Oct/Nov 2010 Nonfiction

Baronesses of the Fourth Exile

by Farah Mehreen Ahmad

All women, by virtue of being second-class citizens, live in exile. If you don't believe me, ask Euripides. Exile to the south—the political south, the economic south, the social south, the sexual south. In a nutshell, the public south and the private south. This, I will call the First Exile.

Then, some find themselves in Second Exile. This is when we feel kicked out from within. The angry and melancholic recognition of being a minority. Exiled by and into realization. This is when we feel alienated, because most around us don't seem to feel the same way. AKA, the "no-one-understands-me" drama-queen syndrome.

Some of these women remain cauldrons of bubbling wrath-potion, and some boil over and spill out to be rejected, ridiculed, misunderstood, labeled different, strange, or even too anal. Misfits in most "normal" circles, they are inmates of a soft alienation: the Third Exile.

Few others end up seeping through skins too porous to respond to the rage with sympathy or deflect with indifference at best. Some of these women are the writers I will be talking about. They burned. Then they burnt some. Such rude awakenings they were! Such strong antidotes to the system-infused sedatives, that they were banished from their own homes like witches on broomsticks with two buttons—"Out" and "Away." These women are now in the Fourth Exile.

I think from the very preliminary onset of cognition, we live in fear of exile. "What will they think?" "What will they say?" "Would that be alright?" are all undercurrents of that very fear—the fear of being outcast and ousted. I don't believe most overcome that fear, but many work against it. In spite of it.

If thou cannot be a gate-keeping defender of "the Faith/the System/the Man/the Machine," thou shall be banished. No country for some women.

While 9/11 was a tragedy for the world, it turned out to be a blessing for the Eritrean government. It didn't join the world in mourning or in its outcry against the debacle, but used the tragedy as an opportunity to silence thousands of voices of its own, especially in the independent media.

During this witch-hunt, media outlets were shut down and people were jailed. Journalist Sara Habtemichael found herself jobless and platformless when the papers she worked for were erased. Dearth of options directed her to a state-run paper—a government mouthpiece.

There was no room for a self-actualized journalist like her there, and there was no room for compromise in her. She left her job. There was no scope for free speech amid the foreboding fear of doom in Eritrea, and she had no will to gag her voice. She left her country. Had she stayed, her choices would have been limited—detained like many or disappeared like her brother, editor of the now non-existent Meqaleh newspaper.

"Martha" was the nurse she was named after. "Kuwee" is her adored middle name she was never allowed to go by in Ethiopia. It's the name of an Oromo heroine, a heroine from the history of the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, a group that is severely marginalized.

Martha Kuwee Kumsa took to the streets in support of the Marxist government during the 1974 revolution. The high of what she felt was her process of "reclaiming history," was soon replaced with the Red Terror of the military regime, when thousands of suspected "counter-revolutionaries" were detained, persecuted, and even executed.

She continued writing for an Oromo newspaper, urging women of her ethnicity to retain a firm grasp over their cultural traditions. To cut a long and harrowing story short, soon after her husband's long disappearance, she was taken away for almost ten years to be kept away from her children and tortured.

She was never told what the official allegations against her were, but she knows her crime was fourfold: ethnicity, gender, beliefs, and expression. In spite of wanting to continue working for the Oromo people after her release, she chose exile—for her children. But she knows she is destined to move back to Ethiopia to pursue her cause. "My spirit is up. My wings are up, but I don't know where I will be landing."

When the Tudeh party members and its women's organization were under attack in 1981, during continuation of the fundamentalist revolution of 1979, Saghi Ghahraman—poet, activist—fled Iran to live in Turkey as a refugee until 1987. She now lives in Canada, but her battle with the state continues from afar.

In 2007 Shargh, a leading Iranian reformist newspaper, was shut down for printing an interview of her. Havoc was wreaked when the conversation that was about literature proceeded to the topic of ethics and she argued for sexual freedom. Her lesbian identity has earned her criticism galore. Even from afar, her speech does not have the freedom to enter Iran.

Writer, librarian, scholar, editor and translator Fereshteh Molavi has been in exile since 1998. For her, it was a long haul to seek solace with a forced linguistic diaspora. In her essay "English Has Raped Me," she writes how her need for opposing an authoritarian regime warranted her shifting base to a safe zone.

"Should a writer cross a border, it pleased me to think, she would be safe and secure in knowing that her wealth was within. When it would become time for me to cross the border, I thought, my mind and language were wealth invisible to ideological inspectors and worthless to customs officials. I crept into the sweet fantasy of bearing my home on my back forever like a snail."

Emma Beltran has been in exile since 2002. She has been involved in the struggle of indigenous people of Mexico using poetry and popular theatre as props to communicate with women and children. She was a founding member of the first community radio station in Mexico's history during the student strike at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in 1999.

She was kidnapped at gunpoint by four men on a busy street in Mexico City in March, 2001, and was subjected to physical and psychological torture by the Mexican National Army. Beltran was blindfolded the whole time.

The late 1960s saw a radical and political student movement at the University of the Phillipines. Petronila Cleto went into theatre organizing during this time, working with out-of-school youth and child education among the urban poor of Manila. Following Ferdinand Marcos's martial law in the '70s, which forced the student movement underground, she became a journalist.

Her investigative reporting on human rights stories, socio-economic issues, as well as feminist issues had gotten her recognition quite quickly. Her poetry and plays also revolved around themes of injustice and democratic rights. In the late '80s, her reportage on a Marcos ally, who was terrorizing the journalists in the Visayan part of the archipelago, brought her a million-peso libel suit.

Although she managed to beat the libel suit, she could not bear being under constant surveillance, especially during the civil war, and acute censorship. She now works in Canada on a project to advocate for the journalists in her country.

Ameera Javeria—exiled women's-rights journalist—fell prey to Islamist fundamentalists using religion as a springboard for valorizing their extremism. Shooed away by the threat of Sharia law, armed executioners of women's rights, she now lives in exile in the United States. This, however, was not the beginning of her exile.

She remembers her family's opposition to her chosen career in an essay. She recognizes their decision to be a consequence of an acknowledgement of women's assertiveness being an unwelcome hiccup in a patriarchal peace. Her exile to the United States was a political and then geographical manifestation of her self-conceived exile, the one that comes with recognizing the self as an alien within his/her own paradigms. For her, it began with the realization that "to be a woman in Pakistan is to ask for a life of subservience."

Add to this list Gordana Icevska, Kaziwa Salih, Sheng Xue, Jackleen Hanna, Zdenka Acin, Cristina Rossi...

Another person I want to talk about here is Taslima Nasreen. She too was bundled up and thrown out for blatantly challenging patriarchal values, women's human rights clashing with social and religious credo, and openly discussing women's sexuality and sexual desires.

I first came across her when I was fourteen. Until then, I knew her name, though I didn't know why it was so known. I had heard people around me talk about her with disgust and contempt. But when my grandfather came to live with us for a few months, he spent his afternoons teaching me how to play solitaire, talking to me about why he was an atheist and why I should read Nasreen.

I had heard many talk about how confused, insane, and evil this woman was. Heavy allegations from people, most of whom had only known her through news articles and criticisms, not her work. Men spoke of her with resentment and women with vengeance.

I had bouts of curiosity about her, but since any mention of wanting to read her prompted my mother to scream out, "No! No! No!" like I would catch cooties if I did, I refrained.

After conversations with my Dada, I dug up Nirbachito Column. It was tucked away in a bookshelf along with some Freud books. Another personification of alleged madness I was being sheltered from. Oh, I think Humayun Ahmed's Noboni was in that pile too. Probably because of the scene where Noboni bled.

I grew up a pretty angry teenager. I was haunted by a million questions that no one bothered to answer. Why did people constantly comment on my complexion and puberty-induced skin outbreaks? Why did people always look me up and down to see if I was dressed "properly"? Why was a boy's rebellion cute/immature/justified and a girl's a reflection of bad character? Why did I have to sit a particular way? Why was I not to play outdoor sports? Why was it so difficult to get things right, even if I wasn't doing anything wrong? And much more.

I have much to be grateful for—good schooling, three meals a day, a home with weather-appeasing utilities, clean water, transportation. In families with male members—in both your own, and in your extended family, the differences don't come up in the obvious, they come up in subtleties.

I was mostly angry at my mother. I didn't understand why she never defended me, in spite of having the same experiences. In spite of resenting those experiences herself. In retrospect, I realize she was a product of her circumstances and her experiences. She did, and does, what she was taught was right—accept or block out.

We are the same, my mother and I. We both live in the same world, run by and for men, running-shoes polished by women. Men here have the option to live as people, women need to live lives of martyrs: sacrificing shadows who exist to serve. Always living for someone or something else. She came out mold-perfect and harmonious, and I came out deformed and cacophonous. It's not that she doesn't understand me. She does. Almost relates. Gets this close to agreeing. Then she takes a step back and asks me to shed my "abnormal" beliefs. She quickly takes two steps back to graceful acceptance of the first. She lives in fear of the third exile. I live in the second, taking unsure baby steps towards the third.

It was gruesome, that disregarded rage, that feeling of being misunderstood, that frustration of not seeing most around you feel the same way. Then I came to know Nasreen. It was a relief to see someone else feeling the same. It was therapeutic and consolatory. I didn't feel so alone anymore. I did not feel weak, and I thought I was ready to talk, to fight and not just brood.

Then the fact that Islamist fundamentalists had declared a fatwa on her, and she had left the country, dawned on me. This inculcated a fear of articulation—will I be ousted by my loved ones since they seemed to have no problem with her being thrown out altogether? Would my family disown me? The way most around me constantly ridiculed her did not help, either. I did not want to lose anyone.

I remember hearing women who were thought to have a "loose-character" being called "Taslima." Her name had become a curse word. Accompanying parents to dawats can actually be a very unnerving experience.

I never spoke of my fondness of her until we moved to Brussels. There, few knew her, and fewer knew me. I was in a circle of supportive teachers and peers. I joined a student writers' club that published a magazine appropriately (though coincidentally) titled Zeitgeist. I submitted my poem I had written a year before as an expression of a deep-seated resentment Nasreen had helped me scoop out.

Below are excerpts from the poem. I'll tell you I'm not putting up the whole thing for space issues, but it's mainly because I am embarrassed of the quality of writing. It's drama-queen-ish enough as it is:


(excerpt 1)

Long enough have I tarried
I sit back on my couch
—tired and wearied
Fourteen Years—I spent in dreaming.
Silently screaming.
Striving to be free.
Trying to be me.
In tedious affliction.
In some preposterous addiction.
Searching my soul.
Dreaming of my goal.
In utter disgust.
I let my eyes burst.

(Excerpt 2)

"When? When will it come?
When will we get rid of this fruitless scrum?
When can we throw away the frightful disdain?
When will we stop enduring the pain?
When can we wipe off our eyes dew?
When can we jump and touch the sky blue? When will the ‘people' open their eyes? When will the air be—happiness in disguise?
When can we flash a genuine smile?
When can we willfully run mile after mile?
When will they realize we are also people?
When will they throw away their mind—
So mean and crippled?
When will they gain their sanity?
When will we be treated with respect and dignity?
When? When? I beg you when? The world will come to an end Will it be then?

When I think of the impact Nasreen has had on me, on my childhood, I wonder about all the other women who are in exile. For them to have rubbed the wrong people the wrong way, they must have struck the right chord with a few wounded others.

When I talk about Taslima Nasreen now, many say, "She is a terrible writer anyway. Her stories are so poorly written!" or, "Look at what she is up to." It's true I feel sabotaged by how bonkers she has gone post-exile. I miss her fire. But really, let's take a step back.

She wasn't kicked out for incompetent art, she was kicked out for inadequate compliance. It wasn't the writer in her that they couldn't tolerate, but the uncompromising documenter that they couldn't swallow.

Abrupt and unwelcome wind, swindling walls on sides of myopia-friendly, rose-tinted lenses, they are fearless entrepreneurs of the queasy-making business. It might just be a 14-year-old girl, or a handful invisible others, but I believe that in spite of whatever weaknesses one may point out in these women, their exiles must have satiated an effected many, but must also have helped an affected few find home.


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