What xenophobia looks like in non-white countries. Looking specifically at race-based oppression in Iran against the Afghan community
Xenophobia is the fear of foreigners, and we need to talk about what this looks like in non-white countries and how they deal with immigration.
In Iran where I grew up, I witnessed extreme xenophobia against people of Afghanistan who migrated to Iran. Now as an immigrant, I have finally learned how to sympathize with the Afghan community in a way that I would have never known if I hadn’t experienced immigration myself, and now I also feel the responsibility to speak up about corruption within the immigration system. This ongoing racism and xenophobia manifest in various ways such as the lack of representation and myths spread about immigrants.
Immigration myths include things such as “foreigners bringing crime” and “stealing the jobs”. The fear of the ‘other’ stealing something from us and bringing some sort of unknown danger. When in fact most people who immigrate are just looking for safety and humanity when their countries are at war and their lives are in danger.
When I was at school in Iran, there was only one Afghani girl in my class. I never understood why she received different treatment, but after moving to the UK I suddenly knew that the girl was ‘othered’, she was the one who no one wanted to be friends with or talk to, except when making fun of her.
In the Uk, the only person who wanted to be my friend was an Afghan girl and together we managed to find being ‘othered’ bearable.
There is a powerful shock in suddenly experiencing racism when you’ve spent your whole life benefiting from it. It’s the sort of experience that teaches you about privilege in the best and most hurtful way possible. As an Iranian who has lived with the privilege of being the majority in my country of origin, I have a responsibility to stand up for the people who didn’t have the privilege/right to stand up for their rights, and I’m not alone in this. Racism is not just a problem for those who suffer, but also a problem for those who benefit from it.
I should have learned to stand up for my classmate and not let racism win. But alongside not having learned anything about systematic oppression at that age, I was also too afraid of being othered myself, and later on, in my life, I was put in her place.
The price of an education for Afghan refugees in Iran
We have started talking a lot about whitewashing in Hollywood and characters of colour being played by Caucasian actors. For example, Emma Stone playing a Hawaiian character in Aloha, or Scarlett Johansson being cast as Japanese in Ghost in the Shell. This thread is no different to Iranian Cinema’s casting and representation of non-Iranian characters.
In the movie, Heiran made in 2009 which follows the story of a teenage girl who falls in love with an illegal Afghan immigrant in Iran named Heiran who is played by an Iranian actor instead of an Afghan actor. It is interesting to make a link between this example and Hollywood’s trend of not hiring actors who are the minority and of the correct ethnicity and background for the role.
The industry claims that there are not enough ethnic minority actors, which is simply not true, there are just not enough directors who are willing to give them a chance.
Iranian cinema also tends to use real foreign actors for comical roles, so they can be laughed at because of their different accents or for simply existing. This is also a trend that can be seen in the mainstream Western film industries when characters who are people of colour or even white/white passing Jewish actors only get visibility because of comical value based on stereotypes deeply ingrained in racism.
These attempts at flawed representation are harmful to the lives of the ethnic minorities in the country, as they create a false representation of the real and everyday people.
It is important to always make links between casteism, colourism, and racism in non-white countries in relation to colonialism. The ideology of the better race entered the Eastern world through colonisation and modernism and the idea of capitalist power hunting and comparing economical power, has created harmful hierarchies within people.
Another example of this is the movie: the The Patience Stone 2012 a war drama film that tells the story of a young woman in Afghanistan taking care of her husband who is paralysed. The story is a very important and needs to be told, as it raises questions on gender inequality in Afghanistan. However, the actress in the leading role is an Iranian Actress, Golshifteh Farahani.
Even though the director Atiq Rahimi is originally from Afghanistan himself, the casting choice proves the idea of “the better race” by choosing an Iranian actress to tell the story of an Afghan woman, by appropriating their culture and their experiences.
The Patience Stone-Trailer
(Content Warning: graphic scenes of sexual assault)
Lack of Conversation
What leads to the mistreatment of Afghan immigrants, as well as the xenophobia discussed before, is the lack of conversation around these issues. Those who benefit from the systems of oppression often fail to use their power to speak out when those suffering are not able to. The only way these corrupted systems will be broken will be through both parties actively resisting, through the increase of representation of Afghan lives in the media; through educating people on refugee rights and racism. Just because we may not have the authority to make decisions doesn’t mean we don’t have a voice that can make a change.
As Toni Morrison famously says “racism is also White People’s problem,” which also applies to Xenophobia in non-white countries.
More information on Afghan communities in Iran:
Iranian civil society speaking up for Afghan rights:
Why are Afghan refugees leaving Iran: