Lifting the veil of misunderstanding

Countries like Iran are changing much faster than a lot of people realise. Even those who grew up elsewhere in the Middle East are surprised by what they find.

Amidst all of the shuffling and impatient immigrants in a dull and somewhat claustrophobic room in the Garda National Immigration Bureau, I begin to seek some sort of inspiration for writing this article. I begin to realise the diversity of the individuals in the same room as me, also impatiently waiting for their visa application procedure to end. Individuals who have nothing in common except the goals and deadlines we have to meet by the time we go back home.

This is the one place where my nationality does not perplex others. I pursue a friendly conversation with a Somalian woman with two exceptionally well behaved children placed on her lap. “So why did you come to Ireland?” she politely asks. “Oh, the usual, studies and stuff, y’know?” I answer back. Our conversation doesn’t last long. She glances at UAE passport and raises her eyebrows with a sympathetic look on her face and asks me how things are in Iran. “Great!” I reply.

This seemingly pointless conversation provides some perspective into the ideas that people have with regard the Middle East. Being an Iranian who was raised in Dubai, the capital of one of the most politically secure parts of the Middle East, I feel able to look beyond my own borders and try and to find out why people have certain perceptions about us.

How we perceive our home is completely different. It is a warm and comfortable, family space; a safety net to go back to in case all else fails; an opportunity to build a life on a tax-free income. Most importantly, it is a place with great food.


In Dubai, the news and the way we use the media is entirely different in comparison to Ireland, or any western, democratic country. The way in which the available information was delivered to us when we were growing up was based on an idealistic foundation. “Happy news” we used to call it. The knowledge and ways of thinking that we were not exposed to in the Middle East are issues that my peers and I discovered when we entered third level education.

Censorship of the media was a reality of daily life in Dubai. Academic resources, in particular textbooks, were also inconsistent. My friends and I used to jokingly place the blanked-out pages of our textbooks which addressed World War II up to the skylight in the classrooms to see what kind of information we were being diverted from learning about. “It’s simply too vulgar to be taught to children,” we were told.

It wasn’t that our access to information was limited. The board of education merely suggested that teachers were only officially allowed to address certain topics in a particular manner until we reached high school, which seemed fair due to the modest culture. It remains unclear whether it was beneficial or detrimental.

Similarly with the domestic national news, topical issues on foreign relations would only be addressed in brevity, followed by advertisement breaks and then an optimistic, fresh-faced TV presenter with more “news” on the economic expansion and investment in the United Arab Emirates.

To be honest, most of us were happy living that way. It worked out that we were more productive when we were subconsciously happy and arguably in the dark about security threats in the region. We were safe and living in a community that had something to offer individuals from all corners of the world.

The way in which the news is delivered today is very much in tune with the rest of the world, but the motivation and optimism of Dubai residents remains the same. The hustle-bustle of tourism and business during the day is contrasted with the liberal and vibrant nightlife that many of the expats indulge in.

People speculate if the lack of exposure to political issues and significant historical occurrences invested the youth of Dubai with the drive that has made the city a newborn business hub. Maybe so. The effervescence of our political climate definitely did not correspond to that of the west.

There is a major disparity between how we view ourselves in the Middle East and the way the west views us. Much of this hinges on people’s views of Iran, though few seem to know much about the country outside the conventional narrative of a progressive democratic society transformed into a conservative and ‘mysterious’ Islamic republic following the revolution in 1979. 

Social change after 1979

In 1979, Iran went through a revolution that brought centuries of monarchy and progressive socio-economic flourishing to a halt and established the Islamic Republic. The influence of the clergy ushered huge social change and initiated a campaign to eradicate western influence upon the culture.

What was called the “cultural revolution” ceased to exist within university communities. Many things that were deemed a threat to the culture such as books, art, music and the consumption of alcohol and pork were condemned.

The influence of the clergy also led to the mandatory covering of the hair and body for young girls from the age of nine. This became problematic as it was invasive of the domestic and personal space of women. Also banned was the use of make-up, the wearing of bright colours, high heels, and anything that would attract unwanted attention or seen to be influenced by the western world.

That being said, what is frequently characterised as a largely political gender imbalance and a source of feminist outrage, extended to men rights too. Men stopped wearing ties and bowties, which were frowned upon as a western concept, in addition to multiple other fashion items. Even haircuts which were deemed to be “too American” were banned.

This unified restricting of dress codes for both sexes and was consistently monitored by “komiteh”, the “revolutionary guards” or, ironically, the “morality police”, who arrested and fined people for supposedly violating the dress codes that were set clearly in stone by the Mullahs or Islamic clergy.

What is particularly interesting is the progression of the lifestyle change from then to the present day. The timeline that presents itself is astounding, with most of my family members and friends in Iran accessing social media websites and consistently engaging with movements that are more focused on breaking the stereotypes rather than reinforcing them.

The fast-pace of the internet has revolutionised the way that the western world communicates and engages in political issues and international relations. In Iran’s case, however, ittruly has constructed more of a paradigm shift with a generation of carefree young adults. The internet provides a place for comfort, self-expression and an illustration of how the Iranians want the world to see them, which commonly deviates from how they are portrayed by the mainstream media.

It is inspiring to see young adults attempt to break free, adapt to new dress restrictions and find new, innovative ways to push the boundaries. Following the settlement of the regime over the decades, it is no secret that domestic police and authority officials have worked towards nullifying the regulations imposed on the people and have sought to adopt a “sure, it’ll be grand” attitude towards dress codes in the public sphere.

In the northern regions of Tehran, a settlement of upper-middle class and fashion-loving individuals had begun wrestling with conservative dress by wearing short, figure-hugging coats, high heels, makeup and their own innovative idea of the headscarf. Commitment to creativity and individual expression has rendered a social change throughout the major cities of Iran, making it one of the largest underground markets for importing fashion items from China, the US and central Europe.


Reluctance to visit home for eight years made me feel somewhat disconnected to what is the essence of my being. It made me reach out to family members more frequently. Having originally been an ‘insider’, I explored the country as an ‘outsider’ to put into context what the west thought of us.

In Tehran, one lives a schizophrenic double life. There is the private sphere and the public sphere, both of which consist of entirely different operating mechanisms. The domestic/private side of life does not have boundaries, whereas the public sphere is quite strict with them. You essentially employ two different masks, which can easily make for a hostile social environment, but which has diluted over the years. Prejudice is also quite common amongst the few conservatives in Iran. We have a simple code: be friendly to your neighbor and lie to your elders.

Looking back to the conversation I had with the lovely Somalian lady and countless other people, it’s no surprise they had all asked me how things were “back home”. It’s quite tricky to provide a civil response. Their concerns and sentiments are undoubtedly, wholeheartedly sincere and genuine, but they are always patronising.

There is a constant flow of leaflets, online invitations to conferences and movements, that all seem relevant to my background, sent on by extremely concerned college peers, in all sincerity. Initially, this was a turn off when presented by western feminists who have little experience, or knowledge, about the lifestyle of an individual that lives within a stereotype.

It is a constant reminder of the blanket assumption that we are a strange but wonderful oppressed species who have no power. This cocktail of sympathy and ignorance we find in European college students seems, to us, more oppressive than the regime we supposedly live in.

Illustration: Mubashir Sultan