Thursday, December 10, 1998

COLUMN ONE

New Lives for Women From Iran

Many are quick to seize opportunity in 'Irangeles,' the immigrant community's name for L.A. But often their husbands vehemently oppose college and careers.

By ANNE-MARIE O'CONNOR, Times Staff Writer


Morgan Hakimi's betrothal was so faithful to tradition she could have been back in Iran. She had never had a boyfriend--or even a date--when she met Bruce, the fellow Iranian emigre her father wanted her to marry in Los Angeles in 1980. She was 16.

But when the last glass of wine at their wedding was empty, this "Irangeles" couple unveiled a new tradition that startled their patriarchal community. She went to college while he pitched in at home. Some friends thought he was crazy. Others avoided them.

Meanwhile, the fiance of "Nili" wanted the opposite--an unreformed housewife--when he flew back to fundamentalist Iran for his second arranged marriage four years ago. His first imported Iranian wife had grown too Americanized, he said, neglecting him and the kids. He had pictures of his ex-wife in a bikini near strange men at a pool, showing the cheap woman she had become under the decadent California sun.

When Nili (a pseudonym) got to Los Angeles, he ordered her to stay in his apartment and refused to let her learn English for an entire year. When she questioned his tyranny, he quoted religious doctrine calling for women to "submit" to their husbands. Then she discovered 911.

For many immigrants to America, one of the first things to be challenged is the role assigned to women. The issue cuts across cultures, from Vietnamese families who expect their American-born girls to dress and speak more modestly than their mainstream peers, to Latino fathers who vow that their college-bound daughters willleave home only after marriage.

And since the days when Irish maids were tagged "Brigids," it has been fueled by the economic imperatives that push immigrant women into one of America's defining arenas--the workplace.

"Immigrant women assimilate into the work patterns of U.S.-born women relatively quickly once they come here," said James Smith, an immigration expert at Rand, a Santa Monica think tank. "If they come from countries in which women's work was not that common, it makes for more pronounced change."

Few immigrants have endured the pressures of rapid change as keenly as the Iranians who came to Los Angeles after the Ayatollah Khomeini rose to power in 1979. "Irangeles" is now the largest such community in the Western World, and for women, the most liberal. An estimated 600,000 Iranians live in Southern California.

In the 10 years to 1990, the employment rate of Iranian women in Los Angeles took a huge leap, from 27% to 48%, "suggesting that some Iranian women no longer subscribe to their traditional role as housewives," according to the sociologist authors of the 1996 book "Ethnic Los Angeles." Female employment was 15% in Iran in 1990.

"In Iran, women were restricted by religious codes and the men in their family," said Kazem Alamdari, a Cal State L.A. sociology professor who came from Iran 22 years ago. "Here, the women found... equal opportunities and values that reduced the men's privileges."

To many, the sudden reshuffling was a shock. Divorces rose, with 66% reportedly initiated by women.

Alamdari recalls a woman whose husband tried to physically restrain her from taking her first computer programming job. They divorced. One Iranian man shot his wife in the head in 1989 for defying his orders not to wear pants or leave the house. His trial focused on how wives are expected to be more obedient in Iran, and he was convicted of assault with a deadly weapon instead of attempted murder.

David Ross, an immigration attorney, said one Iranian client offered him $20,000 to get his wife deported "because he just could not deal with her empowerment." A flood of Iranian women came in for help with spousal abuse. "Once Iranian women come to the United States, they learn their rights very quickly," said Ross, who is married to a prominent Iranian-born gastroenterologist.

Wide Range of Professions

Today, Los Angeles is home to Iranian women hospital specialists, university professors and businesswomen. Some say their meteoric success is partly due to the fact that Iranian men had the highest education level of any Middle Eastern immigrants. Though the gap between college-educated Iranian male and female emigres was 65% to 34% in 1990, U.S. values quickly spurred Iranian girls to aim just as high.

And while immigrants often lament the erosion of their culture, there is now an entire generation of successful Iranian women like Morgan Hakimi, who advocates creating a new identity for Persian women and girls. "Persian women were ready for the opportunities offered to them in the United States, and they grabbed them," said Hakimi, who is Jewish. "All the seeds came to America, and in the sunshine of California, they blossomed. Persian women are about a generation behind American women, but we're on the same path."

"We need to bring this to the surface and deal with it," said Cal State Long Beach administrator Elahe Amani, co-chair of the Coalition of Women From Asia and the Middle East, a grass-roots referral and public awareness organization.

The group is part of a growing network that has created shelters, counseling services and legal assistance for immigrant women. Specialists train police to help abused women who are isolated by language and the loss of the family and friends they left behind. They encourage women to seek help for domestic violence and other problems that were tolerated as "private" family matters in their home countries--just as they once were in the United States.

"Women began to work and loved it, and began a power shift in the house," said Homa Mahmoudi, who was chief psychologist at Cedars- Sinai Medical Center for 16 years until May. Mahmoudi, who is a Bahai, is one of the most prominent Iranian "cross-cultural" therapists. "The men felt like, 'This is not my wife. She is too independent and I don't recognize her.' It became very threatening," she said.

For some Iranian immigrant women, achievement came "at a price to their sanity," Mahmoudi said. "They were always torn between their education and the voice of their mothers: 'If you become too educated, no one will want you.' That is still a major source of tension."

For lawyer Dallas Setareh, 28, a Jewish Iranian, it was "a struggle" to get her family's approval to go away to college at UC San Diego. She was constantly told that "women are like roses--once the flower's completely opened it starts to wilt, and the time to get married is when it's budding, meaning sometime between puberty and your early 20s," she said.

"I was lucky," Setareh said. "I married a man who did not expect me to stay home after marriage. Many Iranian men expect that."


Alternatives to Dowries

Today, the mosaic of attitudes has broadened so much that if a groom expects a dowry and the bride's family cannot afford it--they can run as high as $100,000--it is possible to argue that the bride is so well-educated she could earn more than a million dollars in her lifetime, Mahmoudi said. More conservative Iranian men are willing to go all the way to Iran to find traditional stay-at-home wives, Mahmoudi said.

"They think a woman who has been exposed to Western culture is too independent," Mahmoudi said. "They think women in Los Angeles have become too selfish, that they are not as loving and sacrificing and giving. That a woman from Iran will be more obedient.

"Many of them are in for a rude awakening," she said. "The minute [the women] come to the United States and see the opportunities, everything changes."

One marriage founded on that mutual misunderstanding involved a Sacramento-based Iranian immigrant. The man was surprised when, after a few years, his wife enrolled in medical school and then moved to Los Angeles--taking their toddler--for the duration of her medical residency. He stayed behind. "He said, 'This not what I had expected. I wanted a wife who is not career-oriented.' I told him it's better than having an unhappy wife at home. Look at it as an investment," Mahmoudi said.

Max Mahdieh, 42, a prominent Westwood businessman from Iran, said a lot of his friends have arranged marriages to women in Iran in the past five years. He said the men are driven by the abundance of young women in postwar Iran and the shortage of Iranian women in Los Angeles. In some age groups, there are two men for each woman. About half of his friends got divorced.

"You bring a woman here and at first it's like helping a blind person to see," Mahdieh said. "Then, all of a sudden, the women see the opportunities, and they want the freedom, and they get out." Mahdieh, a Muslim from a village so conservative that the Ayatollah Khomeini was once the town religious leader, has ruled out finding a bride back in his hometown.

"I don't think I can go back to that," he said. "I'm on another frequency now." America changed his ex-wife too. Raised in a very conservative Iranian family, she became very ambitious here, he said. Today, she is a bank president.

Mahdieh says he admires Iranian feminists, but worries that "in the next millennium, men are going to have a lot of problems with women. I don't blame them for wanting equality, but they have to know where to draw the line. It's ruining the family."


Living in Two Worlds

The Hakimis opted to remake the family--in their own image --when they met in 1980. Morgan's family left Iran two years earlier, but her father was raising her as if they were still there. She was caught between the permissive world of U.S. dating and a society that places such a premium on female purity that some who "make mistakes" seek reconstructive surgery prior to marriage. Many parents still oppose their daughters going away to college in another city because living alone could stigmatize them.

"I had a great desire to become Americanized, but I knew my family would never accept that. I didn't even think of having a boyfriend or going away to college," Morgan said.

Bruce Hakimi, who was a PhD student 11 years her senior, said he fell in love the moment he laid eyes on Morgan. He won her heart the day she confessed her dreams, lamenting that "marriage will end 90% of them." Not if you marry the right person, he shot back. From then on, they were co-conspirators.

"He was so different from the Persian men I knew," she said. "In my culture, it's so rare to have a male partner who can see you as a person first." As soon as they married, she began college. When the first of their two sons were born, they hired a nanny and Bruce helped baby-sit at night and on weekends. Morgan got a master's degree in psychology and began a busy schedule of research and teaching. So when preschool gave their son separation anxiety, it was Bruce who attended with the little boy each morning for a month.

The other Iranian men they knew had stay-at-home wives. Some disapproved so much they began to distance themselves from the Hakimis, "probably because they were afraid their wives would want the same treatment," Bruce said, smiling.

Today, the couple lives in Bel-Air, and they socialize with many Iranian American couples whose marriages are just as egalitarian. Bruce, 45, is president of Cybernet, a telecommunications firm. Morgan, 33, helps run the family textile business. And she has become an apostle of change, lecturing at schools and community groups on the importance of shedding attitudes that give boys broad latitude and limit girls.

Iranian American teenagers say their adolescence is still a world apart from their U.S. peers. U.S.-born Michelle Levian, 16, an Iranian American junior at a Bel-Air private school, said it bugs her that her male relatives can date at 15 while she can't even think of going out with a boy alone. Some of her female friends can't even talk to boys on the phone or sleep over at another girl's house. Levian is dying to go to college out of state, as her male cousins have. Her family says, "Do not even think about it," she said.

Last year, she stood up at a community meeting and announced: "I really don't think it's fair that women are not treated as equally as men when they're teenagers."

She remembers that "people said, 'Wow, you really had guts to say that in front of the whole Persian community.'" On the other hand, Levian's parents are eager for her to go to college--while living at home-- and have a career.

Arax Saxon, 42, a divorced Westwood massage therapist who is an Iranian Christian, said there is a reason why no one ever hears about any women going back to Iran to marry and live. "If you're a Persian woman back home, you'd marry the devil himself if he got you out of [Iran]," she said. "Once they're here, it's like when Columbus sank the Santa Maria. It's do or die. Women have to make it. What do they have to go back to? Men would survive back there, women would not."

Nili loved Iran, but she found her country's strict laws controlling women--reimposed after the revolution--a cruel and capricious torment. It depressed her to see pictures in the newspaper of adulterous wives being stoned. Her working-class family married her at 16 to a man she had glimpsed briefly from behind a veil. When she bore no children, he took a second young bride. Eventually, he told Nili he could not afford two wives, and he divorced her--knowing full well he was condemning her, at 28, to live in a stigmatized social limbo. Divorce is "a terrifying nightmare for most women in Iran," writes Iranian-born Cal State Northridge professor Nayereh Tohidi in the anthology "Irangeles."

Taboos encircled Nili like an electric fence. When she went back to school, she was forced to walk about without a chaperon, and her neighbors gossiped that she was really going to meet men. Such talk is no small matter in a country where unmarried daughters who become pregnant--or anyone reputed to be a "loose woman"--are sometimes executed by relatives in "honor killings." So when the Los Angeles Iranian came looking for a wife, her brother, a conservative Muslim army officer, told her it would be best if she married him.


Marriage Soon Unraveled

Her new husband promised she could go to school in America, but once she got to the United States, he made it clear she was there to cook and clean and take care of two children from his previous wife. He didn't introduce her to anyone. He began to disappear for days to the house of a girlfriend, and when she protested, he quoted religious scripture on the proper role of women. And, she said, he began to physically abuse her. "I told him, 'Where in the Koran does it say you can abuse me all day long?' " Nili said.

Without fathers or brothers to speak up for them, unable to speak English, drive or get a job, such women often are worse off than if they had stayed at home, said Elahe Amani, the co-chair of the women's coalition. Eventually, Nili's husband moved in with his girlfriend, taking his children. Nili moved in with her brother-in-law, but her husband kept showing up to rage against her. And her brother-in-law told her something that chilled her blood: Her husband had taken photos of her as she bathed and dressed that he could use to defame her back in Iran.

Men who refuse to file for their wives' immigration papers can use the legal limbo to exact obedience. The threat to have the women deported is more intimidating if the husbands have such photos. One woman went back to Iran with her husband, not knowing he had sent such photos home, and was given a public beating by a religious committee when she stepped off the plane, said Daliah Setareh, now a lawyer in the East Community Office of the Legal Aid Foundation. Setareh is helping Nili legalize her immigration status under the 1994 federal Violence Against Women Act. Today, Nili, 32, works in a store and is finally learning English. She keeps her story to herself.

"If this ever came out at her work, she would be ostracized," Setareh said. "Domestic violence is still a hush-hush issue in the Middle East. Women who come forward and speak out against their husbands are seen as violating the sanctity of the family. That's why many would rather suffer in silence at home."


Times researchers Scott Wilson, Peter Johnson, Julia Franco, William Holmes, Robin Mayper and Steve Tice contributed to this story.


©Copyright 1998, Los Angeles Times.

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