'When we are asked who we are, we say Iranian': How the Iranian diaspora is experiencing a shift in identity

Hundreds of Iranians demonstrate in Trafalgar Square in London, Britain, October, 29, 2022
7 min read
09 December, 2022
Iranians in the diaspora have trouble reckoning with their identity and their role to play post-revolution. But the murder of Mahsa Amini and the global protests that have since sprung up have unified their voice in an unprecedented way.

Iranians inside the country have been on the streets for nearly three months following the death of Mahsa Amini.

Those that have made it home at the end of each day protesting have witnessed others being beaten, killed and imprisoned, knowing this could happen to them next. Still, they have continued to risk it all – this fight for them is about their lives.

Those living outside the country have followed the news that makes it out of Iran, remembering their own lives under the Islamic Republic.

They carry with them the knowledge that their family and friends face dangers they have escaped from. And they have also been taking to the streets, guilty of the knowledge that they can now do that safely.

"As global awareness of the brutality of the regime builds, some of the assumptions and prejudices they have encountered are fading. Now, those who knew little about Iran are interested in the history, culture and lives of Iranians, marking a shift in attitudes that is felt by many"

“Although I’m away, there is still part of me thinking [about] what’s happening in Iran,” Farah, a PhD student in London, told The New Arab. She moved to the UK a few years ago but has always felt that home has followed – especially now. “I’m always thinking about the people of Iran – I can never let that part of me go, although I’m away.”

The rest of the world is also paying close attention to what Iranians have had to face for decades. And as global awareness of the brutality of the regime builds, some of the assumptions and prejudices they have encountered are fading. Now, those who knew little about Iran are interested in the history, culture and lives of Iranians, marking a shift in attitudes that is felt by many.

For someone like Naz Meknat who lives in L.A., this is the first time in over two decades that she is seeing this level of interest in her experience from non-Iranians. “I always wanted to explain and talk about my culture but I felt like it always fell flat because it didn’t seem like a lot of people in the world were interested to know about it,” she said. “After [the protests began], I started seeing a lot of interest in our culture: who we are, what we’ve gone through, and how things are in Iran.”

The murder of Mahsa Amini has galvanised the global Iranian diaspora in a profound way [Getty Images]
The murder of Mahsa Amini and subsequent protests have galvanised the global Iranian diaspora in a profound way [Getty Images]

Naz was four years old when the revolution took place. The only life she knew in Iran was under the rule of the regime: encounters with the morality police, being sent to prison at 13 for talking to a boy on the street, and an abusive marriage that she was not allowed to escape.

At 23, she found a way to leave Iran. “I had to escape my country overnight, and I couldn’t go back, ever,” Naz said. She made it to Turkey, where she got stuck trying to get a visa – initially to the US where her family was, and, when that failed, to any country that would enable her to get further away from the person and country that endangered her life.

She entered the US illegally through the Mexico border and was granted asylum. Decades later, she recounts how she tried to leave her Iranian identity where she thought it belonged: back in Iran.

“At the beginning when I moved here, I really tried to immerse in the American culture and be as American as I could, because I felt so behind,” she said. Assimilating meant losing her accent to conceal where she was from.

“The minute you said, ‘I’m Iranian’, they would consider you a part of a terrorist group or a terrorist country or would look at you in a strange way, and they had so many questions that were kind of offensive,” she explained. “A lot of people didn’t even know how my country was, what my country was about.”

Perspectives

Naz started to reconnect to her Iranian identity while writing her memoir, 7000 Miles to Freedom. But nothing has succeeded in bringing her close to the Iranian community and identity as much as the recent protests. “It’s unfortunate that it took a young girl getting murdered in the hands of the Islamic Republic for us to come together and unite the way we are now and to get the attention of non-Iranians, and see how they are interested in who we are,” she explained.

Non-Iranians taking interest in Iranian culture is significant. For some, the culture of their country is one of the only positive things that they have been able to carry with them after leaving.

Keyhan described being robbed of a sense of country and identity by the Islamic Republic. “We don’t have a country that represents us, we don’t have anything like a government that protects us,” he said. “We don’t have the feeling that, actually, whatever happens, we can go back to our home and be safe and have a country.”

"Calling ourselves Persian was divisive – it didn’t include Kurds, it didn’t include Turks and Baluchis... Now, finally, we are all united under the name of Iran, and it’s really significant and liberating that we can all get together"

For people like Keyhan and Farah, it is not the Iranian government but the country’s culture and society that continue to give them a sense of identity and home. “For me,” Farah explained, “Iranians, they love poetry, they love dancing, they love math.” But to share with others that one was Iranian used to carry with it shame and fear or judgement by those who did not know about Iran’s culture and society. Now, this is changing.

“I noticed when I moved to America that Iranians when asked where they’re from, they’d say they’re Persian,” Naz said. “When you said Persian, everybody thought about the old Persia – the civilisation, the art, the poetry – but when you said Iran, it was associated with [the] Islamic Republic and what the government is,” she added. “What I’ve noticed recently is that everybody – every single one of us – when we are asked who we are, we say Iranian, and we say it proudly, and we are not feeling the shame and the guilt that we used to feel.”

Others also explained that being an Iranian at this moment holds a sense of pride in that identity that was not there before. Amir, who grew up in Germany, said that even those who never said Persian instead of Iranian feel a shift now. For him, sharing his Iranian identity today carries with it a different meaning than it did before.

“I don’t think I was ever proud to say Iranian, I would just say I’m Iranian and deal with whatever the person thought,” he explained. “Finally, I feel this relief and this pride to say, ‘I’m Iranian,’ and I want to follow up and say, ‘And we’ve got these amazing women on the street, and this amazing youth on the street, and people are courageous, and we are this strong diaspora, too.’”

Dena Motevalian, a PhD student in New York added, “Many of us identified as Persians in order to hide behind that and hide a little bit from being associated with Iran and the image of promoting terrorism, and […] all the ideas that we didn’t share with [the Islamic Republic]... They were taking over the name of the country and that identity, so we were hiding behind that out of shame of being Iranian.”

The Iranian label is more inclusive than the Persian one, Dena explained. “Calling ourselves Persian was divisive – it didn’t include Kurds, it didn’t include Turks and Baluchis,” she said. “Now, finally, we are all united under the name of Iran, and it’s really significant and liberating that we can all get together.”

Naz also described an unprecedented sense of unity in the community. “No matter what part of Iran we’re coming from,” she said. “Whether we are Persian or Turk – whatever we are – the ethnicity doesn’t really matter right now: we are all one, we are all Iranian."

Melina Spanoudi is a journalist based in London. She writes about society, culture and the environment. Her work has appeared in VICE World News, HuffPost UK and The Sunday Times.

Follow her on Twitter: @MSpanoudi