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.


Country Roads, Take Me Home

Something quite unexpected has happened to my musical taste. I’ve gone country.

Not cheesy Garth Brooks country, but deep-down throaty, hard-livin’ Lucinda Williams country. Just the name of her recent album, “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” makes me feel like I’m part of a twangy sisterhood of wise, world-weary women hitching down the road of life, acoustic guitar in one hand, poignant lyrics about heartbreak in the other.

It’s been three months or so since I divorced all other forms of music. I’m now a little bit country, a little bit more country. I can’t explain this jarring change in the soundtrack of my life; I can only tell you that it accompanies a powerful and omnipresent fantasy of myself.

In the fantasy, I work as a waitress at a truck stop diner somewhere in central New Mexico. I live alone, just me and a temperamental horse named Suicide. I have an on-again, off-again relationship with a rodeo star, but he’s usually on the road. He’s not the sharpest spur in the boot, but he has dimples and cooks me big steaks when he’s in town.

After my night shifts at the diner pouring bad coffee, I return home to pen my memoirs on an old typewriter I bought at a pawn shop. At the local saloon, the bartender calls me “Sweet Cheeks” and asks if I’d like my usual.

Or, as the Dixie Chicks put it, “Cowboy, take me away!”

The only problem is, I’m a city-dwelling Jew who drives a Ford Taurus. And I’m a vegetarian to boot.

I’ve never been to Louisiana or Alabama. None of my relatives makes moonshine. I don’t know one person named Tex. I don’t hitchhike, because it always seems like a good way to end up in a ravine wrapped in duct tape. Wide open spaces inspire in me an acute sense of agoraphobia. Still, somewhere inside, there’s a cowgirl waiting to get out.

I’ve often heard cross-dressers and transvestites claim that the first time they put on a dress, they felt as if they were home. That’s how I felt when I bought my first cowboy hat (from Fred Segal, but what’s a city girl to do?). It’s a big old straw number that allows me to squint up at strangers with a knowing expression, very Clint Eastwood, very “Make my day.”

I don’t know what it is about this music that makes my day, I just know that the first time I heard the Lucinda Williams song “Can’t Let Go,” I went out and bought the album, smitten. Shelby Lynne and Emmylou Harris albums followed. It was over.

That song is no Lilith Fair-style ballad. It’s hard-driving and self-knowing, and it’s not pretty. Here are some lyrics:

I got a big chain around my neck
I’m broken down like a train wreck
Well, it’s over – I know it – but I can’t let go.

It speaks to me, what can I say? A teacher once told me you have to be over 40 to truly appreciate Chekhov. Maybe you have to have endured some requisite number of heartbreaks to be moved by country music. Maybe it’s just that the music is rugged and individual, the narrators survivors who weather loss and go forward wizened but wiser. Maybe these are the qualities I wish I had.

Everyone has his or her “cry” song, that song you play over and over when you just need a cathartic breakdown because you got dumped or fired or both on the same day, which has happened to me, believe it or not. If misery loves company, it reveres country music. If you think you have it bad, one of these women has had it worse. That could be the appeal, although it’s not just the sad songs I love, it’s the whole world, vast prairie fields from my own.

The world of country music is totally free of mutual funds, PIN codes, DMV renewal slips, cable bills, stupid frozen coffee drinks and guys who put too much gel in their hair. Life may be hard, but it’s simple, like a great poem is simple.

I’m too scared to leave my life for that diner in New Mexico just yet. For now, I’ll just ask my country music to take me away. And it may seem a little silly on account of her dual air bags and all, but I just might start calling my Ford Taurus Suicide. It’s a start.