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Iranian immigrants' perceptions of sexuality in Canada: a symbolic interactionist approach.

Abstract: Iran is a country with an established coherence of Islamic teachings and laws (Shari'a) with state laws and government policies. Iran has contributed growing numbers of immigrants to the Canadian population. Iranian immigrants bring to Canada ways of thinking about sexual relationships rooted in understandings of human nature and social order that are profoundly different from those that have set the foundations of Canadian culture and institutions. Based on interviews with 20 heterosexual, married, adult immigrants from Iran, this paper uses symbolic interaction theory to ask how these immigrants understand and interpret Canadian sexuality, including the meanings they ascribe to what they see and experience in Canada. To our participants, individualism, access to and use of divorce, cross-gender social and public interactions, and the kind of permission given to adolescents evidenced in Canada were experienced as potential threats to their own relationships and family life. To them these were seen as demonstrating a considerable divide between Canadian and Iranian values, norms and expectations related to gender, sexual and family issues. Areas of misunderstanding and miscommunication fostered a sense of difference, concern and suspicion. This study demonstrates some of the challenges faced in bridging cultural diversities, particularly in developing programming and delivering services in a multicultural society.


Global migrations have figured prominently in the formation of the Canadian social and cultural landscape with that landscape becoming increasingly diversified as the heritage countries of the majority of immigrants shift from Europe (90% prior to 1961) to Asia and the Middle East (60% beginning in the 1990s) (Statistics Canada, 2006). These newer immigrants bring to Canada ways of thinking about sexual relationships rooted in understandings of human nature and social order that are often profoundly different from those that have set the foundations of Canadian culture and institutions (Aswad & Bilge, 1996; Barot, Bradley & Fenton, 1999; Beckett & Macey, 2001), posing a new acculturative challenge to immigrants and Canadian society alike.

Iran is a non-Arab country in the Middle-East that has contributed growing numbers of immigrants to the Canadian population. Among the countries of the Middle East, Iran is one that has established coherence between Islamic teachings and laws (Shari'a) and state laws and government policies (Moghadam, 1992; Shahidian, 1999). Thus, Iranian immigrants come from a country where Islamic world views and normative systems are not only learned as part of religious teachings, but permeate the laws and policies that govern their lives. This is particularly salient to the area of norms, roles and expectations related to sexuality since this is an area where Islamic countries such as Iran may be seen as standing in stark contrast to countries like Canada (Shirpak et al., 2007). At the root of these contrasts are beliefs related to sexual drive and desire, the role of family in the lives of individuals, and the positioning of patriarchy.

The question addressed in this paper is how Iranian immigrants understand and interpret (i.e., make sense of) Canadian sexuality, including the meanings they ascribe to what they see and experience while living in Canada. The analysis is set within the framework of Symbolic Interaction Theory and is based on interviews with 20 adult immigrants from [ran living in Ontario. These interviews were part of a larger study on the experiences and concerns of Iranian immigrants to Canada in the realm of sexual health and sexuality. This larger study is, in turn, one of a series of studies conducted by researchers affiliated with the Social Justice and Sexual Health Research Lab at the University of Windsor exploring how global migrations influence sexual health and sexuality.

Contextual frames

Iranian context

Sexual interest and drive are presented in Muslim teachings as natural and necessary parts of the human condition. Their rightful expression, however, is restricted to marriage. Sexual relationships between unmarried partners are referred to as illegitimate and violate article 638 of the Iranian criminal code (Validi, 2004).

Sexual drive and desire are considered easily aroused and difficult for individuals to control. External mechanisms of control such as codes regulating dress and cross-gender interaction are used to avoid or control desire. It is believed that exposure of the body--especially a woman's body--either through the absence of covering or through tight covering, can lead to sexual thoughts, fantasies, arousal and interest, and it is inappropriate to have such thoughts or interests other than for one's spouse. Thus, public dress is modest using various forms of loose, full-body covering. Gender segregation, another external mechanism of control, predates Islam (Keddie, 1991; Nashat & Tucker, 1999), but is now practised and supported by Islamic teachings and laws (Shar'ia). Children become accustomed to segregation since it begins in the primary level and continues, in some form, through all levels of schooling. Beaches, swimming pools, and schools have separate areas (or times) designated for men and women. Male-female interaction is discouraged, except with maharem (people of the opposite sex with whom marriage is religiously and legally forbidden such as parents and siblings), with public segregation required by law. If, for example, a woman and man are together in public, members of the law enforcement task force may require them to show documentation that proves they are relatives. With the exception of maharem, conversation across gender lines is restricted to "serious" topics with casual socializing, laughing, or "kidding around" considered inappropriate (Nikzad, 2004).

In no country are culture, norms and behaviour patterns static and immutable, and it is often the young who challenge established codes and expectations. This is evident in Iran in the actions of some urban young people who defy the restrictions on cross-gender interactions, meeting in cafes, parks or other social places or even becoming involved in sexual contacts (Mohammadi et al. 2006), despite the potential for arrest. More modern families tolerate the cross-gender relationships of their children, even if they may wish they followed tradition more closely (Azadarmaki, Zand, & Khazaie, 2000).

As in most Muslim countries, the family and its well-being is privileged over individual needs or desires (Ahmadi 2003a, 2003b; Azadarmaki & Bahar, 2006; Shahidian, 1999) and the socialization of children is designed to ensure they understand and observe this priority. One's identity and, especially for most women, one's economic and social survival are tied to marriage and the family. Children are expected to maintain strong emotional bonds to the family, to observe its rules, and, even as adults, to remain in close contact with family members (Azadarmaki & Bahar, 2006). The parental role prescribes that parents know about and exert influence over their children's daily activities. Saroukhani (2006), one of the leading sociologists in Iran recommends that parents help their children, from the early childhood, to internalize their own cultural and social norms and rules. In a nationwide study that surveyed 3540 respondents, Mohseni and Pourreza (2003) found that a majority agreed that parents should have a role in the friendship-making process of their children. The bond between parents and children is expected to remain strong throughout life (Azadarmaki & Bahar, 2006; Mohseni & Pourreza, 2003). Thus, even in adulthood it is common to consult family members and to consider what is best for the family (sometimes even more than what is best for oneself) when making important decisions, such as in marriage or career choices.

In Iran, maintaining the family unit is privileged in both law and custom (Farkhojasteh, 2003), albeit with different responsibilities and rights allocated to men and women. The male-dominant family continues to be supported through Iran's legal and social system and religious teachings, with fathers and husbands being the head of both family and marital partnerships and women having more limited rights than men. Azadarmaki and Bahar (2006) found that in 61.6% of Iranian families the father is the main decision maker. The differential positioning of men and women is illustrated for instance in laws governing divorce and polygyny (Kar, 1999). Men have relatively easy access to divorce while women can only obtain a divorce under limited conditions. Among Shi'a Muslims--the majority in Iran--men have the religious and legal right to have up to four permanent and a limitless number of temporary wives. This is not the case for women. For a man to marry beyond his first wife, however, he must either have her permission or that of the court, and he is required to demonstrate that he is able to provide equally for each of his wives. The courts only grant permission in unusual circumstances; for example, if the first wife has a serious, incurable illness, is addicted to narcotics, or is infertile. While legally possible, polygyny is neither common nor acceptable in Iranian society (Safaie & Imami, 2003; Ramezannargesi, 2005). Keddie (1991) warns against considering only the public and legal domain and concluding, incorrectly, that women are totally powerless. She suggests that within the daily functioning of the family women, in fact, have substantial power.

While these laws and customs set the basic framework for gender and sexual relations in Iran, there is considerable variation in how they are followed. In the experience of the authors, marital relationships in Iran vary widely. In some, husbands and wives respect and treat each other as equals. Other couples, however, follow traditional teachings more strictly and reject egalitarian relationship and courtship styles. There is also considerable variation in dress as seen on the streets of urban centres such as Tehran, including women wearing the full black chador and women wearing various colours of loose-fitting, albeit stylish, long pants and long sleeve tops with a roosary, or headscarf covering their hair (Qarooni, 2006). Modern urban Iranians consider themselves "fashion conscious" within the requirements set by law for public appearance. Finally, some Iranian youth frequently challenge traditional restrictions in that they sometimes meet, dress, and engage in other activities that are formally forbidden.

Canadian context

Canada is increasingly characterized by a variety of sexual lifestyle choices and prioitization of self-fulfilment and self-actualization. Leonard (2003) points out that "sexual matters in the West have been progressively secularized such that they are left to individuals subject to adulthood, free consent, and privacy" (p. 70). In Canada, initiation into intimate and sexual relationships typically occurs during the teenage years, well before marriage (Barrett et al., 2004; Gillis, 2005; Maticka-Tyndale, 2001). The delay of marriage into the late 20s or 30s often results in men and women moving through several intimate and sexual relationships prior to marriage (Marcil-Gratton, 1998; Maticka-Tyndale, 2001). While a double standard still prevails, with men and women experiencing and expressing sexual power differently (Fraser, 2000; Kahn, O'Leary, Kruelwitz, & Lamm, 1980; Tolman, 1994; 2002), diversity in forms of sexual pleasuring, focus on personal pleasure, individual choice and rights are components of contemporary scripts of sexual relationships for both men and women (Byers, 2005; Giddens, 1992). An exaggerated, and largely false, image of North American sexual culture is exported around the globe in movies and television shows which, in the latter 20th and early 21st century typically portray struggling and troubled marriages and parent-child relationships, independent youth and young adults without meaningful ties to their families, maritally unfaithful couples, and sexually adventurous singles. These are the public images of North American (including Canadian) relationships, family and sexuality that are most readily, publicly, accessible both inside and outside of North America.

Iranian immigrants

Research on Iranian immigrants to Sweden (Ahmadi, 2003a; 2003b; Darvishpour, 2002), Norway (Predelli, 2004), the United States (Hojat, Shapurian, Nayerahmadi et al., 1999, Ghaffarian, 1998) and Canada (Shahidian, 1999; Moghissi, 1999) provides insights into their response to the encounter between Iranian/Islamic and contemporary secularized scripts. Acculturation of gender norms and expectations are a dominant focus of each of these projects, including the effects of changes on marital relationships. Ahmadi (2003a; 2003b) and Shahidian (1999) extended their inquiry into the realm of heterosexual relationships, focusing on norms, concerns, and problems related to sexuality in the birth country, and changes resulting from exposure to new cultural ways in the country of immigration. Each study documented tensions in parent-child and in marital relationships related to gender and sexuality. The latter were ascribed to women embracing more individualistic ways of thinking about their sexuality and exercising new-found powers available to them in the individual rights orientation of their host countries. These posed difficulties for marital relationships founded on ways of thinking that privileged maintenance of the relationship (Ahmadi 2003a; 2003b; Shahidian, 1999).

The acculturative stresses experienced by Iranian immigrants are consistent with the findings of other researchers focusing on the experience of Muslim immigrants from diverse countries to western countries (e.g., Aswad & Bilge, 1996; Barot, Bradley & Fenton, 1999; Beckett & Macey, 2001; Buijs, 1993; Espin, 1995; Ghaffarian, 1998; Hanassab & Tidwell, 1996; Hendrickx, Lodewijckx, van Royen & Denekens, 2002; Kelson & Delaet, 1999; Killoran, 1998; Phalet & Hagendoorn, 1996). Having lived their childhood and much of their adulthood in cultures where Islamic ways of thinking predominated, whether they subscribed to a conservative or liberal interpretation of Islam, and regardless of the specificities of local culture that combined with Islam, Muslim immigrants experienced relatively intense acculturative stress in the area of gender and sexual norms and roles when they immigrated to countries where the scripting of gender and sexuality were built on a contemporary secularized ways of thinking.

Theoretical framework

This research study was informed by Blumer's (1969) symbolic interactionist approach to understanding human actions. The symbolic interactionist approach views individuals as pragmatic actors who live in both a physical (or factual) world and a symbolic (or interpretive) world. Symbolic interactionism focuses attention on the symbolic world formed by the individual in interaction with the environment and, in particular, on how people ascribe meanings and values to the world in which they live. People actively engage in the interpretation and creation of symbols as a way of making sense of, assigning meanings to, and communicating about their daily lives and the world in which they live. To symbolic interactionists, it is these ascribed meanings, values and interpretations that have a dominant influence on our way of thinking and being in the world. Communication is built on a set of common symbols and interpretations including both language and nonverbal communication. The latter is evidenced, for example, in forms of dress, body positioning, facial expressions, language tone and actions. For people to communicate effectively they must share common meanings and interpretations of the symbols they use. Roles--e.g., gender roles, sexual roles, family roles (husband, wife, parent, son, daughter)--are part of the symbol system that people create. As integrated sets of social norms or societal expectations about how one should or should not behave, roles form unconscious guidelines for behaviour. Roles, and the cultures of which they are a part, however, are not static and fixed, but dynamic and subject to change. If a person experiences difficulty in a role, as when role expectations are unclear or are different from what was anticipated, or when an individual is transitioning into or out of a role, role strain occurs.

In analyzing the experience and actions of people who are faced with a new social world, as is the case for Iranian immigrants to Canada, symbolic interactionism calls the researcher's attention to the symbolic meanings of particular actions and experiences in both the old world and the new; to role requirements and the potential for different meanings, costs and rewards associated with role performance; and to potentials for role strain, its source, experience and resolution. These dynamics will be examined from the perspectives of Iranians' interpretations of sexuality in Canada.


Symbolic interactionism calls for a qualitative methodology (Blumer, 1969; Denzin, 2001) that permits research participants to reflect on and explain the meanings they attribute to observations or experiences. In this study, in-depth interviews were used for this purpose.

The sample

Adult (i.e., > 18 years of age), heterosexually married men and women who immigrated to Canada from Iran and were living in a mid-sized Canadian city, were asked to participate in in-depth interviews. Participants were recruited through personal contacts of the co-investigators, through an Iranian woman who works with new immigrants, and through snowball sampling with those interviewed referring others to the study. The sample consisted of 10 men and 10 women. Sixteen identified as Muslim and 4 as Baha'i. Interviews were conducted between May and July, 2005.

The procedure

Interviews were conducted in Farsi by two of the co-investigators. Based on prior work in this community (Maticka-Tyndale, Shirpak, & Chinichian, 2007) the researchers knew that interviewing on sexual matters required that interviewers be of the same sex as participants and that they preferably come from a health background. For Iranians, speaking about sexual matters is something that is acceptable with health professionals, but not necessarily with others. The interviewers were both Iranian immigrants to Canada, one a male physician and the other a female midwife with an MA in anthropology. Both had experience in in-depth interviewing from other research projects.

Participants received an information package including a consent form and letter describing the project and interview. After providing consent for the interview, participants were asked about: problems and concerns that Iranian immigrants living in Canada have with respect to sexuality, their views of sex education both for children and for adults like themselves, and any concerns they had with respect to the sexuality of their children. Participants were not asked directly about their views of the sexuality of Canadians; however, participants framed their personal concerns and views within the context of a comparison with what they interpreted as a Canadian way of living and dealing with sexuality and marital and parent-child relationships.


The research procedures were reviewed and cleared by the Ethics Review Board of the University of Windsor. Prior to beginning the interview, each respondent was informed about the purpose of the study and the background and interests of the researchers. They were fully informed of their rights as participants and the steps taken to maintain confidentiality. Consent was obtained to tape-record interviews. They were given the opportunity to ask questions of the interviewers at the close of the interview.

Data handling

All interviews were transcribed and translated to English prior to analysis. To ensure accuracy of translation, transcripts were translated by one of the co-investigators and then checked against the original tape by a second co-investigator. Co-investigators also regularly crosschecked each other's coding and interpretation of data.

Analysis procedures

Thematic analysis was used to explore how study participants interpreted and understood Canadian sexuality and marital and parent-child relationships. Comparisons were made by age, gender, religion and time in Canada. To compare the views of younger and older participants, those below the sample median of 42.5 years for women and 38.5 years for men (referred to as younger) were compared to those above the median (referred to as older). Quotations are identified by gender and whether participants were younger or older. Time in Canada is not noted with quotations since there were no differences evident based on this factor.



Participants included 10 married females (8 Muslims and 2 Baha'is) and 10 married males (8 Muslims and 2 Baha'is) ranging in age from 22 to 53 years for women (median 42.5) and 29 to 67 years for men (median 38.5). Participants had been married between 2.5 and 36 years (medians 19 for women and 10.5 for men). The majority were well educated, with a median of 15 years for women (range 5-16) and 17 for men (range 5-20). All had left Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution, with the time in Canada ranging from 8 months to 18 years with a median of 7 years for women and 4.75 years for men. The number of children varied from none to 3 and children's ages ranged from 2 to 33 years old.

Themes and sub-themes

Using the symbolic interactionist approach, the theme chosen as the initial departure point for analysis was: Iranian immigrants' interpretation and understanding of the symbols of Canadian sexuality and sexual relationships. Participants drew on a diversity of experiential sources for their observations, including personal conversations, visual observations in the course of daily activities, rumours or unsubstantiated commentary, and media discourse and depictions. The following themes and sub-themes emerged from the data:

1. Meanings which Iranian immigrants attached to adult Canadians' sexuality and sexual relationships based on:

* Observations of women's dress style in Canada

* Information related to women's freedom and rights in Canada

* Observations of interpersonal relationships between unmarried men and women

* Observation of parent-child relationships

2. Immigrants' perceptions of adolescents' sexuality

* Observations and rumours of adolescent sexual activity

* Experience with school-based sex education

3. Experiences they had in interactions with Canadians related to sexuality and the meanings they ascribed to these.

Meanings ascribed to Canadian sexuality and sexual relationships

Most participants spoke positively and, at times, enviously of the apparent ease with which Canadian men and women interacted with each other and, in particular, of the knowledge they believed that Canadians had on sexual matters and their ability to speak together about these. As one young woman reflected,
 Most (Canadian) couples here have been friends for 4 or 5 years
 before marriage. I think these people will have fewer problems.
 People who know each other before marriage are more successful....
 (Female, youngest)

However, participants felt that the "Canadian ways" would not "work" for them. They repeatedly spoke of how their own understandings of sexuality and cross-gender relationships led them to conclude that if they took up wholly "Canadian ways," their marital and familial relationships would be jeopardized. Some spoke of what they saw as incompatibilities between Canadian and Iranian ways, making it very difficult for them to integrate the two. An older female commented on this difficulty.
 Iranian families who want to be Canadians
 go away from their culture and turn into
 "foreigners" and even behave in an
 exaggerated way. These families behave like
 they are overdoing Canadians' lifestyle.
 (Female, older)

The symbolic nature of dress

Iranians come from a culture where public exposure of parts of the body other than hands, feet and face is considered immodest and signalling sexual interest. Men and women, regardless of age and religion ascribed the symbolism of seduction and sexual availability to the dress of Canadian women.
 Almost all revealing clothes have been
 designed for women. It has no reason but
 that they [women] want to satisfy and attract
 men. (Female, younger)

 Here in Canada women dress in a revealing
 way and their body is visible. Some Iranian
 men's minds might become preoccupied with
 that. The way men dress [in Canada] is not
 different from Iran. Women are different.
 (Male, older)

The women we interviewed were fearful that their husbands would be enticed to pursue liaisons with Canadian women whose way of dressing, in their view, might be interpreted by men as expressing an interest and availability for sexual liaisons. Men confirmed the fears of women, commenting that they saw Canadian women's dress as seductive.
 Canadian women are used to wearing
 revealing dress and it seduces men. (Male,

 Canadian women are used to wearing
 revealing dress and it might attract men....
 But men are more concerned about their
 women than women for their men. In Iran
 we say to our wives that you must not wear
 a short sleeve shirt, or you'd better observe
 the Islamic dressing code (Hejab) and wear
 a scarf. (Male, younger)

Women's rights and freedoms

Iranian men interpreted the freedom that women had in Canada to make their own decisions related, for example, to work, social relationships, recreation, dress and where and with whom they would go, as potentially jeopardizing the stability of Iranian families. Their understandings of family, and especially marital relationships, were founded on family and gender role practices, codes and laws that they had experienced and observed since childhood in their home country. They reflected on how these differed and the difficulties they had in finding a way to integrate what was possible in Canada with what they understood as essential to maintaining a strong family. They viewed women's right to petition for divorce on an equal footing with men, the availability of state support for single mothers and the potential for state intervention into marital affairs (e.g., in response to accusations of abuse or denial of rights) as encouraging women to walk out of the marital relationship.
 Iranian women who have come to Canada feel more independence than
 they do in Iran. They say "I can get divorce" with strong
 confidence; a statement that they couldn't easily make in Iran.
 They are supported by the government here in Canada and it is why
 they raise divorce issue easily. It is not just a claim. Some women
 really do it. They can

 do it because they have financial support here in Canada after
 divorce. (Male, older)

 Iranian women might leave their husband because of more freedom
 here in Canada. They might find someone whom they think is a better
 match with them and want to be with him. Iranian men are worried
 about these things. (Male, younger)

 Men are worried about women's rights and freedoms here. They are
 concerned about the misuse--by claiming divorce--of this freedom by
 their wives. (Male, oldest)

As evident in these quotations, the status of women in Canada was seen as especially challenging by men. Coming from a male-dominant social system they wondered how women could be kept in an unhappy marriage if they had the right to leave, could access financial support in the form of welfare and mother's allowance, and could readily experience the freedom to make their own decisions without consultation with husbands or other family members.

Non-marital interactions and friendships

In Iran, private cross-gender interactions of two namahram (people of the opposite sex who can religiously and legally marry with each other) in private are religiously discouraged and any social relationships of such people might be seen as a signal that there is a sexual liaison. With religious teachings, folk wisdom, and law all supporting a common set of beliefs and interpretations, it is not surprising that our participants had difficulty viewing social relationships across gender lines as nonsexual, casual or non-threatening, particularly in their meaning for women.
 ...our marital relationship will be destroyed if we try to be like
 Canadians. For example, Canadian men don't care if other men, in a
 party for instance, flirt with their wives. It is absolutely
 unbearable and unacceptable for us. If we let these things happen
 and if we try to be Canadian, mutual respect [between husband and
 wife] will be broken. We cannot let other men flirt with our wives
 just because it is acceptable in Canadian society. (Male, older)

Canadian divorce rates and knowledge of the existence of extramarital affairs were interpreted as indicating that Canadians readily and easily formed extramarital liaisons, left their marital relationships with little thought or provocation and, essentially, cared little about their marriage.
 ... Canadians' relationships are incomparable to Iranians. Canadian
 couples have no commitment and no emotion about each other. They
 are with somebody today and with somebody else the next day. I have
 witnessed it myself among Canadian couples. I know Canadian married
 men who have girl friends. Canadian women do the same.... Canadian
 men say, "OK, if I don't get satisfaction with my wife I will go
 with my girlfriend." Their wives have the same idea. But Iranians
 try to keep their marital relationship in any condition. If the
 problem is their sexual relationship, I think, Iranians will try to
 make it better. They try to modify their relationship and make it
 better in a way that helps their marital life. (Male, older)

What is relevant, from a symbolic interactionist perspective, is not the factual validity or basis of these interpretations, but the meanings ascribed to the purported "evidence" or "facts," which in this case was that Canadian men and woman put little effort into their marital relationship.

Parent-child relationships

There was considerable diversity in how participants viewed parent-child relationships in Canadian families. Some saw little difference in Canadian compared to Iranian parenting, with both paying close attention to the activities of their children and having definite rules and expectations of their children, even to the point of more restrictions and protections of girls as compared to boys.
 I think their (Canadians') concerns about their children are like
 us. Some Iranians let their children to stay in their friends'
 house overnight but some Canadians don't. It is a rule for girls
 [not to stay at a friend's overnight] but boys are permitted to
 stay. So I think, like Iranians, girls are different from boy in
 Canadians' point of view. (Female, older)

 I know some Canadian families who are similar to us, who formally
 propose to their prospective bride's family for marriage. They get
 permission of their prospective bride's family before marriage.
 (Female, older)

Others, however, relayed quite different observations of Canadian parent-child relationships. They spoke of Canadian parents who allowed their adolescent children to make their own decisions and spend time away from home (for example, overnight at a friend's house). To some of our participants, these observations symbolized that Canadian parents cared less about their children or about remaining close to their children than did Iranians.
 ... Canadians are not worried about their children. They kick their
 16-or 17-year-old children out of home and let them do whatever
 they want. But we like to be with our children until death. (Male,

 ... Canadians feel free with these things. They don't care if their
 16-year-old daughter doesn't come back home at night. It is
 important for us as Iranian. (Male, older)

Our participants expressed surprise and concern that Canadian institutions such as schools, the health care system and the police supported children's independence from parental authority. Some parents struggled with how they could properly supervise and guide their children without the cooperation of Canadian institutions and laws.
 When my younger daughter was 18, I went to her school and asked
 about one of her scores in math. Her teacher said that her score
 was decreased because she was absent two times. When I asked her
 teacher about the dates of her absence, she said she couldn't tell
 me because in her opinion my daughter was old enough to decide on
 her own and I had no right to ask about my daughter's personal
 information. I said to her "I am supporting her financially and she
 is still my daughter. She is not a Canadian girl and I am not a
 Canadian mother". But she didn't understand me. (Female, older)

Adolescence and sexuality

The sexual activity of adolescents was often raised as a concern in interviews. Virginity prior to marriage is highly valued in Iran. The future, especially of a young woman who becomes sexually active prior to marriage, is cause for concern.

Observations and rumours about Canadian youth

The independence afforded to Canadian youth and what appeared to be a willingness of Canadian parents to allow their teenage children to go unsupervised, to stay out late, and to socialize across gender lines were all seen as contributing to early sexual activity among Canadian youth. The potential for the same among Iranian teenagers was of grave concern to the participants in our study. Perhaps because of the attention given in the media to the sexual activity of young teens, our participants fairly consistently believed that Canadian teens were sexually active from a very young age and that their parents were either unconcerned about this or had no way of influencing or controlling their children.
 Iranians like their children to wait to begin sex until after
 marriage or at least not to have sex at a younger age. For example,
 they don't want their children to have sex at 14. (Female,

 Our concerns about our children will be different at different ages
 for sure. In puberty our concern is about sexual relationships.
 When they get older we are worried if they start their sexual
 relationship. How can we find if they did? For girls we are worried
 about pregnancy and for boys for diseases. (Female, older)

Sex education and adolescent sexuality

While numerous Iranian researchers have acknowledged the need for sex education (Ghanbarzade, Najafi-Semnani, & Khazaie, 2003; Khadivarzadeh, Esmaieli, & Sargolzaie, 2003; Khosroshahi, Mohammad, & Javanmard, 2003; Sharifiaghdas & Khezri, 2003; Shirpak & Chinichian, 2001; Shokrollahi, Mirmohamadi, & Mehrabi, 1999), Iran does not have a formal system of broadly-based sex education for either youth or adults (Mohammadi et al., 2006). School-based sex education in lower grades is believed to encourage or contribute to sexual activity among youth and to expose children to materials that are only appropriate for adults (Poraboli, 2000). In recent years several educational programs regarding maturation and its related bodily and emotional changes have begun to be offered in secondary schools in Iran. However, because of the strong belief that sexual matters are private between husband and wife, and the concern that sexual information and materials might incite young people to become sexually active, the educational materials speak only euphemistically of sexual and relationship issues, without mention of specifics or details (Amado, 2003; Greene, Rasekh, Amen, Chaya, & Dye, 2002; Shirpak, Chinichian, & Maticka-Tyndale, 2005).

Although they criticized and were sorry about the lack of sex education in their adolescence in Iran and acknowledged the constructive role of such education in adulthood and marital relationships, some interviewees were worried about the presence of sex education in the first years of school as one of the probable causes for the early initiation into sexual activity of Canadian youth. Given the stronger expectations of purity and virginity for girls, concern was expressed primarily about daughters.
 If Iranians have daughters they are concerned about their
 daughters' virginity in their adolescence. The vast majority of
 Iranians think in the same way. I am one of them. It is not a big
 deal for Canadians. If a Canadian young girl is virgin she will be
 humiliated by her friends and will be stigmatized that she has a
 problem. This is our concern about our children in schools and we
 are really worried about it. Here they teach children about sex
 from primary school. Maybe my way of thinking is old fashioned but
 I think it is not appropriate to teach these things in primary
 school.... Some children the age of 8 or 9 are sexually active. I
 think it is because of watching some movies and reading some books
 and being exposed to sex education classes in school. (Male, older)

 Families should bring up their children so rational and wise that
 they postpone their sexual relationship for 10 years until they are
 completely mature. Or they should move to a place they can control
 their children ... I want to come back to Iran if I have a
 12-year-old daughter until she will be grown up enough. Here in
 Canada you can say nothing to your 15-year-old daughter. If you
 push her to do something that you want she yells at you and runs
 away with a Canadian boy to California. (Male, younger)

On the other hand, some others, despite their concerns about their children's exposure to sex education in early childhood, considered this education to be necessary and helpful.
 If these educations start earlier, children will be more curious. I
 don't like that my child is exposed to these education too soon. I
 am worried, even from now, that if my child will be born here s/he
 will be involved with these issues too soon. But after all, they're
 better to be educated than kept uninformed. So, for educating
 children, they can teach them only general things and don't go to
 the details. If they just talk about general subjects it would be
 OK to teach children in younger age, for example, 8.

 If this education starts later, it has consequences. It is better
 for children to have information before they want to start having
 sex. (Female, younger, no child)

 They are not ready enough. They are not ready for digesting these
 things. Having knowledge about their body does not mean necessarily
 that they are ready for a sexual relationship and sexual
 intercourse. I am not saying to leave them uninformed and let them
 gather information by themselves and directly from their
 experience. Let them get older and at least have some information
 about other parts of their body, know where their bladder and
 kidneys are and then teach them about those things.... If they are
 not taught until later they could face problems; they don't know
 how to deal with. (Female, older, mother)

Sexual meanings and misunderstandings: Examples from health care

Our participants also spoke of instances where they felt that they were being judged from a Canadian standpoint, resulting in what they considered to be inappropriate meanings being ascribed to their actions. These were typically in encounters with professionals. One woman in her early twenties reported an instance when her physician expressed surprise that she had never had a Pap test.
 In the very first visit my doctor asked me how many times I have
 had Pap test in Iran. When I told her I have never had Pap test in
 Iran, she was surprised and recorded that. I don't know if she knew
 anything about the belief in Iran that a virgin girl cannot have a
 Pap test. (Female, younger)

In Iran, a Pap test is not only considered unnecessary until a woman is sexually active, but is also seen as compromising her virginity. She explained this to her physician, but felt that she was viewed as unusual, exceptional, and perhaps even irrational because of her refusal of the Pap test. In her own culture, she would not have had to discuss her virginity, let alone explain why she did not want a Pap test.

In a second interview, a recently married woman described an instance where she sought advice from a health care provider about how to improve her sexual relationship with her husband. She complained about pain during urination and explained that she thought this might be related to sexual activity.
 I wanted to know if my problem (burning during urination) is
 because of a virus that transferred from my husband or it is simply
 because of his behaviour during sex that hurts me. I was not good
 in English language ... and I couldn't communicate with my doctor
 freely and say my problem in a way that I usually did in Iran.
 (Female, youngest)

Her unfamiliarity with how to speak about sexual matters led her to describe her sexual encounters with her husband as "violent" and "hurting." Misinterpreting what the woman was saying as a report of sexual abuse, the health provider contacted the police, who then contacted her husband.
 ... The day after, I found that police warned my husband about his
 violent behaviour toward me. He was crying when he explained that
 the police called. He kept asking me what he did to me that I
 complained to police. ... I just wanted to know what I should do
 for my physical problem....

What the woman wanted was advice on sexual intercourse and an explanation or treatment for her pain. She was acting from within the framework of her culture where the role of health care providers is to provide advice about sexual problems, and where a health provider would know that a newly married woman was unlikely to know much about sexual practices. However, to her Canadian health provider her comments were interpreted as signalling the probability of sexual violence or abuse in her marital relationship, a valid reason for contacting the police.


The degree to which one's own "ways of being" are entrenched in a sense of normality and propriety and the ways of others are seen as strange or deviant is repeatedly illustrated in this research. For the Iranians in our study, the actions of Canadians were interpreted and assigned meanings from within an Iranian cultural framework. Although religion and culture are closely intertwined in many societies, and religion is enshrined in law and policy in Iran, our participants identified their views as rooted in Iranian culture rather than in Islamic or Baha'i belief systems or teachings. They also felt that their own actions and words were likewise interpreted and assigned meanings by representatives of the educational or health care system from within a Canadian cultural framework. In both cases, this produced a considerable gap in understanding, both reflected and entrenched in misinformation about each others' ways of being and relating to sexuality.

The privileging of family and maintenance of a marriage over the needs, desires and preferences of individuals was foundational to the interpretations and concerns expressed by Iranians. The greater focus in Canada on the rights of the individual was interpreted as indicating that Canadians value themselves over and above their value for family and marriage--opposite to Iranian values. The value placed on independence and the rights of individuals, the acceptance of a broad range of styles of dress and casual cross-gender interactions for people of all ages and marital statuses, interpreted from within their own beliefs about gender, sexuality and relationships, were each seen as potentially threatening to Iranian marriages and as contributing to high divorce rates. We note that while concerns were expressed by both men and women, they expressed different concerns. For women, the focus was on men being drawn away from the marriage by "seductive" Canadian women. This concern is similar to that of women in Iran who, in a study of women's needs in the area of sexuality education, expressed concern over not being able to satisfy their husbands' sexual needs or desires and their husbands consequently looking for it somewhere else (Shirpak, 2006). Men focused on the social systems that made it possible for women to leave an "unhappy marriage".

The differences between what our participants valued and what they believed was valued in Canada was further demonstrated to them in their interactions with Canadian institutions. Schools demonstrated respect for the privacy and rights of older teenagers to choose whether or not to share information with their parents by refusing to release information to parents. Health care providers erred on the side of protecting the health and well-being of their female patients, recommending what are considered standard and necessary preventive procedures and reporting suspected spousal abuse to the police. Their actions, however, were different from Iranian cultural norms. For the school officials and health providers, these actions reflected respect for and protection of individual rights and well-being. To our participants they were in contrast to the prescribed parental roles, sexual norms, and both marital and health provider-patient relationships of their own culture. They were interpreted by our participants as evidence that their values were neither understood nor respected by Canadians.

While some of our participants saw benefits to the way Canadians approach marriage and friendships between the sexes, they likewise produced considerable anxiety about how living in Canada would influence their own relationships. These concerns cut across all age groups and did not appear to abate as immigrants were in Canada for longer time periods. For example, the very same young woman who was quoted earlier as speaking positively of Canadian couples being friends for several years prior to marriage, compared this to what she knew of Iranian couples.
 ... I know many (Iranian) couples who got married and had a good
 relationship for more than 8 or 10 years but after living in Canada
 for one year, they got divorced. The reason for their divorce was
 that the wife was informed about her rights and realized that here
 in Canada they (women) have more rights. (Female, youngest)

This kind of response to Canadian sexuality parallels the response found among Iranian immigrant women in the United States by Mahdi (2002) and Espin (1995). What Canadian norms prescribe or allow, rather than being valued by our participants were seen as threatening to their way of life. Husbands ascribed role strain and tensions in marital relationships to women embracing more individualistic ways of thinking. Wives feared that their husbands would be enticed to leave their marriage by the women they met at work and in public. Based on research among Muslim immigrants to western countries, it appears that our participants' fears that their marriages could not survive in Canada are well grounded. Hojat et al. (1999) noted that divorce rates among Iranian immigrants in the United States were more than 6 times higher than in Iran. According to Darvishpour (2002), Iranians have the second highest divorce rate among immigrant groups in Sweden. Research with Muslim immigrants to other "western" countries reports similar experiences with acculturative stresses and divorce rates (e.g., Buijs, 1993; Frederick & Akhtar, 2005; Ghaffarian, 1998; Hanassab & Tidwell, 1996; Hendrickx, Lodewijckx, van Royen, & Denekens, 2002; Kelson & Delaet, 1999; Killoran, 1998; Phalet & Hagendoorn, 1996). Further, considerable research on the children of immigrants, has documented their tendency to acclimatize to and accept the "western ways," creating tension between children and parents (Hall, 1992; Talbani & Hassanali, 2000).


In considering the results of this study, readers are reminded that this was a small sample of only heterosexual Iranian immigrants living in coupled relationships (married), drawn in one city in Canada. The views focus a great deal on maintaining relationships and concerns about how the differences in Canadian and Iranian ways might influence relationships. Such views might be quite different if divorcees or single men and women had been included in the sample. Certainly, other research has documented high divorce rates among Iranian immigrants to 'western' countries, with women often taking the initiative in obtaining divorce. Based on this physical/factual reality, we might expect the symbolic/interpretive reality with respect to sexuality and relationships to be different for divorcees, and particularly divorced women. Similarly, those who are not yet married might interpret the freedom to form friendships and to interact in a sociable way across gender lines quite differently than those who are married. These further insights must be left to future research with more diverse samples.

A second potential limitation is the use of Iranian interviewers. The advantages and disadvantages to insider vs outsider researchers, particularly when using qualitative methods, have been discussed extensively in the literature (Christensen & Dahl, 1997; Fine, 1994; Humphrey, 2007; Labaree, 2002). The advantage of Iranian interviewers included the ability to conduct interviews in Farsi, which interviewees expressed as a benefit; and to analyze the interviews in the original language and verify the retention of meaning when quotations for the research were translated to English. Participants expressed comfort in being interviewed by those who understood their culture and several commented that they could not speak of these matters with people outside their culture. The fact that interviewers were both health professionals was consistent with Iranian cultural norms that permitted open discussion of sexual matters with health professionals and the religious belief that health professionals but not others may be trusted as confidants (mahram). The disadvantages of insider interviewers include the possibility that interviewees provided only culturally acceptable responses and that, because of the shared culture, interviewers assumed a shared meaning and understanding rather than probing to confirm one. However, similar disadvantages exist with outsider interviewers. An acquiescence bias--i.e., participants say what they believe an interviewer wants to hear-and insufficient knowledge about a culture to know where to probe more deeply have also been noted as problems with outsider interviewers. By combining skilled, experienced insider interviewers with analyses and in-depth discussions among insiders and outsiders we feel we have balanced the advantages and disadvantages of the two approaches. The consistency of our findings with those of other researchers--including insiders and outsiders-suggests that our methodological approach produced authentic results for Iranian immigrants to Canada who were living in heterosexual coupled relationships.


Much has been written of cross-cultural misunderstandings with differences in meanings ascribed to common daily events (e.g., dress, physical closeness between strangers in public places, facial expressions, body language, codes of politeness, interpersonal interactions) both the source of humour and of serious consideration related to lost business opportunities or political alliances. For immigrants, as well as for citizens of countries that receive immigrants, differences in interpretations of daily events may create more long-standing tensions and strains in developing inclusive, mutually respectful relationships across communities. They create barriers to recognizing the commonalities of experience of husbands, wives and parents who in both Canada and Iran focus on maintaining quality relationships within their marriages and families. Instead, differences in interpretation perpetuate stereotypes and lead to ongoing suspicion and misunderstanding that maintain and widen the distance between people. Discordance between the meanings and interpretations of symbols impacts on social interactions among Iranians and Canadians and on the use of professional services by Iranians (Maticka-Tyndale, Shirpak, & Chinichian, 2007). For a country such as Canada, whose approach to immigration and nation building is founded on a principle of multiculturalism, it can be argued that understanding and communication across cultural divides is essential to living the principle of multiculturalism and for the delivery of quality services to its entire population. Strides have been made to provide culturally appropriate sexual health services and to acknowledge cultural diversity in much sex education programming. This ranges from making cultural interpreters available in the health provider-patient encounter as is done, for example, by Toronto Public Health, to involving representatives of cultural minorities in developing sexual health programming, as is done, for example, with representatives of the Muslim community in London, Ontario's programming related to sexual and family violence. What this study demonstrates is that the recognition of cultural diversities and the inclusion of people from different cultures in programming and service provision is essential in a multicultural context.


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Khosro Refaie Shirpak (1), Eleanor Maticka-Tyndale (1), and Maryam Chinichian (1,2)

(1) Social Justice and Sexual Health Research Lab, Dept. of Sociology & Anthropology, University of Windsor, Windsor, ON

(2) Dept. of Family Relations and Applied Nutrition, University of Guelph, Guelph, ON

Correspondence concerning this paper should be addressed to Dr. Khosro Refaie Shirpak, Social Justice & Sexual Health Research Lab, Dept. of Sociology & Anthropology, University of Windsor, 401 Sunset Ave., Windsor, ON, NgB 3P4. E-mail
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Author:Shirpak, Khosro Refaie; Maticka-Tyndale, Eleanor; Chinichian, Maryam
Publication:The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Sep 22, 2007
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