Growing Up Between Iranian And Western Culture And Building A Cultural Identity

canadian iranian sara
Portrait of Sara – ©Aissa Sica

Growing up in different cultures can make harder to find your cultural identity and yourself. In my article, The French Concept Of French Identity and Assimilation in France, I’ve explained how I felt about my cultural identity while growing up in France. Sara is 26 years old, grew up in Canada and is of Iranian origin. I met her for the first time, in July 2018, when she came back from her few months stay in Iran. As Sara made me curious about her experience in Iran, I interviewed her last February. Sara tells us more about the construction of her cultural and religious identity between Iran and the West.

 A weak of sense belonging to Canada

In the western collective imaginary, Canada often reminds us of a multicultural society, living in harmony. Yet, like any multicultural society, Canada oscillates between integration, assimilation, and acculturation.

Sara grew up thinking she was Canadian. As time went on, she understood people should embody a Canadian ideal. This ideal corresponds to a monocultural vision of the Canadian culture. Celebrations such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, and Victoria Day are celebrated. Regarding sports, ice hockey is considered the most popular one. In terms of Canadian cuisine, poutine or butter tarts are part of national dishes.

‘Canadian culture is still linked to a white-dominated narrative’, says Sara, with a hint of bitterness.

Due to the weak sense belonging to Canada, Sara started to take a greater interest in her Iranian culture, to rely more on that cultural identity. Iran is not lacking in clichés and misconceptions: All the women wear the chador, Iran is a dangerous country, Iranians are Arab. I asked Sara’s positive views about Iran before I found out more about her stay of a few months and her impressions of her country.

The good sides we never tell you about Iran

Social relationships influenced by hospitality and politeness

Iranians have a culture of hospitality and a code of politeness that influences social relations: the ta’ârof. According to the article The Iranian Code of Politeness (ta’ârof) or the fiction of social bond (article only available in French), ‘it represents a code of politeness governing almost all interpersonal relationships and embracing multiple forms: giving up the first place, greeting someone with kindness, inviting them to lunch, offering a gift with insistence or refusing this gift, all this enters the sphere of the ta’ârof and is indifferently designated by the verbal locution ta’ârof kardan, ‘doing ta’ârof ’. This is characterized by forced humility (for some) or insistent generosity. Here is a video to give you an idea of what it is.

From a Western perspective, this could be seen as hypocrisy. I would rather say it is a code of courtesy, used by Iranians to bring out their friendliness. Iranians will not hesitate to invite you to their homes and introduce you to their country in their own way. 

Iranian Food

I don’t know if you have ever been tried Iranian food ? Personally I didn’t but only heard good things about it. I will let you watch this video, to know more about Iranian food and which will surely make you hungry.

Source : Amir Tavassoly

Stunning landscapes

Another reason to go to Iran is the breathtaking variety of landscapes. Sara could not point out the most beautiful place. But there is one place that especially impressed her during her stay in Iran: the small island of Hormuz, located in the south of the country, is full of diverse landscapes, each of them revealing their beauty. You can find glittery black sand, coloured stones or reddish water. This diversity of landscapes can also be found throughout the country. You will find a rather lush landscape along the Caspian Sea, the Persian Gulf in the south, the Dasht-e Lut desert in southeast Iran and several mountain ranges throughout the country.

Sara recommends, to whoever she can, visiting her country and visiting cities other than just Tehran, Isfahan and Shiraz. This is usually the classic route for tourists visiting Iran. If you wish to discover the country in another way, she strongly advises visiting Kurdistan or other regions where ethnic minorities live.

I have listed three positive aspects (yes, I know it’s not enough). If you are still not convinced to visit Iran, I let you watch this video, which plays with the negative clichés about Iran: 

Source : Tolt around the world

Wanting to return to her place of birth, Sara had returned to Iran for a few months to learn more about her country.

The physical appearance: a priority in Iranian society

Before going to Iran, Sara had hoped she would finally belong somewhere. Disappointed by the fact that she will never really be ‘truly Canadian’, she thought that by reconnecting with her roots, she would be in a community in which she would find herself. But by growing up in Canada, she did not have the same perspective on many things and had difficulty understanding people’s strong opinions on certain topics.

Sara was particularly bothered by the worship of the Eurocentric beauty standards. Many women dye their hair blonde and/or have nose jobs. ‘People don’t realize that they are adapting to Western standards of beauty, standards of beauty who come from colonial history.’ Rhinoplasty is very common in Iran. The aesthetic and social aspect plays a role. It is a sign of belonging to a wealthy social class and a factor of emancipation.

Women must wear the hijab and dress in such a way as to cover the body parts. By consequence, the face becomes a means of expression, through make-up and plastic surgery, without so many constraints to follow. Iran is reportedly the second-largest cosmetics consumer country in the Middle East, accounting for 4.5% of spending on cosmetics, which is much higher than in France, where 1.7% of spending is on cosmetics, Iran had even the highest number of surgeries in the world in 2013. More than 200,000 operations had been carried out on a total population of 77 million.

Sara doesn’t really understand why there is so much interest in aesthetics. She would like the same enthusiasm for the preservation of Iranian cultural traditions, which are sometimes neglected, such as poetry. Nevertheless, some Iranian women abroad decide to reconnect with their culture, their physical aspect, by detaching themselves from Western influence. Not only the obsession with physical beauty that shocked her but racism against Afghans as well.

Anti-Afghan sentiment in Iran

Iranians protest discrimination against members of the country’s embattled Afghan migrant community. (file photo) – Source :

Unfortunately, there is no country in which racism, xenophobia, bigotry, do not exist. Sara was horrified by the strong Anti-Afghan sentiment present in Iran.‘Before the war in Syria, Pakistan, and Iran were the countries that received the most refugees’, says Sara. Afghan ‘migrants ’, refugees or asylum seekers, are estimated to be between 2.5 and 3 million. Their status is rarely legalized even if they were born in Iran and therefore, not recognized by the Iranian government.

As a result, they cannot benefit from the school system, cannot obtain Iranian citizenship and are often exploited. Afghan workers, employees, earn much less than Iranians, whether they are graduated or not. They are assigned specific occupations in the primary and secondary sectors. Afghans can not also own a house, have a bank account, be an employer, and in some areas, Afghans are prohibited from residing there, according to the Middle East Eye.

Generalizations are made about Afghan people as they are exploited and do not have the right to education: they are seen as poor, not educated, backward or even inferior. These clichés are thus entrenched in people’s minds and are conveyed by the media. Last March 2019, a TV show in Iran entered into controversy when in one of the episodes, one of the characters, as a punishment, is forced to marry an Afghan who is poor, submissive and unattractive. In one of the scenes, the Afghan man kisses the father’s hand. Many Afghans considered this depiction as humiliating.

Despite the strong anti-Afghan sentiment, awareness is rising with debates and exhibitions.

Sara felt quite out of place as an Iranian-Canadian. Therefore, for many locals, she is not considered ‘truly Iranian’. Not truly Canadian, not truly Iranian? This is how being in two cultures looks like. Her questioning at the cultural identity level was also done at the religious level.

Sara and her spiritual practice

Sara grew up in a Muslim family. She had two role models in her family. On one hand, her father’s traditional Iranian practice. On the other hand, her mother, born and raised in Germany, has a more critical approach, by constantly questioning herself. When she was young, Sara thought she should be involved in religion as much as possible as by taking her mother as a role model, it encouraged her. However, many questions in mind remained unanswered. That’s when she started rejecting religion.

All religions have the same basis for Sara, they follow different paths. Sara is inspired by all religions and takes what can satisfy her in her spiritual practice. Labeling her spiritual practice is not exactly what she wants. But when it comes to her cultural education and how she is identified by the society, she is a Muslim woman.

The image of the Muslim woman is often portrayed as a submissive and obedient woman, an image that badly serves the Muslim woman. ‘Most think that being a free, feminist and Muslim woman is incompatible but it is not’, she says. Islam guarantees women rights such as the right to education, the right to inheritance, the right to choose a partner and women can exercise them whenever they wish. For some people, these comments will be considered incongruous because their perception of Islam is a religion that does not give women any rights.

Defining yourself

Iranian, Canadian, Muslim, so many labels that Sara would sometimes like to get rid of. We live in a society in which we cannot help but categorize people. Some will recognize themselves in Sara’s experience, others will not. Growing up with different cultures can sometimes make it difficult to find your true self. The question is, do we really want to?