The clash between the leftist and the rightist students was, for many people, an attempt of civil society for a more democratic regime by the end of the 1970s in Turkey. After the military intervention in 1980 the streets were silenced by the absolute power of the army. However, the ‘silence’ inside of the people in prisons or in exile was the sign of disappointment. Particularly for the refugees in Europe, it was the time to face different power structures and for finding new ways to survive in the unknown future. I was raised within this political climate and the question of ‘living in exile’ has always been mysterious for me.
Who is Halleh Ghorashi?
I never thought that the situation in a different geography could be so similar until listening to the passionate speech of Halleh Ghorashi, professor of Diversity and Integration in the Department Organization Sciences VU University Amsterdam. On Tuesday 27th of March, Prof. Ghorashi was at the Kitchen Table Seminar at Aletta, institute for women`s history for a brief seminar on her academic work and her book Ways to Survive, Battles to Win: Iranian Women Exiles in The Netherlands and the US. She was a Marxist activist in Iran during the revolution before it turned into an Islamic revolution. In 1988 she moved to The Netherlands as an asylum seeker. The motivation behind this particular choice, according to her, was rational: the modest Dutch life style in which she could have a bike and an apartment simply cheaper. Yet, from that moment on, through various power relations, her identity as an activist of the revolution was almost under the threat of the dominant discourse that imposed a new identity on her: an Iranian woman in need of help and pity.
Her research and its limitations
Based on her own struggle Ghorashi decided to study cultural anthropology in Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and in her MA the own narratives of Iranian women living in exile were the main research topic for her. The image of oppressed immigrant women from the middle east had to be deconstructed through the narration of their own perspectives and experiences. However, it was not that easy to conduct a research when it was prohibited to go back to Iran. This limitation ended up as a challenge in the process of research: she had to find her own way and adopt a retrospective style of writing.
The Iranian women exiles in The Netherlands vs. the USA
Within this framework she both employed her own memories and interviewed Iranian women living in The Netherlands and in the USA for her Ph.D. at Universiteit Nijmegen. She was interested in the question how women in exile connect their past to their present life and future expectations. The result of her research was stunning: the Iranian women living in their own communities in Los Angeles adopted their new American-Iranian identity. Although their past was full of pain, they were happy about their present life and their future was ‘bright’ in their new home. According to Ghorashi the ‘inclusive’ nature of the US system paves the way for the refugees to feel at home. Besides, their need for exposure was easier to accommodate in the US consumerism comparing to the moderate Dutch system.
In contrast to their US fellows, Iranian women in exile in The Netherlands were in search of ways to survive. The ambiguity of the present made it impossible for them to let the discontent of their past left behind and consequently their future was just ‘silent’. Though they have changed already in many ways, adopted naturalization policies and been ‘going Dutch’ in many senses, they were always the Iranian women in exile for the Dutch society. They have been tolerated rather than included. Tracing the moments of silence in the interviews Ghorashi explains that the position of immigrant women in The Netherlands is a contentious issue since the Dutch nation has not been built up by the immigrants from the very beginning as in the case of the US. The Netherlands is a welfare state. In order to take care of the migrants the Dutch society expects something in return of them. Rather than criticizing their situation they should be grateful about what they have.
A never-ending trip
Ghorashi was a nomad among the past, the present and the future of Iranian women in exile in order to share their hidden stories which remind me the Turkish case. Her trip was obviously not that easy and there are still many blind spots about this issue to be discussed in the future. Though as a professor in Vrije Universiteit van Amsterdam she has many publications, it seems like Ghorashi as an active and productive academic will keep on challenging our way of thinking. I am impatient to read her next work!
Piril Kazanci is a research intern at Aletta, institute for women’s history