by Diana Damkevala Gazdar
Our religion has long been sustained by genealogy and cultural tradition. Genealogy can be a source of inspiration, promoting feelings of family, identity, community; and connection to something larger. But genealogy cannot be a religion’s soul, which lies in the spirituality of its following.
We Zarathushtis entangle ourselves with genealogy, so it’s unsurprising that interfaith marriage is among our most polarizing topics. Whether these unions defy tradition, whether the children “dilute” the religion, or whether acceptance is necessary to counterbalance ever-decreasing numbers, I can find no right or wrong, as both viewpoints share the same fear: the slow demise of our religion.
We cannot blame the languishing of our religion on interfaith marriages alone; rather we should acknowledge its place in the larger discussion of our future. Fewer marriages and children, uneven definitions of “who” is Zarathushti, and often uninspired religious identities are our challenges. Our next generation must address these, while continuing to build connections with Zarathushti communities, and encouraging knowledge and spirituality in our children. Then we can empower future generations.
Encouraging Marriage, Children, and Choice
I believe one can be both pro-Zarathushti partnership, and pro-acceptance of interfaith partnership, as both entail a cycle of faith that guides and supports young Zarathushtis’ choices.
As the worldwide Zarathushti population declines, we find that too many Zarathushtis are unmarried and/or childless. Many long-married Zarathushtis truly underestimate today’s challenges in finding a partner – especially one who is mutually attracted and interested, shares similar values, is within age range, and is willing to relocate. Too often, faced with onslaughts of “helpful” comments like “You should settle down now with a nice Zarathushti girl”; “Don’t you want marriage, children, and to feel fulfilled as a woman?” and “You’re being too picky,” young adults feel attacked, blamed, and truly turned off. Additionally, community intolerance of non-Zarathushti spouses adds to stresses of finding a Zarathushti partner.
Our young adults may attend university and build careers into their 30s. But once ready to look for a partner, it’s often very difficult to meet other Zarathushtis and initiate relationships. Our vast diaspora necessitates reliance on attending Congresses or finding unconventional ways to meet. Although the internet – including dating sites, social media sites, and instant messaging – is helping Zarathushtis communicate, face-to-face interaction is crucial to sustain long-lasting relationships. Quality time together can result in successful partnership. But if a relationship doesn’t work, the investment spent can be most disheartening.
We must actively encourage Zarathushti marriage and children by creating more local and global connection opportunities. But we must not lay guilt, and risk driving youth away from not just marriage, but religion.
Encouraging Zarathushti partnership starts with creating positive connections from early on. Growing up, my sisters and I had strong attachment to our religion and dynamic Chicago Zarathushti community. We saw many examples of successful Zarathushti marriages, demonstrating love, mutual respect, and shared reverence for our religion. We also learned that interfaith marriages, with shared values and tolerance for differing opinions, make for happy marriages and children.
Our sense of connection made us deeply committed to at least try to find Zarathushti partners, though we knew that odds were very much against us. Our family and community showed bias toward marrying within the faith, but also understood that statistically, one or more of us may not find a Zarathushti partner. It was comforting to know that no matter what, our spouses and children would be welcomed and considered Zarathushti.
My sisters and I beat the “Zarathushti odds”. We went down different paths to meet our spouses – through mutual friends, attending Congresses, and reacquainting with old friends. That they are all Zarathushti matches is an added bonus. We put effort into finding Zarathushtis, but the result – marrying within our faith – was luck. We all agree that strong community attachment motivated us to take the leap of faith required to pursue relationships with Zarathushtis.
While marrying other Zarathushtis sounds great, it’s not enough. The real work of propagating our faith begins now, as we transition from newlyweds to parents, and lead the next generation.
Redefining “Who” is Zarathushti
Interfaith couples face additional challenges of being truly open with religious attitudes from the beginning. These families find they are further encumbered by constrained, un-egalitarian definitions of “who” is considered Zarathushti. With no worldwide consensus, it’s left to individual communities.
With approximately half of North American Zarathushti marriages being interfaith, we must acknowledge that these unions and children are an irrevocable part of our tapestry. Children of interfaith marriages should be Zarathushti by birthright, whether their father or mother is Zarathushti.
We must actively welcome interfaith families’ participation in Zarathushti communities. If we do, we may inspire their children to choose Zarathushti spouses or raise their children as conscious Zarathushtis. But if we make interfaith couples feel unwanted, we guarantee their children will be unwilling to perpetuate the religion. I have seen many personal examples of both. The loss of these families is a great tragedy.
Once together, many couples, both Zarathushti and interfaith – even young ones – are unable to have children. Although rarely discussed, adoption and egg and sperm donations are becoming more prevalent. We must support couples’ decisions and allow their children to be part of our community. Caring for another human being is a very Zarathushti act, and should be treated as such.
Continuing the Cycle of Identity
Children begin the cycle of empowering another generation. Despite much fervor about preserving religion, many parents don’t know how to convey religion and spirituality to their children. Interfaith couples additionally face connecting children to two faiths, or prioritizing one. Many Zarathushti communities have religion classes, but classes are not enough to connect children to religious identity, community pride, or an intangible sense of spirituality.
To pass on identity and spirituality to our children, we must educate and empower our own understanding. Religious information and people-connection is at our fingertips – the internet, libraries, and knowledgeable dasturs – we merely need to seek it. Our generation is creating better coalitions of educators, dasturs, scholars, and parents to enhance age-appropriate, engaging religious information. But every parent has personal responsibility to expose their children while young to religion and community involvement; instilling knowledge, curiosity, and spirituality. We need to savor our religion. If we can’t do this for ourselves, how can we expect the next generation to want connection with each other?
Our religion has adapted through cultures and centuries; embedded are seemingly modern concepts of social justice; hard work; charity; and equality for all regardless of race, religion, or gender.
Our next generation must feel there is nothing wrong with encouraging Zarathushti marriage and children, while accepting and embracing interfaith marriages, and redefining “who” is a Zarathushti. We must inspire both knowledge and much-needed spirituality in our children. If we do this while furthering the first generation’s efforts to build community at all levels, we allow natural adaption of our beautiful religion, empowering the average Zarathushti.
Diana Damkevala Gazdar is VP, Corporate Strategy and Business Development, and a Managing Partner of HiNGE Inc., Sales and Marketing Solutions. Diana lives in Toronto with husband Rohinton, daughter Natasha, and baby #2 on the way.