Iranwire – I was born into a Zoroastrian family and, as I was growing up, when romance novels by Fahimeh Rahimi and Danielle Steel were circulating in Iranian high schools, I also knew that Zoroastrians like me were forbidden by our families from marrying Muslims. Relationships for us Zoroastrians would have to occur in a smaller circle because Muslims have traditionally seen us as “fire-worshippers” and “infidels” – and so we also had to suffer in love.
The idea of a Zoroastrian marrying a Muslim in Iran was, until just a few years ago, met with deep hostility by Muslim families. Many couples were left heartbroken. But while broken hearts are unfortunate, they are only part of the tragedy; in Iran, where the government of the Islamic Republic inserts itself into even the most private parts of an individual’s life, differences in religion have prevented freedom of choice for many years.
In Iran, under the Islamic Republic, and regardless of an individual’s beliefs, if a non-Muslim wants to marry a Muslim then he must pay a large price by changing his religion and converting to Islam. And conversely, under Iranian law, if a Muslim citizen wants to convert to the religion of his partner at the time of marriage, shedding his blood becomes permissible.
The only choice at the beginning of a romantic journey, therefore, is for the person who is not Muslim to sacrifice their beliefs and become a Muslim. Few countries around the world have such requirements – it is somewhere between a romantic comedy and a tragedy.
I was in middle school when the news hit us – like a rocket attack without an air raid siren. Parinaz, my sister’s classmate, a Zoroastrian girl from Anoushirvan Dadgar High School, had married her Muslim boyfriend. My grandmother used to say that the girl was drugged. Others said the man who married Parinaz was a member of the Revolutionary Guards and forced her into the marriage. And many believed the news would upset the groom’s mother.
Everyone agreed on one thing, an unbreakable rule, that Parinaz would no longer be able to see her family or go to her father’s house; her family would reject her.
I never heard from her again – but her nightmare always stayed with me. I do not know if Parinaz ever managed to see her family or if she had a happy marriage. But either way, her story lingered in a void, and the wind took her away from us.
Stories like Parinaz’s recurred many times in later years.
My high school friend Faranak, a Zoroastrian, fell in love with a Muslim boy named Majid. They wanted to get married a few years later, when students, but Faranak’s family opposed the marriage. Faranak’s mother had said that, if she married Majid, she would have to forget seeing her family forever. Faranak’s despair over the situation caused her to swallow a handful of pills one summer evening. Her family took her to Loghman Hospital, where her stomach was pumped; before the end of the year, she had married a Zoroastrian boy.
Cyrus Nicknam, a former Zoroastrian cleric and representative in Iran’s parliament, says the Zoroastrian community’s opposition to marriages Muslims is “reminiscent of a person who has had a bad experience [of marriage] and wants to avoid marrying again.”
Niknam adds that cultural differences between Zoroastrians and followers of other religions can also make a marriage difficult.
“We have suffered blows from other Iranians, especially from the Safavid and Qajar times to the present day,” Nickname says. “The prevailing view has been that we were considered infidels and impure. When they married a man or a woman, they thought it was a reward to convert an infidel to Islam. This is the view that frightens us. This view has led us to avoid marriage and close contact with Muslims.”
“We coexist peacefully with Muslims,” Niknam adds. “But we rarely see a Zoroastrian family who wants to connect their child to another religion.”
Katayoun Shahrokhi, 62, a resident of Tehran, tells IranWire that when she went to London to study at a young age, she met a Muslim boy, fell in love and decided to get married. Katayoun then returned to Yazd and told her family of her intentions. Her mother said she would die of grief if her daughter married a Muslim. Her father said she would never be allowed to return to the family home. Katayoun was later forced to marry her father’s Zoroastrian son-in-law. The couple divorced, after producing two children, four years later.
Katayoun now says that, if she had married the Muslim boy, she does not know whether her mother would truly have died of grief. “I still don’t know know if she said those words to scare me, or if it was really so hard to see me marry a Muslim .and that she would suffer so much that she would die. But I could not do it for fear that I would in fact kill my mother.”
“My family, especially my grandmother, was strongly opposed to me marrying someone of a different religion,” said Farzaneh Misteri, a Zoroastrian who now lives in Nevada, US, with her American husband and eight-year-old son. “My grandmother used to tell me that if you [marry someone from another religion] then you should no longer even mention my name. My mother used to say that, after marriage, they [her Muslim in-laws] might force you to wear a veil or a headscarf at home, or they would not let you see us. This is why I did not get married while I was in Iran. Years later, I came to America and married an American man, and apparently my family is now happy.”
Asked whether Zoroastrian scripture has prohibited believers from marrying non-believers, Cyrus Niknam says: “We have no religious writings prohibiting marriage with non-Zoroastrians. In all his writings, Zarathustra has invited people to follow wisdom. The school of Zoroaster is truth and wisdom. What emerges from Zoroaster’s vision is that, if the world is based on truth, life will be fine. But he did not talk about parts of life such as marriage. We have no writings in which he says which religions the Zoroastrians should marry.”
Irandokht Varahram, the mother of two Zoroastrian girls in Tehran, used to tell an old story to her daughters whenever there was talk of marrying a non-Zoroastrian.
“Your father’s cousin was punished when he was a teenager because he accidentally ran across the farm land of a Muslim. How can I give a daughter to these people? They call us impure and infidels. Let us remain infidels and impure for ourselves. It is better for them to marry so-called clean people like themselves,” Varahram would say to her daughters.
The idea of marriage with a non-Zoroastrian was therefore never repeated in their house. All the passing love stories with Muslims came and went in silence. Varahram’s daughters knew she would never change her mind.
“All these years, they have preserved the legacy of the Zoroastrian religion. Now, if you marry a non-Zoroastrian, the Zoroastrian population will decrease by one person; if this continues, there will be no one left in the world who can be called Zoroastrians,” Varahram continued.
But if we believe in the natural law, that everything is changing, we see that many things have changed in Iran over the past 10 years. Families of Zoroastrian backgrounds are no longer so strict about marrying non-Zoroastrians. And while they may not be proud of intermarriages they prefer to remain silent for the happiness of their children.
This may be one of the main reasons that large numbers of Zoroastrians have left Iran and that that fewer and fewer are left. And society’s general view of religious minorities has changed over the past decade. We hear words like “heretic,” “infidel” and “impure” far less these days. A few may secretly hold these views about religious minorities but they do not dare to express them, as they did in the past, because they know that much of society will reject their views. The walls have started to fall.
And in the past decade even some Zoroastrian priests have performed the rite of marriage contract for non-Zoroastrians.
“Some priests may now perform the marriage rite for boys and girls, one of whom may not be Zoroastrian or both of whom are not Zoroastrian,” said the priest, Cyrus Niknam. “This is an ancient marriage ceremony in the Persian language. Some now tend to have a marriage contract in Persian. But these ceremonies cannot be registered with the marriage registrar.”
Varahram’s nephew is now married to a Muslim girl. “Everything has changed in Iran,” she says. “She is a good girl … She eats our food, lives with us, and the respect both parties families.”
Varahram’s words are a quiet revolution – one that is the result of a gradual change in society’s view of religious minorities and the Zoroastrians’ attempt to reconcile and forget hundreds of years of wounds, suffering and discrimination.