December 2, 2004
Sexual Taboos Split Persian Generations
Like many single Jews, Sharona Saghian met her husband on JDate, the Internet dating service aimed at Jewish singles. Although by doing so, the 28-year-old broke her community's old, venerated matchmaking traditions.
Saghian is Persian and in her community most parents prefer to know the background of their child's prospective mate when dating begins.
"Meeting someone through the Internet is very difficult, and most Persian families wouldn't approve of it because it breaks with tradition," Saghian said. "I met my husband through the Internet because I wanted to try something different."
This change is yet another example of the widening generation gap between older and younger Persian Jews in Southern California. After 25 years of growing up in the United States, Persian Jews in their 20s and early 30s are increasingly questioning their community's social taboos and expectations, while trying to forge their own identities.
With the majority of older Persian Jews having been raised in Iran's socially conservative and male-dominated society, their children are now grappling with issues of dating, marriage and sex as Iranian standards come into conflict with American expectations.
"Although we have been in the United States for over 20 years, we still haven't acclimated into American society," said Sharon Taftian, 22. "The biggest problem is that our parents do not fully understand the culture their kids are growing up in."
Taftian was one of about 100 young professional Persian Jews who participated in an open discussion at the Eretz-SIAMAK Cultural Center in Tarzana last month. The event was just one of many recent efforts by a few in the local Persian community to enable young Jews to voice their concerns, frustrations and fears about their social difficulties without being rejected by their elders.
"Our younger generation does not have a venue to talk to each other; they are still unable to talk in public, especially when their parents are present," said Dariush Fakheri, co-founder of Eretz-SIAMAK. "We wanted to offer them an opportunity that they are not used to having at home or with older people."
Many young Persian Jews say premarital sex is one taboo not discussed. A double standard in the community still strongly disapproves of young women having sex before marriage but looks the other way when it comes to young men who do.
"I think our parents came from a different environment, where they were not sexually free, and they have a hard time accepting the way of life here," said Liane Kattan, 27, of Los Angeles.
Dr. Shawn Omrani, an Iranian Jewish psychiatrist in Beverly Hills, said that young Jewish women in Iran were married in their late teens, so maintaining virginity until marriage didn't hold the same stigma that it does in today's American culture.
"In Iran, virginity for a woman was a virtue, and she remained that way for a few years until getting married at a young age," Omrani said. "Here, the average age of marriage is much higher for a woman, because they want to grow, get an education and experience life. So it may be unrealistic to expect them to remain virgins for many years before getting married."
Many Persian parents may have difficulty discussing issues of sex with their children, Omrani said, because in the past in Iran, even though some extended families lived together and knew of couples having sex, their society prohibited them from discussing sex openly.
A number of young Persian Jewish women said a few of their Persian female friends who have been sexually active before marriage have chosen to have gynecological surgeries in order to create the effect of them being virgins, because of the pressure their community has placed on them to keep their virginity.
This is not a new trend. Omrani says that in the past, sexually active women had this procedure done before getting married.
Several young Persian Jews said they were frustrated with their relatives getting involved with their decisions to find a spouse and pressuring them to get married at a younger age.
"Whether you like it or not, whatever you do when you're younger comes back to haunt you, because people in the community remember if you had a boyfriend and bring that up when you're looking to get married," Saghian said.
Other young Persian Jews say their friends sometimes have trouble marrying other Persian Jews since individuals in the community have preconceived notions of their family's background.
"Everyone knows everyone in the community," said Robert Kavian, 35, of Brentwood. "They base their notions of you on your family's reputation and name, so it can be beneficial or negative."
A large number of young Persian Jews contacted for this story declined to give their names or discuss taboo topics. They feared being ostracized or being the subject of rumors by older individuals in the community.
"The biggest problem in the community is that there's a lot of gossip, with people making up things about you that aren't true, just because they don't like the way you are or think," said Nora Tavili, 24.
Social science experts within the Persian Jewish community said the fear among young Persian Jews to voice their opposition to their community's taboos is not unique since change is not welcomed in many tight-knit cultures. They say individuals seeking changes are often attacked.
"Not too many people have the guts to stand up and talk about these issues," Omrani said. "This is something that the younger generation in our community needs to work on. If anyone can change the trend in our community, it's the younger people, because they can't depend on their parents to do it since their parents are too set in their ways."
Omrani says younger Persian Jews can overcome many of their societal difficulties through greater education and communication with their parents about their societal problems.
"I think the younger generation should not dismiss their parents' experience, because experience itself is very valuable," he said. "For example, young people should learn that making love is the highest level of emotional, spiritual and physical intimacy, and it has to be shared with someone very special, otherwise sex is just a simple physical release."
Parents in the Persian Jewish community must also educate themselves about their children, their new society and hold onto their good values, but also have the flexibility to let go of some of their older traditions that are not constructive, Omrani said.
He said many of the taboos young Persian Jews face today may dissipate in the future as the community is more exposed to the American culture and psychology.