To many Iranian-Canadians, Jian Ghomeshi has long been their community’s brightest star, as he took great pride in his ethnic heritage and happily stepped into the spotlight at events and fundraisers.
But now, some are feeling a sense of sadness and betrayal amid widening allegations against him of sexual violence, and his firing as host of Q, one of the CBC’s most popular radio shows.
“He was an icon for so many of us in the Iranian community, particularly those of us who have any interest in media,” said Sima Sahar Zerehi, a journalist, teacher and human rights activist.
“We wanted his success to be our success. Every time he threw in a badly pronounced Farsi word on air on Q was like a coup. Every time he had [Iranian-American] comedian Maz Jobrani on the show, it was a celebration for our community.”
But Ghomeshi also offered something else — a modern, progressive Iranian-Canadian man who discussed women’s issues and sounded like a feminist.
“In a landscape littered with images of Iranian men as being sexist, misogynists, wife beaters, religious fundamentalist goons that throw acid at women’s faces and oppress them with a veil and want to deny them education and legal rights, he was a symbol of a different version of what it meant to be an Iranian man,” Zerehi said.
“So many of us wanted to believe in that. It just feels like such a betrayal.”
Ghomeshi has said he will meet the allegations “directly” and has maintained in a Facebook post and through a $55-million lawsuit against the CBC that all his sexual interactions have been consensual. He has also filed a union grievance alleging wrongful dismissal.
Ghomeshi was born in London, England, to parents of Iranian descent, and moved with his family to Thornhill when he was 7.
When he first posted on Facebook that he had been fired, he argued the public broadcaster was making a “moral judgment” about sexual practices that involve bondage, dominance, sadism and masochism, known as BDSM.
“It’s not easy to describe to your Iranian mother what BDSM is,” said Samira Moheyeddin, owner of Banu Iranian Kabob & Vodka Bar. “I think a lot of people in our community have had to deal with that.”
Still, there was an initial wave of support on social media. “We sort of fell into this bad form of tribalism, as I like to call it: ‘He’s our boy and we’re rooting for him,’” said Moheyedin, adding that she felt she had only heard one side of the story and was wary of supporting Ghomeshi.
The next day, the Toronto Star published allegations from four women who said they had been assaulted by the CBC radio star.
“I’ve seen those attitudes do a 180 after we heard the other side and after the stories came out,” said Moheyeddin, who is also a LGBTQ rights activist.
“I am, for lack of a better word, devastated,” she added. Just knowing that the allegations go back many years, “and no one did anything about it, is very telling of our society for me.”
To date, nine women and a man have come forward to the Star and other media with allegations of physical and sexual assault by Ghomeshi. Three women have gone to Toronto police, who are investigating.
None of the allegations has been proven in court.
The community remains divided, Zerehi said. There are about 200,000 people of Iranian descent in the GTA.
“It has become a fight, an argument, and a debate around every family table from the people who didn’t want to believe it to the people who believe it to the people who are still on the fence,” she said.
Ahmad Tabrizi, founder of the Parya Trillium Foundation, an Iranian-Canadian community centre in Thornhill, said he feels Ghomeshi, whom he has known more than a decade, has been treated unfairly in the media.
“For me it’s very difficult to understand and digest what is happening. I cannot judge whether he has done something wrong or not because I’m not in a judge’s position. But the way the media is treating him, I cannot understand what is behind it,” Tabrizi said.
“There have been cases much worse than this, where it was totally proven in court that a guy killed a woman after having sex and there was not so much talk in the media.”
Kaveh Shahrooz, a lawyer and human rights activist, said he has sensed a “closing of ranks” on social media. “Nobody says that the allegations aren’t a big deal, but the language is, ‘Nothing has been proven yet so why are we beating up on the guy?’ Those kinds of conversations are taking place. I find that happens more frequently among my Iranian-Canadian friends than my something-else Canadian friends.”
Just because Ghomeshi often spoke publicly about his heritage doesn’t mean he is the face of the community, said Shahrzad Mojab, a professor in women and gender studies at the University of Toronto.
“I don’t feel let down because he is Iranian. For me the letdown is the sexual violence against women,” Mojab said. “I don’t have that nationalist sense of belonging. I feel more Canadian when I stand by aboriginal women on issues of violence or racism.
With the United Nations International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women and the Dec. 6 anniversary of the Montreal massacre approaching, “We need to think about what conditions systematically create this situation for women in Canada and why they don’t feel safe in workplaces, at home, on the street, or in the classroom,” Mojab said.
“These are matters of understanding patriarchal relations and sexual violence against women. We have to deal with it at that level and not culturalize it.”
Zerehi said she believes it is important for Iranian-Canadians, particularly men, to speak publicly about the allegations. “We need to send a message that says it’s never okay, that there’s zero tolerance for violence against women. We know this happens in not just our community, but all immigrant communities, and there is more stigma about speaking up, there is more fear, there is more of a tendency to sweep things under a rug.”
There is also concern about the Ghomeshi family, particularly his mother. Two weeks before the allegations became public, many from the close-knit community attended the funeral for Ghomeshi’s father.
Some are worried about Ghomeshi himself. “I hope he comes out of it okay as a person, as a human,” Moheyeddin said. “He doesn’t seem like a strong individual.”