Iranian Family, Its Structure and Significance in Persian Culture

  June 30, 2021   Read time 3 min
Iranian Family, Its Structure and Significance in Persian Culture
For Iranians, as in most societies, the nuclear family is the basic unit of social organization. However, unlike some Western societies, the extended family has much greater psychological and practical significance.

If we wanted to represent this idea schematically, we could draw a series of concentric circles, with their center being the individual. The innermost circle includes the individual’s immediate family: parents and siblings if single, or spouse and children if married. In the latter case, in the next circle out are the parents, siblings, and their families and the person’s own in-laws. The circle beyond that includes paternal and maternal uncles, aunts, and cousins, and their spouses and children. All these relations provide the basis of the social network that every individual in a given family belongs to.

Traditionally the family fulfilled many roles that in Western societies—and now increasingly in Iran, at least in urban settings—are played by financial institutions, day care centers, family counselors, and even doctors. Need a short-term loan to tide you over for a month? Cousin Majid will be able to help. Invited to a wedding without the children? Mom or auntie will look after the baby for the evening. Disagreement with your spouse? You ask an elder to be involved and help reconcile the difference. Ten-year-old son got a cold? An aunt makes chicken barley soup for him and buys herbal tea from the local herbalist on her way to your house.

As we will see throughout this book, family and social groups play a major role in Iranians’ daily life and sense of self. The importance of belonging to a family is so critical to Iranians that one of the first things Iranians do after arriving in a foreign country is to find out the favorite haunts of other Iranians, Iranian shops or restaurants, where they can begin to make new acquaintances. In time, they create a surrogate social network to replace the one they left behind. According to the 2000 World Values Survey, in Iran over ninety-five percent of respondents said that family is very important in life, whereas only thirty percent rated friends as very important and fifty-two percent as rather important.

Membership in a family or social/friendship group not only fulfills psychological needs, but practical one family, friends, acquaintances, colleagues, and neighbors constitutes a reliable and permanent support network on which one can call at times of need. In this large group, one person is bound to know where you can get what you need, or at least knows someone who does. For example, when we were looking for a new school for our son, Hossein’s maternal uncle’s son’s brother-in-law, who is an employee of the Education Department in our area, was able to advise us on suitable schools, confirmed that the school we had chosen was a good one, and gave a reference in support of our application to the school.
But a support network is not useful only for special favors. Very often Iranians will introduce tradespeople or professionals to their relatives and friends, for example, a tailor, doctor, or private tutor, who in most cases will pay special attention to the new customers and make sure they receive special attention. Belonging to the Circle, of course, also entails reciprocal duties and responsibilities: the demands on time and effort one makes on a Circle member may have to be returned in the future, either by the original recipient or by a relative. This social debt is not considered a burden or an imposition, but is seen as a basic ingredient of interactions, the giveand-take of everyday life. The sense of belonging to the Circle gives an Iranian a feeling of safety: one is not alone in the world.

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