Communication Currents

Uncovering Face: How Two Generations of South Asian Indian Americans Navigate “Izzat”

June 1, 2014
Intercultural Communication

The Persian-Urdu word “izzat,” which means honor, embodies the essence of the experience of face in India. In diaspora, the United States, South Asian Indian Americans (SAIA)—the second largest Asian American community—have taken the concept of izzat and shaped it to suit the reality of their quest to rigidly maintain their traditional values and culture against the pressures of assimilation.

Izzat has become the medium through which different generations navigate through cultural realities, as well as an important factor in the understanding of the SAIA community.

This study set out to document the different perspectives of izzat among the SAIA community and gain a deeper understanding of the processes through which it has evolved. We divided this into two broad questions. First, what are the different meanings of face (izzat) among SAIA? Second, what are the differences and similarities in dealing with issues of maintaining face (izzat) between different generations?

The study concentrated on the SAIA community in Southern California, assembling an interview group of six individuals from first generation immigrants (older generation) and six of their second-generation children (younger generation). They were interviewed, and the analysis of the transcripts generated some interesting finds.

The different meanings of face (izzat) 

The meaning of izzat in the community has been forced to undergo constant reinvention by various factors, including geographical distance from the country of origin, differences in world view between generations, and the pressures of assimilation from U.S. American society.

From honor to respect 

One of the biggest changes in meaning between generations is the true meaning of izzat. While the older generation of immigrants had once accepted izzat as a matter of family honor and lived within harsh and rigid rules to maintain that honor, the younger generation has forced a reconsideration of both the rigidity and intensity of its meaning. Today, izzathas more to do with showing respect towards the older generation and its traditional values and customs to maintain izzatthan about the fierce protection of family honor. Respect forms a ritual-like act that allows for a fluid negotiation where the boundaries of maintaining izzat are set.

From extended to immediate family 

Within the context of preserving public izzat, the parameters for family boundaries change when moving from the older generation to the younger one. While the older generation had been mindful of the izzat of the extended family, the younger generation seems only to be concerned with maintaining it for the immediate family.

Differences in emotional response 

Emotion plays an important role in how both generations deal with constant scrutiny from the izzat-dependent community. The older generation emphasizes attention to every detail of life, and any affront causes extreme emotional response in the form of anger. Conversely, the younger generation resents constant scrutiny and emotionally lashes out against the more vigilant approach. These two emotional responses are grounds for conflict between generations.

Similarities and differences in engaging with izzat 

The means and mediums through which both generations navigate the complex rules and consequences of preservingizzat bring to light some interesting coping and learning mechanisms. Similarities anddifferences betray both the hold that izzat has on the community and the differences in dealing with its specifics.

Managing face boundaries in embarrassing situations 

When it comes to defining the boundaries of izzat and dealing with the fallout of challenging them, the two generations follow different paths. The younger generation often will test the resolve of the older generation to protect the boundaries of izzat. Interestingly, the boundaries frequently are different according to the gender. Violations like drunkenness apply to males, while pre-marital sex and pregnancy apply to females. The older generation tolerates embarrassment to a point, following which it begins to take measures to conceal the source of embarrassment or begins to keep a low profile so as not to invite the consequences of lost izzat

Dispelling grounds for gossip 

SAIA families strongly emphasize extreme secrecy about family issues. Members of the older generation stress the need to ensure those outside the family have no fuel for gossip that would result in loss of izzat. The younger generation, while maintaining this principle, tries to restrict secrecy only for the benefit of the immediate family.

The effects of acculturation and socialization on izzat

The process of acculturation puts a strain on how much protection should be given to face. While the younger generation is concerned about face with the immediate family, the older generation clings to traditional definitions of the boundaries of what it means to be a member of the extended family. However, given the large geographical distances between the immediate family and the extended family and larger community, as well as their own engagement with American culture, attitudes toward maintaining izzat may be more relaxed.

Bollywood as a teacher: In addition, for many in the younger generation, Bollywood is the medium through which they get their first understanding of izzat. Bollywood also presents izzat to them in a completely different context from that of their parents. This leads many to question the more rigid face rules of diaspora, as Bollywood has, especially in recent times, begun to question the rigidity and boundaries of izzat in South Asia.

What insight did we gain into izzat and communication between generations of SAIAs? 

Our study found that subversion of izzat by the younger generation led to the older generation questioning traditional belief systems and encouraging them to reframe their expectations of izzat within the community. This highlights how the older generation is aware of the bicultural identity challenges it and the younger generation confront.

One of our most important findings was related to how the meaning of izzat has changed from a rigid honor-based system to a more fluid ritual of respect. This is in contrast to previous studies, indicating the depth to which the above mentioned subversion has led to a softening in stance by the older generation.

Our study also adds a layer in the complex understanding of face in Asian American diaspora groups. It also revealed the importance of acculturation in the diaspora communities renegotiating their rigid stance on family face and managing conflicts between the older and younger generations in each community.

About the author (s)

Noorie Baig

University of New Mexico

Doctoral Candidate