Female Scholars in Exile Form Legion of Longing

Monday, January 11, 2010

Exiled female writers find they have little in common with immigrants who come to the U.S. seeking material gains. Instead, they are often looking for the chance to find continuity and tell stories about their ruptured lives.

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Exile, Afkhami said, imposes an inevitable wrestling with the identity question: "Who am I?"

She reached out to 12 other exiled women from various countries and chronicled their experiences and means of coping in her 1994 book, "Women in Exile."

She drew energy and hope from their stories. "There is a type of sisterhood. Other women have gone through it and have become strong and positive members of the global community of women," she said.

Afkhami said men and women experience exile differently. Loss of homeland is more traumatic for men. Women are preoccupied in making a nest with less time to wallow in pessimism and depression.

"Women seem to have a continuity in immediate needs of the family and pragmatic ways of settling down," she said.

And some women dive into their creativity, research or activism.

Sanctuary Found Via Programs

Many exiles find sanctuary through programs such as Scholars at Risk Network, an international network of individuals and universities, headquartered at New York University. In the past decade the program has received more than 2,000 requests for assistance from over 100 countries. The region that generates the most requests is sub-Saharan Africa, followed by Northern Africa, the Middle East and South Asia.

Ma Thida, a Burmese fiction writer and physician, is currently a Scholars at Risk fellow at Harvard, a program that has hosted 32 fellows, including seven women, in the last eight years.

Though not in exile, Thida faces a perennial threat from the military junta because of her writing and pro-democracy activism. The author of "The Sunflower," "In the Shade of an Indian Almond Tree" and many short stories, she was sentenced to prison in 1993.

Because of her failing health and pressure from Amnesty International and PEN International, she was released before her 20-year sentence. She spent five years in prison in appalling conditions and contracted pulmonary tuberculosis.

Now Thida is determined to go back.

Despite the comforts of life in the United States, she is restless, troubled by thoughts of her fellow citizens. "Most of them are so naive and their eyes shine with hope that the international community will do something for them," she said.

Released to U.S. for Treatment

Mehrangiz Kar, a former Scholars at Risk fellow at Harvard, is an Iranian journalist, attorney and human rights activist who has lived in exile for the last nine years.

In 2001, she was sentenced to four years imprisonment on charges of acting against national security and disseminating propaganda against the Islamic regime. She spent two months in Tehran's Evin prison, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was allowed to come to the United States for treatment and has been living here with her two daughters. She faces prison if she returns.

"I was 57 when I came here, seriously ill and I did not know English," Kar said.

A prolific writer and outspoken activist, she often fumbles for words and loses confidence when talking to an English-speaking audience.

"It was painful and it is still painful," she said, her voice trembling with emotion.

Since 2001, she has not seen her husband, Siamak Pourzand, also a journalist. He cannot leave Iran and is living between hospital and home with an outstanding prison sentence.

"I am always looking for Starbucks coffee shops, my real office here. I like to see people because I am so lonely at home" she said, wiping tears from her eyes. "I miss everything."

After a long pause, she said, "There are so many feelings an exiled woman faces inside her heart. Nobody can ever see that."

Bijoyeta Das is a multimedia journalist based in Istanbul, Turkey.

For more information:

Scholars at Risk

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Thank you very much for this report which is instructive but also very deeply moving.