Saturday, September 1, 2007

Mainstream Jewish-Iranian Dating Culture in Los Angeles

The second-generation, Jewish-Iranian community of Los Angeles, concentrated heavily in the San Fernando Valley and the West Side, serves as the cross-sector of customary Persian tradition and Western influence. The weight of future marriage eligibility, stringent and theological moral codes, as well as double-standards among sons and daughters, pushes deviant behavior into the shadows of secrecy, while simultaneously creating a contradictory modern sub-culture of dating rituals. This analysis considers dominant Jewish-Iranian culture, and therefore does not consider minority variation and individual agency, although both exist.

Influenced by the marital system of Iran, Iranian-Jewish family members seek out prospective suitors for sons and daughters. Families seek to match children with families of equal or greater monetary wealth and reputation among the community, creating a mini-kinship, or “system of categories and statuses” amid Los Angeles, (p 34, Traffic in Women). Lower economic status can be justified if the son is being professionally groomed for success in, for example, medical school. Thus, a society of whispers, hear-say and superficial observation serves to keep members well-informed of each others’ social standing and eligibility. Additionally, this explicit gossip network serves to regulate the younger generation, as sons and daughters monitor and adjust themselves to make the appropriate appearance for respective families.

On the whole, the process of engagement and matrimony creates a modernized version of Rubin’s gift economy. A beautiful daughter in good standing with refined social graces can allure a suitor of greater status. Though traditional Iran explicitly exchanged women as gifts, second-generation daughters are exchanged implicitly—a daughter is not forced into an arranged marriage, rather she has free choice among acceptable options, giving her the illusion of free choice altogether. Although second-generation females do go to college and graduate school, marriage and motherhood are still primary goals. Thus, daughters are potential prizes for families, who garner social status for every eligible daughter and for every lucrative marriage. The demands of marriage eligibility also enforce a stringent and theological moral code based on Rubin’s notion of sex negativity, declaring sex in and of itself as sinful unless performed in marriage. In line with Rubin’s assertion, “Family plays an important role in enforcing sexual conformity,” (p 22, Thinking Sex). The qualifications of moral eligibility, however, need not include heterosexual, as does Rubin’s charmed circle--homosexuality remains repressed and is considered abnormal and unnatural, in accordance with the bottom of Ruben’s sexual hierarchy. The importance of status and the intolerance of deviance silences homosexuality among the mainstream circle of Jewish-Iranians.

At the same time, the double-standard among males and females and the impact of American assimilation creates the pre-text for modern dating among the second-generation youth as a contradictory sub-culture of obedience and rebellion. While daughters are prohibited from early dating and sexual experimentation, boys are encouraged as they are understood to have an untamable sex drive which overrides the previous religious dogma that straps the figurative chastity belt on girls and female adolescents. In addition, while Rubin’s charmed circle of acceptable sex includes “monogamous,” alongside marriage and heterosexuality, the Jewish-Iranian community of Los Angeles turns a blind (or na├»ve) eye to husband infidelity—while unfaithful wives, like homosexuals, do not exist as alternatives. It is unclear whether this will largely change in the second-generation.

For teenagers, the Iranian grape-vine enforces regulated public behavior. Although parentally-condoned dating is pervasively off-limits to girls, the social aspect of traditional Iranian culture largely involves extravagant parties, loud music, sexually suggestive Arabic dancing, alcohol consumption and late-hours. This custom warrants a parallel and accepted party-scene for teenagers, providing girls the opportunity of taboo dating, revealing clothing, and a sexually charged atmosphere that directly contradicts previous notions of propriety. During earlier teenage years, these parties are chaperoned by parents, who allow behavior to take place, but often circulate whose daughter did what. Teenage girls know very well not to hold hands, dance too closely, or kiss boys while parents make rounds.

The strategic and secretive interaction and dating among Jewish-Iranian girls includes a set of “common sense” rules. A teenage girl should never be alone with a boy, or be the only girl in the company of multiple boys—this is suspicious behavior and an indicator of inappropriate and likely sexual conduct. There is a small minority of girls who disregard certain or all sexual and social regulations and risk the consequence. Many girls uphold the virginal values of the sexual hierarchy, but worry that being seen with a boy, public affection, or having a boyfriend can be misconstrued as indications of genital-contact, even if the relationship does not. Indeed, reputation relies on perception, not reality. Therefore, the aim to be sexually proper is actually an aim to seem sexually proper—therefore contradicting the foundation for morals themselves. The risks of appearance in public with boys diminishes with age, as the college years become an acceptable time for girls to initiate dating, and essentially marriage preparation.

Jewish-Iranian girls are well aware that relationships should be kept sexually immature to ensure safety. Teens, like parents, report behavior to one another, and while dating is acceptable in the youthful sub-culture, sexual behavior still damages the reputation of girls. Many times, even close friends and boyfriends divulge a sexual history that can harm future marriage eligibility and reputation of the girl. Dating non-Jewish or non-Iranian boys has both pros and cons—boys outside the community and sub-culture cannot circulate personal information. At the same time, dating someone black, Hispanic or Muslim violates racist notions of who is eligible for dating, and ultimately marriage. Males can appear and act however with whomever, with the silent understanding that bride choice will be appropriate. Females do not protest against this inequality, recognize that they are groomed and policed as gifts, or realize that their regulation serves to shape the boundaries of the community—girls and women largely believe it is they who ultimately benefit by behaving “correctly” and ultimately finding an ideal (and rich) partner. This is furthered instilled by beliefs that marriage and children give a woman happiness—not self-exploration and experience.

Although the second-generation simultaneously rebels with and polices one another, assimilation is taking a definitive toll on the ideal dating, marriage and sexual regulations of traditional Judeo-Iranian culture. Consequently, divorce rates and career-focused (rather than family-focused) females are growing. Additionally, sexuality has become more acceptable in long-term relationships, and there are more cohorts of sexually-active girls and female adolescents. Second-generation males and females are rebelling more with marriage among non-Iranians and sometimes even non-Jews, despite frequent parental disapproval or family upheaval. Thus, the immigration of traditional customs, largely chauvinist and hypocritical, remain both largely preserved but also challenged in the second-generation.


John Rawls said...

You have an amazing understanding of systems of control.

Monika Monsef said...

first of all CONGRATULATIONS on your big 100!!! I'm so proud of you

now tell me whos mother this reminds you of.

During earlier teenage years, these parties are chaperoned by parents, who allow behavior to take place, but often circulate whose daughter did what. Teenage girls know very well not to hold hands, dance too closely, or kiss boys while parents make rounds.

Anonymous said...

Your article is a refreshing and much needed analysis of a sometimes maddening Jewish-Iranian subculture within LA.

You might consider using Yom-Kippur services as a case study. It's become more of a fashion show (or meat market, to be less kind) than a day of atonement. It has the makings of a reality TV show: Will Niloufar's nose-job, mercedes, and manolos be enough to snag her an eligible bachelor? Can she keep up at least five minutes of mindless babble without letting on that she is actually college-educated?

Anonymous said...

This work deserves to be published and distributed widely for its insight and honesty about Persian-American dating traditions and contradictions.

Anonymous said...

Interestingly enough said in the article that the women and girls know there is value to being chaste and compliant to these values.

So, this is merely the glue that keeps the sub-cultural community alive and well. If these attributes were to disappear, then the entire social fabric of the Persian-Jewish or Persian-Muslim communities would disintegrate, as so many other micro-minority groups have in this country.

Very well put together and well researched. If Jewish-Iranians whether in U.S., or Israel even, want to remain wealthy in culture and money then they must maintain these norms.

Anonymous said...

hmmm.. some free dating sites make money with adsense etc..

Anonymous said...

Realizing that I read this some 3 years after its posted, I do agree that most observations are accurately stated. However, I take note of the authors personal frustrations and anger that nearly leap off the page (or screen). If writing on a culture, please try to keep personal feelings out and stick with presenting facts, or the population's thoughts. Keep your personal FEELINGS out of the observation. You may learn more about the people you study.
Many of us (young Jewish American Iranians) do disagree with these cultural mores, and do live our lives outside of the expected path.
Lack of education, later (post 1979) emmigration, fear of assimilation (and thus loss of identity), and a time capsule of culture (ie. most of the community see the world and behave as frozen in the cultural systems of 1979 Iran, as that's all they know)drive the maintenance of this proud, albeit narrow visioned group. Be patient with them, they are growing up slowly.

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John Peter said...

Well, it is nice post letting the people be aware about the culture in Los Angeles about dating. Love, relationships and dating are very common in the entire globe, but different cultures are followed in different areas like in Iranian dating. People are always curious to know about culture in other areas and your post will help people who are interest in knowing Los Angeles culture.