Pari: Over the last decade, a chorus of voices has been building momentum: the voices of second generation Iranians, who either have been born outside of Iran or moved out at a very young age. At this time of global crisis and increasing tension between East and West, they play a critical role, because they master the language and understand the culture of the host countries deeply, more importantly. They are not viewed as immigrants or foreigners, but as locals. Because of their love of Iran, they can be the best trusted ambassadors to amplify the voices of Iranians in relation to a variety of issues. But who are they? How do they perceive the world? This is the topic of discussion with my guest Shahed Fakhari. Shahed, welcome to my program.
Pari: Shahed tell us about yourself. Where were you born?
Shahed: I was born in Tehran and I came to the United States when I was three years old.
Pari: Have you ever gone back to Iran?
Shahed: I went back several times, just to visit, but I haven’t gone back to live at all. I’ve been living in Los Angeles ever since I left.
Pari: How come you speak Farsi so well?
Shahed: My parents actually made sure that every time I was in the house I would speak Farsi. They were certain that I would learn English outside the house, so they really enforced Farsi at home.
Pari: What are you doing today?
Shahed: I am currently a college student at UCLA, studying political science and sociology.
Pari: Shahed, how old were you when you started to notice the difference between yourself and the other kids?
Shahed: At first, I was too young to notice anything, but from the day that I entered the school system, I realized that there was a lot that held me apart from the rest. The first indicator was my name and the inability of any teacher or student to pronounce it right. And I remember so clearly, sitting on the rug, in kindergarten, with the teacher trying to pronounce my name. My palms were sweaty and I was nervous. It was a hard time. Roll call was the hardest time as a kid.
Pari: What were some of the other problems you faced? For example, your look is different, how did kids react to these?
Shahed: Yeah well, now I am very fortunate that I look so ethnic, but when I was younger, I think it was harder for children who were unfamiliar with dark hair, dark eyes, dark eyebrows, thick eyebrows at that, to accept the difference. For them this was completely unfamiliar and they took it and played with it. It was a joke. It was hard.
Pari: How did you deal with this? Did you tell your parents?
Shahed: There wasn’t much I could do as a little girl, it was traumatizing, and I would be very upset. I would go home and tell my mom. One issue I told them a lot about was their accent and my own worries that I would be made fun of because of my parent’s accents, and I was to a certain extent. But it was childish, and it wasn’t like it was ignorance among adults, rather it was children.
Pari: It’s good that you spoke to your parents. It’s actually one of the major problems. A friend of mine has a seven-year-old who refused to go to school. She isn’t outspoken and she would internalize the issues and wouldn’t talk about her problems. As they started to dig into the problem, they realized that other kids were picking on her thick eyebrows. She didn’t want to go to school, but she also didn’t want to tell her parents. So they dealt with it and bleached her eyebrows. She is only seven, yet you can see how she is traumatized.
Shahed: The most difficult part is speaking to your parents. I remember the lunches that I took to school; I would be traumatized because I didn’t have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a lunch pail.
Pari: What did you have?
Shahed: I had Lavash with Persian cheese and walnuts. Believe me, I loved every bite, but it separated me from the rest.
Pari: So, what should parents do? Should they try to minimize differences in public?
Shahed: You know it’s very hard to say. In retrospect, I am very thankful that my parents made me so aware of my culture. I see my Iranian peers now who are not aware. And I am thankful, but parents also need to accept the difficulties, and understand that your child doesn’t hate the fact that they are Iranian, but they have difficulty finding the point where these two cultures meet.
Pari: Let’s revisit what you said about accents. How did it affect you? Did you let your parents pick you up from school? Did you hide?
Shahed: I would try to go home as fast as I could. When we had open house or parent conferences I had to be there to translate, even though I was seven or eight years old. The teacher didn’t seem willing to communicate correctly. My parents had only been here for a few years and couldn’t understand what the teacher was trying to convey.
Pari: Did you feel embarrassed?
Shahed: Yeah, it made me feel inferior. It makes you feel less than others, inadequate. It was like everyone was on one level, and you weren’t on the same wavelength. Everything from my name to my parents’ ability to speak English—I was not like the rest.
Pari: How did the teachers treat the issue?
Shahed: To a certain degree, they were more understanding, but I also think it was difficult for them. For example, when I was younger, a teacher thought that I was wearing mascara because I had thicker eyelashes. I was not, but because she wasn’t used to thick lashes, she accused me of wearing makeup. The teacher didn’t understand, and though it wasn’t that serious, it showed the level of misunderstanding between us.
Pari: What about high school?
Shahed: The differences shifted a little bit, and became a bit more serious for me and were on different dimensions. High school was a time when the idea of applying to college became important. It was at that time that I noticed that students were getting a lot of help from their parents. My parents were not familiar with the system, so they couldn’t provide the same kind of help for me. Other students had parents who had gone through the same process, and could offer help to their children, but my parents could not do that. It wasn’t their fault, and it wasn’t in their hands, they were simply unaware of the system.
Pari: Recently, I went to UCLA and saw some students wearing scarves and ethnic costumes.
Shahed: I think it’s important because it shows the maturation between high school and college. In college, you are in an environment with foreign students, with immigrants, with locals, with students from all over the world, and at that point, there is a larger degree of acceptance, and its not so much of a big deal. There is a sense of curiosity as opposed to ignorance. The ignorance is still there, but at the age of 18 and above, there is a larger degree of maturity. Students with scarves seem comfortable working, studying, and attending classes.
Pari: It is also about the confidence of the person wearing the scarf. It seems there were many traumas stemming from others’ perceptions of your ethnicity. How did you get past that and any lack of confidence you may have felt?
Shahed: There are several ways to approach differences. One way is to take your differences, turn them around, and use them to your advantage, which is what I have been trying to do all my life. As soon as I became aware of the advantages and was at an old enough age, I began to accept my differences and tried to supercede the preconceptions that others have about immigrants. Instead of turning to a narrow community of Iranians, I have tried to familiarize myself with people of all races. I have made friends of all races and, in doing so, I have been able to find my own culture within myself more. At the same time, I try to educate others about my culture and open up othe''s minds.
Pari: I am so glad to hear that, because the differences are always there. You can never hide because you are different and you can’t do anything to change that, so you better use it to your advantage. It seems that we have many second generation Iranian women who have gone down this road and taken advantage of their differences. They have turned them around to their own advantage and have been very successful doing that. We have Shirin Neshat in New York; today, she is a well- known artist internationally, and the subject of her work is often about the women of Iran. She focuses on women in chadors and she takes elements from that. She beautifully and artistically magnifies and shows that. Also, we have Farah Karimi in the European parliament. I interviewed her, and she, at first, approached politics like everyone else. She realized that there was no way she could blend in, so she capitalized on her differences. Cleverly enough, she focused on that and is now extremely successful. It is extremely important for second generation Iranians to realize these differences, to capitalize on them, to cherish them. Shahed, how do you define yourself?
Shahed: With a hyphen. I am an Iranian-American.
Pari: What does that mean to you?
Shahed: You know, it means that in life, you have to learn to fuse two cultures. The entire time I have lived here I have considered myself Iranian. Anytime anyone asked, I was Iranian. It wasn’t until I went and lived in Spain for a few months that I realized that I am equally an American. American values have shaped who I am and I really do have the American culture in me. If I am to deny that, then I am wrong, because it is in me, it is alive and it is well, and it should be because I have lived here all my life. At the same time, I cannot deny being Iranian because it has shaped so many of my values. As a result, I define myself as an Iranian-American.
Pari: Do many of second generation Iranians feel the same way?
Shahed: I have encountered a lot of people who have a problem defining themselves as Iranian-American. Granted they have their own issues. But I think it’s important to realize that both cultures are there, and some might deny one or the other, but the reality is that you have been enriched by the beauty of two cultures.
Pari: Today you are living in a world with increasing tensions between East and West. One side burns a flag; then labels arise, like “axis of evil.” How do you deal with this?
Shahed: I think it’s very hard, because you are almost in a tug of war with these two countries, especially now. This tension has driven me to pursue political science, to try and understand the cause of these tensions and the reasons each side has for them. I have found myself interested in both sides, and I have done so much research and written so much on the issue. In the process I have tried to educate those who only see one side, whether it be my family or friends who give off Iran’s perceptions, or classmates who only see American attitudes. I have tried to learn about both sides.
Pari: Do you feel that you have a responsibility here?
Shahed: I definitely do. I have a responsibility to those who are voiceless in one country, and those with ignorant voices in another.
Pari: As a young Iranian woman living in the U.S., what do you see as the issues pertaining to women?
Shahed: I think that there are as many issues and many obstacles for women in this country as there are in any country in the world. One of the things we can attribute these to is the media and the socially constructed image of women.
Pari: In your words, what is that image?
Shahed: It is a woman of perfection; without flaws on her face or on her body.
Shahed: Unreal, exactly. We see it every day in the media, on magazine covers, in film, in cinema. It has become a spectacle of sorts and we are so drawn to it. But, the whole image is unreal and unattainable, and the women are airbrushed. We forget that they are not really this perfect. Instead, we struggle to model ourselves after them.
Pari: The problem is that this beautification is a strong industry that capitalizes on the image of women. They try to change the image of women so that women will consume and the industry can make money. That is how it works. The problem, I think, apart from the fact that it is a strong industry with a lot of power, is that it tries constantly to make women overly-conscious of their appearance. Society also influences this a lot, that women should be perfect, to have a profession, to be a perfect mother, to be beautiful. It is simply not possible.
Shahed: This is exactly what we are told, and there are pressures on women in the end. It’s very difficult.
Pari: It makes life difficult. It’s no wonder that in a recent study in England, only 3% of women were happy with their appearance. This shows that 97% of women are unhappy with not only the way they look, but with themselves. Regardless of their achievements in other areas, these women are still unhappy. It affects people’s personalities and pushes women toward depression. Now, among teenagers, we see eating disorders and other problems that are entirely based on these images from society. Let’s look at other issues, apart from the media. How does society perceive us?
Shahed: It’s difficult because society seems to champion the ability of women to succeed and to attain a great education that could lead to a wonderful career. Though it’s not impossible, I think that the glass ceiling is inevitable. We sometimes fail to realize this, and you can get very far in your career, yet there is going to be a point where your head hits that glass.
Pari: It’s very important, because it’s an invisible ceiling; people ignore it until you get to the point in your life when you hit it. There is almost a line that you cannot step over. But, apart from the glass ceiling, how do you perceive a career woman?
Shahed: I think that a career woman often has to make sacrifices in other areas of her life if she wishes to advance her career. Unfortunately, that image of balance and perfection we are faced with cannot be followed, because it is unreal, and women have to make sacrifices in other areas of their life to achieve perfection in one area.
Pari: And how does society perceive the career woman, a woman that takes her career seriously?
Shahed: I think that a lot of people are intimidated by this kind of woman. I think that she is a symbol of strength to a lot of women, but to society as a whole, this isn’t necessarily a well-rounded woman. Society still places high value on the woman who has a family and takes care of her children and her home.
Pari: In other words, the identity of the woman is still defined by the man, her husband, who is next to her.
Pari: It’s very sad to hear that. Over the years women have fought hard to overcome this and have their own achievements. Yet, we see in society that regardless of this, their value is based on their dependence rather than their independence. Why does society, in your opinion, encourage women to study?
Shahed: I think that having a degree is one thing, and using it is another. A lot of women have the degree but when it comes down to it, society doesn’t give them the chance to use it. Because if they are to have a family and to stay home, that degree just sits on a wall. They won’t be able to use it in a career world, and it’s tragic.
Pari: It’s okay if this is a woman’s choice, if she wants this as a mother. The problem is when women don’t have a choice, and when society pressures them to do this. It reminds me of the old days in England. Society wanted women to study a profession, not to become a career woman, but to simply study in order to be better mothers and wives. They would work as teachers for several years, or professions that would complement them as housewives. This was a profession that was encouraged, and when they married, their qualifications helped. Take finishing school in Switzerland, for instance. Often girls are sent off to learn manners so that if they marry a well-off man in high society, they know how to throw big parties and how to carry themselves in public. This is the process of becoming a perfect wife. An education is required to be a perfect spouse, not to be an independent woman in your own right. This was very popular in the olden days, but still many people go to these classes. Now, listening to you, who has lived in the States and I have lived in Europe most of my life, we see the same thing is happening here. Many people have the qualifications, but have to stay home to be a good wife, mother and partner. It’s very interesting. How do men perceive a woman who is well-educated and aware of her own rights?
Shahed: In my experiences, I seem to have had some problems. I think that a lot of men are intimidated by women who are opinionated, intellectual and educated. A lot of times they feel as though you are stepping on their toes. As soon as you start talking as an educated individual and an equal, it is very challenging to find someone who can stand eye-to-eye with you and not be afraid.
Pari: Are we talking about Iranian men?
Shahed: No, I’m talking about all men, generally.
Pari: Do you see differences between Iranian men?
Shahed: There are definitely differences; I think it’s a cultural thing. There are certain stigmas about men in general, but I also think that Iranian men have their own more stylized images of women, and what they look for in a woman. And I don’t think that it is always a career woman that they look for.
Pari: There is also another contradiction that I want to refer to. A dilemma that a lot of woman have. In regards to women, society wants them to look good and claim them to be beautiful. But at the same time, if you are a beautiful woman who pays attention to other aspects of your life, your appearance undermines you. People become judgmental and forget your achievements. They don’t take you seriously if you are beautiful and well put together.
Shahed: And if you enjoy going out, you are often seen as somebody who doesn’t have great intellectual capability. A woman can go out to a club at 10 pm, but she very well could have been reading a book until 9pm. And I think that it is very hard for society to understand this.
Pari: Are men perceived in the same way?
Shahed: No, I don’t think so at all. This is something, like we were talking about before, the image of women is much more emphasized, and granted, men have their own problems with image. But there are so many levels and so many pressures for women. It seems as though you have to prove yourself every day.
Pari: You have written many articles. Tell me about them.
Shahed: The two articles I have written recently have to do with female suicide bombers and the hazing incident that took place several months ago. I think the hazing incident is something to be looked at carefully. The issue was all over the press, it was a very big deal. What happened was that a female soccer team chose to haze the incoming soccer team for the next year. And it got out of hand this year. I looked at this issue and I tried to understand how our society perceived it and why this is all over the newspapers. As a college student, I know that this behavior goes on all the time with fraternities and in high schools. It goes on all the time with boys. And, for me, it was shocking because this was such a big deal. Granted, I don’t think this was a good thing, nor do I advocate hazing by any means. But subconsciously, women are trying to find the perfection and balance, whether it be through athletics or career. They are trying to go down new paths and new roads, and are becoming more independent. Perhaps they are going down this path to be more independent and to establish themselves, and perhaps in doing so, they are assuming some male attributes. I mean, how often do you hear about a male hazing incident on TV that goes to court. We don’t hear about that, because it is socially acceptable. I think what this shows is a potential transition in women’s roles.
Pari: Absolutely. I would like to emphasize that this is global; it is not just in the Western world. Recently, we had Palestinian women suicide bombers and we are seeing more of them. We also had an Iranian woman set herself on fire in England recently, just last week. We are seeing more and more women taking on traditionally male roles, both in positive and negative aspects. A lot of it is on a subconscious level and some of it is on a conscious level. I would like to emphasize that when we are talking about the women’s movement and equality, we are not necessarily talking about women imitating men. I think that differences are beautiful and are actually things to cherish. They are important. Nevertheless, society should be prepared for this. More and more women are taking on roles that are traditionally male oriented, and they will be taking on more aspects. Today we have seen this in politics and sports, and in terms of their careers, we also see it. Shahed, I want to know how you compare yourself with the generation before you, your mother’s generation for example?
Shahed: I think that it is one thing to compare me to a generation before me, and to compare me to a culturally different generation before me. My mother is Iranian, and I consider myself more an Iranian-American. It is completely normal for there to be differences, it is something that sociologists and psychologists have studied for years: generation gaps. I sometimes find myself struggling to understand the views of my mother’s generation. The image of a male as a protection-providing, care-taking type is very strong in the generation before us. And though it still exists, many women now seek to prove themselves as capable of taking care of themselves, and many women today are offended by this concept of the protecting male figure.
Pari: You mentioned that there are generation gaps and cultural gaps. When you talk about generation gaps, do you also see the same differences with American women?
Shahed: Yeah, I really do. I’m sure that statistics will show that there are many more women who are stay-at-home moms from the generation before mine. And though there are still many women that do so, the percentage has certainly decreased.
Pari: How do you compare your mother’s generation to American women her own age?
Shahed: It’s very different, but there are some similarities. My mother’s generation cannot deny the influence of the Iranian culture. It shaped them and they grew up with it. The images and the conceptions of the male-female dynamics have come with them to the US.
Pari: How does it affect you when you observe their lives? Does it anger you that they never question their ways?
Shahed: I’ve seen people of my mother’s generation who seem very subservient to their partners. It drives me crazy. There have been other instances at family parties, when women are gathered in the kitchen preparing the food, while the males are sitting around and laughing and enjoying themselves. There is such a double standard, and while my mother’s generation may accept it, I cannot accept it with such ease.
Pari: How do you differ from American girls?
Shahed: I’ve been shaped by my culture a lot, my values and my mannerisms, even in the day-to-day things that I say. I have been influenced by the Iranian culture and there is so much about it that I want to keep alive. Little and larger issues, such as hospitality, that the Iranian culture prides itself on, I try to take with me.
Pari: What about your perception of the world? Do you see differences?
Shahed: I would like to think that it makes me more open-minded. For a long time I have had a curiosity about other cultures that I wouldn’t have necessarily had if I didn’t have my own culture. It has enriched me and I have sought to understand why there are differences, and to apply these differences in a positive way.
Pari: Today, you have mastered the language and understand the culture, and you define yourself as an Iranian-American. Do you still see prejudice against your ethnicity?
Shahed: There definitely are prejudices, and in the last several years these prejudices have gained a lot of weight in American society, especially after 9/11. The Middle Eastern people have embodied the latest trend of racism. I actually did a study comparing anti-Iranian sentiment during the hostage crisis and anti-Islamic sentiment after 9/11, and I found that it existed in both times. We are in a new era of racism, and the Middle East is the newest target, not only against Islam, but the entire Middle East as well.
Pari: How does it affect you?
Shahed: I have to fight harder to prove myself, to not fall within a categorization. I want to fight to show who I am, and what I have become as a person, rather than a mere component of a racial group that occupies the newest form of racism.
Pari: How do you compare yourself to an Iranian girl coming from Iran?
Shahed: Right, there are many girls who have recently come from Iran in my school. Every interaction with them has made me so proud to be part of the same race as them. I see women who come to the US, who cannot understand and comprehend the language appropriately. They deal with so many problems on so many dimensions, yet when the day is over, they have achieved so much. They have a sense of determination that is unequaled. They are some of the most successful students at my school and at schools across the nation. They have done such an amazing job at showing the worth of the Iranian people.
Pari: I am so glad you mentioned that. These girls are coming out of a very traditional culture and are often financially disadvantaged, sometimes without the means to survive. They have language problems and cultural problems, and it is so difficult for them to succeed, and yet they do succeed and they manage to get the strength. I admire them.
Shahed: They are definitely worthy of praise.
Pari: We are coming to the end of our program. Is there anything you would like to add?
Shahed: I would just like to say that it’s inevitable that slowly, with generations to come, the Iranian culture in the US will be minimizing. It is very important that this second generation tries as hard as it can to keep the language and the culture, because it is an ancient culture from thousands and thousands of years back. We now live within a culture that is relatively young. I think it’s important for us to cherish, to hold, and to preserve this Iranian culture.
Pari: Thank you so much Shahed for being on my program. I wish you all a wonderful week. Thanks again and goodbye.