States. These men are often in mid-life and find it difficult to cope with the loss of their social status, employment, and authority. Such a loss is accompanied by frustration, alienation, and depression, especially when wives of many of these men are more successful in adapting to American society, achieving educational and occupational success, and enjoying many forms of freedom which they were denied in Iran.

Although acquiring new roles has provided men with a greater realization of their potential as equal partners in marital relationships, the loss of some of the traditional roles and privileges in marital relationships has had devastating effects on some of them, especially on those who have been brought up with a conservative outlook and have a low socio-economic status. These men show less enthusiasm and appreciation for change in their wives' social behaviors and domestic roles. (24) Much of the traditional Iranian/Islamic sensitivities towards and reservations for their women's interaction with male strangers in public often smother by a better understanding of the context of sexual relationships in Western societies, concerns for self-preservation, and values of self-sacrifice and family duty. However, these concerns almost disappear in cases where wives outpace their husbands professionally and come into close contact with other men. As Shahidian argues, there is also a certain degree of ethnic and national pride embedded in these sensitivities as men come to view their women as boundary markers of their national and ethnic identity. (25)

There are numerous reports of high anxiety, depression, suicide, and use of violence among men who have had difficulty adjusting to the changes in their wives' sexual behavior, social roles, and family responsibilities in their newly adopted country. (26) The violent outcome of many of these cases are referred to as "crimes of honor" (qatl-e namoosi). For examples, in February 1996, J. A., an Iranian immigrant in Glendale, California, killed his wife and six children by setting his house on fire. In his report to the police, he accused his wife of having "illegitimate relationships" with male strangers. (27) In July 1997, another Iranian named M.T., who was apparently distressed over his wife's request for divorce, put his daughter and son, 8 and 10 years old respectively, to sleep with an overdose of tranquilizers and then hanged himself. (28) In another incident on November 7, 1996, in response to charges of spouse and child abuse and in anger about a Los Angeles court order that had barred him from further contact with his wife and children, Jafar Derakhti shot his wife to death and later killed himself. Suspicious of his wife's activities, Jafar had barred his wife from using the telephone and the family car. (29) In Sweden, a boy killed his younger sister with the help of his cousin because of her violation of their family honor. (30) Since the incident occurred after a series of similar incidents among the immigrants, the Swedish Parliament organized a hearing where they asked an Iranian sociologist to present his views on the issue. (31)

Since changes in wives' roles require a redefinition of men's roles within the family, it inevitably leads to an identity crisis for men who have to reject their past identity in favor of a new one with less privileges and patriarchal pride. This loss of old privileges often is accompanied by an adaptation to new responsibilities in a more egalitarian marriage where men have to perform tasks in which they never have been trained. In the more successful immigrant families, there is even competition between immigrant husbands and wives in achieving a more independent and secure social status in the host society. In some marriages this competition becomes a source of conflict between the couple and results in divorce. Research reveals that many Iranian families are experiencing a variety of marital and interpersonal problems resulting in a great deal of stress--a stress caused by confusion about interpersonal norms and expectations, domestic arrangements and financial responsibilities, separation from family members in the homeland, a sense of loss of native culture and values, the pressures of adaptation to the new culture and environment, and the changes in gender and family roles, statuses, and identities. (32) The social arrangement within which the couples find themselves is also a contributing factor to such stressful relationships. Lack of family support and a larger kin network reduces the resources available to these couples and increases the amount of time they spend with each other. In situations of conflict and crisis, increased interaction in a highly dense relationship multiplies the number of roles each spouse has to play in relation to the other. In the traditional family in Iran, a husband was "a husband" and a wife "a wife." In the new setting, each spouse not only has to play the role of intimate other but also, in many cases, the role of an absent father, mother, or brother at times of crises. Many of the functions previously solved by interaction with parents and siblings now have to be fulfilled in the relationship with the spouse. Furthermore, dual career immigrants are finding it difficult to balance their time between the heavy demands of their work and their marital responsibilities. Working outside of the family during the day and attending to their children in the evening, many of these couples find themselves too tired to attend to each other and provide emotional support against the hardship of their new lifestyle.

One of the consequences of these conflicts and subsequent stress levels has been a higher rate of divorce. Iranian-Islamic culture views divorce as a tragic solution and a last resort in marital conflict, especially when there is a child in the marriage, but favorable divorce laws in the host society and economic independence of women have made Iranian couples more prone to use this option in the United States. Still, it is worth noting that while divorce in Iran often is followed by a decline in the woman's status, in the United States such a decline of status is not the norm among Iranian female divorcees. (33) Also, it is important to remember that the divorce rate in Iran has also been increasing in the past two decades, especially among the educated and urban population. For instance, in the year 1373 [1994], according to deputy of legal and personal affairs at the National Registry, 32,706 cases of divorce were registered. (34) This marked an increase of 2,394 or 12 percent. This trend continues in later years as well. In the nine months of March-December, 1997, there were 31,424 divorces recorded in Iran, representing an 11 percent increase in the divorce rate from the year before. The rate for Central Province, which is the largest and most urbanized province in the country, was 15.3 percent. (35)

Changes in Parental Roles

In the context of immigration, the relationship between parents and children is a delicate one. Learned attitudes and relationships between immigrant parents and children are often subject to new rules of applicability, constraints, and demands. The internal dynamics of the Iranian immigrant family is dependent on political, economic, and legal aspects of the host society. In the United States, there are numerous legal measures safeguarding against arbitrary parental treatment, a greater emphasis on children's autonomous growth and personal initiative, and a higher degree of permissiveness in dealing with children and young adults. Iranian families migrating to the United States find themselves compelled to change learned relationships between themselves and their children and adjust to the existing definitions and limitations of parental roles.

The traditional Iranian family was authoritarian and adult-centered. Parental decisions were ultimate and nonnegotiable. Children organized their lives around and according to their parents' decisions, desires, and plans. The new Iranian family is far removed from this model. In the United States, Iranian-American children have become a focal point of the family's status. Children also demand more freedom of movement and expression than they ever have been allowed and often receive a lot more attention than those children raised in Iran. Many Iranian immigrant parents are adjusting their own life choices to the educational needs and life choices of their children and devoting greater amounts of their resources to this end. They want to see their children succeed and some even project their own unfulfilled aspirations onto them. Many parents cite the opportunity for social and educational mobility for their children as the main reason for their immigration to the United States. In the latter case, the economic resources of the family are channeled toward their children and a tremendous amount of pressure is put on children to succeed.

In the homeland, mothers served as role models for their daughters as well as supervisors in most of their affairs, especially those related to the private domain. Conversely, fathers served as role models for their sons as well as supervisors for most of their affairs in the public sphere. In America, these divisions and responsibilities are changing. Men are accepting greater responsibilities in attending to their children, even to their teenage daughters by accompanying them to their athletic activities, entertaining them, supervising their educational programs, monitoring their social activities, and even counseling them in their choice of some of the most private issues traditionally handled by mothers (such as the choice of clothing and makeup). Although these forms of involvement serve as a means of control and as a means of protection for their daughters against undesirable aspects of the host culture, they still represent new definitions of family responsibilities and have the effect of creating new role anxieties and constraints for daughters as well as parents.

Maintaining a family and raising children in the new homeland has advantages and disadvantages. On the positive side, the lack of the socio-cultural pressures of Iranian society make it easier for parents to allow their children to exercise more autonomy. In Iran, parents are much stricter toward their children, particularly with regard to their daughters' social life. In the United States, in the absence of an extended family and its concomitant obligations, parents spend more time with their children and become more involved in their social lives. The availability of good educational, recreational, and occupational opportunities reduces most parents' anxiety about their children's future, thus making it easier for them to take a more relaxed and liberal approach in their upbringing. Nevertheless, the degree to which this liberal approach is applied to girls is different from that applied to boys. Girls, whose sexuality and lifestyle have a direct bearing on the family honor and dignity, are sometimes subject to closer supervision and stricter home regulations. Though some Iranian parents are more cautious in the social aspects of their young daughters' lives, they rarely let such a sensitivity deter their educational and social mobility. Given the fact that some other Middle Eastern immigrants, especially those of working class background, have demonstrated a propensity for differential treatment of their children, Iranian parents rarely differentiate between girls and boys in terms of educational and career opportunities. (36)

On the negative side, the problems of violence and drugs, coupled with the more liberal sexual standards, increase parents' vigilance and puts them on constant alert. The dual career situation of many parents, mixed with a lack of kinship support, increases parental responsibilities, thus causing enormous physical and psychological pressures on these parents and their children. Dual career immigrant families face an acute time crunch. The constant struggle to balance work and family is probably the greatest hurdle for these couples, especially women, who continue to be the primary care givers for the members of their families. Many professional women experience a "superwoman syndrome" by accepting conflicting responsibilities inside and outside of home in addition to the challenges of immigrant life. These women often experience "role overload" and "role conflict"--an experience which at times takes its toll on their children too. These women also experience a lack of emotional support that was accorded to them in Iran when they assumed their traditional roles. Since many of them have changed their gender roles in the new environment, they are deprived of the kind of emotional base necessary for the reproduction of these new identities within the Iranian community. Those women who do not have a healthy relationship or marriage within the Iranian community often leave it for a more supportive relationship with non-Iranian men.

The effects of role changes on men have been more severe. These new marital and parental responsibilities that men carry in the family involve a role shift that they neither are prepared for nor find compatible with their cultural norms and self-image. Given the abrupt and speedy nature of changes taking place in the status and roles of their women, male immigrants are suffering from a cultural lag. Many have a difficult time understanding and/or adjusting to the volume and direction of change in their gender relationships. These changes have resulted in an identity crisis in which men find themselves pulled from all directions: They are separated from their own history, society, family of orientation, and culture. They find themselves confronting pressures and constraints of a new culture which does not have much sympathy for their past culture and identity. They have lost their identity as the breadwinners and the authority in the family. On top of all this, they find themselves estranged even from their most intimates, i.e. their wives.

Neither children of immigrants (born in the United States) nor immigrant children (born outside of the United States but came to this country when they were young) are immune to the negative consequences of migration faced by their parents. The cultural restrictions and ethnic identity imposed by their parents sometimes lead to serious conflicts within the family, resulting in alienation of these children from their parents as well as their friends outside the home. In some cases the outcome of these conflicts has been violence and death. (37) These children also have to endure the comparative disadvantage of not having a wide kin relationship within American society. Often many of these children have a distant memory of their grandparents, uncles, aunts, nieces, cousins, and nephews. The lack of such contacts can generate problems for some teenagers during their formative years in school when they begin to rely on family as a source of identity. Also, in comparison with their counterparts in Iran, most of the younger members of the second generation regularly attend daycare and are denied a long stay in the warm environment of a parental family. The latter experience helps these children to develop a more independent personality though, and approach their future more individualistically than their Iranian parents do.


If we establish a curve for the gains and losses of men and women in their gender privileges inside and outside of Iran, we observe two curves that are shaped differently and are traveling in different directions. With the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the establishment of a theocratic state in Iran, traditional, uneducated, Iranian men and women gained higher socio-political statuses, social rewards, and economic benefits. Conversely, most secular, educated, and Westernized Iranians lost a great deal of their social, economic, and political statuses. A segment of the latter group either left the country voluntarily or was forced out involuntarily. The gains of the latter group in their newly adopted countries are mixed, varied, and at times contradictory. Most Iranians migrating to the United States, especially the educated and wealthy ones, have succeeded in achieving an economic status equal or higher than the one they had occupied previously in their homeland.

While the economic gains have been common for both men and women, the social gains have not. Men have lost a great deal of the privileges they enjoyed at home. They have lost their authority, the higher level of respect they commanded within home and kin network, and the privileges accorded to them in marriage. Women have had the opposite experience. Not only have they escaped the harsh policies of the Islamic Republic toward women, they have gained a great deal of autonomy, social and educational skill, and a clearer sense of their sexuality, individuality, and identity. It seems among the factors determining the "new identity" of these women, gender has a more prominent influence than other variables. While many of the new roles for men might be accompanied with a sense of anxiety and pain, women's new roles and identities have given them a higher level of satisfaction and self-fulfillment. And of course, both experience the anxieties and problems associated with leaving their country, friends, and loved ones behind and settling in a new land and culture. Both often strive to build new lives in common with rather separate from one another. How successful they are is a subject for another study.

1. See L. L. Lindsey, Gender Roles; A Sociological Perspective (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1997); K. Plummer, Symbolic Interactionism (Brookfield, VT: Edward Elgar, 1991) Vol. 1; and S. Coltrane, Gender and

Ali Akbar Mahdi is an associate professor of sociology at Ohio Wesleyan University.

Families (Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press, 1998).

2. For studies on challenges faced by the Middle Eastern families in the United States, see Barbara C. Aswad and Barbara Bilge, eds., Family and Gender Among American Muslims; Issues Facing Middle Eastern Immigrants and Their Descendants (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996). For examples from other ethnic groups, see G. Buijs, ed., Migrant Women; Crossing Boundaries and Changing Identities (Oxford: BERG, 1993); P. Hondagneu-Sotelo, "Overcoming Patriarchal Constraints; The Reconstruction of Gender Relations among Mexican Immigrant Women and Men," in M. Baca Zine, P. Hondagneu-Sotelo, and M. A. Messner, eds., Through the Prism of Difference; Readings on Sex and Gender (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1997); C. H. Mindel, R. W. Habenstein, and R. Wright, Jr., eds., Ethnic Families in America; Patterns and Variations (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1998); V. Parrillo, "The Immigrant Family: Securing the American Dream," Journal of Contemporary Family Studies 12 (1991): 131-45; and several pieces in the following two books: S. J. Ferguson, Shifting the Center; Understanding Contemporary Families (Toronto: Mayfield Publishing Co., 1998); V. Demos and M. Texler Segal, eds., Ethnic Women; A Multiple Status Reality (Dix Hills, NY: General Hall, Inc., 1994).

3. Abdoulmaboud Ansari, Iranian Immigrants in the United States: A Case Study of Dual Marginality (Millwood, NY: Associated Faculty Press, 1992). See also from the same author, The Making of the Iranian Community in America (NJ: Pardis Press, 1993).

4. Mehdi Bozorgmehr and George Sabagh, "High-Status Immigrants: A Statistical Profile of Iranians in the United States," Iranian Studies 21, no. 2-4 (1988): 5-36.

5. Quoted in The Iran Times, August 16, 1996.

6. J.H. Edwards, ed., The Family and Change (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1960).

7. See K. Gerson, No Man's Land: Men's Changing Commitments to Family and Work (New York: Basic Books, 1993); S. Coltrane, Fatherhood, Housework, and Gender Equity (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996); and C. West and D. H. Zimmerman, "Doing Gender," Gender and Society 1 (1987): 125-51.

8. J. Levine, Who Will Raise the Children? New Options for Fathers (and Mothers) (New York: Bantam, 1976).

9. M.E. Lamb, A. M. Frodi, C-P. Hwang, M. Frodi, and J. Steinberg, "Mother- and Father-Infant Interaction involving Play and Holding in Traditional and Nontraditional Swedish Families," Developmental Psychology 18 (1982): 215-21.

10. J. Harper, Fathers at Home (Melbourne: Penguin, 1980).

11. A. Sagi, "Antecedents and Consequences of Various Degrees of Parental Involvement in Childrearing. The Israeli Project," in M.E. Lamb, ed., Nontraditional Families: Parenting and Child Development (Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1982).

12. Thomas Sowell, Ethnic America: A History (New York: Basic Books, 1981).

13. Robert Merton, Social Theory and Social Structure (Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1957).

14. Nathan Glazer and Daniel P. Moynihan, Beyond the Melting Pot (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1970).

15. See Ali Akbar Mahdi, "The Second Generation Iranians: Questions and Concerns," The Iranian, no. 9 (February-March 1997) (an online magazine at Also, see Ali Akbar Mahdi, "Ethnic Identity among Second-Generation Iranians in the United States," Iranian Studies 31, no. 1 (1998): 77-95.

16. Parvin Abiyaneh, "Ezdevaaj az Rah-e Dour va 'Aroos-e Vaaredaati" (Long Distance Marriage and "Imported Bride), 'Aqaazi Nou 25 (1993): 14-17; Nahid Shahnavaz and Minoo Gorji, "The New Persian Bride: Tragedy or Triumph," Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Center for Iranian Research and Analysis, Atlanta, GA. April, 1997.

17. Behnaz Jalali, "Iranian Families," in M. McGoldrick, J. Giordano and J. K. Pearce, eds., Ethnicity and Family Therapy (New York: The Guilford Press, 1982).

18. Mehdi Bozorgmehr, "Iranians," in David Levison, ed., Encyclopedia of American Immigrant Cultures (New York: Macmillan, 1997).

19. A number of studies have documented the efforts by the Islamicists to change the image of Iranian women according to their own perception of what an Islamic woman should look like. See Patricia F. Higgins and Pirouz Shoar-Ghaffari, "Women's Education in the Islamic Republic of Iran," Azar Naficy, "Images of Women in Classical Persian Literature and the Contemporary Iranian Novel," and Hamid Naficy, "Veiled Vision/Powerful Presences: women in post-revolutionary Iranian cinema," all three in Mahnaz Afkhami and Erika Friedl, eds., In the Eye of the Storm; Women in Post-Revolutionary Iran (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1994); and Hammed Shahidian, "The Education of Women in the Islamic Republic of Iran" Journal of Women's History 2, no. 3 (1991): 6-38.

20. On 16 Shahrivar, 1378 [7 September, 1999], Hossein Mozaffar, the Minister of Education, acknowledged the lack of understanding in approaching "women's abilities" in the educational system of the IRI. Arguing for a new "presentation of women in high school textbooks," he criticized the current presentation of women in these texts in this way: "The idea that women are handicapped is not desirable because in terms of human values there is no difference between men and women in Islam." The Iran Times, September 17, 1999.

21. For a host of religious statements regarding the responsibilities of women to their husbands see Ayatollah Ebrahim Amini, 'Ayin-e Hamsardaari yaa Akhlaaq-e Khaanevaadeh [The Rules Regarding Care for Spouse or Family Ethics] (Tehran: Enteshaaraat-e Islami, no date); and Zahra Gavahi, Simaaye Zan dar 'Ayeneh-ye Feq-he Shi'a [Women as Seen in The Mirror of Shi'i Jurisprudence] (Tehran: The Organization for Islamic Propaganda, 1372 [1993]). For a religiously conservative view, see Seyed Javad Mostafavi, Behesht-e Khaanevaadeh; Ham'ahangi-ye Aql va Fetrat baa Ketaab va Son-nat dar Masaael-e Zojiyat [The Heaven of the Family: Coordination of Reason and Nature with The Book and Tradition Regarding Marital Issues] (Mash-had: Hatef Publisher, 1374 [1995]), Two Volumes. For a religiously liberal view, see Fatemeh Safari, Olgoo-ye Ejtemaa-i, Paayegaah, va Naqshe Zan-e Mosalmaan dar Jame'eh-ye Eslaami bar Asaas-e Didgaah-haaye Hazrat-e Emaam Khomeini [The Model, Position, and Role of an Islamic Woman in an Islamic Society, According to Imam Khomeini's Views] (Tehran: The Organization for Islamic Propaganda, 1370 [1991]).

22. See Minoo Moallem, "Ethnic Entrepreneurship and Gender Relations Among Iranians in Montreal, Quebec, Canada," in Asghar Fathi, ed., Iranian Refugees and Exiles Since Khomeini (Costa Mesa, CA: Mazda Publishers, 1991); and Arlene Dallalfar, "Iranian Women as Immigrant Entrepreneurs," Gender and Society 8, no. 4 (1994): 541-61.

23. Rouhi Shafiee, "The Status of Iranian Female Refugees in England, 1982-92," Arash, A Persian Monthly Review of Cultural and Social Affairs, March/April (1994).

24. Hammed Shahidian, "Gender and Sexuality Among Immigrant Iranians in Canada" Sexualities 2, no. 2 (1999): 189-222.

25. Ibid.

26. Mehrdad Darvishpour, "The Causes of Violence Against Women in the Immigrant Family," The Iran Times, Washington. D.C., February 27, 1998.

27. The Iran Times, February 9, 1996.

28. The Iran Times, August 1, 1997. The New York Daily News characterized this event as a cultural one: "He's traditional; she's Westernized. This was a parent who felt he had no option but to send his kids to paradise."

29. The Salt Lake Tribune, November 8, 1996.

30. Hambastegi, June-July, 1997.

31. Mehrdad Darvishpour, "Immigrant Women Challenge Men's Role," Nimrooz (London), no. 43 (1997).

32. See Shideh Hannasab, "Acculturation and Young Iranian Women: Attitudes Toward Sex Roles and Intimate Relationships" Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development 19, no. 1 (1991): 11-21; Vida Nasehi, "Naqsh-e Zanaan dar Khaanevaadeh-haaye Mohaajer-e Irani [The Role of Women in the Iranian Immigrant Families], Goft-O-Gu, no. 9 (Autumn 1374) [1995]: 27-41; Nayereh Tohidi, "Iranian Women and Gender Relations in Los Angeles," in R. Kelley, ed., Irangeles: Iranians in Los Angeles (Los Angeles: University of California, 1993); and Hammed Shahidian, "Gender and Sexuality Among Immigrant Iranians in Canada," Sexualities 2, no. 2 (1999): 189-222.

33. For reports and analyses of divorces among Iranians abroad see Mehrdad Darvishpour, "The Causes of Family Disintegration Abroad," Arash, nos. 14-15, March-April (1992); Mehrdad Mashayekhi, "Causes of Instability in Iranian Families in the United States," The Iran Times, nos. 19-21 (July 1990); Vida Nasehi, "Naqsh-e Zanaan dar Khaanevaadeh-haaye Mohaajer-e Irani [The Role of Women in the Iranian Immigrant Families], Goft-O-Gu, no. 9 (Autumn 1374) [1995]: 27-41; and Mehrdad Darvishpour, "Divorce Among Iranian Immigrants," The Iran Times, vol. XXIV, nos.14-23 (June 17- August 19, 1994).

34. Iran News, 05/04/95. Published by NetIran at

35. The Iran Times, February 20, 1998.

36. For examples from Arab American community, see Evelyn Shakir, Bint Arab; Arab and Arab American Women in the United States (Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 1997).

37. For an example of these conflicts resulting in a tragedy within the Iranian community abroad, see Asrin Mohammadi, "An interview with Asrin Mohammadi," Hambastegi, Paper of the International Federation of Iranian Refugees and Immigrants Councils, June-July, 1997.