Identity Of The Silenced Iranian Diaspora Cultural Studies Essay

Published: Last Edited:

This essay has been submitted by a student. This is not an example of the work written by our professional essay writers.


In this chapter the use of Iranian female literature will be analysed and discussed in order to differentiate between actual socio-historical cultural boundaries and border rhetoric to cultivate a more in - depth understanding of the positionality and identity of the silenced Iranian Diaspora that has given birth to a new level of understanding through its distinctive female literary voice. By deconstructing literary sources the exploration of the complex spaces between identity and culture will challenge traditional literary portrayals of Iranian female identity as hidden, silenced and veiled.

5.2, Various Dualisms

Colonialism depicts a story of progress, through which the Middle East has been portrayed as a 'sick neighbour' of Europe, with colonial powers waiting to take control (Grace, 2004). The construction of such a narrative of difference, through which oppositions of white Western and 'other' women have been constructed have seen cultures become bound in order to establish particular types of modernity found within models of male - dominated discourse (Bulbeck, 1998). The dualistic nature of male hegemony and the rejection of Western modernity in modern Iran have left the construction of national difference possible only through the mediation of women, a mediation which nevertheless has to be repressed (Ebrahimi, 2006).

The effect of this culture of difference and the manipulation of women through veiling produce a nationalist patriarchal discourse that sustains socio-historical dialogues. "While nationalist thought rejects the immediate political implications of colonialist thought and integrates its knowledge and truth claims and refutes moral claims, it still remains hostage to the categories of euro-centric thought by continually aspiring to modernise and progress" (Ebrahimi, 2006). This progression is a sign of resistance that allows patriarchal thought to remain constant and leaves the attempt of Western feminists to lift the veil and 'liberate' oriental women to be seen as part of the Orientalist obsession with 'other-ing' the East (Grace,2004). By considering the fragmentation of nationalist agendas, a question that comes into consideration is whether colonialism is post? As national structures mirror aspects of colonial thought through the domination of the 'subaltern', in this case the 'lower' class of women, the movement away from traditional constructs of the boundary of 'them' and 'us' and the boundaries within and across gender remain constant.

5.3, Veiling Mystique: A Moral Code?

After considering the representation of power within western frameworks of colonialism and Orientalism where institutionalisation of boundaries and the expression of the identification of power in one area over the expense of another (Mernissi, 2003) is depicted through cultural recognition of the 'non-west' and the discourse of the allocation of space and power in nationalist patriarchal frameworks, which sees gender power relations enact the replication of power as rhetoric, both reinforcing the contradictive idea of women as destructive to social order. This disorder, particularly in a nationalist regime where women are other-ed in their own culture promotes focus toward the veil and purity of women as emblems of national identity, denouncing western hegemonic values of modernisation while conforming to nationalist values of saving the nation in which the veil is seen as a crucial index of political and social change (Lewis, 1999).

5.3.1, The Fragmentation of Space

The institutionalisation of veiling as a cross - cultural boundary further sanctions a gendered discourse of inequality in public and private spaces, forcing women to become refugees within their own culture (Sciolino, 2000). Although a common feminist assumption takes the stance that veiled Iranian women are under a constant shroud of oppression, Sciolino (2000) looks further into the movement of women through constructed restricted spaces and the construction of private female spaces that allow East to meet West through 'aerobic centres', as safe spaces where women feel they can move freely, unveiled. The inside co-exists with the outside providing freedom with restriction, where the Islamic Republic can be 'left at the door' - to a point (Sciolino, 2000). Even in the home, space can be fragmented into a hierarchal order that defines the movements of women, where even behind closed doors freedom from the threat of intrusion encroaches on unveiled lifestyles.

The moral code of veiling and the concept of the fragmentation of space also bring into account the space in which women are confined that resides under the veil as demonstrated through the literary contribution of Farnoosh Moshiri's 'On the Rooftop' (Moshiri, (eds.) Karim 2006). The veil encompasses the charatcter's being, with a level of authority as if it controls her; it is not until she removes the veil that the fear that controls her movements through space is relieved. "The wind blows from the West and she hold the veil in the air, letting it wave and quiver like a gigantic flag. She laughs louder now and says, 'I tricked you, little devil, I rinsed my chador with the wind!' Now in an instant she doesn't feel she needs this piece of cloth anymore; what if she let go?"

It would seem the wind blowing from the West acts as a metaphor for the freedom brought through modernisation against the metaphoric description of her chador representing a flag, the flag of the nation which is suffocating and like death waiting. "Under her long, thick chador, death sits silently brooding…in its dark folds, watching it for a second, noting that it's throbbing faintly, as if a ghost breathes underneath it". By letting the wind sing through her veil, her freedom is rewarded although still restricted through the consequence of not wearing it, which is indicated in the question of whether or not to let it go. In many literary representations of veiled connotations there is an emphasis on the writer's characters to remove themselves entirely from the restriction of physical space. In these instances, although the plight of women in a male - dominated society is presented, there is often a dissolution of reality into a dreamlike, fantasy where emphasis on struggles are depicted; and where through struggle, indistinct representations of life and death and a constant imagery of shadows produces a metaphoric reality not only for the physical representation of women but their existence in society.

5.3.2, Identity

Identity in development studies plays a critical role in the definition of groups in order to group individuals respectively. In Eastern definitions of identity the veil is a figure essential in the construction of femininity in a patriarchal order becoming 'such a powerful symbol it can blind us into generalisations,' (Mabro, 1991, Grace, 2004). These generalisations from a Western perspective see the restricted emancipation of women in society as highly restrictive and backward. Susan Atefat-Peckham's, 'Sestinelle for travelers' (Peckham, (eds.) Karmin 2006) produces metaphoric imagery of veiled women laced with the power and control of tiring representations of patriarchal society:

"The logs they haul, like unclothed bodies, shadows upon shadows, trembling"

The emphasis on unclothed bodies and fear held together under a moral code that defines them, "circles of cut out logs vanish in mist like dying galaxies, bound in the silence of unknown roads", vanishing into obscurity, under critical assumptions held from a viewpoint of cross cultural difference, where unknown roads represent Western gaze but also the silenced voices of those controlled by gender and ethnic performance (Lewis, 1999). Further emphasis on inaccessible boundaries between cultures and countries see the assumptions of socio-historical literature cling to the bodies of oriental women, "Where strangers' oncoming cars will veer out of reach and home is crushed glass gleaming on a street, like stars" (Peckham (eds.) Karim 2006). The reference here to stars evokes important imagery found in Iranian women's literary contributions, as the universal space that is unending, free and unreachable. "This world is ringed by many bodies pressed together. Shadows we are bound by: the silence, the unknown roads" (Peckham (eds.) Karim 2006), arguably an existence where understanding and acceptance (to a degree) is held only to the individual.

5.4, Tradition v. The Present

When comparing tradition with modernity, it is clear that many academic literary representations presented through colonial masculine depictions and feminist critics on oppressed oriental women have formed rhetoric in development studies. In view of this, it is important to consider the problematic outcome that defining women in such a way has had on the actual agency of those being defined. A common misconception surrounding the cultural value of the veil is that if it were to be stripped from the wearer a process of enlightened emancipation for those who are released from its subjection will commence.

"We hear story after story of the poor women forced to veil, and she exists, yet forced UN-veiling has been the experience of the last century for the greater masses of Muslim women. If two countries, Saudi Arabia and post 1979 Iran mandate, far more countries prohibit it. But this violation of women's freedom usually draws no protest from the West or from secular Muslim feminists" (Heath, 2008). Both notions of forced veiling and forced unveiling produce representations of a struggle within which women have become emblematic of an oppressed minority within patriarchal structure (Bulbeck, 1998), be it directed in the interest of colonisation or of decolonisation where the "affirmation of the veil in the anti-colonial struggle, was a direct response to the colonial desire to unveil, reveal and control colonised countries" (YeÄŸenoÄŸlu, 1998; 1998; 2003) and the reinstitution of the Islamic order, forcefully unveiled they personify the modernization of the nation (Milani, 1992).

5.5, Crossing Borders?

Through the analysis of dominant historical literature, a clear framework of understanding has been developed, by contrast although aspects of new literature can reinforce a commonly held view of the divide between East and West, this view at best can be viewed as very short - sighted. Today women are more likely to accept that women have been dominated, if in different ways, both before and after culture contact. Thus, rather than choosing between the 'either' of tradition and the 'or' of development, women in ex-colonialised or Western nations produce hybrid practices which combine elements of each (Bulbeck, 1998). As argued by Grace (2004) while Western feminists once took up the veiling argument to illustrate the oppression of women in Islam, 'it is no longer viable to talk in such Manichaean terms while women all over the world are actively choosing to veil as an expression of their sexuality, religious and national identity' (Grace, 2004). This debate over whether the veil is a vehicle of oppression as constructed through the critique by Western feminists leads to the need for wider consideration of the veil as a matter of resistance against Western gaze, definition or discrimination. The gaze of traditional Western academic literature tends to limit itself to a broadly defined 'us and them' attitude through which the representation of the oppression of Muslim women has been the most frequent topic of discussion (Hoodfar, 1993).

Through the expanse of international migration due to events such as the Iranian revolution in 1979, it is important to consider the complex space in between cultures that exist in the West. The acceptance of the cultural difference of the Iranian Diaspora provokes a disinclination to move beyond a bounded colonial depiction of veiled women. Although its image and meaning provides (although challenged) an unchanged prescribed geography, it is important to consider the veil as something other than just solely an agent of oppression but also as a vehicle for change. This thought is reiterated by Hoodfar (1993) who states that while it has clearly been a mechanism in the service of patriarchy, a means of controlling and regulating women's lives, women have used the same social institution to free themselves from the bonds of patriarchy.

For Iranian women in Iran the veil gives them the agency to participate in society, as illustrated in Azadeh Moaveni's 'Love in a time of struggle' (Moaveni, (eds.) Karim 2006). The author herself as narrator, forms part of the literary Iranian Diaspora working as a journalist in Iran, where she meets Fatimeh, a young Iranian woman also working as a journalist. Although two halves of the same coin, Fatimeh comes from 'a traditional, pious family that is exhibiting exceptional openness by allowing her this independence'. Although Fatimeh finds herself living in a regime where gender participation is limited, she has the freedom to move through the crowd without fear, "I smiled my thanks at the fascinating, black-clad creature that had appeared next to me. She wore full-length chador, with an elastic strap over the top of her head, to keep the fabric in place. Underneath each arm, swinging back and forth amidst the folds hung a camera". Unlike Fatimeh, the narrating character, from a westernised background, found herself becoming a 'shadow' of her actual identity, by disguising her actions that played out in Western society would be deemed acceptable. "It was only the second or third time I had encountered the Tehran press corps, and I didn't feel comfortable smoking in front of them and the ceremonial guard". The veil allows women to cross borders, which without it, would not be viable for them.

This depiction brings to the foreground the differences for veiled and unveiled women and further reiterates the complex spaces between cultures that exist within the boundaries of colonial generalisations; where women both looking from the West to the East and from the East to the West and for those who find themselves diasporic and remote from a collective culture, find themselves affronted by new constructions of difference and the difficulty that accepting these differences causes for the positionality of feminism. Arguably the lines are drawn for the "battle fought between women who try to wear less and men who believe women should wear more" (Sciolino, 2000). However, understanding of culture by feminists through the theorisation of the subservient gaze of women, towards women, sees the ability for women to choose - the pivotal factor towards women's enlightenment, fragmented over space-time. As argued by Grace (2004) who states, one indication of whether or not veiling eradicates agency and identity involves the important question of women's ability to make choices.

5.6, Summary - Transculturation on Modern Geographical Thought: New Avenues for Agency and Cultural Hybridization - 'Literature as a Constructed Source of Freedom' (Grace, 2004)

The Iranian Diasporic contribution to literature has led to movement away from colonial bound discourse towards rethinking the 'colonial image of the static, oppressed, veiled woman' (Hoodfar, 1993). Although the literature helps to blur the lines between cross - cultural understanding, the choices of veiled women allow the formation of discrete camouflage and resistance, through which individuals can access more dominant spheres of public involvement whilst still personifying cultural identity; and this has been possible despite the continual attraction of attention from dominant ideological groups in Western society to 'liberate'.

The dissection of complex spaces has led to a more widely accepted sensitivity to cultural difference. Even though this has led to the diversification of society being endorsed, the spaces between cultures still offer a notion of a boundary crisis. The issue of the veil acts as a portable wall, where the subject of veiling, its paradoxes and ambiguities, its multilayered symbolic significance (Milani, 1992) further dissects boundaries within, through and across culture to be implicitly constructed and therefore alienated. Mojdeh Marashi's work 'Iranian Women' (Marashi, (eds.) Karim 2006) provides a vivid insight into the complex boundaries held by contemporary Iranian women abroad, contemporary Iranian women in the 1979 revolution and contemporary Iranian women in Pre-Revolutionary Iran through 'untold stories of Difference and Similarities. The stories are multifaceted, through which the characters of different traditional and westernised standing finding themselves crossing paths and sharing 'common histories but not common states of mind', where fear, resentment, condemnation and empathy are played out alongside blame, confusion, envy and relief. The series illustrates the difficulty of women to fully identify and find their voices amongst the confusion and separation of a social group, alongside their separation from global society.

"On the two faces of the two women in scarves, one can read: a line of fear, a page of resentment, a chapter of condemnation. On the face of the woman in jeans, one can read: a line of empathy, a page of resentment, a chapter of blame" (Marashi, (eds.) Karim 2006).

The production of 'new' voices or the reconstruction of silenced veiled identities aims to free women's public voice, as writing like unveiling makes a woman publicly visible and mobile, refusing absence and rejecting containment in a controlled environment (Milani, 1992). The emancipation of women through the production of 'new' spaces in literature has allowed the redefinition of the dimensions of reality. Through imagination and fantasy, the escapement of definition allows women to define their identity through personal power allocation and a dream-like solitude, to move through the lines to deconstruct the boundaries of time to the creation of new freedoms.

Although representations unmasked by the literary contributions of the Iranian Diaspora promote an emancipated depiction of an emancipated unveiled identity, it could also be argued the choice to do so further delineates boundary separation allowing the veil to remain a social and literary construct.

"Perhaps writers unveil only by spinning veils of another form - perhaps the veil moves from the physical to other dimensions. Perhaps words are not only means of expression but also invisible walls we erect to contain the otherwise uncontainable" (Milani, 1992).

Despite this being a very valid assumption, 'literature as a constructed space of freedom' (Grace, 2004) remains a means by which many voices that might once have been lost amongst the dominance of historical academic discourse that has acted as a continual barrier to understanding and development of women as a social group, has been able to dissolve boundaries, although not being able to fully dissolve them.