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Exiles, Immigrants and Refugees: Women Making Choices

Mon, Apr 1, 1996

Book Reviews

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.

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About Mahnaz Afkhami

A lifetime advocate for the rights of women, Mahnaz Afkhami works with activists across the world, especially in Muslim majority societies, to help women become leaders. She is Founder and President of Women’s Learning Partnership for Rights, Development, and Peace (WLP), Executive Director of Foundation for Iranian Studies...more

Quotables – Exile

"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." - Women in Exile