Iranian Families (Continued from previous issues)

by: Behnaz Jallali



Modern Family

Upper and middle-class families in urban areas of Iran are caught between the pull of traditional religion and culture and a change toward more Western patterns in family relationships.  The development of mass media and modern schools has changed the attitudes of urban children toward traditional values.  These influences have also altered family relationships and the function of the family in the society at large.  However, these modern developments have not penetrated all levels of society, and the traditional forces remain strong.  In the villages, the family still retains its function of educating children and transmitting cultural roles and values.  Also among urban families who have not been exposed to Western education, literature,  or movies, life remains essentially the same.  (Interestingly, a trend toward traditionalism grew through the middle 1970s in the midst of Westernization.)

The major effects of industrialization and urbanization on the modern family have been the weakening of parental authority and the increased freedom of choice of marriage partners.  As offspring loosen the ties with the traditional norms and values, they often experience conflict between their desires for independence and their strong sense of duty toward their fathers.

Among the upper and middle classes, married men tend to set up households separate from their families of origin, perhaps even in a different neighborhood.  But ties remain and visits are frequent.  The attitude toward women remains conservative, and premarital sex in not common.  The spouse is usually chosen from the same social group, though now often without the interference of parents.  Sometimes parents are only notified of the decision to marry, but their approval is sought and Mehr is still guaranteed.  Clearly the traditional customs coexist with modern values.

Western education and travel abroad have profoundly changed the role of women and have resulted in demands for change in family relationships.  More women have sought higher education, and currently 37% of all university students in Iran are women (this has changed dramatically.  editor.) During the 1960s many women sought employment outside of the home.  The majority, however, do not contribute much to the finances of the family (this is changed too.)  Women in modern families marry at a later age than their traditional counterparts; and with no servants, child caretakers, and housekeepers, they have fewer children.  It must be realized, however, that even though a portion of women have become educated and emancipated, traditional culture has a strong grip and sex roles are enormously difficult to change.  The modern Iranian woman appears to have adjusted well to the dual role and, therefore, male-female conflicts are minimized.

The Western influence and break with tradition have caused families to become more oriented toward the nuclear family and have led to a partial breakdown of the extended family.  Consequently, family members have become conflicted about their obligations and sense of responsibility toward elders.

The modern urban family encounters many stresses that threaten its stability.  Cultural standards of social behavior are abandoned in favor of Western norms of more freedom of expression.  There is a striving and com0etition to achieve more status and wealth.  The father may resent the fact that his children do not respect his authority in the same way that he responded toward his own parents.  He may also have ambivalent feelings toward his professional wife.

When there is family tension because of emotional distance or physical separation from the extended family, either the extended family may become hesitant to provide support and advice or the nuclear family may be reluctant to assume a dependent position and seek advice from them.


Modes of Adaptation

Different modes of adaptation of migrant ethnic families have been described elsewhere.  Winthrop and Gaviria (1975) have described other modes in a study of immigrant Peruvian physicians in the United States.  The mode of adaptation to the new culture among Iranian families vacilitates between acculturation and holding onto the old culture.  Iranians,  at times, preserve aspects of their culture no matter how Westernized they have become in appearance, mode of thinking, behavior, and language.  It is not yet clear how these patterns will develop over several generations in the United States.  the number of second-generation Iranian adults is till small, and it is therefore hard to comment on this.  The most common modes of adaptation are the following:

1. Denigrating the old culture.  Some families sever the old ties, avoid Iranians, and denounce the old traditions and beliefs.  This amounts to an effort to deny their cultural origin by adopting the external features of a stereotyped American.  Habits and perceived values (often  materialistic)may often be copied.

2. Denying the new culture.  The new becomes so frightening that the old cannot be abandoned.  Families turn inward, associating only with Iranians and attempting to reproduce a micro culture similar to the one in the home country.  They eat the same foods, follow the same traditions, and criticize the Western culture's values and belief systems.  However, the children in these families, due to contact with the outside world through schools and friends, become acculturated and conflicts frequently develop in the next generation.

3. Biculturation.  This is perhaps the best mode of adaptation.  The family attempts to bring the two cultures together and tolerates the conflict and anxiety of crossing the cultural boundaries.  Important attachments to the old vulture are maintained along with a productive assimilation of the new culture.  The old ways are not totally abandoned; rather the family attempts to blend the best of two worlds and incorporates the old with the new.  Therefore, they can integrate without disrupting their basic sense of identity. 

Often some family members adhere to one mode of adaptation while the other members are using another mode.  In these instances, the family becomes especially prone to internal conflicts across generations.


Modes of Adaptation to the United States..................Continued on the next issue.