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Society & Culture

Against the Odds? Maryam Monsef and the Canadian Dream

November 11, 2015
Shima Shahrabi
7 min read
Justin Trudeau with Maryam Monsef and her mother Soriya Basir during the federal election campaign
Justin Trudeau with Maryam Monsef and her mother Soriya Basir during the federal election campaign
Residents of Firouz Abad protested against Afghan students in their schools. This banner reads:  “We object to the registration of Afghan nationals in this school"
Residents of Firouz Abad protested against Afghan students in their schools. This banner reads: “We object to the registration of Afghan nationals in this school"

In early November, newly-elected Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau announced his cabinet, which includes 15 women. But one woman in particular has caught the attention of Afghans and Iranians alike — Maryam Monsef.

As always, her headscarf matches her long shirt. As soon as she notices me, she comes up to me and we exchange the usual greetings. “Did you hear the news?” she asks, and then a big smile appears on her face. “The Afghan woman in the Canadian government is from our province,” she says. “Have you seen how attractive she is?”

I first met Tahmineh outside a branch of Marshalls in Houston two years ago. I was on my phone when I noticed her looking at me and smiling. When I finished, she came up and said, “Hello, are you Iranian?”, and then without waiting for me to answer, added: “I know your accent.” 

Tahmineh had never been to Iran, but she had heard about it from her relatives who had migrated there from Afghanistan. “Why did you come here? Iran is good. Our elders like to return to our birthplace, but the children say that Iran is good,” she said. “They talk with your accent.”

Tahmineh works at Marshalls and studies at the same time. “In Afghanistan we didn’t work, but my father says that here everybody must work,” she told me. “We take classes to improve our English.” 

Now she pulls out her cellphone and shows me a photograph of Maryam Monsef — one I have seen quite a lot in the media recently. 

The photograph shows a young woman with bright eyes and a somewhat innocent smile, dressed in black like her colleagues and wearing a small rose pendant on her lapel.

Monsef is the youngest member of the new Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet, and the second-youngest minister in the country’s history. At the age of 11, Monsef and her mother and her two younger sisters came to Canada as refugees. Now, at 30, she is the Minister of Democratic Institutions and the first Afghan-born person to hold such a title in Canada. “I'm honored to serve Canadians as Minister of Democratic Institutions alongside an excellent team & grateful for the trust placed in me,” she tweeted shortly after her appointment.

Monsef was born in 1985 and was raised in Herat near the Iranian border. In the mayhem of the war that began after the Soviet invasion, she and her family took refuge in Iran, but en route, her father died. “The most we know is he was caught in a crossfire between the border of Iran and Afghanistan,” Monsef told the Huffington Post. Beyond that, that there are few details available about what happened to him.

In Iran, Monsef’s mother Soriya struggled to provide for her children, and they faced the constant risk of deportation. In 1996, she decided to take her three daughters to Canada. The journey, Monsef says, involved donkeys, camels, and airplanes. It took her through Iran, Pakistan, and Jordan. On the way, she and her sisters came down with chickenpox. In her swearing-in ceremony, Monsef thanked her mother Soriya for her courage.


What if?

Maryam Monsef’s selection as minister in the new Canadian government has been a popular topic for both Iranians and Afghans, especially on social networks. One question keeps coming up:  What would have happened if Monsef had remained in Iran?

Many Afghan refugees in Iran live in very difficult conditions, many of them having escaped their home country without any residency permit or legal documents. Refugees had to gather their belongings in a hurry and flee.

Until 2015, Afghan children not in possession of residency permits were barred from studying in Iranian schools. But in August, Ayatollah Khamenei issued an order that state-run schools must register Afghan children whether they have legal residency or not. Following this, though the Interior Ministry’s Bureau of Immigrants and Foreign Nationals gave Afghan residents — legal or otherwise — only five days to apply for the necessary documents for their children. As a result, many Afghan families have still not been able to register their children in school. Some of them found out about the directive too late, while others were unable to schedule an appointment due to the rush for registration. 

But the problem is not only the government’s attitude. In some parts of Iran, there is huge discrimination against Afghan people. In some communities, Iranians have made it clear that they do not want Afghan children attending their local schools, and have appealed to school principals about the matter — often even displaying banners calling for Afghan children to be excluded. Some parents have demanded that their children not be seated next to Afghan children.

In European countries, Canada and the United States, every child has the right to education, and children of illegal immigrants go to school. When Maryam Monsef arrived in Canada, she went to school too; later she received a degree from Trent University. After college, she became involved in a range of humanitarian activities — and in October 2015, she was elected as a Liberal MP to the Canadian parliament. She is the first Canadian MP to have been born in Afghanistan.

What would have happened had Maryam Monsef remained in Iran? Although she had legal residency, and even if she had been able to get a university education, she would not have been able to become a cabinet minister. According to Article 982 of the Civil Code of the Islamic Republic, those who obtain Iranian nationality “enjoy all rights recognized for Iranians,” but cannot be elected or appointed to the following positions:

1. Presidency or vice presidency

2. Membership to the Council of Guardians or chief of the Judiciary

3. Minister, deputy minister, governor general or any governor position

4. Membership to the Islamic Consultative Assembly

5. Membership to provincial or district councils, or to municipal councils

6. Any position at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, or position in the diplomatic service

7. Judge

8. Senior ranks in the Army, the Revolutionary Guards or the police

9. Senior positions in the intelligence and security units


Discrimination and Exclusion 

As with many official events, Maryam Monsef’s swearing-in ceremony was available to view online. Iranians and Afghans commenting widely on the ceremony, with many people offering their congratulations. Some Afghans took the opportunity to complain of the way Afghan immigrants are treated in Iran — while some Iranians complained about the presence of Afghans in their country.

Afghans living in Iran uploaded photographs of the hand-made banners protesting against the registration of Afghan students, pointing out that Maryam Monsef probably could not have gone to school had she stayed in Iran. And some Iranians cited the recent stoning of a 19-year-old woman in Afghanistan, adding that this could have been Monsef’s destiny if she had remained in Afghanistan.

“In Iran, life for us Afghans is very difficult,” wrote Mohammad, who now lives in Germany but used to live in Tehran, where he was employed by a dressmaking workshop. “We cannot buy a motorcycle or a house or anything else in our own name. Schools do not accept our children. We have no IDs, and neither do our children — even if we are married to an Iranian. It is not only the government that gives us a bad time. The people do not treat Afghans as human beings either. They call us ‘dirty’.” He said he had been physically attacked because he was from Afghanistan.  

“I have been living in Germany for the past five years and have no problems,” Mohammad posted. “Thank God nobody calls me ‘dirty’.”

But some Iranians commenting on the video said the situation for Afghan refugees was not as bad as had been described. “In Iran, Afghans live rather well and successfully thanks to the Iranian culture and people,” a man called Sadegh posted,  “whereas in Pakistan they are trapped by poverty and prostitution or are used by terrorists.” And another Iranian, Maryam, wrote: “I agree that if Monsef had stayed in Iran she could not have been so successful socially. But what prospects do we ourselves have as Iranians? How can we expect those  same prospects for immigrants who have been forced into a developing country?”

The story will continue. And as I follow it closely, I remember Tahmineh’s words: “My father says: ‘You can do it too!’”


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