Women in Exile / 1994 / The University Press of Virginia / Editor
Attempting to come to terms with her own life in exile, Afkhami, who was forced out of Iran because of her work for women’s rights, sought out and talked with 12 other women from all parts of the globe. If, as has been said, exiles, refugees, and emigrants are the defining figures for the twentieth century, the thirteen women of Women in Exile give unforgettable life to the metaphor. Their stories offer a rare and special opportunity to witness the harrowing experience of flight and dislocation and to marvel at the resilience of the human spirit.
Prologue By Mahnaz Afkhami
This prologue was adapted for Why Freedom Matters: The Spirit of the Declaration of Independence in Prose, Poetry, and Song
I am in exile. I have been in exile for fifteen years. I have been forced to stay out of my own country, Iran, because of my work for women’s rights. I recognized no limits, ends, or framework in this work outside those set by women themselves in their capacity as independent human beings. The charges against me are “corruption on earth” and “warring with God.” Being charged in the Islamic Republic of Iran is being convicted. There is no defense or appeal, although I would not have known how to defend myself against such a grand accusation as warring with God anyway. There has not been a trial, not even in abstentia, and no formal conviction. Nevertheless, my home in Tehran has been ransacked and confiscated, my books, pictures, and mementos taken, my passport invalidated, and my life threatened repeatedly.
My life in exile began at dawn on November 27, 1978. I was awakened by the ringing of the telephone. My husband’s voice sounded very near. It took me a while to remember that he was calling from Tehran. He had just spoken with Queen Farah who had suggested that I cancel my return trip from New York scheduled for the following day. The government was trying to appease the opposition by making scapegoats of its own high-ranking officials. Feminists were primary targets for the fundamentalist revolutionaries. I had recently lost my cabinet post as minister of state for women’s affairs as the regime’s gesture of appeasement to the mullahs. It was very likely, my husband was saying, that as the most visible feminist in the country I would be arrested on arrival at the airport.
I searched for my glasses on the table by the bed and turned on the light, still clutching the receiver. I looked out the window at the black asphalt, glistening under the street lights. It must have rained earlier, I thought as I listened to my husband’s voice, tinged with despair, yet somehow aloof and impersonal, as if this had little to do with him. Two months later when I would call to discuss the deteriorating situation and the need for him to get away, I would sound the same to him. The ties between a person and her home are such that even those nearest fear to intervene directly.
When I said good-bye I was wide awake but not clear-headed. What will I do here, I wondered. During the past few weeks my days had been spent negotiating with the United Nations’ lawyers the terms of an agreement between the government of Iran and the UN, setting up the International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (INSTRAW) in Tehran. Evenings had been spent in meetings with groups and individuals trying desperately to affect the outcome of events in Iran.
Now it was suddenly all over for me. I could not go back home. I was left with a temporary visa, less than $1,000 in cash, and no plans whatsoever. I crossed the small room and automatically turned on the television to the Reuter news channel. The moving lines of the news tape were a familiar sight. In the last few weeks I had spent many hours staring at the screen, following the latest news, waiting for the inevitable items on Iran. When I looked up, the sun was streaming through the room.
Where would I go, I wondered as I dressed. I remembered I had planned to buy a coat that day. “What sort of a coat?” I asked myself. What sort of life will I be leading and what kind of a coat will that life require? Who am I going to be now that I am no longer who I was a few hours ago? I smiled at my reflection in the mirror. Need there be such existential probing connected to the buying of a winter coat? Even though I was far from the realization of the dimensions and the meaning of what had happened to me, my identity was already becoming blurred. The “I” of me no longer had clear outlines, no longer cast a definite shadow.
For a decade I had defined myself by my place within the Iranian women’s movement. The question “Who am I?” was answered not by indicating gender, religion, nationality, or family ties but by my position as the secretary general of the Women’s Organization of Iran, a title that described my profession, indicated my cause, and defined the philosophical framework of my existence. On that November morning in 1978, I realized that an immediate and formal severance of my connection to WOI was absolutely necessary. In those days of turmoil, when the movement’s very existence was threatened, WOI did not need a secretary general who had become persona nongrata to the system and its opposition. I sat at the desk in my hotel room and began to write a letter of resignation.
“To the Central Council of the WOI,” I wrote, and I pictured the faces of the women on the council. I feared that by the time the letter reached Tehran, members of the council might themselves be in gravest danger. I smiled to remember Dr. Alam, the president of the central council to whom I had given Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics as part of a campaign to bring the council into contact with examples of feminist thinking in other countries. Dr. Alam was not well versed in English. She had shocked her conservative extended family by looking up from her book during a relaxed weekend gathering and inquiring loudly of a younger, American educated member, “What means fuck?”
“We have worked together and achieved much during the past decade,” I wrote, and remembered the day when I stood in my office, holding the phone to my ear with both hands, trembling with excitement as my colleague reported from the Majlis that the Family Protection Law had just passed. I put the receiver down, joy bubbling in my chest, not knowing what to do to celebrate. I picked up the phone and called a woman who had complained to me recently about her powerlessness to affect her children’s destiny after her husband’s death. The previous law had required that in the absence of the father, they be placed under the custody of a grandfather, an uncle — in their case, an uncaring granduncle. I called her and said, “Afsaneh Khanom, congratulations, as of this hour you will have a say over your children’s future.”
“We have confronted many obstacles together,” I wrote, and recalled driving in the desert city of Yazd through the parched, dusty winding streets, defined by the high mud walls of houses. We had stopped to talk to a woman who was crying as she ran close to the wall, her shoulder touching the mud bricks from time to time, loosening bits of dirt and dust. She was the legal advisor of the WOI center, she said. Her husband had just battered her for her work on behalf of the organization and had forbidden her to set foot in the center. In Bandar Abbas a woman had allowed us to look under the hard, coarse surface of the “Borghe,” a masklike covering pressed over her nose and eyes, to see the bruises and cuts it created as it rubbed against her perspiration-soaked skin in the 104 degree heat. In Esfahan a woman at a textile factory had told us she locks in her four small children in her one room ten hours each day so hat she can work.
“We have built a feminist infrastructure which will not be destroyed,” I continued, and thought of the tens of thousands of women who had helped create a network of classes, childcare centers, consciousness-raising groups, and health care clinics throughout the country. In factories, villages, and schools women had repeated to us that the most important single need of women is financial independence on which depend all their liberties and capabilities. Without it, all rights and legal protection become irrelevant; with it, all else is within reach. I remembered the many discussions and meetings and one-to-one conversations out of which grew the concept of the Houses of Women. At the heart of each center were the vocational training classes. Around the classes grew other services such as childcare, job counseling, and family planning that made it possible for women to participate in classes and once trained to seek and sustain a career uninterrupted by unwanted pregnancies.
The centers’ programs had grown to include lectures, discussions, and consciousness-raising gatherings. Although the activities were not political in themselves, they created a heightened socio-political awareness that culminated in the massive participation of women in the revolution of 1979. I recalled a meeting of the secretaries of the provincial organizations after one of the first demonstrations in Kerman in which masses of women in black chadors had marched. The secretary from Kerman had explained to us about the marching women saying they were “our own members — we have talked about mobilization and assertiveness and now they are mobilized and assertive and ask for the downfall of the regime!” And she was right. The phenomenon of millions of women participating in the uprisings would have been unimaginable in a society with a lower level of feminist consciousness. That the women were as mistaken as the intellectuals and the nationalists and leftists in their appraisal of the future does not detract from the significance of their extraordinary movement.
I returned to my letter, summarized our mutual accomplishments, summed up the reasons for my resignation, pledged my continued dedication to the cause,and wished the movement and the council victory against the forces of reaction. I read the text over the telephone to my assistant in Tehran, both of us fighting to hold back our tears, already thinking not of the decade fast fading into the past but of the dark years ahead of us. She told me about bomb threats to the centers in Zanjan, in Sabzevar, in Sirjan. She said that the day before they had to evacuate the childcare center at the headquarters twice because of similar threats.
I was reluctant to say good-bye, knowing that cutting the connection meant literally that — cutting my ties with my job, my cause, my country, and my home. Finally I put the receiver down, repeating to myself, “that’s that,” “so much for that.”
During the next days I lived a refusal to believe, a denial of the event, an inability to mourn — a state of mind which for me continued for years to come. A flurry of activity related to making arrangements concerning the death is the surest means of keeping full realization of the fact of it at bay. So I plunged myself into a series of actions aimed at ensuring survival in the new setting. The first priority was obtaining permission to stay in the United States. You need this to get a job although sometimes you can’t get it without having a job — one of the many vicious circles encountered in the life of exiles. Those who enter the country as exiles discover that what had been their natural birthright at home will now depend on the decision of an official who may, for any reason at all or none, deny permission, a process from which there is no recourse.
As soon as possible, I was told, one must get the necessary cards — driver’s license, social security, credit card. These are to help one to assure the community that one exists and will continue to exist for the foreseeable future and can be trusted to handle a car and pay a bill. There is a certain excitement involved in all this. Finding a place to live, learning new routines, looking for a job, establishing new relationships — all within a separate reality, outside the framework of one’s customary existence. It is possible to once again ask, “What do I want to be?” I contemplated whole new careers, from real estate to law, from teaching to opening a small business. They all seemed equally possible yet uniformly improbable.
All of this activity buys one time — time to assimilate the fact of loss and time to prepare to face it. You are told often that you must distance yourself from the past, that you must start a new life. But as in the case of death of kin — you don’t want to move away, close his room, give away his clothes. You want to talk about him, look at pictures, exchange memories. You shun contact with all those healthy, normal natives who are going about their business as if the world is a safe, secure, and permanent place a piece of which belongs to them by birthright. You work frantically to retain the memory and to reconstruct the past.
When you mourn a loved one, you wish more than anything to be either alone or with others who share your sense of loss. I sought mostly the company of other exiled Iranians. Together we listened to Persian music, exchanged memories, recalled oft-repeated stories and anecdotes, and allowed ourselves inordinate sentimentality. We remembered tastes, smells, sounds. We knew that no fruit would ever have the pungent aroma and the luscious sweetness of the fruit in Iran, that the sun would never shine so bright, nor the moon shed such light as we experienced under the desert sky in Kerman. The green of the vegetation on the road to the Caspian has no equal, the jasmine elsewhere does not smell as sweet.
Like children who need to hear a story endless times, we repeated for each other scenes from our collective childhood experiences. We recalled the young street vendors sitting in front of round trays on which they had built a mosaic of quartets of fresh walnuts positioned neatly at one inch intervals. We recalled the crunchy, salty taste of the walnuts carried with us in a small brown bag as we walked around Tajrish Square, taking in the sounds and sights of an early evening in summer. We recalled the smell of corn sizzling on makeshift grills on the sidewalk. We remembered our attempts to convince the ice cream vendor, a young boy not much older than ourselves, to give us five one-rial portions of the creamy stuff smelling of rose water, each of which he carefully placed between two thin wafers. We knew that any combination of sizes would get us more than the largest — the five-rial portion. But the vendor, in possession of the facts and in command of the situation, sometimes refused to serve more than one portion to each child. We remembered walking past families who were picnicking, sitting on small rugs spread by the narrow waterways at the edge of the avenue, laughing and clapping to the music which blared from their radios, oblivious of the traffic a few feet away. We laughed about our grandmothers or aunts who sat in front of the television enjoying images from faraway places, around which they constructed their own stories, independently of the original creator’s intention.
We recalled all this with affection and nostalgia. Yet we cursed ourselves and our culture and our habits and expressed our distrust, contempt, and suspicion of our compatriots. “Iranians are …” began an enumeration of our supposed national characteristics, confirmed, reiterated, and further embellished by each person present, provided that they were all from the same background and that there were no outsiders among them. These descriptions did not include the revolutionaries, around whose character a new set of myths had begun to accumulate.
During the first year of the revolution, the hostage crisis dominated our lives. Each evening we waited for a news show called “America Held Hostage.” We watched with disbelief images of bearded, shouting, fierce-looking youth, brandishing machine guns and shoving blindfolded American diplomats in front of the ravenous television cameras that gorged themselves on these scenes, spouting them out every night on this and other programs, making it harder with each passing day to identify ourselves by our nationality in casual encounters on the street, in a store, or on a bus.
The next year brought a consolidation of the power of the clergy over the population and a systematic clamp-down on those they considered their enemies. Women were the subject of daily admonition, direction, or complaints in the government-controlled press of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Their dress, their manner, their duties at home and in society, their role as mother and wife, the danger of their seemingly irrepressible sexuality were discussed endlessly regardless of what calamity faced the country. War, famine, internal upheaval, international crises were each and all unable to push women off the front pages of the newspapers.
As months passed, women persisted in their novel and original methods of resistance. We heard and read how they let their veils slip back slightly off thei foreheads, covered their legs in stockings that were a shade thinner than prescribed, wore raincoats that were belted at the waist, sunglasses that not only covered mascaraed eyelashes but indicated Westernized tastes and ways. All indications were that women were by no means under control. They pierced the heart and conscience of the mullahs and their adamant followers with their persistent forays into the margins of proper behavior. Women who had never worn makeup before began to wear it as a statement of their independence. That the numbers of women who followed these patterns seemed to grow instead of diminishing was a source of constant anxiety and frustration to the government. We read with disbelief and amusement the president of the Islamic Republic’s declaration that the rays emanating from a woman’s hair disrupt the composure of males in her vicinity — a phenomenon which he declared a justification for strict enforcement of the veiling regulation. The statement was followed by many similar dictates from religious authorities. The newspapers proudly carried news of guards stopping women on the street to admonish them for poor coverage of their heads and bodies. We heard accounts of women being dragged off to be questioned and flogged. We learned of cases where lipstick was wiped off with a razor blade and the scarf was attached to its proper place on the forehead with a thumbtack.
The media were mesmerized as the Ayatollah Khomeini issued decrees of death and destruction against individuals and groups within Iran and individuals, nations, and whole regions without. Pundits who had knelt reverently before him in the village near Paris before he arrived in Iran continued their objective, neutral coverage of his statements of prejudice, cruelty, and megalomania. I, who had experienced the camaraderie and support of the international feminist community, was affected more than others by their silence during the first few years after the revolution. Even when pregnant women accused of adultery or those accused of homosexuality were stoned, even when Ms. Farrokhrou Parsa, Iran’s first cabinet minister for education, a doctor, teacher, feminist was executed on charges of prostitution, few commented. In fact, her execution did not even merit a mention on the evening news. The total absence of reaction or support made me begin to doubt my own perception of reality. Nearly a decade would pass before the announcement of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie once again would make it possible for Western intellectuals to have a clear-cut, strong reaction to Khomeini. The protest would come not on behalf of Iranian women, but in support of a British writer’s freedom of expression.
During the early years I kept myself frantically busy with phone calls, lectures, meetings. Slowly, the life I had fashioned for myself in the new surroundings began to take shape. I now had a home in a suburb of Washingtion, D.C. Artist friends helped me collect a small selection of the works of Iranian women painters. A growing library of my old favorite books of poetry and fiction found a place in my room. The Foundation for Iranian Studies, a cultural institution that I helped create and managed with the aid of former colleagues, began to expand its activities. My family survived the travails and threats against them and all gathered near each other around Washington. Iran as a physical entity grew dimmer in our memory and more distant. But we remained obsessed with the events and processes that had led to our exile. All conversations, social occasions, and readings centered around what happened to us and more often than not ended in assigning blame.
As I went about building a life for myself in America, I learned through many encounters to simplify the spelling of my name, to mispronounce it to make it more easily comprehensible for my new contacts. I made small changes in my walk, posture, way of dressing to approach the new environment’s expectations. In the process I drifted farther away from my self. The woman exclaiming about the weather to the sales girl at Macy’s, calling herself Menaaz was not me. The original word, Mahnaz, had a meaning — Mah, moon, Naz, grace. Translating myself into the new culture made me incomprehensible to myself. I barely recognized this altered version of my personality. Frost once said “poetry is what is lost in translation.” I realized that whatever poetry exists in the nuances which give subtlety to one’s personality is lost in the new culture. What remains is dull prose — a rougher version, sometimes a caricature of one’s real self. This smiling, mushy person was not me. It was my interpretation of the simplicity and friendliness of American social conduct. I embarassed myself with it.
In public places I acted as if I were alone. In Iran, even in places where I was unlikely to meet someone I knew, I always acted “socially” — as if the people I met were potentially people I might come to know, people I might see again. I conducted myself with a consciousness of this assumption of possible further acquaintance, of a reasonable continuity of events. In America I acted totally isolated and separate, as if there were no chance that someone on the street might ever related to me in any other way than as a total stranger. I caught glimpses of my American friends chatting with the owner at a restaurant in the neighborhood, greeting friends at other tables, talking about their plans, their homes, their professions, discussing the variations in the menu with the waiter, amazed that life went on as if nothing much had happened. I longed for this elemental sense of connection with my environment.
I kept on searching for the effects of dislocation on my feelings and reactions and spent much of my time studying my own mental state. The preoccupations had come close to neurotic proportions. Fortunately, in my work with the Sisterhood Is Global Institute, an international feminist think tank, I had become acquainted with a number of women from various countries who, like myself, were in exile. Gradually, through our conversations, I began to see that the only way to understand myself was to stand back from my own experiences and focus on someone else, that the best way to see inside my mind was to concentrate on another as she looked inside hers. It was in talking with them that I began to reappropriate myself.
My conversations with twelve of these women led to the publications of Women In Exile, a project that became a cathartic and healing experience for me. I learned through writing the stories that although my past was mine in the specifics of my experiences, I shared so much of its deepedr meaning with other women in exile. Working with the, I began to see the fine thread that wove through all our varied lives and backgrounds. The narratives all followed the same pattern.
Our stories begin with descriptions of a society’s disingenuous ways of shaping the woman’s personality to fit the patriarchal mold. Even those who are active participants in political movements are often outsiders without the power to influence the decision-making process in their society. Political events beyond our control lead to upheaval. We are vulnerable and as caretakers of families our lives are most affected by disruptive and cataclysmic events. There comes a time when our own safety or that of our children requires us to take charge of our lives and make the decision to escape. Many of us are forced to undertake journeys of turbulence and danger. Once in the United States we realize that the physical dangers we have endured are only the preliminary stages to a life of exile. Slowly we begin to absorb the full impact of what has happened to us. A period of bereavement is followed by attempts to adjust to the new environment. Along with the loss of our culture and home comes the loss of the traditional patriarchal structures that flouted our lives in our own land.
Exile in its disruptiveness resembles a rebirth. The pain of breaking out of our cultural cocoon brings with it the possibility of an expanded universe and a freer, more independent self. Reevaluation and reinvention of our lives leads to a new self that combines traits evolved in the old society and characteristics acquired in the new environment. Our lives are enriched by what we have known and surpassed. We are all “damaged,” but we repair ourselves into larger, deeper, more humane personalities. Indeed, the similarities between our lives as women and as women in exiles supersede every other experience we have encountered as members of different countries, classes, cultures, professions, and religions.
We appreciate the United States as a safe haven, a place which welcomes us and allows us to find ourselves. We appreciate the relative freedom of women in this society. We are, however, conscious that the country is hospitable for the young and for the strong. We fear the loneliness and fragility of the old and the weak in this country. We regret that we have lost the closer ties and more committed interpersonal relationships with the extended family we enjoyed at home. Yet we know that for women, part of the price of having those close ties is loss of independence and freedom of action.
In the years since exile began, for some of us, conditions in our home countries have changed, allowing [us] to return. Those who returned home discovered the irreversible nature of the exile experience even when it became possible to return. They realized not only that their country had changed but that they themselves are no longer who they were before they left. They learned that once one looks at one’s home from the outside, as a stranger, the past, whether in the self or in the land, cannot be recaptured.
We are aware that we have lost part of ourselves through the loss of our homeland. We find substitutes for our loss; for some work acts as a replacement, for others, language. We echo each other when we say the world is our home and repeat wistfully that it means we have no home. We talk of having gained identification with a more universal cause.
We have learned first hand that nothing is worth the suffering, death, and destruction brought about by ideologies that in their fervor uproot so much and destroy so many and then fade away, blow up, or self-destruct. We learned in looking back over our lives that nothing is worth the breach of the sanctity of an individual’s body and spirit. The sharing of our narratives of exile made us conclude simply that we wish to seek a mildness of manner, a kindness of heart, and a softness of demeanor. When has a war, a revolution, an act of aggression brought something better for the people on whose behalf it was undertaken? we asked ourselves and each other. We have paid with the days of our lives for the knowledge that nothing good or beautiful can come from harshness and ugliness.
Copyright © Mahnaz Afkhami
Book review by Ivette Valdés In Feminist Collections, A Quarterly of Women’s Studies Resources, Volume 17, Nos. 3-4, Spring/Summer 1996
Mahnaz Afkhami, WOMEN IN EXILE. Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1994. 210p. $35, ISBN 0-8139-1542-2; pap., $12.95, ISBN 0-8139-1543-0.
Jill M. Bystydzienski and Estelle P. Resnik, eds., WOMEN IN CROSS-CULTURAL TRANSITIONS. Bloomington, IN: Phi Beta Kappa Educational Foundation, 1995. 132p. $24, ISBN 0-87367-463-4. (Address: 408 North Union, P.O. Box 789, Bloomington, IN 47402-0789).
Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo, GENDERED TRANSITIONS: MEXICAN EXPERIENCES OF IMMIGRATION. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1994. $45, ISBN 0-520-07513-7; pap., $16, ISBN 0-520-07514-5.
Beatrice Nied Hacknett, PRAY GOD AND KEEP WALKING: STORIES AND WOMEN REFUGEES. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1996. 169p. $27.50, ISBN 0-7864-0089-7.
Exiles, immigrants, and refugees all undertake the perilous journey of crossing borders. If we examine the specific circumstances that have forced people to flee their homelands as in Bosnia, Cuba, or Haiti–it becomes quite obvious that exiles, immigrants, and refugees are most often portrayed as powerless victims of macro-level forces. Rejecting such negative stereotyping, feminist scholars such as Gloria Anzaldua (Borderlands/La Frontera),1 Carol Boyce Davies and Molara Ogundipe-Leslie (Moving Beyond Boundaries: International Dimensions of Black Women’s Writing),2 and Carol Boyce Davies (Black Women, Writing and Identity: Migrations of the Subject)3 have proposed moving across borders and beyond boundaries as a means to cope with alienation and disempowerment in our modern society. For these feminist scsholars, the act of crossing borders involves making choices that in turn can be sources of empowerment for women.
The four volumes reviewed here attest to the fact that even under the most dismal circumstances, women find the strength to make choices and in so doing become active agents in reclaiming their present and their future. Pray God and Keep Walking: Stories of Women Refugees, Women in Exile, and Women in Cross-Cultural Transitions are collections of personal narratives and life stories of women who made the decision to cross national borders. Gendered Transitions interweaves personal narratives of immigrant women and ethnographic research to explore the relationship between gender dynamics and migration.
Extremely compelling and deeply moving, Women in Exile is a more focused and cohesive collection of life stories, decidedly more political in tone. Each of the thirteen women who shares her story, including the author herself, was forced to flee her native country due to her political activities and philosophies or those of the groups to which she belonged. Mahnaz Afkhami’s sharp and insistent critique of the inhumanities that political systems have brought about through abuse of power is echoed by each woman as they make their collective journey away from mass movements and towards grassroots activism.
Each chapter is the result of a taped interview, which Afkhami transcribed and edited with the approval of each woman. Because of her experiences as an exile, Afkhami shares a deep bond with each of the women, as is obvious from her very personal introduction to each chapter and her description of the work as a “collective biography of exile” (p.x). As she states in the introduction, “[W]e shared too many experiences and feelings for an objective oral history project… . Each story is thus the product of a dynamic interaction between two women” (pp. viii-x).
For Afkhami and the other women, exile is about struggle, fear, violence, chance, choice, loss, dislocation, puzzlement, restructuring, adjustment, and rebirth. As Alicia Partnoy of Argentina so poignantly describes, “The effects of exile are with you all your life. They are like things hidden in a closet. They suddenly jump out at you, like jack-in-the-box toys” (p.108). Breaking the silence to tell their stories is part of the healing process for these women. Healing brings empowerment, which manifests itself through the very words they choose to tell their stories, as in these moving poetic lines from Marjorie Agosin of Chile: “Don’t conspire with/ oblivion,/ tear down the silence./ I want to be/ the appeared woman/ from among the labyrinths/ come back, return/ name myself./ Call my name” (p.140).
In exploring the political causes of their exile, the women begin their individual stories by examining how society has shaped women’s personalities to fit the patriarchal world. Paradoxically, though exile means losing one’s culture, the loss of the traditional patriarchal culture has given these women the chance to move beyond the limitations culture had imposed on them. Like the women in Pray God and Keep Walking, their journey into exile has simultaneously been a journey towards articulating their feminism.
Birds Without Nests; Book Review by Nan Levinson
Women in Exile, by Mahnaz Afkhami, Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1994, 208 pp., $35.00 hardcover, $12.95 paper.
“My earliest memories are of unrest and chaos,” says Ho Ngoc Tran, a doctor, who flees Vietnam in 1978, trusting her life to smugglers with a boat and eventually making her way to Chicago. When her youngest child dies at sea of dehydration, she buries him on an unmarked island, sewing her diamond ring–all she has of value–into his sleeve. “So it is just a story that ends there,” she says. She cannot return.
Awakened by the KGB at five a.m. on July 20, 1980, Tatyana Mamonova is allowed to pack two suitcases before she is escorted onto a plane for Austria. As the first feminist kicked out of the Soviet Union, she is quickly awarded star status with its attendant press conferences, speaking tours and publishing opportunities that would have earned her a lifetime of official harassment at home. She relished the irony, but misses Leningrad and the smell of Russian grass and won’t know either again for over a decade, because she cannot go home.
Maria Teresa Tula, born to bone-grinding poverty in El Salvador, works with the human rights group Comadres. After her husband is assassinated, she is arrested, raped, beaten to deafness in one ear and imprisoned. On her release in 1987, she bribes her way out of the country with her two youngest children, walks across the desert into the US and applies for political asylum, which, six years later, still hasn’t come. “We live like birst without nests,” she says, “because we can’t be in our own country.”
These are women in exile, pulled up by their hair and deposited, their roots dangling, in some foreign land to reinvent themselves and their lives. They and nine others have told their stories to Mahnaz Afkhami, who fashioned the hours of talk into a dozen chapters that make up Women in Exile, a sad, lovely, horrifying, heroic book.
Modern-day Scheherazades, these women tell tales that read like a map of political upheaval in our time: Malawi in the sixties; Afghanistan, Vietnam, Chile, Argentina and Cambodia in the seventies; El Salvador, Sudan, Palestine, the USSR and Iran the following decade, while in the early nineties China is the name of displacement. Some have no country left; others have seen power shifts that allow othem to go home, but that decision is never easy. Exile, we are told, alters irrevocably.
Afkhami, once secretary general of the Women’s Organization of Iran and herself in exile since 1978, conceived of the project as a tribute to hope and executed it as an act of communion. Selecting women who were forced to leave their countries because of their politics, ideas, or loyalties, she spent hours in taped interviews with each, asking questions but, she says, allowing them to choose their own focus and emphasis. All but one of the women now live in the US and nearly all of the interviews were conducted in English. Afkhami then condensed the material and sought the narrators’ approval of the final versions.
This methodology has its limitations. Though geographically and culturally diverse, the women have a sameness of background. Most were born to privilege, all are or were married, the majority are educated and politically active, and two-thirds live in the Washington, DC area, as does Afkhami. Also, Afkhami’s feminist perspective seems to blot out all others. Have none of these women encountered racism or xenophobia in the US, for instance? We are not told.
Still, the mix of voices in Women in Exile beguiles. Each chapter begins with an introduction by Afkhami in which she describes the woman she is meeting and the circumstances of the interview. Invariably, the woman is attractive, strong (despite or in line with appearances), deeply committed to the project and all-round extraordinary. Well, they are extraordinary women, but not always by choice, and their power is demonstrated so much more convincingly by their own words that these introductions sound sentimental and flat in comparison. That’s surprising, because Afkhami is as eloquent as any when she tells her own story. More to the point, she is skilled at getting people to talk about what matters to them and has the good sense to get out of the way once they do.
Begin at the beginning, I imagine her saying. And so the stories open with childhood memories, lyrical, poignant, charming in their details about school-books mislaid under the fabric of a dressmaker grandmother or women selling their gold to finance a feminist journal. These remembrances are followed by descriptions of the crises that led to exile, the narrators’ (often harrowing) escapes, and the initial relief or numbness they felt at having cheated annihilation. Samnang Wu, for instance, on finally getting out of a Cambodia dedicated to a dehumanization, is given a piece of cake, but can only stare at it until she is reassured that when it’s eaten, she can have another. Later, in the new country, it is common for the women to throw themselves into an almost manic busyness, meant perhaps to deny that exile, though a form of survival, is really defeat.
In the later parts of each chapter, the women talk about the assimilation blues (though many say adjusting to a new place is easier for women than men), the excitement of trying out new opportunities, the development of their feminism and how it affects their work and relationships, the loneliness of living in a country where no one knows your parents’ names and people never drop by unannounced. But, notes Afkhami, “Exile in its disruptiveness resembles a rebirth for the women.” “I have, in a sense, chosen exile because it offers me a better chance to work for my people,” insists Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim, a Sudanese feminist and politician. “Exile is the place I have come to in order to continue my struggle.” And Hala Deeb Jabbour, a writer who first left her native Palestine when she was five, says that when she became an American citizen. “My feminism flowered–that’s exactly how I feel–like a large, healthy plant which is given water and air and sun until it blooms. I began to feel encumbered.”
But mostly these women talk about their homes–with nostalgia, bitterness, curiosity, blame and longing for that connection to a place where what is happening has consequences for you. The sum total is a kind of collective mourning in which the loss of country is as piercing as the loss of a person–maybe worse, since it encompasses so many losses: home, family, friends, work, status, language, landscape, food, familiarity, laughter, all that most of us are lucky enough to take for granted. The greatest loss, though, may be the loss of ease in one’s world that threatens to become the loss of oneself.
Yet Afkhami is right that her book is about hope. All of these women have not only kept their selves intact; though damaged, they have refused self-pity and have flourished and helped others do the same. I have learned, they say; or they ask, who am I now that my identity has been grabbed away? The answers vary. Many find redemption in telling about their lives, like Argentine poet Alicia Partnoy, who says, “I had changed from victim to witness.” Some find a new home in their work or language or self-worth. Some, most notably Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim from the Sudan, take on acts of stunning bravery as naturally as they would put on a shawl. Others commit themselves to their families, communities, or other refugees. But over and over they say you can’t understand this life in which the bags are always packed and ready in the hall. “I try to explain that the difference in living at home is that you never feel homesick there,” observes Florence Simfukwe, a Malawian nurse; “but it is hard to make myself understood.”
Women in Exile, like any good tale, offers up serendipitous riches along with its main story: details of female circumcision in the Sudan, foot-binding in China, maternity wards under the Soviets; asides on choosing children’s names in Cambodia or the punishment of a sniper in Lebanon; lessons in how to escape from Afghanistan, Malawi, Iran…
Looking at the US through grateful, but discerning eyes, these exiles ask us to note that Americans feed their lawn vitamins. We’re told too what is good about America, and it’s a hearteningly long list, ranging from respect for privacy and the Constitution to the feast of feminist writing and the wherewithal to challenge received wisdom.
And we learn about the ideas these women hold that led to their exile and so must be honored. The truths they reveal about the vagaries of power, the price of political activism, the toll of oppression on the human soul and the strategies they use to advance the causes of women are hard-won and often presented with the zing of a good one-liner. Speaking of her involvement in the Iranian Student Association in California, the pseudonymous Azar Salamat notes wryly: “It seems passion and tolerance, like water and oil, don’t mix.” Ibrahim reminds us that “replacing white faces with black in positions of power does not automatically benefit the masses of women.” But what does benefit women is not a simple question, notes Sima Wali, who says of the refugee women she has worked with since she fled Afghanistan:
Their strength, courage, and leadership capacity has convinced me that a civil society and democratic institutions cannot be imported. … I find that the formulas presented in international dialogue often miss the mark when it comes to bringing about change in developing societies. I feel the West can act only as a facilitator. … They cannot define the problems nor can they propose solutions. We must find our own way through the labyrinth. (p. 137)
The more theory-fond among them say that to be a woman is to be in exile. I suspect that many of the others would find that more poetic than useful, since this book makes it abundantly clear that exile as metaphor is a far cry from exile as reality.
Finally, though, these meditations on banishment argue that, in Afkhami’s words, “nothing is worth the suffering, death, and destruction brought about by ideologies….” Ge Yang, a Chinese journalist, now in her late seventies, lost her house, her job and her position in society when she was sent to a labor camp to feed pigs. Twenty-two years later, the Cultural Revolution was officially declared a mistake. Now she says: “All of that time I did not live, I did not experience anything of value, I accomplished nothing, and I suffered. How can you call that ‘a mistake’?”
- Birds without nests / The Women’s Review of Books Vol. XII, No.6 March 1995 / Nan Levinson
- Exiles, Immigrants, and Refugees: Women Making Choices / Feminist Collections: A Quarterly of Women’s Studies Resources Volume 17, Nos. 3-4 Spring/Summer 1996 / Ivette Valdés
- ‘Women’ tell their stories of suffering / The Dallas Morning News April 17, 1997
- November 10, 1994 (In Persian)
- The 12 women Afkhami interviewed for this intimate portrait of lives in political exile have settled in the U.S., many becoming American citizens. A few, like Fatima Ahmet Ibrahim, a feminist who called for women’s rights within the bounds of traditional Islamic culture in her native Sudan, long to return home…. The stories resonate with the reader long after the pages are closed. Afkhami exhibits considerable skill in the essence of these women’s journeys. Richly detailed, the stories seem cinematic in their narrative, so much so that one forgets this isn’t a screen treatment but the oral history of 13 women’s flight from political oppression. – (Publishers Weekly)
- The women in this book are typical of waves of women refugees crossing borders every day, seeking to fulfill their lives in ways denied them at home. Though it is frightening to be without a home or the comfort of family, difficulty breeds strength, and struggling to hold onto the past in an unfamiliar milieu paradoxically expands horizons…. A good buy for women’s studies collections. – (Library Journal)
Book Endorsement & Praise
‘In her excellent and moving book, Mahnaz Afkhami skillfully crosses cultures and political systems to reveal the shared trauma of women exiled for what they believe or represent. The courage and resilience of these women in the face of shameful inhumanity inspire faith that their principled decency will prevail over those who persecute them.’
Human Rights Watch
‘Each women’s story reads like a fascinating novel, and the whole is even more moving than the sum of its parts. Mahnaz Afkhami has given us a surprising, revealing, impassioned, simply unforgettable book.’
‘These are portraits of stunning depth and warmth. Written with clarity and compassion, these stories tell of the loss to nations in political transition when such women are forced into exile.’
Author of Dreams of Trespass
And Islam and Democracy
“These are women in exile, pulled up by their hair and deposited, their roots dangling, in some foreign land to reinvent themselves and their lives… a sad, lovely, horrifying, heroic book.”
Women’s Review of Books
“Extremely compelling and deeply moving”
“We have learned first hand that nothing is worth the suffering, death, and destruction brought about by ideologies that in their fervor uproot so much and destroy so many and then fade away, blow up, or self-destruct. We learned in looking back over our lives that nothing is worth the breach of the sanctity of an individual’s body and spirit. The sharing of our narratives of exile made us conclude simply that we wish to seek a mildness of manner, a kindness of heart, and a softness of demeanor. We have paid with the days of our lives for the knowledge that nothing good or beautiful can come from harshness and ugliness.”