They had heard things were different in the U.S., but they weren't sure how they would be treated. They went to an event, and knew nobody but her aunt and uncle who lived in the area. "There we met a bunch of folks our age, who encouraged us to come to the community's annual summer picnic, and then there was no looking back." Their fellow Zarthoshti Anjuman of Northern California (ZANC) members have been "so friendly and welcoming of us as a couple," she said, and her spouse fits right in and even volunteers. "We have friends who meet even outside of ZANC events, which is funny, because I barely had any Parsi friends in Bombay!"
ZANC has a number of intermarried couples, and no one treats them any differently, she said. "They are welcome to every single event we have, religious or cultural. Our priest is open minded and a great resource for us," she sad. "Our ZANC president is married to a white, German man, and he is our treasurer, and nobody bats an eyelid. You definitely wouldn't see that happening in Bombay where the hostility and discomfort are apparent. Little wonder then, that our numbers are growing in North America as the community thrives, while they are in decline all over India."
Not all North American communities are the same, though. Lylah Alphonse, an editor at U.S. News & World Report based in Boston, has also been critical of how intermarried women tend to be treated. “Without accepting the children of intermarriage and allowing conversion, we will indeed preserve our culture—as a chapter in the history books, not as a thriving and progressive community,” she wrote in 2009. From a demographic perspective, she said in an interview, the expectation that Zoroastrians will only marry others of their religion has been destructive. “If you’re not allowed to marry outside the community—[or] if you do, you’re no longer counted and your children aren’t counted—it only makes sense that the numbers are continuing to fall rapidly,” she said.
Alphonse’s Parsi mother grew up in India, while her Roman Catholic father was raised in Haiti. Her grandmother, Roda Mistry, was the first Zoroastrian member of India’s parliament, and the country’s minister for women’s welfare and tourism. In 1979, she insisted that Alphonse should be allowed to have her navjote in Hyderabad, and that both of her brothers should have theirs in a joint 1983 ceremony in New Delhi. “When she decided to break the rules, it was a pretty significant event,” Alphonse said. Her own writing on Zoroastrianism has prompted critical letters, including one from a priest in Mumbai who said the world would have been better had she not been born. Alphonse is married to a non-Zoroastrian and is not raising her children Zoroastrian, she said.
This disdain for women who intermarry—and, perhaps, those who vocally push back against the cultural standards of the community—is part of a larger pattern of how women have, at times, been treated in the religion, said Patel, the professor at the University of South Carolina. Although Zoroastrianism teaches that women are equal to men in terms of things like property holding, “like every other religion, [it] has a long history of oppressing women,” he said. For example: “Women were not allowed to be in the same house as men during their periods,” he said. In terms of intermarriage, he said, there’s no scriptural basis for treating men and women who intermarry any differently. “I’ve heard this stuff for the past 10 to 15 years so often,” he said. “‘We are liberal.’ Or ‘The women in the community are so advanced, but the men are so unadvanced.’ The more you study them, the more you realize a lot of it is completely untrue.”