This article explores domestic religious practices of Iranian Muslim women in Los Angeles. In the diasporic context, Iranian women’s voluntary engagement in vernacular Islamic practices is often associated with an unreflexive pursuit of religion and lack of agency or with complicity with the Islamic Republic’s conservative brand of Shiism. To examine the complexities of such practices in the United States, this research relies on the ethnography of a monthly domestic gathering in LA that offers a hybrid blend of multiple devotional and social genres. The article demonstrates that the event’s performative and affective characteristics cater to a range of individual framings of the shared ritual and allow for complex and multilayered modes of engaging with the practice of faith. Further, it argues that vernacular Islamic practices in the diaspora are not always tied to individuals’ expression of religious conviction and pursuit of piety. By depicting the material and sensory aspects of the space, the article suggests that such rituals can serve as sites for engaging in a mode of diasporic nostalgia that does not commonly have a place in Iranian communities’ nostalgic narratives of the homeland.
It is an ordinary Monday afternoon at the end of January, but the row of cars parked on the street for two full blocks shows that something is going on in the one house that still has a lit Christmas wreath on the front door. The smell of saffron rice wafts through the driveway, filling my nostrils as I linger before the large wooden entrance, peeking through the frosted glass at what looks like the silhouette of a row of heads. Three dozen pairs of women’s shoes are scattered behind the entrance, and a muffled female voice can be heard talking over a loudspeaker inside. I can tell I am at the right place even before opening the door.
This is the home of Mrs. H in a northwestern suburb of Los Angeles (LA), where a faith-based gathering, or majlis, of Iranian Muslim women takes place almost every month, attracting women from across the LA metro area. Domestic rituals pertaining to vow making and ritual feasts (sofrih), lament (rowzih), prayers (dua), Qurʾan study (jalasih Qurʾan), or celebration of Islamic events (mowludi) have been established forms of religiosity among Shia Iranian women since the early nineteenth century during the Qajar period (Aghaie 2005; Kalinock 2015: 18–19; Montazer-al-Qaem and Keshavarz 2017: 58) and saw a surge after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The scholarship on Iranian women’s religious practices has largely focused on these gatherings in the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI), addressing how they serve as a space for women to assume agency in a range of ways: to exercise piety and become more authentic religious subjects (Torab 1996), to solve personal problems by relying on the power of collective devotion (Rahmani and Farahzadi 2015), to form a community away from traditional household responsibilities and come in contact with new people and situations (Betteridge 2002; Shirazi 2005, 2015), to engage in symbolic commentary on social issues (Jamzadeh and Mills 1986; Kalinock 2003), to express political affiliation in a politically diverse context (Kalinock 2003, 2004; Torab 2002), or to make strategic use of the traditional form toward sociability and networking (Friedl 1994).
While Shia women’s practices of faith have been extensively studied in the Iranian context, few studies (Hegland 2005; Spellman 2006) have addressed Iranian women’s religious gatherings in the diaspora and how these events are impacted by the specificities of the context. In the United States in particular, the religious and political makeup of the Iranian diasporic community and the secular or anti-Islamic attitude common among Iranian expatriates (Hanassab 1998: 72; Kelley, Friedlander, and Colby 1993; Sabagh and Bozorgmehr 1994) creates a less than welcoming atmosphere for the continuation of women’s practices pertaining to vow making, mourning, or collective prayers. As Mary Elaine Hegland (2005: 209) notes, even for Iranians in the United States who self-identify as Muslims and hold a personal belief in Islam, there is a sense of antipathy toward Shia religious figures and practices due to the “negative attitude toward the Shii regime and how the clerics leading the country interpret the Shii faith.” Considering the Iranian regime’s social and legal restrictions of women after the Islamic Revolution, women’s open involvement in organized Islamic practices often gets reduced to either an unreflexive pursuit of religious traditions or complicity in the IRI’s brand of Shiism. In this context, it is important to address how and why these practices are maintained, reframed, and reinvented by Iranian women, and what function they serve in their lives.
In this article I take an ethnographic look at Mrs. H’s majlis as an example of Iranian women’s domestic practices of religiosity in the diaspora. I rely on the framework of vernacular religion—that is, “religion as it is lived: as human beings encounter, understand, interpret, and practice it” (Primiano 1995: 44)—and lived religion (Orsi 2003), which helps understand devotional practices as “situated amid the ordinary concerns of life” (172). Through ethnography and interviews, I demonstrate the multiplicity of ways in which individuals relate to and engage with the shared practice of faith. I also address how the materiality of the space allows women to engage in a mode of diasporic nostalgia that does not fit in the larger community’s nostalgic narrative of the homeland. In other words, I argue that the traditional form caters to a range of individual relations with the practice of faith while serving an affective function on a sensory level for all involved.
This work is situated at the intersection of anthropology of women and Islam, folklore studies, and the study of Iranian diaspora. My interest as a folklorist is in vernacular religious performances that are, on the one hand, self-contained and influenced by individuals’ relational dynamics in the immediate context and, on the other, in conversation with broader discourses on religiosity in the diaspora. In the first section I briefly lay out how Iranian women’s rituals are situated in the context of LA, doubly marginalized both by secular Iranians (as associated with Islam in general) and by other Iranian Muslims who want to distance themselves from what they see as a traditional, illogical, and superstitious version of Shia Islam. Next I offer a thick description of the ritual performance itself, including audience-performer interactions and participants’ shifting engagement in the practices of faith or sociability. I demonstrate that participants bring their own individual relations and approaches to the shared practice of faith, which manifests itself in their level of engagement with the “votive frame” of the gathering.
Drawing on Erving Goffman’s (1986) notion of framing as a way to mark off special actions from the ordinary, my use of the term votive frame is meant to address how faith-based activities or actions are marked off in the context of the larger event. While women’s religious rituals are inherently social engagements and not closely contained realms of spirituality, votive and social activities tend to occupy relatively separate spaces within the larger event. The votive frame is in place when the dominant activity is expected to center around the practice of faith (like Qurʾan reading and interpretation, dua, or reciting of elegies), and requires certain actions on the part of the participants for the ritual element to be successful (reading along, repeating certain refrains in the prayer, listening, and being attentive). This frame can be invoked by linguistic or nonlinguistic cues like turning out the lights during prayers, the change in the cantor’s tone of voice, or salutations at the beginning of recitation of elegies, which “highlight the sacred context of the majlis and . . . bring participants into the mindset of spiritual contemplation” (Deeb 2005: 249). On the other hand, the social frame is in place when the dominant activity turns toward socializing rather than engagement with faith, typically before and/or after the devotional activities.
In Mrs. H’s event, however, despite the efforts to keep this relative separation in place, sociability constantly permeates the votive frame. In other words, individuals tune in and out of the devotional practice at different points, indicating that they do not similarly approach or engage with the collective practice of faith. While this can be the case with other women’s rituals regardless of location, addressing the range of individual relations to the traditional practice in the US context is especially important. The dominant discourses and images about Islam that circulate in the United States have the effect of homogenizing Iranian diasporic communities who engage in such practices, depicting them as mindless followers of Islamic tradition. By offering an ethnographic account of the event, I demonstrate that it is a multiplex performance with various actors who have different approaches to and competing ways of acting within the shared religious practice.
Relying on sensory ethnography,1 I also show the significance of the sensory/material component of the space (from food and sound to setup/decorations) and of the embodied experiences that allow women to participate in collective practices of faith in the diaspora regardless of their various degrees of religiosity. In other words, I argue that the pull toward what is considered a more “traditional,” “ritual-oriented” mode of religiosity should be considered not just a matter of religious conviction or intentionality, but also a byproduct of affect and sensory nostalgia associated with the practice of faith. In Iranian exilic discourse of nostalgia for the homeland, which is largely constructed in relation to a non-Islamic past (Naficy 1993), faith-based traditions have little to no place in creating a desirable collective memory or “postmemory” (Malek 2019) for first- and second-generation Iranian immigrants. I show that in the diasporic context, a space like Mrs. H’s home becomes a temporary enclave where this mode of “stigmatized nostalgia” can manifest itself.
The ethnographic data for the present article is part of my larger fieldwork to study Iranian women’s devotional and social practices in LA over ten months in 2017–18, where I took part in various mosque gatherings, weekly women’s Qurʾan study groups, interfaith classes, women-run charity clubs and social events, and many Iranian American cultural celebrations and political events. My data for the present article is based on participation in two monthly events of Mrs. H in January and February 2018, as well as on-site and subsequent interviews and informal conversations with the organizer, the cantor, and some of the participants. All quotes and conversations have been translated from Farsi, with Arabic words or phrases italicized. All names have been abbreviated or anonymized to protect individuals’ identities. My own participation in the event has been as a “halfie,”2 or part member in the group. I shared the same gender, national, and linguistic background as my interlocutors. I was familiar with this mode of faith-based gathering by virtue of growing up in Iran, which allowed me to engage people more easily in conversations about the event and their understanding of it, but I did not share a belief in the devotional aspect of the gathering; that is, I was a participant in the social parts but an observer when it came to the practice of faith. This in-between positionality, as someone who has been part of many such events but not for devotional purposes, has further alerted me to the intricacies embedded in these rituals and the variety of individual positions women bring to them. By sketching a detailed description of the event in its particular context, my aim is to complicate the homogenized image of Iranian Muslim women and their practices of religiosity in the diaspora and offer a glimpse into the way traditional religious practices can become sites for engaging in sensory nostalgia for the homeland.
Iranian Women’s Islamic Rituals in LA
A few months before I started my fieldwork in Los Angeles, around May 2017, a thirty-five-second video clip of a women’s gathering started circulating on Farsi-speaking social media, generating reactions that ranged from rage to surprise and mockery. About a hundred women, in what appeared to be a white-themed party, were sitting at tables in the backyard of a large home with palms in the background that indicated it was somewhere in Southern California. What gave this otherwise normal female party great notoriety was that a woman standing on the deck was holding a microphone and reciting the Tawassul prayer (a prayer common among Shia Muslims that calls on imams one by one to intervene on behalf of humans with God) as others chanted along with the refrain: “O intimate of Allah, Stand by us when Allah sits in judgment over us.” The juxtaposition of these secular-looking women (i.e., fashionably dressed and made-up, without headscarves or any other visible marks of Muslimness, seemingly “modern” and living in the United States) with a practice associated with “traditional” Islam was beyond comprehension for the angry commenters3 who found the existence of this “sofrih Abulfazl, LA style” quite preposterous. Some pointed to the presumed hypocrisy of these women who wanted to have it both ways—to enjoy the “freedoms” of the West but also hold on to Islamic practices perpetuated by the IRI. Common responses were along the lines of “You should have stayed in Iran to practice your backward religion” or “You deserve the IRI to put you under the chador,” or subtler expressions of pity for the women supposedly too brainwashed to rid themselves of the force of religion even in a “free country.”
To anyone familiar with the theopolitical makeup of the Iranian diasporic community, particularly in LA, this sense of shock and awe comes as no surprise. For many Iranians who were forced into exile or migrated to the United States after the 1979 establishment of the IRI, practices of Islam in any form can be associated with the regime, its politics, and its conservative brand of Shiism that they have tried to disassociate themselves from. In fact, the Iranian community in SoCal has established itself as primarily secular (Kelley 1993; Malek 2015; Sabagh and Bozorgmehr 1994), anti-IRI, and by extension hostile toward anything that bears semblance to Islamic traditions. Furthermore, due to the history of social and legal treatment of women under the IRI, many Iranian expatriates consider women’s voluntary engagement with Islamic traditions in the United States ever more confounding, if not outright suspicious. In the common anti-IRI discourse of Iranian diasporic communities, these women are often regarded as either too ignorant/brainwashed to rid themselves of religious traditions, or as agents of the IRI, consciously following the regime’s Shia-based ideology and perpetuating it abroad.4 As I occasionally had to describe my research on women’s religiosity in the diaspora to Iranians I came across in LA, people were often (rather unpleasantly) surprised to learn that Shia rituals were publicly and privately practiced in the United States, and were sometimes curious as to why I even had an interest in “traditional” religious practices such as sofrih, rowzih, or mowludi.
On the other hand, there are various subdivisions among Muslim-identifying Iranians themselves regarding what is considered the proper discourse and practice of Islam, creating a dichotomy between individualistic/modern and collective/traditional modes of practicing Islam. A number of Iranian mosques in LA and Irvine, such as the Iranian-American Muslim Association of North America (IMAN) and the Evecina (Ebnecina) Cultural and Educational Foundation, that are associated with the discourse of reformers, such as Abdolkarim Soroush, advocate for a more logical approach to Islam through a contemporary interpretation of the Qurʾan. For this reason, at least on a discursive level, they shun Shia beliefs and rituals that they consider to be superstitious, illogical, and detrimental to the “real” Islamic faith, an approach to Shiism that is akin to what Lara Deeb calls “authenticated Islam.”5 For instance, Abdolali Bazargan and Hamid Entezam, who regularly speak at both mosques, point out in their lectures that many stories about imams that give them otherworldly attributes and an almost mythical nature are fabricated or exaggerated, making a case for the need to identify Shia popular beliefs that are incompatible with the sayings of the Qurʾan.6 This includes anything from elaborate lament stories surrounding the martyrdom of the third Shia imam (many of which are claimed to be fabrications) to assigning otherworldly attributes to Shia holy figures, asking them to intercede with God on behalf of individuals and to secure them favors, and other practices that would prioritize an engagement in ritual activity over contemplation of meanings. While these beliefs and practices associated with traditional Islam are not exclusive to Shia women, the majority of women’s traditional practices of religiosity, from vow making to collective prayers and lament, fall under this purview, as they are linked to the centrality of imams.
Despite their continued prevalence in Iran, it has been noted that these traditional modes of religiosity are not as popular among Iranian women in the United States as they are among other migrants from Shia-majority countries (Hegland 2005). In the context of Northern California, Hegland observes, educated and modern Iranian women tend not to engage in organized religion in general and ritual practices in particular but either follow a personal path to faith or only occasionally take part in select types of religious events, “especially those women experiencing grief, loss, or trouble find comfort in Shii rowzehs, Moharram rituals, and funeral rituals, whether mixed-gender or women-only” (209). The more regular participation in public and private Shia rituals, however, remains in the domain of “less educated” or older Iranian immigrant women (210) who are less secular and more pious. In her study of Iranian women’s sofrih in London, Kathryn Spellman (2006) points to a similar differentiation in ritual practice among Shia Iranian women. Spellman finds that, in general, sofrih gatherings hosted by moderately religious women in the Central London network “placed more emphasis on the social aspect of the ritual” spending little time on tafsir or prayer recitations, while the more pious North London women “stressed religious devotions and mourning” and spent more time on prayers and tafsir (77).
However, as Spellman and Hegland both contend, strict boundaries cannot be drawn between different groups of Muslim Iranians and their practices in the diaspora. Similarly in LA, Iranians’ discourses and practices of Islamic religiosity fall on a spectrum rather than in a dichotomy of the so-called traditional and modern. IMAN, for instance, holds Komeil prayers and distributes nazr every Thursday night,7 and holds annual commemorations of Tasua and Ashura, including brief dirge singing, candle lighting, and dinner. The emphasis still remains on the lectures about the “lessons” of Karbala, with eliciting an emotional response only a secondary goal—an approach that reflects a shift from “‘traditional’ and ‘salvific’ to ‘modern’ and ‘revolutionary’ interpretations” of the story of Karbala (though, as Szanto [2013: 78] argues, the dichotomy is problematic). However, a tokenized selection of traditional practices remains in place and is incorporated sporadically in the mosque’s programs. Interestingly, these events attract a bigger audience than the typical lectures and regular Qurʾan study classes at IMAN.8
Given this blend of events, the “traditional” cannot be clearly distinguished from an “authenticated,” “modern,” or “reflexive” mode of Islamic practice. Similarly, Mrs. H’s event, which on the surface is a traditional ritual gathering, allows individuals to bring their own expectations to the shared practice of faith—learning about the Qurʾan, taking part in an engaging performance, maintaining an affective relation to their faith, engaging in sociability and networking, or having a sensory reminiscence of a version of “home” that cannot exist outside this specific ritual frame.
Mrs. H’s Event
As I ask women at IMAN whether they know of any domestic faith-based events in LA, like sofrih or rowzih, I initially get a few shrugs and some reluctant expressions of “Um, we don’t do that kind of stuff”—as if no one is willing to admit knowledge of such controversial happenings. Eventually one woman mentions Mrs. H’s event, telling me to check out her “majlis,” which does not specify the content of the gathering. Another friend who later links me to the same event categorizes it as “sofrih/dua,” a combination of a ritual meal and prayers, which she mentions she usually attends with a couple of friends. This is while Mrs. H herself, who has hosted the event for more than seventeen years, does not consider it a sofrih but predominantly a “Qurʾan study or Qurʾan teaching session” to educate women about their faith in the face of prevalent misinformation. She later elaborates that the event “occasionally involves sofrih” by offering meals to guests.
Considering the range of descriptions and given the supposed unpopularity of women’s domestic religiosity in the LA context, I am not sure what to expect as I kick off my boots behind Mrs. H’s door for the first time, imagining I would be walking into a small circle of older women reading or listening to the Qurʾan or reading prayers—who are possibly also suspicious of the intentions of this newcomer/intruder. To my surprise, I find the large living room filled with sixty to seventy women who are occupying every corner of the house. Not only are all the seats taken, but a second row has already formed on the floor that stretches all the way to the entrance. The room is so packed that my only chance at finding a seat, which is not directly in the center of the elaborate Persian rug, is to sneak into the back of the room and grab onto a wobbly folding chair in the hallway next to the bathroom.
A quick glance around the living room makes it clear that this is a diverse audience. Only a few women are wearing headscarves or have white chadors on their shoulders. Most are not, and almost everyone is rocking their casual chic styles typical in Iranian female parties/mehmooni—to the point that it makes me feel quite underdressed in my jeans and plaid shirt. Similar to other faith-based gatherings in LA, most guests are middle-aged and older, but I spot a few younger guests in attendance as well. To my right, two women in their thirties are holding their toddlers, and four young and middle-aged women—perhaps mothers and daughters—are tucked closely in a three-person sofa. A couple of children are running around and screaming, occasionally stepping a foot into the small sofrih that is spread in the middle of the room. The sofrih seems rather perfunctorily decorated with a bookstand for the Qurʾan, and a few flags with the image of the third imam, Imam Hussein, sitting next to a basket full of plastic cutlery. The visual setup is very different from the elaborate, colorful, and often ostentatious sofrihs typical among middle-class urban women in Iran, particularly those dedicated to Imam Hussein (Torab 2005), or at least there has not been much effort to frame the gathering as a sofrih proper.
As I scan the room for a familiar face, I see two women from the Qurʾan class at IMAN sitting next to each other sipping tea. The Qurʾan reading portion of the gathering has already ended by the time I arrive and the room has an informal feel, but the Qurʾanic lesson blasting through the speakers signals that the votive frame remains in place. Mrs. H—who teaches the Qurʾan in addition to hosting the gathering—is halfway through her speech about the benefits of waking up in the middle of the night for nightly prayers. Even though amplified by speakers, her voice is rather muffled by the chitchat that is going on around the room, and sometimes overshadowed by a loud bang from the kitchen, where several women are hard at work preparing the food. A few minutes later as the chatter increases and almost overtakes the Qurʾanic lesson, someone calls out loudly to remind the guests, “Please listen, ladies!” and “Be more respectful.” Her remarks are followed by several long “hushes” from around the room that reorient the audience to the speech, trying to maintain the votive frame and, at least temporarily, give control of the space back to the speaker.
Mrs. H, who is now talking about the importance of caring about one’s afterlife and realizing that death is coming for all sooner or later, changes the subject to something more interesting to the audience:
The other day someone asked me: “Why don’t you dye your white roots? It’s not pretty like this.” And I told her, “What’s the use in dying my hair, huh? I want my age to show, so I’m aware that I have more important work to do than color my hair and walk about. You could go ahead and do it of course, but I won’t. It’s just a distraction from my main work, which is to attend to my afterlife, to read the Qurʾan, to say my prayers.”
Someone hollers back from the corner, “It’s because you’re already pretty!,” and takes the room by storm, making it even more disorderly, as everyone is chuckling and talking to those nearby about hair dye–related matters or complimenting Mrs. H. Even though a few more hushes try to restore the order, the fragile frame of the Qurʾanic lesson is now bending still further. While Mrs. H beams respect, sitting behind her desk at the head of the room like a formidable matriarch, at this moment those in the audience seem more interested in what they have to tell themselves than in assuming the listener’s role or adhering to how they are expected to act in the devotional frame. Eventually, among the nonstop chatter, Mrs. H wraps up her speech, as the prayer time is also approaching, and hands the microphone over to the lady cantor (maddah) who is in charge of the rest of the gathering. So far, one could categorize the event as a well-attended and particularly noisy Qurʾanic session, but that is just the beginning.
As the cantor prepares to recite the call for prayer, several women get up to wash up and say their evening prayers in the back hallway that is now turned into a makeshift prayer room, marked with several prayer rugs spread on the floor and a stack of white chadors in a laundry basket. I give up my not-very-well-positioned seat to an older woman with a walker—who is sporting a matching black-and-red pantsuit and bowler hat—so she can pray sitting down next to the dining table. While the call to prayer is the loudest, most dominant sound in the room, the prayer space is still spatially bracketed off from the rest of the house, and the living room remains the social ground. The chatter rises again as women find one another from across the room, and trays of cookies and hot tea in sleek glasses start going around. “Please don’t take more than a spoonful,” says the woman who has brought a large platter of homemade halva—which smells a perfect blend of saffron and rosewater and seems to be in high demand. Mrs. H tries to bring some order to the social scene: “OK, let’s wrap up the [food] serving for now until it’s time for the ash and rice and other things.” Her voice is immediately drowned out by the chatter.
About fifteen minutes later, as most women are back from prayers and everyone is still catching up on tea and conversation, the cantor takes the stage again to begin the main performance. Announcing that the prayers and elegies are about to begin, she manages to reframe the space again as predominantly votive, even though the background sounds do not immediately recede. The main prayer is Tawassul—which calls on imams one by one to intercede with God on behalf of humans. The audience is now more involved in the votive performance: the Arabic prayer includes a refrain that is repeated out loud collectively,9 and the Farsi prayers that are occasionally mixed in have a call-and-response structure that requires the audience to respond with an “Amen” at the end of each line. The cantor manages to go back and forth between the Arabic prayers and a lament in Farsi about the martyrdom of the eighth Shia imam—Imam Reza. Her voice is gripping, and she seems like a seasoned cantor. As is typical in the narration of long Shia laments, she patches together narrative snippets and prayer verses without the need to read from a fixed text.
As the lament and prayers continue, the audience’s involvement and participation in the votive frame varies. Some engage in small participatory acts, closing their eyes and moving their bodies to the somber rhythm of the elegy, slowly thumping on their chests, or quietly reading the prayer words along with the cantor. Some are only assuming the listener’s role or talking quietly with one another every now and then. A young girl next to me scrolls down her Instagram feed on her phone neatly tucked into her prayer hands. There are fewer “hushes” overall, but the votive frame is still somewhat porous as other activities are simultaneously going on. Loud noises keep coming from the kitchen, and women continuously move around the room, drinking tea and eating other snacks, playing with their kids, or looking at their phones. At some point, the cantor gets visibly upset as the audience seems inattentive; this not only undermines the votive frame but also questions the cantor’s competence as a good performer, as her skill in reciting the prayer and laments has not transported the audience to the desirable realm of votive experience.10 She momentarily pauses the performance and announces in the microphone in an irritated tone: “This is the prayer time, ladies. Please, please be more respectful,” and asks everyone to send a praise (salavat) to the prophet in unison—a linguistic device that is used strategically throughout the event in moments of heightened distraction to reorient the audience’s attention back to the votive frame. The collective voice rises in an instant—“Allaaaaaahumma salli ʿala Muhammad . . . ”—and helps reframe the space as predominantly devotional. This is a common pattern throughout the event: the votive frame begins to fade as the attention to the speaker dwindles and the audience drifts into personal or social engagements—often due to the absence of an engaging or participatory performance—until it becomes reinstated through salavat or other linguistic cues.
There are, however, moments of heightened audience involvement—the performative peaks in the event—when the votive act gets completely bracketed off from sociability and overtakes the entire space. One of these moments happens as the cantor ends the long prayer with a well-known verse from the Qurʾan (27:62) that is a staple of many prayer sessions, often repeated collectively several times. Lights in the living room are turned out (a common practice done to enhance a somber mood), all other business is momentarily dropped, everyone gets up from their seats (even I feel obligated to stand up), women cooking in the kitchen stop working, and all hands rise to the sky, repeating the prayer loudly in unison: “Ammaaaaan yujib. . . . Is He [not the one] who responds to the desperate when he calls upon Him, and removes the evil?” At these moments, even the most passive and normally disengaged audience members seem fired up. The communal and rather emotional repetition of the prayer goes on for about a minute or two, and the lights coming back on signals the end of the prayer. I peek back and see a few women wiping off their tears. The young girl next to me freshens up in her phone’s camera. There is some chaos at the other end of the room—apparently one of the guests has been filming the prayer on her phone. “Please delete it, right now,” says Mrs. H’s daughter, lingering to make sure that the video is removed. There is clearly no desire for this gathering to turn into the next social media sensation.
With almost no intermission, the cantor switches from mourning/prayers to the celebratory genre of mowludi: “Ladies, since this month’s gathering has coincided with the birth of Hazrat-i Zeynab, the occasion calls for singing some praises in her honor.” This verbal key radically reconstitutes the devotional frame; the mood goes from somber to festive in less than two minutes. As the cantor begins singing, it is not hard to tell that this is the most engaging and participatory part of the event. The rhythmic voice of the cantor, who eventually seems to have gained full performative authority, keeps the audience attentive and brings it into the performance not only as listeners but as actors. The usual chatter has now subsided, and almost everyone is doing something in sync with the song: clapping, singing along, and/or rocking in their seats with the rhythm. A couple of women stand up and begin a spontaneous dance, which is met with enthusiastic cheers from the audience. Another woman, close to the cantor, leans over the mic and makes a long, cheerful ululation that leads to more intense clapping and cheering. It is hard to imagine that only a few minutes ago a combination of rowzih and prayers was happening in the same space. As the women dance it off to the mowludi and the toddlers find an excuse to scream and run around, among the constant clapping, long bolboli whistles, body movements, and occasional ululations, the votive frame gets superimposed by the social and the lines begin to dissolve further.
Finally, it is time for sharing the meal—what some participants refer to as sofrih. While there is a self-evident understanding that the meal is a ritual meal, there is no specific behavior attached to the process (such as beginning the meal in the name of God, blessing the food with recitations of prayers, or narrating certain stories)11 that would mark the meal sharing within a devotional frame. The literal sofrih is very small—a green twenty-by-fifty-inch piece of cloth—and does not hold the actual food. The main dish—lentil rice with raisins, topped with a moist chicken drumstick—is served in individual to-go boxes that some women choose to take home. Sweets are offered on trays, fruits are wrapped in plastic bags and handed to guests, and the ash has to be served from a large pot in the living room that I constantly worry could be toppled by a toddler. Several women are busy serving food and sweets and fruits and tea all at the same time. Two women go around distributing small resealable plastic bags of chickpeas and raisins that they have individually prepared—a common votive offering—and ask everyone to send a blessing to their deceased in return. A couple of older women complain about not having been offered one of the pastry trays. Someone is trying to get extra food for a family member and is turned down. “Sorry, there’s only one for each person,” says the woman who is balancing a tower of food boxes on her hands and maneuvering around the packed room. The cantor takes the mic and reminds the guests to be careful not to spill food on the rugs, as they have only recently been cleaned. Right next to me, a paper bowl of ash gets knocked over on someone who is sitting on the floor, and she is not pleased about it: “Thank God I didn’t bring my baby today! She would have been sitting right on my lap and burned all over!” I nod sympathetically, quaff my own ash before it meets the same fate, and shove the bag of chickpeas in my purse. If one were to put a name on this part of the gathering, it would be sofrih, but a very scattered and particularly chaotic version in which the devotional aspect is lurking in the background as the actual serving and eating of the food is in progress. However, the lack of a specific ritual order does not hinder participants’ description of the event as such: a disorderly, decentered, and ritual-free sofrih can still emically be considered a sofrih.
Individual Relations to the Shared Practice of Faith
Mrs. H’s gathering is a multipurpose, fluid event that patches together a range of devotional genres whose malleable boundaries are constantly permeated by a desire for sociability—a free-flowing, votive-social gathering compacted into the span of a four-hour evening. Here, one can find a Qurʾanic session, a rowzih, several collective prayers, mowludi, sofrih, and possibly other practices of faith in any given month, depending on the circumstances.
Mrs. H has hosted this event for almost seventeen years, and it has never lost its popularity among women, who sometimes drive miles in traffic to get there:
I started from a very small room in my old house. I had reserved one room for this gathering. But then I saw, wow, there were so many people coming that they had to sit in the hallway, or sometimes I had to move the gathering to the backyard. Women kept telling each other and more guests kept coming. . . . Now people sometimes complain why I don’t give them a call to remind them of the gathering, but there are too many people now. I can’t call everyone separately. I just announce it in two mosques every month and the ladies do the rest.
The reason Mrs. H’s event is more popular than a typical Qurʾan study group or Friday prayer sermon is its openness to varying degrees of involvement in the votive frame. This may not be possible in other religious settings in LA. In a mosque speech or sermon, for instance, individual involvement often remains at the passive level as there is little chance for active participation.12 On the contrary, in smaller Qurʾan reading circles, participants need to be more fully committed to the votive practice—that is, it is not common to attend a Qurʾan reading group without personally taking part in the reading or commenting on the text. In Mrs. H’s event, the eclectic nature of the gathering leaves room for various kinds of involvement and different degrees of presence in the votive frame. Here one can pick and choose how much to engage with which devotional component of the practice. There is no hard-and-fast rule about what to do and how much to get involved. Women can come here to read the Qurʾan and listen to Mrs. H’s lesson. They can listen to the elegies, whisper the prayers, cry, and be part of the solemn devotional experience. They can be passive audience members in the rowzih or prayer but active in the more joyful performances by clapping, singing, and dancing. If they do not want to be involved in any of the devotional acts, they can attend the gathering only for socializing, seeing friends, or fulfilling their familial or neighborly expectations (or research!) and keep devotional participation to a minimum.
To Mrs. H herself, this is a Qurʾanic study meeting first and foremost: “Sometimes we also read Tawassul prayers, and if the meeting coincides with a special occasion that month, we may have the sofrih too.” This framing is perhaps, at least partly, due to the contentious nature of Muslim women’s vernacular religiosity, particularly in the LA context. Mrs. H is quick to acknowledge, but also wash off, the stigma by framing the gathering as predominantly educational: “I wanted to educate people about the faith and clear some of the misconceptions about Islam that were so prevalent in the US, especially among Iranians.” She also makes sure to emphasize the fact that most of the attendees are well-educated, successful women, contrary to the common assumption that women who take part in practices of Islam must be “uneducated,” “close-minded,” or dominated by religious dogma: “Here we have people who are mostly educated. That lady over there is in real estate. We have a psychologist. The other lady works in an airline. The other one used to be the manager of an entire department store. Most people here are educated. See Mary over there? She and her husband are both doctors.” Similar to Mrs. H’s depiction of the event, some of the guests point out that the gathering provides them a space to learn about their faith and build a closer connection to God as individuals, and not within the framework of a politicized version of faith, which allows them to dissociate the practice from the IRI brand of Islam. Mary, a younger woman in her early forties whom Mrs. H has introduced to me as a doctor and speaks very fondly of, offers her take on why so many women come to this gathering:
I think people [Iranians] who are here [in the United States] feel closer to God and need God in their lives more than people back home. In Iran, people are no longer into God. You know why? Because in our country religion and politics are mixed. But a Muslim is what the Qurʾan says, not what politicians decide. People who are here at least know that their religion is not tainted with politics, and they gravitate to religion more because it makes them feel a closer connection to God. Like you just asked, why would these women choose to spend an entire evening of their busy weekday here? I think it’s the need for that closeness, filling that void. . . . It’s that emptiness that brings us here.
Mrs. H nods repeatedly in agreement and Mary goes on, glancing at her with a smile: “Of course I shouldn’t be giving all these opinions in front of our teacher!” Mrs. H interjects, “Oh, come on now . . . ,” and Mary continues, “But I think people come here because of their pains, and to get closer to God. I would never open the Qurʾan at home by myself, but here I opened surih Taha and we read it together and I could understand it really well.”
Mary points to the fact that the Iranian regime’s theocratic rule and its approach to Islam has inevitably alienated people from religion, which has led to their loss of connection to God, something that can only be reinstated in the absence of the IRI’s imposed version of Islam. In her emphasis on the reading of the Qurʾan, she also indicates an inclination toward a more individual-oriented relation to the faith, based on the proper interpretation of the Qurʾanic text. However, her personal engagement with Islam is still dependent on her participation in the shared ritual, as she notes that she never reads the Qurʾan alone at home. While the entire event is not dedicated to studying the Qurʾan, she remains present in the collective performance and keeps attending every month.
To Mrs. H, the main reason to continue the gatherings, even though she is concerned that the Trump administration may shut down Islamic gatherings at some point,13 is to keep doing what she calls the “positive moral work” through the teaching of the Qurʾan: “Some women tell me they have truly learned to read and understand the Qurʾan only by coming to my house and this meeting.” Looking around and rolling her eyes a little she continues, “Of course, there are some ladies who come here for other reasons, and I know that, but I invite them anyway; maybe we can make a little progress in the end.”
While Mrs. H predominantly frames the event as an educational and devotional occasion, and tries to maintain this expectation throughout the event, she still acknowledges that her monthly gathering is an important space of sociability for women in the community. As more guests begin to leave, she calls out from the other side of the room, “Did you have fun or not ladies?!” She then turns to me and says, “You know, there is also this *social life,* as you youngsters say, besides that religious aspect. Some people don’t have other places to go. Most of them live in small apartments here—they have a small living room [and can’t have guests over]. Now that I have been blessed with this larger house, they can come here and they see each other, have fun, enjoy themselves, which is great.” Then she adds with a hearty laugh, “It’s like a *party!* If they want to go to one of these club-schmlubs here, they’re charged what, $10, $20? Here it’s totally free!” She keeps laughing with the women who are waiting around to say goodbye.14
In fact, while Mrs. H pushes for women to learn about their faith and be able to understand it and tries to foreground the moral and educational aspect of her gathering, she also has had to make the necessary compromises for this community of women to come together. The strategies of Mrs. H for achieving her intended moral work entail both acknowledging sociability as an important part of the event and making the gathering more hybrid by incorporating a variety of devotional genres that ease the formality of the Qurʾanic teaching and allow for the audience’s selective participation.
This makes the gathering open to being individually defined in different ways and allows for a range of approaches to the shared practice of faith. The multiplicity of framings can be found in many faith-based gatherings once we go past the publicly recognized purpose of the event. Spellman (2006), for instance, writes about a ritual of Iranian women in London (comprising mowludi, prayers, and a passion play called Arus-i Quraysh)15 and different participants’ understandings of the event. Spellman notes that while some participants interpreted the ritual play as having broader symbolic implications for all Muslim women, many were not concerned, or even familiar, with the religious associations of the ritual; they rather “downplayed the religious dimension of women-only gatherings, and were concerned that [she] was gaining an inaccurate impression of their social lives” (69).
In the present case, the multiform structure of Mrs. H’s event caters to an even larger audience from across the spectrum of religious discourse and practice, from the more to the less pious, and allows for women to connect to the shared performance on different levels. While for one person the event is primarily recognized as a sofrih or prayer session, to another, like Mary, it is a chance to read the Qurʾan and learn more about one’s faith. The Iranian friend who has introduced me to the event, Ava, tells me she tries to attend every month because she enjoys the sound of the elegy and prayers, and particularly likes the voice of this cantor, whom she also follows in other religious events across town. Ava works in the afternoons and never makes it to the Qurʾan reading and sermon. She is also an avid participant in all social and spiritual events around LA, from Sufi circles and churches where she goes simply because she enjoys the spiritual atmosphere, to Al-Zahra mosque in South Gate for some Shia celebrations (which she also films and shares on her social media pages), all the way to Cabaret Tehran concerts and occasional Iranian parties around town. For her, the affective experience of Shia practices has priority over a search for meaning in the Qurʾan, and that is something she can easily find in Mrs. H’s event.
Another guest, a Qurʾan teacher herself who runs a mosque class and has her own domestic Qurʾan study group (both of which I have also been attending), sometimes comes to this gathering to maintain her network of Qurʾanic teachers that include Mrs. H. She does not approve of all aspects of the event, and leaves after the Qurʾanic sermon and prayers, citing her long ride back to southwest LA. A young woman, a recent immigrant from Iran (whom I also see in the more “conservative” mosques like Al-Zahra), tells me she tries to attend this and similar gatherings to make friends for herself and her three-year-old son. She has found faith-related gatherings to be her best bet in her current situation: “Everyone keeps telling you to be cautious of other Iranians when you first get to the States. I don’t know. . . . I feel like people who have faith are at least more trustworthy.” For practical reasons, she prefers to shape her network mainly in relation to the faith community in LA, and Mrs. H’s gathering is partly a way of surviving in this new environment. It is also possible for participants to play down the votive component altogether and emphasize the social part, which allows them to frame their participation in nonreligious terms and disengage from the practices of faith during the gathering. By framing the event in any particular way, individuals can simultaneously factor out aspects of the event they do not have an interest in or do not wish to be associated with.
Religion, Sensory Memory, and Stigmatized Nostalgia
While individuals bring their own definitions and agendas to the shared performance, the event also has a collective function in the diasporic context regardless of its personal framings. For many Iranian women, even for “culturally Muslim” women who may have different attitudes toward practices of organized religion, “threads of Islamic traditions are unconsciously woven into . . . daily practices and vocabularies” (Spellman 2006: 59). Faith has often provided a framework for getting together, and collective practices of faith have allowed women to carve out time and space for themselves in the midst of their daily commitments, fulfill familial and neighborly obligations, and engage in sociability. For Iranian women in LA, whether they are particularly religious or not, whether they came to LA two months ago or forty years ago, domestic faith-based events can be familiar and handy genres of informal sociability and spaces of embodied memory.
Ava, who is in her fifties and has been living in LA for the past twenty years, tells me about her mom and aunt, who both had similar gatherings at their home: “My mom did it until her last day. . . . And my aunt was a Qurʾan teacher herself. She would get invited to a lot of these sofrihs, like Mrs. H’s majlis.” Ava says she started being part of these gatherings when she had just started school: “We had these Qurʾan gatherings at home, and I also used to go with my mom and my aunt to different places.” Mrs. H also speaks fondly of her childhood memories in their home in Shiraz, where she says her father would always host sofrih:
My father in Iran used to host sofrih, like I do here. I remember it from when I was a child; maybe I was ten. People would come from all walks of life—Shias and Sunnis alike, chanting, “Hussein Hussein”16 and doing the rituals. . . . My father always served shirin polo and gheimeh;17 our cook made them—so delicious—and everyone would come to eat. Once I cooked and served shirin polo here too, in memory of my father.
And then she speaks of her mother’s sofrih:
And there was always a sofrih in my mother’s house, God bless her. I was very little then—she had sofrih Bibi Roghayih. They would read Tawassul prayers, and there were bread and cheese and candles. How soothing it was. . . . Imagine when people sit quietly around the sofrih and turn off the lights, how soothing it is. You feel that strange sense of peace and tranquility when it is dark, and the candles are burning—people from all walks of life becoming one as they pray to God.
Similar to how Ava’s mother and aunt are central figures in her retelling of her attendance in Qurʾanic gatherings, Mrs. H’s early experiences of practice of faith are intertwined with memories of her parents and mixed with sensory recollections. Several other women I talked to during my fieldwork, particularly in home-based settings like weekly Qurʾan study groups, recounted experiences of similar gatherings with family “back home” or “as a child”—describing memories involving the taste and smell of the ritual meal, the collective cooking of samanu, the nazri they prepared with other women in the family, the sad tone of the lament, and the long sofrihs spread from wall to wall on the floor.
For many Iranian women, particularly first-generation immigrants, who have a sensory memory of similar experiences back home, Mrs. H’s event and its material components can become a sensory replica of something familiar. Besides the chants and prayers and body movements and ululations built into the ritual performances, the familiar feeling presents itself at a deeper level in everything around the house. It is in the overwhelming smell of rice mixed with fried raisins and lentils that lingers in the space, the bitter black tea (that has over-brewed in the party-size teapot) offered alongside meticulously cut sugar cubes, and the aromatic halva platter that goes around the room with a giant serving spoon. It finds you through the tableau rugs of Qurʾan verses, generic landscapes, and portraits of slightly sexualized young women hanging on the wall in heavy but inexpensive wooden frames that were a staple of many Iranian homes, the elaborately carved display cabinet showcasing crystal dish sets and random memorabilia, the glorious golden samovar sitting on the kitchen counter, the rugs spread from wall to wall leaving no gaps on the floor, and the thermostat on the wall that hasn’t given in to the Fahrenheit system after all these years. The generational mix, the occasional screaming of a kid and the hushing of the mom, the constant whispers and chitchats, the voice of the cantor blasting from amplifiers that are too strong for an indoor space, and even that familiar feeling of your legs going slowly numb as you sit on the floor for three hours—it all serves as a throwback into a typical votive-social gathering in an Iranian home. It reminds me of my aunt’s old house in Iran (now sold and possibly demolished), where I spent the second Friday afternoon of almost every month, or her annual sofrih Abulfazl that served as the much-anticipated slumber party for me and my cousin. Somewhere from the back of my memory emerge the colorful bowls of aromatic saffron rice pudding and small plates of cheese and fresh greens symmetrically arranged on the long white sofrih, the dark living room filled with the sad tone of the rowzih and an occasional uncontrollable wail, or the sound of women’s chitchat that immediately raised after the departure of the male cantor, signaling that there was no more need for the younger ones to stay in the kitchen. Even though I have never had a personal connection to Islamic practices—and, unlike Mrs. H, do not associate their material aspects with a spiritual experience—I can see how the overall atmosphere of the event can be reminiscent of something materially and sensorily familiar, an experience that is sedimented in the body and carries across borders.18
The setup and decorations at Mrs. H’s home are similar to what Hamid Naficy (1993: 152) refers to as “cultural mnemonics,” producing a meaning that establishes “cultural and ethnic continuity.” For the Iranian exilic community, specific decorations are often incorporated intentionally to re-create an idealized homeland and pass on a certain type of cultural memory to the children. In Mrs. H’s home, however, this re-creation seems less intentional or self-conscious and more self-evident. It is the sum total of the sound and sight, smell and taste that evokes and re-creates a familiar sensory memory, without much effort going into consciously and selectively curating different items and spatial elements for their broader symbolism or their reference to a desirable version of the homeland.
In fact, the combination of the sensory elements here is reminiscent of a version of home that cannot find a space within the larger exilic nostalgic narrative. Remembering home in this way is not a common form of nostalgia in the larger discourse of the LA Iranian diasporic community and its emphasis on cutting out anything Islamic. Exilic nostalgia has been studied mainly in relation to a collective “national” identity that draws on a prerevolutionary or pre-Islamic past. This mode of nostalgia is manifested in various forms, including “visual fetishes and nostalgic narratives” of the shah’s era in TV productions of LA Iranians (Naficy 1993), second-generation Iranians’ consumption of prerevolutionary pop music (Maghbouleh 2010), digital circulation of family photo and home video archives (Malek 2019), or sharing photos on social media of individuals’ engagement with Iranian traditions like Nowruz and Chaharshanbe Suri in the diaspora (Alinejad 2017), which link Iranians across borders and generations to a desirable past.
Within the predominant nostalgic narrative of the Iranian diaspora, religion has little to no space. Among the first-generation Iranian diasporic community, with its history of exile tied to the Iranian Islamic regime, there is no common longing for reproducing a faith-related image of the past; on the contrary, it is something that many Iranian expatriates have tried to shed from their collective identity and public imagination. It is also a mode of nostalgia that, unlike prerevolutionary cultural products or images, is not sought after as a means of passing on an “inherited nostalgia” (Maghbouleh 2010) or creating collective “postmemory” for the second generation, about “what once was” and “what could have been” (Malek 2019: 151). It is reminiscent of a past that should not have been. In fact, the traditional modes of practicing Islam are closely intertwined with the tragic representations of the homeland in the present that contrast with its fetishized prerevolutionary and pre-Islamic image (Naficy 1993: 16), deployed to separate Iranians from the current Islamic regime.
In the LA context, a gathering like that of Mrs. H serves as a space for engaging in this mode of unpopular, stigmatized nostalgia. Mrs. H’s event provides a space for legitimately engaging in an experience that is otherwise marked as a manifestation of a conservative, outdated, self-defeating mode of clinging to and conjuring the past. This space can evoke sensory memories of a past that should otherwise be forgotten, shed, and removed from the collective memory of Iranians in the diaspora, and cannot easily find a public manifestation.
In Mrs. H’s home, the materiality of the practice and the copresence of bodies and items, sounds and smells, create an affectively powerful realm that triggers individuals’ sensory memories, connecting them to a familiar realm of experience. While individuals define their own scope of relation to and participation in the shared practice of faith, the collectively re-created space of embodied memory can build an affective connection at the level of the body regardless of how the event is individually approached or labeled from the outside. Amid the contested terrain of religion in LA Iranian lives, Mrs. H’s gathering still manages to offer everyone something to come back for each month—even on the most ordinary Mondays.
My attention to sensory experiences of the body in research is influenced by Dorothy Noyes’s ethnographic work, particularly Fire in the Plaça (Noyes 2003).
Halfie anthropologists, according to Abu-Lughod (1991: 137), are “people whose national or cultural identity is mixed by virtue of migration, overseas education, or parentage.”
As the clip was shared on multiple platforms (Facebook, Telegram, Instagram, Aparat, etc.), comments were from both members of the diaspora and Iranians inside Iran.
Ron Kelley, Jonathan Friedlander, and Anita Colby (1993: 82–85) point to some of the negative reactions toward practicing Muslim Iranians in LA in the 1990s—for instance, casting dirty looks at women with rusari in Iranian restaurants, accusing them of favoring the Iranian regime, spitting or throwing lit cigarettes in their faces, or ending their friendships as soon as someone decided to wear the hijab.
While the reformist tendencies in LA are vastly different from the Islamist movement in Lebanon, they share an emphasis on the need to weed out the superstitious, un-Islamic aspects of the faith and find the true and authentic discourse and practice of Islam.
A common analogy is to compare true Islam to a river that has its source in the Qurʾan but has picked up dirt and twigs—fabrications and perversions—en route to the present day. The responsibility of the reformer is to identify and rid the religion of these impurities.
This is a continuation of IMAN founder Namazi’s weekly home-based prayer and dinner events before the establishment of the mosque, aimed to help Iranians “regain something spiritually lost in their transition to America” without identifying with the IRI’s perspective (Kelley 1993: 84–86).
This is based on my own observations of the mosque’s programs over ten months but is also attested by IMAN’s founder.
یا وجیها عند الله اشفع لنا عند الله (O intimate of Allah, Stand by us when Allah sits in judgment over us).
In Competence in Performance Charles Briggs (1988) addresses the relationship between the performer’s skill and audience reception.
The only faith-based events in LA mosques with comparably high attendance similarly prioritize engaging ritual performances over merely teaching or intellectually reflecting on the Qurʾan.
Her self-positioning as a Muslim in the United States came up in a subsequent conversation, when she mentioned that the US government might want to shut down Qurʾan teaching classes like hers.
The words enclosed in asterisks were spoken in English.
The Bride of Quraysh is a ritual play enacting an encounter between Fatima—the daughter of the Prophet—and a bride of the Quraysh tribe at her wedding. See Kalinock 2015 for a description of the ritual in Tehran.
Collectively calling the name of the third Shia imam is significant in the sense that Sunni Muslims do not believe in the infallibility or the spiritual importance of imams and are not expected to observe rituals for their martyrdom.
Both are typical votive offerings during Shia ceremonies in Iran.
On relying on one’s own bodily perceptions in research, Rodermacher (2016: 314) writes, “While there may be justifiable doubts as to what extent the methodological bodily participation can provide insights into how the observed perceive their own corporeal, mental, and spiritual experience, it is nonetheless useful to consider the researcher’s own physical presence as a possible source of additional data.”