Karishma Patel, 32, knows that if she marries outside of her religion, her aunts and uncles in India may not show up.
Patel is an MBA student at Columbia University and while her parents push her to excel in academia, she feels a different kind of pressure from relatives in India. “If I married a non, I don’t know if they would come to my wedding,” she said. “I hope they would.”
When Patel says “a non,” she means a non-Zoroastrian. She is an active member of the small Zoroastrian community in New York City, a member of a religion that was founded approximately 3,500 years ago and is one of the oldest monotheistic religions in the world. It may be in an ancient religion, but its members are dwindling—by 11% between 2004 and 2012, according to the 2012 demographics study published by the Federation of Zoroastrian Associations of North America.
The study also found that while there was an increase in numbers in North America, there were indications of future decline because of assimilation. The report’s authors stated that they expect the decrease “to be exacerbated in succeeding generations, unless we take pro-active measures now.” More than 25% of children from intermarriages choose not to follow the Zoroastrian faith, a cause for major concern, with a 36% increase in intermarriages between 2009 and 2011.
As such, young Zoroastrians are facing dual pressures: finding an acceptable spouse in order to sustain the religion and preserve their culture.
“I think it’s really hard to find someone that you connect with and whose lifestyle is similar to the lifestyle you want to live,” Patel said. “So to add another layer of complexity onto that just makes it harder. Like, why would you do that?”
Zoroastrians believe in “manashni, gavashni, kunashni,” also known as good thoughts, good words, good deeds. They worship one god named Ahura Mazda and they believe that water and fire are agents of ritual purity. There are pockets of Zoroastrians scattered throughout Persia, India, Europe, and North America.
The reason their numbers have been dwindling for years is because of their strict conversion laws. Some Zoroastrians do not believe that outsiders should be able to convert into the religion and others think that the children of only one Zoroastrian parent are not truly part of the religion. In general, reformist Zoroastrians accept converts to the religion and traditionalists do not. Some traditionalists, however, accept spouses and the offspring of mixed marriages. Yet there is no overarching power like a pope in Zoroastrianism, so councils and high priests have local authority. Because of this, conversion policies are varied, especially in North America.
Farah Minwalla, 25, a young Zoroastrian from Astoria, says she, too, has felt pressured by her parents to marry within the religion—because of both the religion’s decline in numbers, but also to preserve the culture. “They’ve always been pretty hands off,” she said. “But I know for a fact that they would strongly prefer me to marry within the faith.”
Both Minwalla and Patel explained that while they have felt pressure to marry within the community, ultimately they plan to marry whomever they please. Patel emphasized, however, the importance of whomever she ends up with having similar values to that of her faith. Most of the Zoroastrians she knows who were born here, she said, “did end up marrying other Zoroastrians.”
“So I guess it’s not as common to not care,” Patel added.
Various actions have been taken to stop the religion’s decline in numbers. The Indian government, in fact, sponsored a campaign aimed at pushing one group of young Zoroastrians (Parsis) to get married and have multiple children as quickly as possible. A collection of advertisements showed real couples and captions like, “Be responsible. Don’t use a condom tonight.”
“The ads made everyone take note of the problem, through satire, and humor, they created a buzz and focused attention on the different reasons Parsi’s were declining,” said Dr. Shernaz Cama, a member of the executive team behind the campaign. “We have got a good response now from the general Parsi population….Some may be annoyed, but they are all finally aware.”
The campaign addressed Zoroastrian concerns not just in India, but all over the globe. But many felt it only served to add to the pressure young Zoroastrians already feel. “I just think those campaigns create too much pressure for people,” Patel said. “There’s already too much pressure around. Everyone knows that the religion is dying.”
It’s tough to meet an age-appropriate Zoroastrian because of the religion’s low numbers. There are 14,306 total in the U.S., according to the 2012 report. But even this number is unreliable, said Homi D. Gandhi, the vice president of the Federation of Zoroastrian Associations of North America. With no accurate current census and no money to pay for one, he said, Zoroastrians cannot be sure how low their numbers have dipped.
Minwalla said she grew up in Las Vegas and explained that hers was the only Zoroastrian family in the area. Because of this, she did not meet other members of the religion until she attended a youth conference with her parents when she was 16. And while she acknowledged that such conferences can be helpful for that reason, she does not believe that dating should be their main objective.
“We all just want to raise the numbers of our community, but it’s the way we’re going about it that’s the problem. And I can’t sit here and give a better reason or a better methodology as to how we are going to do this,” she said. “I don’t think anybody knows. That’s why there are these terrible ideas going around.”
Young Zoroastrians in North America also find the question of marriage within the community coming up at their annual youth conferences. A Zoroastrian World Youth Congress happens every four years and a North American Zoroastrian Youth Congress occurs every two years. Later in the year, from Dec. 28 to Jan. 2, the World Youth Congress will be held in New Zealand. Officials have already received 80 registrations, and expect at least 300. The last World Youth Congress had about 500 attendees.
The conferences are advertised as a means to bring together young Zoroastrians between the ages of 15 and 35 to socialize and learn about their heritage. Tinaz Karbhari, the chair of the sixth annual World Zoroastrian Youth Congress, believes the conference will provide attendees with a chance to network on both a professional and social level.
But many members of the community believe the congresses have an unwritten motive: to have young Zoroastrians meet, date, and marry. “I think a lot of people share this same sentiment that these things are kind of just a place to find a man if you’re 40 and you haven’t done so,” Minwalla said. “I feel that they really are kind of pushing guys and girls to hook up and get married.”
“I would love to date a Zoroastrian,” she continued. “But I’m not going to have it done in a setting that is pre-meditated on just doing that. I think that’s just not authentic.”
Yet Minwalla also worries about marrying outside the community. Children from such mixed marriages can be denied entrance to their places of worship, called fire temples. “I have not had to deal with discrimination on that level, being that both of my parents are Zoroastrian,” Minwalla said. “But I have had friends who are half and half and they get called mean things, and I think it’s unnecessary.”