Tag Archives: women unbound

Women Unbound nr. 8: Under Western Eyes by Chandra Talpade Mohanty

Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses – Chandra Talpade Mohanty
Published in: Boundary 2 , nr. 3 page 333-358, 1984

When I started the Women Unbound challenge, I stated that I wanted to focus on gender, religion and ethnicity. Most of the books I’ve read had to do with this topic. I have a few more up for review, but instead I decided that this 26 page long article deserved to be the last featured “book” I write a post on for Women Unbound. Under Western Eyes is truly a classic when it comes to ethnicity and gender. Even though it was first published in 1984 it is still highly relevant today. I found myself nodding my head to so many of the things Mohanty points out, especially when I look back on the memoirs written by Iranian women I have been reading lately.

Mohanty’s basic argument is that Western feminists should be more aware of the political implications of their writings on non-western women. Their view of these women is often moulded by certain preconceptions about women and feminism in general that might implicate a certain colonial power relationship between the western world and other countries. In this article, she points out the common flaws in such writing, without arguing that any research on non-western women by western researchers is irrelevant. Instead, she provides examples of research that is relevant but doesn’t make the mistakes Mohanty argues against. This is one of the things I liked about the article: it isn’t only about what other researchers are doing wrong, but rather provides a guideline as to what constitutes good research in Mohanty’s opinion.

What interested me most were the common flaws of the way Western feminist portray the “Third World Women”:

“What I wish to analyze is specifically the production of the “Third World Woman” as a singular monolithic subject in some recent (Western) feminist texts.”

Mohanty makes the important point that often feminist tend to view all women as having the same mission in the world: feminism, often defined by the use of words such as “We are all sisters in one struggle”. This feminism often implies that there is a worldwide patriarchical conspiracy against women, which all “reasonable women” should want to fight off in the same manner. They should become self-proficient, non-religious and in control of their own bodies. In other words, they should become exactly like the model image Western feminist have of themselves. This line of thought often forgets that there is no such thing as a category of “women” outside of historical, cultural and socio-economical circumstances. Rather, the category of women is “made” within these structures, which implicates that power relations between the sexes might work differently in different circumstances.

This has implications for the way we look at Middle-Eastern women for example. First of all, Mohanty points out that it might be rather too easy to speak of “Middle Eastern Women” as a homogenous category. Second, it often means we view religious women as suppressed per se, without taking into consideration that women from different socio-economical backgrounds might experience their religion differently and that religion does not automatically implicate suppression. Third, it often denies women in such countries any type of agency. For example, women used to wear the veil as a sign of protest during the Iranian Revolution. Veiling thus had a different meaning in 1977-1979 than it had when veiling became a mandatory act in a religious theocracy. And fourth, and I thought this was a very interesting point, such views often portray men as inherently evil. It thus often reduces complicated conflicts to an overall worldview of “us” versus “them”, as in “women” against “men”.

I have written down about 5 pages of quotes, of which I decided to include (almost) none. Why? Because I strongly believe that anyone who wants to study women (rights) in non-western countries, or simply anywhere, in a serious manner needs to read this article.

Journey From The Land Of No by Roya Hakakian

Journey From the Land of No - Roya HakakianJourney From The Land Of No. A Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary Iran – Roya Hakakian
Three Rivers Press, 2005
3.5 out of 5 stars
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Journey From The Land of No is about Roya Hakakian’s childhood in revolutionary Iran. As a daughter of Jewish parents who had sympathies for the (left) resistance against the Shah, she paints a picture of both pre-revolutionary Iran, as well as revolutionary Iran, as a country that doesn’t offer (enough) freedom to its citizens. Both the title and the subtitle of this memoir convey this message. Surely, Journey From The Land Of No is meant to point out the many limitations Hakakian suffered from while growing up in Iran. Likewise, a girlhood caught in revolutionary Iran implies the cagelike feeling she experienced.

It’s true that there’s more emphasis on the limitations she experienced during and after the revolution, but I liked that this book stressed the repression people suffered from during the Shah’s regime. The subject is often ignored in memoirs that deal with the revolution. I can’t help but feel that this must be related to the fact that these memoirs are all catered towards a western audience. The regime of the Shah was supported in most western countries and the US promoted it as a primary example of a stable regime in the Middle East. For western readers, as well as for the authors who are writing these memoirs after they’ve left Iran, it might be all too easy to forget the wrongs of a regime that’s been replaced by a regime they disagree with even more.

What I also liked about this memoir is that it pays more attention to the suppression of minorities in revolutionary Iran. As a Jewish girl, she experiences these things firsthand. When she’s arrested by a few revolutionaries for climbing a mountain together with boys that are not directly related to her, she’s released after they realize she’s a Jew. Why? Because there’s simply no way a Jew could care about anything except for money (or so Hakakian states the revolutionaries thought about Jews). Instead of purely emphasizing her experience as a girl/woman in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Hakakian stresses her experiences as a Jewish woman, which at times makes for a more balanced account.

There’s another difference between Hakakian’s memoir and others I’ve read about Iran and that is the use of language. Journey From The Land Of No reads like a novel instead of a biography. In my opinion, there was a more “poetic” feel to her use of language than in Things I’ve Been Silent About, for example. I’ve been thinking about the effect of this a lot these last few days: it might work better in identifying with the story for some people, but for me it didn’t quite work that way.

All in all, Journey From The Land Of No is a great read for people who are interested in reading memoirs about revolutionary Iran. I can’t say that this is the best place to start, but it makes for a good supplement to the other memoirs out there. And as such, it deserves to be read.

On a side note, but not unimportant: I’m still trying to come to grasps with the whole phenomenon of memoirs written by women who have fled from Islamic countries. I strongly believe that these are catered towards a western audience and that they are frequently read as true accounts that proof that “Islam suppresses women”. I can’t say I agree with such a reading of these books. However, it’s hard to find a balance between being a complete skeptic (which I’m not) and believing everything that’s written down, while at the same time trying to combine this balance with a respect for the experiences of the authors. It’s an issue I think about a lot & am trying to figure out, but I’m not yet sure what my definitive answer should be.

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Things I’ve Been Silent About by Azar Nafisi

There is something very odd about reviewing a memoir. After all, you’re reviewing what are the memories of somebody else. These memories have been written and reconstructed for publication and so you can always talk about writing style, the voice of the author and the insights into his or her life, like you can with any other book or story. And yet, I always feel reading a memoir is something special, like taking a sneak peek into someone else’s thoughts. It is, I believe at least partly, why memoirs do so well these days. Especially since reading about someone’s life experiences, gives the information given a more “real” feel than fiction or nonfiction often does. Even though I do not believe that memoirs show us what life was “really” like during a certain time or in a certain country, I do think they make for interesting reading. In the upcoming week or weeks, I’ll be writing about a few memoirs. Today, I’ll talk about the first: Things I’ve Been Silent About, by Azar Nafisi.

Things I've Been Silent About - Azar NafisiThings I’ve Been Silent About – Azar Nafisi
Random House, 2008
4 out of 5 stars

Things I’ve Been Silent About is the second memoir published by Azar Nafisi. Her first, ‘Reading Lolita in Tehran’, has been and still is very popular in the United States. Reviews of this second memoir have been mixed. If you look at LibraryThing, some people remark that there’s too much repetition between this book and Reading Lolita. I’m currently reading Reading Lolita in Tehran, so this might have to do with me approaching these books the other way around, but I do not agree with this criticism. It’s true; both books deal with her experiences of living in Iran. Then again, what else did you expect? Personally, I really enjoyed reading both these books, as they seem to compliment, instead of repeat, each other.

In this memoir we get a glimpse of Nafisi’s whole life. Much more attention is given to her childhood, her growing up, and her family life in general. Things that are only mentioned in passing in Reading Lolita in Tehran are given full attention in this memoir. Therefore, this book has a more personal ring to it. The reader gets to experience her emotions in a more direct manner: her sadness, her anxiety and her happiness are all expressed blatantly, instead of through her thoughts on books and reading.

Nafisi’s relationship with her father, but especially her complicated relationship with her mother is strongly emphasized in Things I’ve Been Silent About. At first, I was rather annoyed by the time she had mentioned her many fights with her mother for the 8th time. But, towards the end of the book I started to enjoy reading about it. There’s a sense of growth throughout the memoir. At first, Azar Nafisi only shows us the more negative sides of the relationship, but towards the end she starts to reflect on what made her mother act in that manner and the description becomes touching, if nothing more.

Of course, like Reading Lolita, the Revolution and its consequences, and especially its consequences for women, are given a lot of attention. Out of all her observations on the revolution, this is one that stood out for me:

“Looking back at our history, what seems surprising to me now is not how powerful religious authorities have been in Iran but how quickly modern secular ways took over a society so deeply dominated by religious orthodoxy and political absolutism.”

Out of all the observations on women, however, there are many that are worth consideration. I especially felt a need to note down all the glimpses we get of the anxiety Nafisi experienced, not through the Revolution and its obligatory veiling, but the general opinion and opportunities given to women that were far more widespread, even before the revolution. And that, dare I say it, sound very familiar to some situations women find themselves in all over the world, “even” in the West. These involved her confusion when she’s sexually intimidated by a close friend of the family, as well as her feelings of shame and guilt surrounding her first marriage and sex:

“But I did absent myself from my body. From then on, for decades, sex was something you did because it was expected of you, because you could not say no, because you did not care, could not care and so you would be coy about it to undermine the seriousness of comments you made, such as Please don’t hurt me.”

I’m going to leave you with two remarks on identity that I couldn’t help but note down, because I loved them so much:

“We define ourselves not through what we reveal, but what we hide”

“I sometimes think we become so dependent on the images we create of ourselves that we can never discard them.”

I really enjoyed reading this book & reading the personal observations of one woman on the 1979 Revolution in Iran. It’s true, the book details her whole life, but at the same time, it’s very much about the revolution. Throughout the text, there are sentences that either refer to what’s to come or reflect on what has happened. Although I couldn’t yet tell you whether I liked it more, or less, than Reading Lolita in Tehran, I can at least conclude that this might hold a stronger appeal for people who enjoy a “straightforward” memoir better than a thematic one.

The Awakening – Kate Chopin

The Awakening – Kate Chopin
4/4.5 out of 5 stars
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In The Awakening Kate Chopin tells the story of Mrs. Pontellier, or Edna, a married woman of 28 with several children. While she’s on holiday at Grand Isle she finds herself attracted to Robert Lebrun. Throughout the novel she starts to feel restless, confused, but also more confident as an individual. This leads to her acting in a more and more unconventional manner. In the end, she realizes that she does care for her children and her husband, but that she’s not willing to give up her own identity for them.

Reading this I couldn’t help but wonder how the novel was perceived when it was published back in 1899. Surely, a mother who does not particularly care for her husband or her children (not in a manner that was considered healthy at the time, or “the natural sensibility” of a woman) must’ve been an unspeakable subject? According to the Wikipedia page, the novel did indeed lead to controversy and was considered immoral. However, she did get some positive reviews alongside the negative ones. I would love to read more about Kate Chopin’s life and career one day, because it must be a fascinating story.

I have to admit that I didn’t particularly like Edna. Even though I can imagine that some of her feelings of wanting to break free from the conventions that bind her are reasonable, I couldn’t help but think she’s selfish in her treatment of her husband in particular, since the children were still raised by nannies and their grandmother. Not that I felt any special sympathy towards Mr. Pontellier either. Before reading the book, I read the review of this book by Ana at thingsmeanalot. She remarks that this book is still highly relevant in its treatment of the subject of women who do not particularly love their husband or children. Maybe I read the book with this remark in mind, because the book left me with the unsettling feeling that I am perhaps ridiculously conventional in my ideas on marriage and children. I do get that you can have sexual feelings for a man other than your husband, but that does not mean it is right to act on them. I might have to add that I think it’d have been more right for Edna, since marriage was so different back then and it wasn’t often that people married for love. However, I find it hard to say the same about the children. I somewhere might understand that a woman might not care so much for her children, but then I instantly start to think that she should and that I do not want to “get” that part of Edna’s character. I do not find fault with her leaving the everyday care to a nanny or a grandmother per se, but more her feelings of choosing herself over them.

Apart from these more personal feelings towards the story, I really liked reading it. It was intriguing. There was some foreshadowing and inevitability about the story, but it somehow never got on my nerves. I also loved the style. It’s highly readable and I love how it shows a character’s growth and development through everyday occurrences. I do not know a lot about style and genre, but Wikipedia tells me that Kate Chopin is a naturalist. Which leads me to conclude that apparently, I like naturalist writing?

*spoiler ahead*

I do wonder about the ending however (this might’ve been influenced by my reading of Anna Karenina). There do seem to be a lot of novels that deal with the theme of a women feeling restricted, who think about- or end up having an affair, are “liberated” so to say, but end up committing suicide in the end in the second half of the nineteenth-century. On the one hand, I think this book might be progressive in its portrayal of women. At the same time, I wonder if it can be considered “conventional” in that a woman who tries to break free from her restrictions, an “abnormality” so to say, seems to make the almost “natural” choice to end her life. Or should I interpret it as the ultimate rebellion?

*end of spoiler*

I highly recommend reading this book, but I’m sure many have already read it. The Awakening is a fast, but meaningful book. I do think it is perfect for either the Women Unbound, or the 1% Well-Read Challenge.

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Dreams of Trespass – Fatima Mernissi

Dreams of Trespass - Fatima MernissiDreams of Trespass. Tales of a Harem Girlhood – Fatima Mernissi
4 out of 5 stars

Fatima Mernissi’s Dreams of Trespass is about her childhood growing up in a harem in Morocco. On the surface, this is an enjoyable read with stories of everyday life in Morocco, seen from the perspective of the women living in the harem of Mernissi’s father and uncle. However, if you look more closely, it offers a lot more than that. It seems to me an insider’s account of how the questions of Islam and women were experienced in Morocco in the advent of the countries’ independence from France.

The title, Dreams of Trespass, refers to the visible and invisible barriers in life. Barriers that have to do with Islam, with women, but also with the issue of borders: France’s occupation of what the Moroccans clearly feel is their country and the French’ creation of invisible lines between different groups of people in the country. Another central question is which barriers are involved in the concept of the harem. Fatima experiences all kinds of barriers during her life in the harem. The exploration of what these barriers mean to her and her family is what make this book such a fascinating read.

Having had quite a few classes on women and Islam in Morocco, I especially loved how many of the things I had learned played a part in this book as well. I respect Mernissi for pointing out both the limitations and the opportunities of women in Morocco. I also like how she shows how certain forms of “open display of weakness” might work in advantage of those concerned: for example the possession by djinn’s that might be constructed as a way of being permitted to dance or be openly cross for people who are in no position to do so if they weren’t classified as possessed.

I thought the concept of the harem made for another interesting theme. I might be a typical westerner in that I associated “harem” with one man that “owned” several wives living together in one building. However, It seems the word has different meaning in different cultures and periods (I feel so stupid for not realizing this before). The harem that Mernissi grew up in exists of her father’s family (one wife), his uncle’s family (also one wife), a grandmother and several of the spinsters or widows that are related to the family. Mernissi pays attention to the phenomenon of the harem by looking at the word through the eyes of the small girl she once was. Slowly Fatima finds out that both the harem she inhabits, but also the harem of her grandmother (who lives in the country and who isn’t closed in by walls that she may not leave without permission like Fatima is) involve barriers of what women can and cannot do and that visual barriers or walls might not mean that there’s less freedom involved.

Which brings me to the last two themes that stood out: First, there is the evident hope of most of the older women that Fatima might see a future in which she can make her own way in life, without any limitations. While she discusses this, Mernissi also pays attentions to the inevitable subject of tradition vs. modernity and the divided opinions of the women living in the harem on the subject. Second, stories, dreams and plays make up a huge part of the book. This is the escape for all the women in the harem. Through the telling of stories about famous women they can experience life outside of the walls surrounding them. These stories are fascinating in themselves, and I can’t help but feel I should read the 1001 nights sometime, as well as some of the other titles Mernissi refers to in her notes.

Dreams of Trespass makes for a fascinating read if you’re at all interested in women, Islam and life in Morocco. I’ll be looking forward to reading more by Mernissi, who has done sociological research on women and Islam.

Note: It seems Dreams of Trespass has been released under a different title as well: “The Harem Within: Tales of a Moroccan Girlhood.” Since I read the Dutch translation, I guess I could’ve chosen to review this book under either of those titles, but Dreams of Trespass held an instant appeal and is I feel the better title, because it refers to one of the most important themes in the book.

Also: This counts towards both the Women Unbound and the Orbis Terrarum Challenge.