Out in the World: Queer Persian-owned Toronto restaurant serves as a hub for Iranian activism

  • by Heather Cassell, BAR Contributor
  • Wednesday August 16, 2023
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Iranian Canadian journalist and restaurateur Samira Mohyeddin, left, and her younger brother, Amir Salar Mohyeddin, who is the chef, stand outside their restaurant Banu in Toronto. Photo: Heather Cassell
Iranian Canadian journalist and restaurateur Samira Mohyeddin, left, and her younger brother, Amir Salar Mohyeddin, who is the chef, stand outside their restaurant Banu in Toronto. Photo: Heather Cassell

In Toronto, family-owned restaurant Banu has served as a place of resistance and refuge for Iranians — including LGBTQ Iranians — fleeing the country's theocratic government that has been ruled by strict Sharia law for nearly 45 years.

They've been able to find comfort in their community, food, and causes at Banu, located on Queen Street West, in the West Village dubbed "Queer West," Toronto's second LGBTQ neighborhood.

Lesbian Iranian Canadian journalist Samira Mohyeddin and her gay younger brother, Amir Salar Mohyeddin, who is the chef, own the restaurant along with their older sister Salome Mohyeddin, who is the manager. Since opening the restaurant's doors in 2005, the siblings have been serving up activism with Iranian dishes based on their mother's recipes over the past 18 years.

"Social justice was something we talked about a lot around the table," said Samira Mohyeddin.

Escape from Iran

Samira Mohyeddin, 48, immigrated to Canada when she was 4 years old. Her family — who has nearly a century of activist roots and government positions — fled the Iranian Revolution in 1979 that drew the curtain between Iran and the West nearly 45 years ago.

It wasn't without hesitation and disbelief that the Mohyeddin family ended up in Canada. Their aunt, Parvin Mohyeddin, pushed for it, ignoring objections of her brother, Faraj Mohyeddin, and his wife, Zarrin Mohyeddin, who believed Iran's political situation at the time would settle down. They didn't want to leave their beloved Tehran, the capital. Parvin Mohyeddin wasn't convinced. Instead, she started the immigration process for her brother's family.

Samira Mohyeddin and her siblings are descended from Iranian political families, she said. Her grandfather on her mother's side was head of Iran's Social Democrat Party and was a member of one of the country's first parliament sessions in the 1930s. Her grandfather on her father's side was a general in Iran's former army.

He "escaped" to Canada, because "they were rounding up [the generals and] they were executing them all during the revolution," she said.

On January 16, 1979, the day that the Iranian government fell to the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi went into exile and the family received a phone call from the Canadian embassy in Tehran. They were called in for an interview and granted permanent Canadian residency but had just six months to leave the country.

The family ended up on one of the last flights out of the country on May 4, 1979, before the Iranian government grounded all flights. They joined their aunt, Parvin Mohyeddin, on her farm in the small town of Drummondville. Her family quickly moved to North York, then a suburb of Toronto, which today is a neighborhood of the sprawling metropolis.

Samira Mohyeddin said it is her ancestry and family lore, along with her family's political roots and belief in social justice and equality that guide their lives and the restaurant.

Nearly four and a half decades later, the Bay Area Reporter sat across from Samira Mohyeddin at Banu on July 25 while her brother flitted around the restaurant eavesdropping on the conversation. The discussion ranged from LGBTQ rights in Iran and returning to the country to helping queer Iranian refugees. Talk also included the uprising by Iranian women following the death of Masha Amini under suspicious circumstances, and the queer resistance among the women protesters who continue to bravely take to the streets nearly a year later.

A solemn anniversary

September marks the one-year anniversary of Zahra Seddiqi Hamedani and Elham Chobdar's sentencing to death by the Revolutionary Court of Urmia, the capital of West Azerbaijan Province of Iran, as the B.A.R. previously reported. At the time, a third woman, Soheila Ashrafi, 53, was also being held alongside them at Urmia Central Prison in Iran, awaiting her verdict.

Hamedani, 32, who identifies as queer and is better known online as Sareh, and Chobdar, 25, received their sentences September 1. The sentencing was allegedly based on the women's links to the LGBTQ+ community on social media.

The Guardian reported that Hamedani appeared in a documentary for the BBC Persian service in May 2021 where she spoke out about the abuse LGBTQs faced in the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region of Iraq, where she was living at the time.

Homosexuality is illegal in Iran and punishable by death under the Sharia penal code Hamedani was arrested attempting to cross the border into Turkey, where she was hoping to claim asylum in October 2021, reported The Guardian.

The women's plight was overshadowed by the mass demonstrations by women speaking out against the death of Amini, 22, in a hospital three days after being arrested by Iran's morality police for allegedly not wearing her headscarf correctly. Amini died September 16, 2022.

"I myself don't know what's going on with their file right now, to be honest," Samira Mohyeddin said. "I don't know what's gonna happen." She pointed out that the Iranian government is "not very forgiving."

Returning to Iran

Samira Mohyeddin experienced first-hand women's limitations in Iran when she returned to her former homeland in 1999 when she was 25 years old. She was in the country for close to two months exploring a potential script for a show about girls who dress as boys to gain more access to do things like riding a bike.

"It's illegal for women to ride bicycles," Samira Mohyeddin said, because the "motion arouses men. I'm not joking."

In writing about Iranian women's issues, Samira Mohyeddin likens Iran's laws to Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood's futuristic dystopian novel "The Handmaid's Tale." Women's testimony is only worth half of a man's testimony in court. Women only inherit half the family's wealth, and the closest male relative gets the rest. Women go to great lengths to legally divorce but lose custody of their children in the process. There's no singing or dancing in public. Queer people are hanged.

"It is so absurd and comical. If it wasn't so tragic, I would laugh," she said.

During that trip, Samira Mohyeddin stayed with her grandmother, who still lived in Iran. She quickly learned that she needed permission from her father to travel and to book a hotel room. Being out as a lesbian was definitely not happening. It was an eye-opening experience, she said.

Maintaining hope

The situation in Iran is light years from what it was when she was 3 years old in Tehran, she said talking about how the country celebrated its first unofficial same-sex wedding in 1978, according to Iran Wire. The wedding between Iranian gay architect and intellectual Bijan Saffari and his partner, Sohrab Mahvi, a designer for the Niavaran Palace, at Tehran's famed Commodore Hotel, signals to Samira Mohyeddin how progressive the Middle Eastern country was before the revolution. It gives her hope for Iran's future, and the future of Iranian women and LGBTQ people.

"I have a lot of hope, otherwise, I can't really carry on," she said. "I really think that this generation will be the last of this government because if you want to find a more secular people in the Middle East, it's in Iran.

"This generation is unlike any other," Samira Mohyeddin continued, noting roughly 60% of Iran's population is under the age of 30, educated, and they like America. "One of the chants they always do during the protests is, 'They're lying! They say our enemy is the U.S., our enemy is right here.'

"These kinds of chants rock this government to its core because it shows that all of the propaganda, none of it worked," Samira Mohyeddin said.

The women aren't standing down even after being arrested and sent to "reeducation centers," forced to see psychologists, lashed, fined, or having their freedoms — such as cars — taken away, Samira Mohyeddin said. The Iranian government, she noted, is "doing everything they can" to subjugate the young women, but they are still filling the streets protesting nearly a year after Amini's death.

Samira Mohyeddin wouldn't speculate when the B.A.R. asked how many of the women leading the protests she thought might be queer. Instead, she said, "I can tell you that during this movement, there have been unprecedented showings of queer people in the streets," noting the rainbow flags and photos of people kissing others of the same sex in the streets.

"Every couple of years there are protests in Iran. Nothing like this," Samira Mohyeddin said, stating that demonstrating as the young people are doing is a life-or-death situation.

"These are things that you would never see," she said, pointing to the graffiti and explaining the writing on the wall calling for "queer trans liberation."

Safe haven

"We're very lucky," Samira Mohyeddin said about her parent's acceptance of their queer children, friends, and partners. "At the end of the day, my mom just wanted us to be happy. The door was always open to whoever we were going out with to come home."

Although, it took time for her and her mother to accept that she wasn't the only gay person in the family. Samira Mohyeddin laughs about her brother, Amir Mohyeddin, coming out to the family. No one believed him at first. However, a gay friend of her sister, Salome Mohyeddin, knew when the brother was only 10. "You know, your brother's gay," she said he told them.

The family brushed it off because Amir Mohyeddin, now 42, didn't fit the stereotype and they thought how could there be two queer siblings in the same house. Years later the friend was proved right.

Samira Mohyeddin started taking Amir Mohyeddin out with her to gay events. After her younger brother graduated from culinary school, the siblings plotted to open a restaurant.

Banu has served as a safe space for queer Iranians to be themselves from day one. They can bring first dates, hold hands and kiss, hang out with friends, and bring their family to meet their partners for the first time.

Over the years, they've helped five LGBTQ Iranians out of the many Iranian refugees who have worked at the restaurant, Samira Mohyeddin said. Her family has also worked on fundraising efforts with Rainbow Railroad and the Metropolitan Community Church-Toronto, which sponsor refugees, she added.

"This city specifically, Toronto, is really thought of as a haven for queer Iranians," she said, many of whom have been stuck as refugees for years in Turkey.

The queer Iranian population has grown so large in Toronto that there were an estimated 300 people in Toronto Pride's Iranian contingent this year, she added.

Got international LGBTQ news tips? Call or send them to Heather Cassell at WhatsApp/Signal: 415-517-7239, or [email protected]

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