How Zoroastrianism influences my life

A religion for the 21st century. What being a Zoroastrian means in day-to-day life.

I feel privileged to be a Zoroastrian. This is not only because I am part of a living tradition that is over three thousand years old, but also because it is a such a modern and dynamic religion with an ethical system that still offers sound values for the 21st century.

Many of the things that I have become or do are the unconscious result of values and knowledge instilled in me from my childhood. I am green! I was a general election candidate and still believe that one of our core concerns which has been woefully neglected is our abuse of the environment.

And one of the things that may have caused this and still means a lot in my life is celebration of the arrival of Spring. For in the Zoroastrian calendar, the first day of spring marks the arrival of the New Year or Nowruz, which is also still celebrated by all Iranian peoples who in the distant past had a Zoroastrian culture, including the Kurds, the Tajiks and the Afghans.

A ceremonial table on which we display 7 life sustaining examples of God’s creation each Nowruz day (which begin with the sound “Sh” or in the case of Iranian Muslims “S”) has deep resonances within my soul and which I find aesthetically enriching.

I do this still each year as does my brother because we still love this ritual and also in the hope that our children, although the product of non Zoroastrian spouses, will absorb the beauty and meaning of such a ritual and retain memories of their Zoroastrian heritage also.

I was brought up to be green by my dad who almost daily gave homilies about the need to respect the environment, not polluting water nor the air nor the earth.

As I have grown older, I have begun to understand why it was my parents were so concerned to pass on what they could to myself and my brother. As a result of my early upbringing, slightly aware as a child that there was something different in our home life from my other English classmates, my curiousity and interest was certainly kindled, and offered a little insight into what I discovered later to be an amazingly rich religious/cultural background.

I was brought up by parents who were strongly aware that they were passing to me a very ancient torch whose flame was still burning with the light that had been passed down through millennia. This awareness was instilled by rituals as well as being spoken about. Therefore I grew up in a home environment where I saw my parents reciting their prayers each morning facing either the window where the English sun was usually woefully absent or a sometimes a light. I remember that each evening when it was dark enough to put on the light, it was greeted with a special little phrase.

Such daily rituals along side the 4 special days in each month when meat was not consumed in respect to animals who used to be treated with special attention and care on these days back in my parents’ home context of Yazd in Iran, made me realise that mine was not just a run of the mill background.

I and my brother were taught our prayers by my father and were taken to Iran for our first visit which was the occasion of our initiation ceremony known as Sedreh Pushi or putting on the Sedreh. In fact it should be called Koshti pushi as the most important symbol of becoming an initiate is the tying of the sacred cord or koshti which is subsequently supposed to be done each day, thus repeating the commitment to the faith on a daily basis. The fact is that neither of my parents nor any other Iranian Zoroastrians that I have come across do this in contrast to the many Parsees we know. The exception was always those Iranian Zoroastrians who had spent any considerably length of time in India where they invariably Parseefied and came back more devout in the observation of such and other rituals.

The Zoroastrian Work Ethic is something which I have learnt from my parents and see reflected throughout our community. I suppose it is something that has become ingrained in us partly as a result of our social history of virtual extermination, and economic hardship. Therefore everyone works hard to better their prospects and that of their children. It is also true that we have been told that we carry the responsibility to maintain the reputation Zoroastrians appear to have earned for honesty and integrity from centuries back as attested by European commentators in Iran and certainly as attested in India by those employing Parsees such as the British. Thus we have learnt that the greatest pleasure is to enjoy the money that has been earned through honest labour, and intelligent use.

My parents who arrived in the UK as immigrants with nothing but their own brains – no family network to sustain them through the hard times in post war Britain – lived very modestly and our childhood was loving but hardly full of luxuries. Hard work and thrift were the key qualities that allowed them to educate us well, stressing that education was the route to achievement of material benefits as well as status. And yet despite their evident modest lifestyle, they always set aside a modest amount of money annually to donate to charities in the UK telling us that Zoroastrians have always been charitable. Indeed there is plenty of evidence of this among Parsee charitable institutions in India. It is part of our ethic. However wretched we may think our own plight, there are always others who can be identified as even more desperate.

As for me, I like to think that this aspect of Zoroastrian ethics has been reflected in how I live. It is not right merely to take from society, but also to return back, to remember those less fortunate than ourselves. For this reason I have helped to co-found a skills foundation for our community members and offer such advice and support as I can to those who seek assistance to me.

One final thing that I feel important to mention that I have learnt from my faith is the importance of joy and celebration. We have many festivals which provide the occasion to meet eat and be merry. We dance and sing together and try to generate a positive joyous supportive feeling in company with each other. My parents’ home was always a sanctuary where visiting Zoroastrians would gather to celebrate festivals and I try to continue this tradition by opening my home specially to those with young children who have no family to support and provide comfort.

Shahin Bakhradnia is the grand daughter of a renown Yazdi priest/poet of 19th century. She grew up in England, and has published and lectured on Zoroastrianism.
Paul McMillan
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"We're an easy target": how a Tory manifesto pledge will tear families apart

Under current rules, bringing your foreign spouse to the UK is a luxury reserved for those earning £18,600 a year or more. The Tories want to make it even more exclusive. 

Carolyn Matthew met her partner, George, in South Africa sixteen years ago. She settled down with him, had kids, and lived like a normal family until last year, when they made the fateful decision to move to her hometown in Scotland. Matthew, 55, had elderly parents, and after 30 years away from home she wanted to be close to them. 

But Carolyn nor George - despite consulting a South African immigration lawyer – did not anticipate one huge stumbling block. That is the rule, introduced in 2012, that a British citizen must earn £18,600 a year before a foreign spouse may join them in the UK. 

“It is very dispiriting,” Carolyn said to me on the telephone from Bo’ness, a small town on the Firth of Forth, near Falkirk. “In two weeks, George has got to go back to South Africa.” Carolyn, who worked in corporate complaints, has struggled to find the same kind of work in her hometown. Jobs at the biggest local employer tend to be minimum wage. George, on the other hand, is an engineer – yet cannot work because of his holiday visa. 

To its critics, the minimum income threshold seems nonsensical. It splits up families – including children from parents – and discriminates against those likely to earn lower wages, such as women, ethnic minorities and anyone living outside London and the South East. The Migration Observatory has calculated that roughly half Britain’s working population would not meet the requirement. 

Yet the Conservative party not only wishes to maintain the policy, but hike the threshold. The manifesto stated:  “We will increase the earnings thresholds for people wishing to sponsor migrants for family visas.” 

Initially, the threshold was justified as a means of preventing foreign spouses from relying on the state. But tellingly, the Tory manifesto pledge comes under the heading of “Controlling Immigration”. 

Carolyn points out that because George cannot work while he is visiting her, she must support the two of them for months at a time without turning to state aid. “I don’t claim benefits,” she told me. “That is the last thing I want to do.” If both of them could work “life would be easy”. She believes that if the minimum income threshold is raised any further "it is going to make it a nightmare for everyone".

Stuart McDonald, the SNP MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, co-sponsored a Westminster Hall debate on the subject earlier this year. While the Tory manifesto pledge is vague, McDonald warns that one option is the highest income threshold suggested in 2012 - £25,700, or more than the median yearly wage in the East Midlands. 

He described the current scheme as “just about the most draconian family visa rules in the world”, and believes a hike could affect more than half of British citizens. 

"Theresa May is forcing people to choose between their families and their homes in the UK - a choice which most people will think utterly unfair and unacceptable,” he said.  

For those a pay rise away from the current threshold, a hike will be demoralising. For Paul McMillan, 25, it is a sign that it’s time to emigrate.

McMillan, a graduate, met his American girlfriend Megan while travelling in 2012 (the couple are pictured above). He could find a job that will allow him to meet the minimum income threshold – if he were not now studying for a medical degree.  Like Matthew, McMillan’s partner has no intention of claiming benefits – in fact, he expects her visa would specifically ban her from doing so. 

Fed up with the hostile attitude to immigrants, and confident of his options elsewhere, McMillan is already planning a career abroad. “I am going to take off in four years,” he told me. 

As for why the Tories want to raise the minimum income threshold, he thinks it’s obvious – to force down immigration numbers. “None of this is about the amount of money we need to earn,” he said. “We’re an easy target for the government.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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