June 02, 2009

Parsi by Patriarchy

I CAN SAFELY—and with some amount of pride— say that I belong to one of India’s most emancipated and socio-economically advanced communities. As a Parsi, especially one born and bred in South Bombay (most Indian Parsis live in Bombay, and most Bombay Parsis live in its southern areas), it is near guaranteed that I will receive at least a college education, be expected to have a career, marry if and when I wish, and choose whether or not to have children. These, and the many other liberties the women of my community take as a matter of course, are but a distant dream for millions of our countrywomen. We have the advantages of a vast network of philanthropic wealth and prime property holdings via a historical edge in the city of Bombay. Usually free to choose their destinies, plenty of Parsi women stay single or divorce their spouses without having to bear the brunt of crippling social stigma. But you knew there was a ‘but’ coming up somewhere, didn’t you?

If JRD Tata, Zubin Mehta or the boy who lives down my lane chooses to enter into matrimony with a woman not Zoroastrian* by birth, a Parsi priest will bless his wedding, his children will be accepted as members of the faith, and he can continue to stroll into fire temples and partake of every ceremony he has witnessed since birth. If Mehr Jesia, Pheroza Godrej or I choose to enter into matrimony with a man not Zoroastrian by birth (and there is no other kind, as far as the community’s beliefs are concerned), Parsi priests are debarred from performing our nuptial ceremonies, our children aren’t considered part of the community or religion, and we can never visit a fire temple or participate in religious rituals again.

If we attempt differently, the uproar would make the Taliban seem like pussycats. Our otherwise charitable-to-a-fault community strips us of our religion, ethnic identity and ostracizes us socially, choosing to explain away this acute discrimination through one of the following:

1. The social argument: patriarchy prevails, therefore the man’s bloodline is carried forth.

2. The religious argument: our religion says so, because the man provides the crucial seed.

3. The legal argument: the Davar-Beaman judgement of 1908, frequently cited as the what-can-we-do shoulder shrug, even as one admits it’s so unfair.

In the recent case of Farzin Batlivala, the child who died of starvation, the community swooped in and made amends once the father was proven to be Parsi/Zoroastrian. Had the mother been the Parsi parent, what then? These laws are written into the workings of the myriad charitable trusts that support the community’s own. Except, its own must necessarily have a Zoroastrian father. Mothers are of no consequence because ‘parjaat’ (the community’s colloquial term for non-Zoroastrian) fathers dilute ethnic identity and pollute the gene pool. (All you non-Zoroastrian men, I’d be hugely offended if I were you!)

It is particularly tragic because socio-cultural teachings are still predominantly imparted by the female parent. So we grow up seeing children of mixed marriages with non-Zoroastrian mothers labeled “certified” Zoroastrians, initiated into a religion they have minimal information about, and yet others who pray in rapid-fire Avestan and cook a mean dhansak, only to hang around the community’s periphery, unable to enter because their Zoroastrian parent is female.

For all our freedoms and liberal upbringing, we are rejected on the basis of our gender when we make this most personal and fundamental decision. For all its veneer of sophistication, my community presents me with only a Hobson’s choice. And patriarchy, alive and kicking, aims another blow at my savagely foaming mouth.

*The terms ‘Parsi’ and ‘Zoroastrian’ have been used interchangeably, as is common usage among the community. A large majority of Parsis do not differentiate between their religion and ethnic identity and view them as one and the same. Zoroastrian Iranis do, however, also come under the Zoroastrian umbrella in India and are granted the same rights and privileges as Parsis.

29 comments to Parsi by Patriarchy

  • Thanks for this article Dilnawaz. I have long been an admirer of the Parsi community, culture and cuisine, and I have also observed this practice. But I think, the situation has in some cases at least become lighter. In 1990-91 a Parsi colleague and friend of mine married a Bengali and she told me that while she was allowed to go to the Fire Temple, she knew that her son would not. At least she could go. Knowing her, I know that she would certainly have inculcated Parsi culture and values in her child, without shutting out the Bengali side. Maybe Parsi mothers could influence their sons to change.

  • i can only imagine how frustrating and maddening that is babe. and the Farzin story is horrific. And you know – its probably more clearly defined by the Parsi community but in most ethnic groups, its the father’s community that counts.

    on the other hand for Arjun Rampal – I’d be willing to risk alot 😉

  • Rukumani Chandrasekar

    Very well put Dil, but, the question which always come to my mind is ‘ So, what now?’. Every community has it’s discrimination against women. It’s up to us to change things around. For me, the concept of a ‘community’ doesn’t make sense. It’s wrong. It’s this community which puts us behind bars, which takes away our freedom of choice, which makes us docile and sheep-like. F*@#$ the community I say. We make this community stronger by giving it importance. I’ve walked away from mine. I chose not to take what they offer. How & what are you going to do?

  • Rukumani Chandrasekar

    BTW, I love the way you write and the topics you touch on (as you can see from my strong reaction!). Keep up the good work.

  • Every religion discriminates against women. I agree with Rukumani Chandrasekar, women should reject the community until the discrimination stops.

  • Krishna

    How can one call a community progressive when the religion they believe in discriminates against women. in this day and age, if we let religion/belief system run our lives, then humanity is going backwards not forward..
    revolution within oneself is the need of the hour!

  • My best friend is a Parsi by birth, but she fell in love and married a ‘Par-Jaat’. She and her parents were the object of humiliation in the community. Her parents had to write a letter of apology to the Parsi Panchayat. When her mother died, you can very well guess what must have happened? she was refused the right to be daughter. She could not attend the funeral and the prayers, light a ‘divo’ for her mother. Her sister whom she practically raised since as a child, did not talk to her at all. Why? only because she married the man she loved.
    She was not invited to ‘Navjot’s, birthdays and other functions.She was made a paraiah. I know how much it hurt her. Not being able to see her mother’s face for the last time, or touch her feet for the last time. All the cousins, relatives, the mammas and the pappas who adored her earlier, later treated her like a stranger after her marriage. She no longer was allowed to wear her ‘kasti-sadra’. I was not allowed to talk about her, like she never existed.

    Me being a non parsi was invited to all the Varas’s and the navjot’s and jasan’s, but not her.

    She got divorced a month back. And now she has become a ‘full’ Parsi again. Got ‘Navjot’ done. Wears her ‘kasti-sadra’, goes to the ‘agyaari’. And is very grateful that her father and her ‘dastur’ relatives have ‘taken her back’.

    If this is not hypocrisy then what is? If this is not two facedness then what is?

    Parsis are the most lovable and funny and progressive people I’ve met. And I love them to bits.But biased to the core.

    Sorry for the rant and the long comment. Memories just flooded back.

  • It is indeed true that every religion discriminates against women. All rituals are designed to subjugate, exclude or extract work from women. As a Tamilian I have witnessed it from childhood and rebelled against it. Small changes have happened. But it is not nearly enough. Patriarchy is relentless for women of the twice born.

  • I agree with Rukumani Chandrasekar’s comment. But there is another aspect here. Is it possible for an outsider to convert to Zoroastrianism? If so, that should solve most problems. But if not, then Zoroastrianism is a race, not a religion, and what you describe is a particularly vile form of the “racial purity” idea that was rightly abhorred when practiced by Caucasians.

    I think some of the issues are similar to what Jews struggle with, but the Jews are a little more advanced in their answers. See this article for example.

  • krishna

    Marriage should be out of love and not decided by religion, caste, society pressures. then it becomes a convenience affair…

    i like your story childwoman.. if your friend married a non parsi boy in the future, she would be excommunicated again?

    are the “dasturs” known for being hardcore religious?

  • @Krishna – I agree with you 100% and I would hardly call it a story. I usually refer it to as a big twisted cosmic joke played on my friend. A priest is called a ‘dastur’ in the Parsi language (which is more or less gujarati) so yeah, they are hardcore religious, like most of the priests are.

  • @rahul – I really doubt if an outsider can be converted to Zoroashtrianism. And I think that they dont want to disturb the racial purity. But if that is the case, then I dont think they have been able to sustain the ‘purity’ because the parsi boys are allowed to get married to non parsis and have kids. So basically, the offspring is a mixed blood. And I’ve noticed that some religious rules are made to fit certain situations..

  • Dilnavaz Bamboat

    Rhumjhum Biswas: Was this outside Bombay? I’m guessing that is the case, because the community outside the city is way less insular and certainly more tolerant/open, whichever way one chooses to look at it.

    the mad momma: For The Rampal, oh definitely! 😉 You’re right there — in matters of name and lineage, our social structure insists on making only the father count.

    Rukumani Chandrasekar: I understand your sentiment, but it’s really not all black or white. Communities aren’t only prisons and provide those who want one with a sense of belonging, material assistance (this is huge among the Parsis) and protection in a myriad ways. Some people get their sense of family and identity from their ethnic group. I state this from observation and not personal experience. As for me, I’ll cross that bridge if and when I come to it but will continue to voice concerns about this unfair situation, regardless of the community I marry into.

    Indian Homemaker: I would agree, except much needs to be done in terms of empowering women prior to them walking out on their community.

    Krishna: It’s always a spectrum, Krishna. Even emancipation is relative.

    Childwoman: Whoa, that sounds extreme but totally believable. I’m curious, orthodox Parsis permitted you to be part of a Jashan?

    Deepa: I don’t know if it’s purely religious or there are huge doses of social discrimination involved.

    Rahul: I have mentioned this in the footnote and am pasting it again for your benefit: A large majority of Parsis do not differentiate between their religion and ethnic identity and view them as one and the same.

  • evolving_everyday

    while i acknowledge that the parsi community (considering its miniscule size) has outshone its counterparts in terms of philanthropy; there is a deep seated orthodoxy.

    is it due to the minority-syndorme; trying to protect its ‘purity’ – i don’t know. but this is very subtle. this deep attitude of us & them while all the while trying and often succeeding in portraying an image of acceptance.

    i should know. i am a ‘non-zorastrian’married to a parsi man, and i have experienced situations first-hand where the veneer of being accepted is stripped off and i face the raw exclusion.

    one of my mother-in-law’s common sentences would begin with “Aapra ma …” meaning “among us…” referring to among the parsi community.

    i must add though, that i have met a few parsis who are exceptions

  • “Mothers are of no consequence because ‘parjaat’ (the community’s colloquial term for non-Zoroastrian) fathers dilute ethnic identity and pollute the gene pool.”

    Should we educated them about the mitochondrial Genes that the WOMEN carry, which gives away the Evolutionary tree of the particular population?

    Should someone tell them That PURITY is an external concept, that somewhere in time, before their ancestors were Parsis/Zorastrians, they werent? That if we go for purity and marry and interbreed between the same population, over time we are inviting more deformities and mental illnesses into our populations? Ah never mind, they might argue that its not written in their sacred texts and hence not true/relevant.

    Its amazing to see how most women(Men too) are seemingly Free, only to be in an invisible Prison. I do think Freedom is an Illusion… none of us are really free.

  • @Dilnavaz:- Yeah, I’ve known my parsi friend since we were three. Now I am 29. Most of my summer vacations were at thier place. I think I drank my first beer at her place… She is my best friend. And our mum’s were best friends. so I guess I was invited for most the functions there.
    It does sound unbelievable..like a movie or something…but my best friend and her family went through hell…and the pain is very believable…

  • Uzma

    It’s exactly the same in Islam. Men are permitted to marry Christians and Jews (these religions share many of the same fundamental beliefs as Islam) but not women, and the same reasons are used to justify the discrimination.

  • Dilnavaz Bamboat

    Rhumjhum: I have observed that the community outside its Bombay stronghold is much less parochial.

    evolving_everyday: I’m surprised you were even presented with a veneer. It’s usually out there in the open, in no uncertain terms.

    Mysoul: We’re not. 🙁

    Childwoman:So it’s okay to be best friends, but marriage is an entirely different ballgame, not seen as an extension of acceptance. I’ve heard that one before. Sorry about your friend.

    Uzma: Even if the men in question convert to Islam?

  • kukuisking

    No it’s not exactly the same in Islam… the women can marry any guy who is a Muslim regardless of race colour creed nationality…but not religion (the guy HAS to convert)…even in the case of men …they can marry Christians and Jews but only if there is a chance that the women wil convert too…

  • Rustom

    if father has died without any will this property will go to whom ? he is been sevived by two sons
    & four married daughter


  • Carl Kapadia

    I am married to a Hindu and while doing Jashan my wife is not allowed to sit. This time I want her to be a part of it. So I am searching mobets who would do the same for me.

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  • Sorab Dalal

    As a non-practicing atheist Parsi male I am very confused by this stupid argument. It is unfair and sexist. As a practicing scientist, it makes no logical sense. If I had to determine lineage, a matrilineal line makes more sense because you ALWAYS know who the mother is in a natural birth (I am excluding more recent technology). There is no guarantee that a child born of a Parsi man and a “parjaat” woman has Parsi genes while a child born of a Parsi woman definitely carries Parsi genes (this is assuming that Parsi genes are very different from those belonging to other people, a very tenuous argument). @Childwoman: Most people (especially Parsis) forget that the non-conversion rule came from the king of Gujarat when we arrived in India. Zorastrians happily converted people in Persia.
    @Mysoul: They do not understand biology
    Further, I believe that being a Parsi is a state of mind and an attitude. I am an atheist and do not indulge in religious ritual but am proud to be Parsi (except when these stupid laws raise their ugly head).

    • Dilnavaz Bamboat

      ‘Tis the *seed*, my dear boy, the *seed* that they go on and on and on and on and bloody on about, and has me wishing they’d choke on one. Okay, time to put my civil face on again.

  • Sorab Dalal

    Ummmm a seed grows into a new plant (read organism). Therefore, biologically speaking the seed (zygote) is formed when the sperm fertilizes the ovum. Male sperm is useless (maybe that’s why so much of it is produced) without an ovum to fertilize. This is why people should take biology classes before having children (or writing laws that impact inheritance).
    Keep writing though 🙂

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