By Sheeva Azma
Note: I wrote this piece in early 2021, shortly after Rep. Stephanie Bice was elected to Congress. I’m publishing it here after pitching it unsuccessfully to both local and national media outlets (then giving up for over a year). I wish it were easier to amplify perspectives that don’t fit a specific narrative…which is why you’ll find the piece below. It has been lightly edited for clarity but otherwise appears the way I wrote it back in 2021.
.@SheevaAzma: Given the politically polarized times we live in, maybe it’s no surprise that my friend @ManaTahaie and I have diametrically opposed views of Rep. Stephanie Bice.Tweet
How can two second-generation Iranian-Americans from Oklahoma have two very different views on the election of the first Iranian-American (also called Persian-American) in Congress, Rep. Stephanie Bice of Oklahoma’s 5th District?
“It’s kind of weird to think that Stephanie Bice and I might have anything in common…I think it’s also pretty cool,” I once wrote about the freshman member of the House of Representatives.
My friend, inclusion and equity consultant and fellow Iranian-Okie Mana Tahaie, has a different perspective: “This is NOT a win for our community,” she tweeted following Bice’s victory in the contentious 5th District Congressional race. Tahaie, a true Oklahoma progressive, says that Bice’s victory over incumbent Kendra Horn, the first Democratic woman elected to Congress in Oklahoma, “was devastating.”
For both Tahaie and I, growing up Persian in the U.S. meant embracing the awkwardness that results from inhabiting two cultural worlds. In one, we were going to Farsi school, listening to Persian-language radio, and watching Iranian satellite TV beamed in from Tehrangeles (the nickname for L.A.’s dense Persian population) or Washington, DC. In the other world, we were speaking English, going to pizza parties, and watching Full House with our American classmates.
Was the future Rep. Bice also strategizing about taming her curly Middle Eastern hair and listening to Persian pop jams with her family like Tahaie and I were back then? That’s what Tahaie and I both want to know. Tahaie’s cousin, who attended high school with Rep. Bice, doesn’t remember the young future Congresswoman, or what she was like back then, at all. We wonder whether Bice avoided otherness in favor of her American roots. Bice “is very deliberate to call herself a fourth-generation Oklahoman,” Tahaie notes, which sidesteps the fact that Bice’s dad is an Iranian immigrant.
Still, it’s clear that Bice embraces some aspects of her Persian identity. For the 2021 Persian New Year (Noruz), she released a video with Persian-American advocacy group PAAIA. In it, Bice wished Persians around the world a Happy Persian New Year, inviting them to celebrate with her on Capitol Hill next time.
“She’s so different from me,” Tahaie says of Bice’s conservative viewpoints. Yet, I feel that her election represents a new, more diverse brand of policymaker. Tahaie and I could not be more divided on this issue.
Stephanie Bice’s Persian Roots
Bice grew up in north Oklahoma City, graduating from Putnam City High School. She then attended Oklahoma State University. At OSU, Bice was a member of Alpha Chi Omega sorority, but was focused on school. In an interview with The Oklahoman’s Chris Casteel, she describes herself as never really being involved in politics or policy in those years, instead working at her family’s business during the dotcom boom.
Rep. Bice calls her upbringing “tough.” Bice’s mom and dad divorced when she was young, and her mom was left to raise her as a single mom, before remarrying to Bice’s stepdad. “She was trying to take care of me, and make sure food was on the table.” Her biological dad now lives in Florida.
Stephanie Bice’s dad, Joe Asady, writes in his memoir that he was born in Iran to a Pakistani dad and Iranian mom. Asady, who grew up in Zahedan, Iran, completed his high schooling and an associate degree in Karachi, Pakistan, then moved to California to attend California Polytechnic Institute. Like many other immigrants, he left for the United States with little more than the clothes on his back and a meager sum of money. Once Asady got to California, though, he realized that the $1000 with which he left Iran wouldn’t be enough to get him through his first semester.
Asady decided to connect with a friend who lived in Oklahoma, who helped him get a job at Christopher’s, a ritzy Oklahoma City restaurant that closed in 1986. Restaurant patrons included the wealthy Hefner family and famous actress and model (and wife to Humphrey Bogart), Lauren Bacall.
Christopher’s where Asady met Rep. Bice’s mom, Paula, a “wheat-fed Oklahoma blonde” with nonconformist tendencies who worked in the restaurant’s hat check. The two married young while Asady completed his degree at Central State University (now the University of Central Oklahoma). This was strategic, Asady writes, as only married couples could live away from campus while completing their studies. Stephanie was born in 1973, the same year her dad graduated from Central State with his degree in Computer Science.
The racism of 1970s Oklahoma took a toll on Joe and Paula’s relationship. Asady discusses the racism he faced as a Middle Eastern man dating a White woman in his memoir: “Good old-fashioned xenophobia was very much alive and well in Oklahoma City in the 70s.” Asady recounts the discrimination he and Paula experienced: “It was hurtful and shaming.” It was also often overt: glares of disapproval, guys in pickup trucks yelling at him, “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.” Political tensions between the US and Iran intensified in the late 1970s, which only made things worse.
Joe and Paula divorced in the late 1970s, which meant that Joe could finally move out of Oklahoma (something that Paula wasn’t too keen about). Joe moved to Norman, then Dallas, then embarked on a personal journey to find inner peace. Today, he lives in Florida with his third wife. Paula, on the other hand, was tasked with raising Stephanie.
As Joe discusses in his memoir, the racism he faced living in Oklahoma was peanuts compared to the discrimination he endured while climbing the corporate ladder in the IT industry. Despite this, he started several successful businesses, became a millionaire, and purchased an office in New York City’s Avenue of the Americas.
Bice also got a start in entrepreneurship working for her father. After graduating from Oklahoma State University with a degree in Marketing, she worked for her father’s technology firm in OKC for several years. After that, Bice was vice president of a boutique digital marketing company before being elected to Oklahoma State Senate, and most recently, to the United States House of Representatives.
Does being Persian influence Bice’s policy priorities? As a freshman member of Congress, Bice has already been selected for the House Armed Services Committee, where we could see her immigrant roots temper her views on foreign policy and war with Iran, for instance. (She’s also on the GOP Science, Space, and Technology Subcommittee.) Bice’s conservative stance on border policy is less hardline than some of her colleagues on the right, calling for immigrant-friendly reforms: “America’s immigration system is broken…we must do better to improve the process,” she wrote on her campaign website in early 2021: “We need to look at immigration reform…it shouldn’t take a decade and hundreds of thousands of dollars to become a legal citizen of this country.”
Nonetheless, she does echo conservative talking points: “We want people to immigrate here, but they have to do it the legal way. Their first experience with immigration should not be an illegal one, so streamlining that process is important,” she told the Oklahoma College Republicans. As she told Casteel in her Oklahoman interview, Bice also believes we should continue to have “tough conversations” on race, and work to end our dependence on foreign oil.
Bice’s Persian Identity
Tahaie has studied issues of race, immigration, and identity in her work, so she knows a lot more about these topics than me. She suggests that Bice could have an internal Persian identity and an external political identity that “dilutes her ethnicity or otherness.” But, as she says, measuring anyone by their “level of Persianness” is a form of gatekeeping. “Who’s to decide what the litmus test or indicators of ethnic identity are — especially growing up in Oklahoma where there are fewer opportunities to have immersive [Persian] experiences?” she says.
Growing up in the U.S. as the child of immigrant(s) “often involves a lot of different milestones” such as the desire to distance oneself from one’s ethnic identity: not inviting friends home, not taking your culture’s food to school, refusing to speak your heritage language, and so on. For both Tahaie and I, growing up Persian in Oklahoma meant a lot of explaining our culture to people. Tahaie says she rejected her otherness at some points, “because frankly, it had negative consequences for me.” The xenophobia surrounding the Oklahoma City bombing, followed shortly thereafter by the anti-Muslim backlash of 9/11, did not help with the identity issues we faced.
Tahaie recounts times she rejected her American friends to hang out with her Persian friends, and vice versa. “None of those moments in my life made me more or less Persian. When I was completely rejecting my culture, I was just as Iranian as when I was spending time exploring my Iranian identity.”
What Does Bice’s Election mean for Persian-Americans?
Tahaie says that, as Persians, we are on the first leg of a larger journey towards greater civic participation. “We’re still a relatively new diaspora in the United States … we’re still young when it comes to organizing our community … [and] developing a shared community identity. We have not been as focused on integration into the American fabric, but on our own personal ability to succeed in this country – get educated; get stable, well-paying jobs; economic stability for our children and our grandchildren. We’re only in the first few years of working towards greater government and media representation.”
Just as we’re divided on our opinion of Bice, we differ on our opinion of what Bice’s election means for Persians in Oklahoma and in the United States in general.
What does representation mean by itself? Is it an end in and of itself, or is it a means to something else?
“Leaders and activists of color say ‘not all of our skinfolk are our kinfolk.’ All representation is not good representation. [Bice’s election] is not enough for me,” Tahaie says. Regarding my enthusiasm regarding Bice’s election, Tahaie suggests I may be examining my identity development using Rep. Bice as a vehicle to observe my own experiences and local community.
I say that Bice’s election is just one indicator that Congress is slowly becoming more representative of the people who it governs. According to The Pew Research Center, 27% of seats in Congress are now held by women – the most ever. People with diverse life experiences are more likely to consider all of the different problems affecting the American people. In my view, Bice’s election paves the way for other Persian women to run for, and be elected to, Congress.