Women without a Voice: The Paradox of Silence in the Works of Sandra Cisneros, Shashi Deshpande and Azar Nafisi

By Wilson, Sharon K.; Vaz, Pelgy | Ethnic Studies Review, January 1, 2010 | Go to article overview

Women without a Voice: The Paradox of Silence in the Works of Sandra Cisneros, Shashi Deshpande and Azar Nafisi


Wilson, Sharon K., Vaz, Pelgy, Ethnic Studies Review


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Women of every culture face a similar problem: loss of voice. Their lives are permeated with silence. Whether their silence results from a patriarchal society that prohibits women from asserting their identity or from a social expectation of gender roles that confine women to an expressive domain-submissive, nurturing, passive, and domestic-rather than an instrumental role where men are dominant, affective and aggressive-women share the common bond of a debilitating silence. Maria Racine, in her analysis of Janie in Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, reaffirms the pervasiveness of this bond: "For women, silence has crossed every racial and cultural boundary" (283). Indeed, Elaine Mar, a Chinese-American writer, in her memoir, Paper Daughter, elucidates the implications of silence for women, "Like Mother I was learning to disappear. Frequently, I sought refuge with her in the basement room, in the silence of empty spaces. But I was also learning to vanish in full sight of others, retreating into myself when physical flight wasn't possible. My voice withered. Silent desire parched my throat" (48). Silence and loss of voice debilitate and stifle women, as they are forced to sublimate their identity in order to survive in their worlds.

While many writers discuss the issue of silence, we intend to focus on the motif of silence and its impact on three characters, individuals: Esperanza in House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, Ajji in My Beloved Charioteer by Shashi Deshpande, and Azar Nafisi in Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi. These authors write about women who have been socialized in a traditional, patriarchal society where men generally make decisions, have hegemonic control, and are usually physically, psychologically, or emotionally aggressive. In such an environment, women lack the opportunity and confidence to assert themselves or have some measure of control over their environment or their lives in order to establish their autonomy, and are, therefore, victimized by what Paulo Freiré terms the "culture of silence" (13). If they confront instead of acquiescing to the traditional paradigm, their actions, at a minimum, are curtailed, or as is the case with Nafisi, completely forbidden. Ironically, however, women's loss of voice serves a twofold function.

While socio-cultural restrictions compromise their ability to find a voice and thus confine and marginalize Esperanza, Ajji, and Nafisi, these restrictions also provide them with the impetus to assert and redefine themselves in a manner similar to the mythological Phoenix. Just as the Phoenix builds a pyre, burns itself to ashes, and then reemerges, renewed and reborn, so too do these women undergo the ritualistic death-rebirth cycle. Their silence evokes a sense of independence and eventually fosters, usually as a result of a domestic crisis, an epiphany in which they find and assert their voice, breaking through the silence. We will examine the ways in which these female characters are controlled by men, the symbols through which that control is expressed, and the strength these women find to transcend cultural, familial and social repression, sometimes at a tremendous personal cost.

While not all women may experience such a traditional upbringing, the fact that these experiences transcend cultural boundaries makes an important contribution to comparative cultural and gender literary analysis. These characters, developed by their culturally diverse authors, are separated by culture, time, and history, yet they share universal conflicts in the quest to discover their identity. The theme of the quest, also referred to as a form of the death-rebirth archetype, according to Joseph Campbell in Hero with a Thousand Faces, consists of at least four major phases: heading the call to adventure, facing the unknown, encountering conflicts and receiving concrete or symbolic rewards, and eventually "returning to the community" ( Chapter 1). …

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