Iranian woman warned over attire. Flickr/Amir Farshad Ebrahimi. Some rights reserved
It is extremely fascinating the way the discourse of gender in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia has in many ways stifled the conversation about gender relations in these regions. In spite of trying to bring culture, religion, and gender together and to the forefront of the discussion, the desire to create a voice has also created a distinct silence. This is primarily because any experiences, ideas, or issues that are expressed are immediately used as fuel for essentializations or generalizations, most of which are highly problematic.
In other words, this necessity to give voice to the gendered challenges faced by individuals (especially women) in the Middle East and North African region as well as South Asia has created a realm that is full of minefields and implications about religion, freedom, progress, law and politics. The question is, how can experiences and emotions be discussed without falling into the snares that the discourse has created. For the moment, a path has not been discovered that allows for the processing of everyday experiences without invoking culture, gender, and religion in essentialist ways.
There is a distinct pause in discussions that relate to the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia and this pause exists in two distinct ways. Firstly, there is a pause and hesitation before talking about experiences and the affects these have, and secondly, there is a pause in the discourse because there is not enough space for discussing these things without fuelling representations that are difficult or detrimental. And in that time vacuum, many important feelings and realities are lost.
The main priority must become creating a space in which conversations can take place without falling into the social and ideological traps that say women are repressed by men through religion or culture, while also making it okay to admit that women can find themselves in circumstances where they are challenged because of their gender across these regions.
Even the language that exists for this conversation is nearly impossible to use in an appropriate way, which is why these conversations are stifled time and time again both internally and externally. In other words, there is an immediate bind when thinking about expressing emotions and experiences. This means that at times women may deny their reality in order not to adhere to the discourse that circulates about them and around them.
Certainly this is the case when thinking about what aspects begin to define a woman and women within society, across or within diverse areas in India, Iran, Algeria, or Yemen. It soon becomes clear that there is no way to make definitions about women, about myself, my cousins, and my elders when it comes to gender, to culture, and to religion. This is because though they are separate categories, they blend together to make the individuals that exist through experiences within given communities.
When the conversation does begin (after a hesitation) it exists as a distinct ‘I’, there is no ‘we’ because it is not acceptable to make generalizations or speak for others. So the discussion becomes somewhat self-centered and extremely personal, which is why experiences and emotions are so relevant. And in the end all that is really left after all the theories, the thinking, and the ideas is a mixture of feelings, of empowerment, anger, frustration, hope, pride, and humility, all of which leave me unsure. This uncertainty is what pushes me to question myself and the definitions that exist around me. Because these emotions are the things I carry with me, whether they are written in the curve of my eyebrows, the laugh lines on my face or my whitening hair. These are the things I carry, not because of religion or politics, and certainly not because of legality, but because they are what has made me who I have become.
What I mean to say is that, it is impossible to state that I am an Iranian woman, without being categorized by all the things that the statement invokes (which is perhaps why I constantly shy away from being who I am). These invocations are far reaching and I wonder what they truly include. Do they include my cinnamon and turmeric stained fingerprints, my silent tenderness, my bittersweet desires, and the empty saffron scented box of my past. Can the assumptions ever include the moment when a woman leans against me in the metro as though I am her sister, or the love contained in the words fadat besham orghorbaanat, do they contain the anger when I am harassed in the street or the times when a taxi driver waits to see me through the front gate at night, what about the feeling of shame in not being dressed modestly enough. I really wonder, can the categorizations ever encompass the taste of ghormehsabzi or the smell inside of a mosque, do they incorporate love songs or the heat of the desert. Because all of these things mix together as I carry them with me on the palm of my hand, and they cannot be defined, not even by myself.
I think it is fair to say that it is easier to linger in that hesitation, because it gives me time to deny all the difficult things about who I am and where I come from. As Audre Lorde said, “And of course I am afraid, because the transformation of silence into language and action is an act of self-revelation, and that always seems fraught with danger.” For me, the transformation of silence into language is not an act of self-revelation, but rather an act of revealing that I am not defined as I hope to be. So the real danger is losing the protection that the silence offers, which is why it must be broken.