Why Isn’t Anyone Talking about The First Persian-American Ever Elected to Congress?

By Sheeva Azma

Stephanie Bice is the first Persian-American elected to U.S. Congress.

Persian-Americans (also known as Iranian-Americans) are very outspoken on issues such as immigration and U.S. foreign policy that affect their daily life — yet  they have also traditionally avoided participation in U.S. politics. As the first Persian mayor of Beverly Hills, Jimmy Delshad, has said, Persians have a general mistrust of government, perhaps relating to their experiences in Iran. “When [Iranians] come here, they try to stay under the radar,” Delshad says. Many Iranian immigrants have settled into their life in the United States and have children who inhabit two worlds as Persian-Americans. And one of those immigrants, Joe Asady, is the father of the first Persian-American in Congress, Rep. Stephanie Bice.

photo of rep. stephanie bice
Stephanie Bice, the first Persian-American in U.S. Congress. Source: Wikipedia / House of Representatives Creative Committee.

Living in two cultural worlds is difficult. Maybe that’s why Rep. Bice is someone that does not openly talk about her background. She’s also not who you think. Calling herself “proven conservative,” the first Persian-American in Congress is a Republican. She supports our troops, is pro-life, and has earned an A rating from the National Rifle Association. She is also a fourth-generation Oklahoman.

Congresswoman Bice represents Oklahoma’s 5th district, which includes Oklahoma City, the state’s capitol and a liberal bastion in a deeply red state. The marketing and tech professional and former Oklahoma State Senator narrowly ousted Democratic incumbent Kendra Horn in a bitter race. Though Rep. Bice represents a red state, her district is largely purple. In Oklahoma county, where the vast majority of Bice’s constituents live, Trump led Biden by only 1.1% of the vote.

The identity politics of Bice’s election are complex. When Bice was elected in November 2020, her Persian-American background was the focus of a few tweets by the GOP and Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans (PAAIA), for instance, and various smaller news outlets serving Iranians and Iranian-Americans. In an article by the New York Times discussing her win, for example, there was no mention of her background at all. Liberal Persian-Americans are not excited about her win. As someone wrote on Stephanie Bice’s Instagram page, “I was going to recommend some excellent Persian restaurants in the DC Metro area, but then I saw you were Republican.” Yet, there were also some positive reactions on social media. One Twitter user wrote, “Stephanie Bice is Persian 😱 yasss queen!”

Indeed, identity politics become complicated when many members of your ethnic background do not share your political views. Take, for example, Nikki Haley, former South Carolina governor and United Nations ambassador, and, according to the Wall Street Journal, a serious contender in the 2024 presidential race. Haley is the daughter of Indian Sikh immigrants, and she has spoken openly about the challenges of growing up ethnic in South Carolina. Haley recounts that, when she used to complain about her classmates treating her differently, her mother would remind her, “Your job is not to talk about how you’re different. Your job is to show everybody how you’re similar,” as the Clemson newspaper reports.

Still, it’s puzzling that nobody else is talking about the first Persian-American in Congress either. The Persian community was abuzz when Anousheh Ansari became the first Persian-American to travel to space, and the world rejoiced when Babak Ferdowsi of NASA landed the Mars Rover. When Jimmy Delshad was elected, Persians worldwide rejoiced in what they viewed as greater representation of their ethnic group.

It’s time that we started acknowledging the complex, but important aspects of ethnic identity in politics. Just because a candidate does not offer up that information themselves does not mean that their background is not important to them. Furthermore, political polarization has progressed to an ironic extent — that a Persian-American elected from the Republican party is essentially disowned by her colleagues on the left, when the improvement in Persian-American government should be celebrated as an achievement for Persians, and particularly Persian women, in politics.

Stephanie Bice’s Persian Roots

Many Iranians had flocked to Oklahoma in the 1960s and 1970s due to the low cost of living. Azar Nafisi talks about the influx of Iranian students to the University of Oklahoma, where she obtained her PhD, in her book, Reading Lolita in Tehran. Stephanie Bice’s dad, Joe Asady, arrived in Oklahoma much like many others did: partly by chance, and with very little to show for himself, he writes in his memoir. Asady was born in Zahedan, Iran to a Pakistani dad and Iranian mom. After a stop in Peshawar, Pakistan for high school and an associate’s degree, Asady moved to California with $1000 in his pocket to attend Cal Poly. Once he got there, he didn’t have enough money to study there. So he looked up a friend he knew from a while back who was in Oklahoma. His friend helped him get a job working as a waiter at Christopher’s, a ritzy restaurant (which closed in 1986) that frequently served the Hefner oil and gas magnate family and people like Lauren Bacall. That’s where he met Stephanie Bice’s mom, Paula, who worked in hat check. Paula was a “beautiful Oklahoman girl” with a “rebellious streak,” as Asady describes in his memoir.

Paula and Joe married young — she was 18, and he was 20. Joe graduated with a degree in computer science from Central State (now the University of Central Oklahoma) in 1973, the same year Stephanie was born. At the time, “Good old-fashioned xenophobia was very much alive and well in Oklahoma City in the 70s,” writes Joe Asady in his memoir. He and Paula also experienced a lot of racism as an inter-ethnic couple. “It was hurtful and shaming,” he writes in his memoir. “I had hoped America would be more evolved than that.”

“Everywhere we went together, we drew glares of disapproval. It seemed folks were not too wild about seeing a dark, Middle-Eastern-looking guy escorting a wheat-fed Oklahoma blonde around town…discrimination we experienced was often overt. Guys in pickup trucks and bars would yell at me; sometimes they’d toss a beer bottle to make their point. Merchants would give us attitude. Clerks and waiters would hesitate to serve us. Not all the time — plenty of people were great — but enough to create a pattern.” While, Asady says, Stephanie’s mom liked the negative attention, he hated it, “though it was nothing compared to the discrimination I would later face when trying to climbed the corporate ladder in IT world,” as he writes in his memoir. Joe and Paula divorced a few years later, with Paula retaining custody of Stephanie.

Joe became an incredibly successful entrepreneur in the tech world, starting 13 businesses, becoming a millionaire, and obtaining an office on Avenue of the Americas in New York city. Rep. Bice has clearly inherited an entrepreneurial streak from her father.  After college, she worked as a marketing manager for her dad’s technology company in Oklahoma City for eight years. She then went on to serve as VP of a boutique digital marketing company for two years before being elected to the Oklahoma State Senate. 

Bice appears to remain close with her father, who mentions her several times in her memoir, and retweets her tweets frequently on his Twitter account. In an Instagram update posted a couple of weeks after her Congressional win, Bice writes that she is “Thankful for my parents and in-laws for believing in me.”

Despite not being outspoken regarding her Persian background, Bice appears to embrace it. On her Instagram, she posted a photo from a traditional Persian wedding she attended. She also recently wished Iranian-Americans a happy Norouz.

What are Bice’s Policy Priorities as a Persian-American?

So, what does the first Persian-American member of Congress have to say on issues such as immigration and foreign policy? She supports sanctions on Iran and is opposed to the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action (JCPOA) or “Iran nuclear deal.” Bice recently cosponsored H.Res.157, supporting continued sanctions for Iran and condemning the Iranian government’s gross human rights violations and escalations of their rogue nuclear program.

On the topic of immigration, Bice’s conservative stance seems to be tempered by her immigrant roots. “America’s immigration system is broken. Stephanie believes we must first enforce strong border protections…however, for those that want to enter our country legally, either to become a citizen or for work purposes, we must do better to improve the process,” her campaign website states.

Bice has recently been appointed to the House Armed Services Committee, which oversees military policy and spending. She is also on the Science, Space, and Technology Committee. In these committees, she will be tasked with reviewing bills, and overseeing agencies, programs, and activities related to these topics.

photo of us capitol building rotunda
Photo by Joshua Sukoff on Unsplash

Is Bice’s Election a win for Persian-Americans?

Regardless of political affiliation, research suggests that Rep. Bice’s election is generally a win for Persian-Americans. According to a report from the Niskanen Center, electing people from particular demographic groups can benefit that demographic. Yet, people who have dual ethnic identities may hide their identities to fit in. That should be no secret, but research out of The Pike Center reiterates what we already know as a society: “both individuals and groups can have multiple identities, each of which is exploited as appropriate. In other words, when a person has two identities, they would like to inhabit both — but the truth is that their identities are part of separate worlds. The Pike Center researchers study members of the Talysh community, an Iranian ethnic group in Azerbaijan. The Talysh act like Azerbaijanis when they are in society. In their smaller Talysh communities, they are free to be Talysh.

It’s kind of weird to think that Stephanie Bice and I have anything in common — let alone to have that be loud, boisterous relatives and chelo kabob — but I think it’s also pretty cool.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: