The country of Iran has a very long, rich and diverse history. Village life developed there around 4,000 BC. Iran transitioned through many different reigning dynasties and different invasions from neighboring countries, making this land so culturally diverse (Iran-History, 2002).
Iran has seen itself as a nation stepped over by neighboring and different European countries-only sought after for its land area. The discovery of oil in the early 1900’s developed a rivalry between Great Britain and Russia for power over the nation. It was at this time that Iran saw its first rise towards a constitution and the development of a parliament. In the time before World War I, Iran was a country of extreme political and financial difficulty. In 1951, Iran’s parliament made great strides in utilizing their natural resource of oil and developed the National Iranian Oil Company (Iran-History, 2002).
Things started to look up for the country. In 1963 the shah government approved an extensive plan for land redistribution, education, and a system of profit sharing in industry. Within three years, 1.5 million former tenant farmers were plot owners. Although the shah held tight reigns on the government, he moved toward democratic reforms within Iran (Iran-History, 2002).
The situation did not continue to stay harmonious however. Massive riots and protests throughout the country forced the royal family to leave Iran in 1979. Massoume Price (2005), author of Iran’s Diverse Peoples, suggests that the autocratic rule failed in Iran due to,
“a gap between the rich and the poor, the absence of civil and political institutions, violation of the constitution, inability of the leadership to understand and evaluate the dynamics of change in a traditional Muslim society, and some economic problems and mismanagement” (p. 279).
On April 1, 1979 Iran was declared an Islamic Republic, and in January of 1980 Iran elected its first president. The new government shifted the country into theocratic rule, proving it difficult to also uphold a democracy. The new constitution that was developed was contradictory to giving everybody equal rights, not allowing women the same privileges as men and not giving equality to religions other than Shari’a Islam. Due to the heavy persecution, harassment, and deteriorating economic, social, and political conditions that millions faced, mass emigration developed. Many refugees decided to seek shelter in the United States. According to Price (2005), Iranians in America jumped from 6,000 in 1965 to 620,000 in 2002 while taking into account that “they estimated that 40 percent of the Iranians in the United States had not registered with the Iranian government agencies” (p. 337).
In general, Iranians seem to be adapting to American culture quite well. About 84 percent of Iranians speak English and are employed. The average annual income is around $55,000, and 92 percent have private homes. The majority of Iranians live in California, mainly Los Angeles. Upholding the ancient culture and language has proved to be a major issue and widespread efforts are being made to maintain and preserve the Iranian culture. Despite the efforts however, a loss of the Iranian culture has already started with a majority of Iranians in the U.S. being modernized and secular. Although all of the Iranian festivals are celebrated extensively and elaborately here in the U.S., the Muslim festivals are barely mentioned. Not all Iranians are Muslim, but many of those who were over in Iran have started to lose that aspect of their life in an attempt to become Americanized (Iran-History, 2002).
Culture and Traditions
Iran has many interesting traditions. One is that they celebrate the New Year on March 21, the Spring Equinox, by leaping over a fire while reciting a religious verse (Persian Journal, 2005). Another is the cultural fixation on child bearing. Child bearing is extremely important-women who do not bear children are looked down upon and can even be divorced (Culture of Iran, 2005).
Probably the most controversial Iranian tradition, from an American point of view, is the legal discrimination against women. Women must cover all areas of their body except their hands, toes, and face. They must do this in the presence of all men, except their husbands. Female travelers must carry papers stating their relationship with the opposite sex, as law enforcement can stop and question them. Women have gained some freedom in regard to marriage. In the past, fathers arranged the marriages for their daughters, but now marriage, due to European influence on Iran, has come to be a decision agreed upon by two adults (Culture of Iran, 2005).
Another interesting item is that the Iranian calendar corresponds to the Prophet Mohammed’s flight to Mecca in 622 A.D. The current era, as far as Iran is concerned, did not begin until that year and currently in Iran it is the year 1383.
There are two main religions practiced in Iran: Shi’a Islam and Sunni Islam. Shi’a Islam is practiced by 89% of the people; Sunni Islam is practiced by 9%, and a small amount-2% of the people-practice various other religious beliefs that are either Jewish, Christian, Zoroastrian, or Baha’i (GlobalSecurity.org n.d.).
Since most people in Iran follow Shi’a Islam, they use Shi’a principals in their daily life. Some of the principals of this religion are: belief in divided unity, prophecy, resurrection, and divine justice. They don’t believe in predestination. They accept the teachings of the “Mu’tazilities”, who are a group of Sunni scholars. This group of scholars believes that God can not be responsible for evil, and therefore humans must have free will and be independent of God’s authority in this life. They believe the individual is responsible for their own acts which are judged by a just God (GlobalSecurity.org n.d.).
When the Shi’as pray they place their forehead onto a piece of hardened clay. They also combine prayers, and worship up to three times a day (GlobalSecurity.org n.d.). Iran also has a dual power structure, with both a supreme political leader-the President-and a supreme religious leader-the Ayatollah (The Economist, 2005).
Serving this Population
Social workers should be thinking about serving this population because the population of Iranians in the United States has dramatically increased in the last generation. Also, with recent events regarding terrorism and the Middle East, Iranians tend to be viewed in a more negative light by Americans, and are thus a current at risk population. Working with Iranians in America may be challenging, but as long as one can hold respect for some of the different Iranian cultural values, service should not be overly difficult. As Shanaz Shakibaian stated in her interview, she “figured that only 10% are religious” and “things aren’t as cultural as American TV shows they are over in Iran.” She also said that “Iranian culture is really honest and straightforward,” so as social workers, we should be able to use that honesty to our advantage, which will help us serve this population more effectively (Shanaz Shakibaian, personal interview, October 15, 2005).
Overall, most of the Iranians in the U.S. are highly educated, have homes, and earn an average income of $55,000. For the most part, they have adapted to United States culture. An interview with Edward Morris, himself part Iranian, confirmed the secular view of many Iranians. In the interview, he stated that he practices Judaism, but that he does not have that much dedication to his religion. He stated that he is more concerned with “philosophy and physics…and the effects of actions on others” rather than religion itself. He was also never educated about his Iranian heritage and said that the only thing he knows about Iranian culture is “what’s on TV” (Edward Morris, personal interview, November 14, 2005).
Social workers should be aware the Iranian culture does not hold a high regard upon freedom like America does. Social workers will be able to work with Iranians more effectively if they understand and respect these different cultural attitudes.
However, respect for the individual still needs to be kept in mind, but since most Iranians in the U.S. are adapted to its culture, many potential barriers to communication are already avoided.
Areas for Further Research
If you would like to learn more about Iranians, the best place to go would be the internet. There is a mass of information available at sites such as www.cultureofiran.com and www.iranian.ws. Another good resource is the non fiction children’s books, which can be found in the university library.
Culture of Iran. Retrieved November 3, 2005, from http://www.cultureofiran.com
GlobalSecurity.org – Reliable Security Information. Alexandria, VA. Retrieved November 1, 2005, from http://www.globalsecurity.org/
Iran-History on Encyclopedia.com 2002. Retrieved October 28, 2005 from http://www.encyclopedia.com/html/section/iran_history.asp
Persian Journal Latest Iran News and Iranian Newspaper. Retrieved November 8, 2005, from http://www.iranian.ws/cgi-bin/iran_news/exec/view.cgi/2/1777
Price, M. (2005). Iran’s Diverse Peoples: A Reference Sourcebook (Ethnic Diversity Within Nations). Santa-Barbara: ABC-CLIO.
The Economist Intelligence Unit Limited. 2005. Politics: Political Background. Country Profile: Iran, 4-5. Retrieved November 25, 2005, from http://sfx.wisconsin.edu/uwc/a-z/default
The Economist Intelligence Unit Limited. 2002. Basic Data. Country Profile: Iran, 4. Retrieved November 25, 2005, from http://sfx.wisconsin.edu/uwc/a-z/default