Away from Home: Iranian Women, Displacement Cultural Resistance and Change

Article excerpt

Patriarchy is a structural and ideological system of domination which produces, sustains and reproduces authoritarian, asymmetrical sexist values and practices. The material conditions of life - that is, political, economic and social institutions and relations in a given society - can make patriarchal values and structures appear natural, or, at least, inevitable and inescapable, if not fair and just. Conversely, changes in these conditions can effectively challenge patriarchal domination and expose its smothering impact on women (and men) - and by so doing, mobilize a society in the direction of change.

In this article, drawing upon the experience of the Iranian diaspora(1), I argue that displacement and distance from one's native land, and the sense of banishment from a historical location, heritage and culture associated with diasporic existence, often provide the necessary ingredients to perpetuate gender power structures and patriarchal relations and ideologies, even though diaspora conditions may have been transformed in directions conducive to change. Living 'in the territory of not belonging' (Said: 1993) can shift social and political priorities and individual aspirations in favour of maintaining communal dignity and cultural identity at the expense of gender equality and democratic rights.

The information used in this article was gathered from observations made while participating in several support groups for Persian-speaking abused women in Toronto, and from individual interviews with some of the group members. Oral interviews conducted with Iranian diaspora females in Vancouver and Montreal and content analysis of Persian language newspapers supplemented the data.


Often, for a minority community in a predominantly white, 'western' society, the only means available to keep distance from the alien and alienating values and practices of the dominant culture is association with one's own culture, reconnecting with it-hence, 'cultural resistance'. Resentment against the dominant culture and the values it represents turns the indigenous culture into a pole of resistance. Cultural resistance becomes a refuge against class and racial discrimination.

There are, however, two sides to cultural resistance. Marginalization and exclusion may make the minority culture more resistant to change than under normal circumstances. It creates grounds for a solidarity and bonding that would not necessarily exist in the home-country. For example, by creating unwarranted loyalties and uncritical acceptance of male-defined cultural norms and values, racism and class disadvantage may reinforce sexist values and patriarchal power relations within a diasporic community. Views, attitudes, and practices which fall beyond the frontiers of the indigenous culture are felt to belong to the 'outside' world and are dismissed. Instead of joining social struggles in the host country to establish a more humane society, the subordinate minority turns on itself, and wrestles, obsessively, with challenges to its culture and collective identity. This obsession with the native culture and traditions impresses upon the individual an exaggerated concern for social acceptability. It coerces her/him into conformity, and makes her/him anxious about the response of fellow expatriates to her/his views, behaviours and actions. In this way, cultural resistance may suppress individuality, the right to choice and critical thinking for individual community members.

Moreover, cultural values often embody gendered - if not overtly misogynist - beliefs, practices and relations. A renewed attachment to and reverence for cultural traditions can therefore negatively affect women and gender relations within an ethno-racial minority. Patriarchal values which regulate relationships and interactions between the sexes and which assign and oversee culturally acceptable sex roles, behaviours and interactions are revitalized and banalized under the pretext of cultural resistance. …


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