Raising a Child in Iran's Cultural Divide

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My friend's eight-year-old son brought a DVD home from school the other day, a 10-minute collection of "highlights" from his third-grade class. As far as I could tell he wasn't attending an Iranian elementary school so much as one of those scary Pakistani-type madrassas, where rows of boys sit on the floor memorizing the Koran and the alumni all died at Tora Bora. The first minutes captured the class making ritual ablutions before prayer, followed by scenes of them actually praying together in the classroom, and finally, a lively segment of them practicing the call to prayer. Noting my horrified look, my friend explained that "public schools here are really much better these days." Much better, apparently, means that alongside Islamic indoctrination, kids also receive an hour of music lessons a week, their textbooks include color pictures, and teachers no longer say "raise your hand if your parents drink alcohol at home."

TIME's Tehran correspondent examines what daily life is really like in Iran

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• Iran's Caesarean Section Craze
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• How Iran's Populist Lost His Popularity
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• Many Happy Returns, Twelfth Imam!
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• Silencing the Voices of Dissent
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• Who are the Women Behind the Men Running Iran?
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• The Backlash Against Iran's Role in Lebanon
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When I first discovered I was pregnant, and my husband and I discussed starting our family here in Iran, I thought mostly about bassinettes, prenatal tests, and how much a baby would adore the animal reliefs at Persepolis. I knew we would be raising our child between cultures — we both come from Iranian families, but grew up in the West and are familiar with the discomforts of living in between. What I didn't realize is that really we had three cultural divides to deal with: the West; fundamentalist, public Iran; and tolerant, inside-the-house Iran. This became clear to me as my pregnancy developed, and I stopped viewing my friends' kids as conversation wreckers, and began noticing what complicated little lives they lead.

Coping with the gulf between Iranian private and public life is an intricate skill that even adults here manage with varying degrees of success. Wearing masks or lying when required, all while keeping your core identity intact, is the daily business of adults who live in authoritarian societies. But how on earth do you teach children these skills? Is it possible, even, to raise an open-minded, healthy child in a culture that is fundamentalist and anarchic? That I have plenty of tolerant, sane friends who grew up here is proof that this can be done. But I'm not sure how high the success rate is, and whether it's something I could manage without becoming a paranoid, insufferable parent.

The very idea that I would be competing with my child's teachers and other role models over basic values (the role of religion in daily life, whether or not Western culture is corrupt) is intimidating. What if they win out, even for a phase? What's even scarier is that by doing the right thing — poising your kid's mind against extremist mullahs and their dogma — you may not be instilling tolerance, but safety hazards. Kids seem prone to asking endless questions from the moment they can talk. They want to know why you wear a veil outside in Tehran, but not at home and not on trips. The right answer (Mommy doesn't believe in the veil, but the government denies her right to choose) could be punishable, if repeated by a child in a classroom.

In most cases, you simply can't measure the future cost of teaching your kids liberal values; for espousing them openly, perhaps one day they will be punished by a teacher, expelled from school, caught by police, fired from a job. Being caught between such choices — allowing your kid to be brainwashed, teaching him otherwise at possible risk — is a grotesque dilemma and perhaps at the heart of why so many hundreds of thousands of young Iranian parents emigrate each year once they are on the cusp of parenthood. They can take up the East-West divide in cities like Toronto and Los Angeles, but at least be spared the Iran-Iran divide inside their own country.

Since for now I'm intent to stay, I've surveyed my friends — those whose children attend public school — to see how they deal with the gap between their private culture and the one outside. There seems to be two ways to approach the problem. The first is low-key: to simply model the values and behavior you believe in, and hope for the best. The premise here is that kids are too young to be taught moral shades of gray, and can grow up most naturally if allowed to absorb the intricacies of Iranian society slowly, without too much instruction by tense parents. The benefit of this is style is that you don't actively teach your kids to lie. My friend, the one with the prayer DVD, follows this approach, and the result is an honest child who recently told his teacher, "my parents don't pray." Nothing happened, but much could have. My friend thinks it isn't right to engage in reverse-inculcation at home. "Then how are we any different from them?" she asks. "He should have the right to choose himself the values he wants." I agree: it's like sending your kid off Jonestown with the Kool-Aid folks, and hoping he'll emerge an independent spirit.

Another approach, practiced by an Iranian-American friend of mine, is the "keeping secrets" method. This involves teaching your kids that the values you teach at home — that alcohol is alright in moderation, that satellite television is acceptable, that a divorced mother has the right to date — are part of a special, private world of which they should never speak outside. This makes a value out of privacy, and sidesteps the delicate task of teaching why it's okay to lie in certain situations, but not in others. None of this wards off the day your son returns home, as in the case of this friend, and informs you that as per what he learned in class that day, you, his mother, are immoral for not wearing a full black chador, and are disrespecting "our culture." Not long after, her son ran home from school weeping, after his class chanted "Death to America" at an annual school protest rally. His classmates, being young and therefore casually cruel, told him that because he had been born in America, he would need to die too. That day, his school, teachers and most of his classmates forever lost their credibility.