Invisible walls: How Iranian women’s traumatic memories shape their identities and behaviour here

This is a personal essay by Haleh Mir Miri, a graduate student in women, gender and sexualities studies at the University of Saskatchewan. She is originally from Iran.

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My immigration story begins with muffled voices echoing in my body, resonating through my head, shoulders, legs and back — my own muted voice and that of my generation. 

Born in 1985 in post-war and post-Islamic revolutionary Iran, I know what it is to suffer from discrimination and injustices in a despotic Islamic government. I have seen how Islamic ideology and tenacious religious traditions can govern many social spheres, namely women’s bodies and behaviours in the street. I have also observed how Iranian citizens, particularly women, are entangled with political and economic limitations, and an oppressive cleric regime that breaches their rights.

Therefore, as an immigrant, my story begins with the real sorrows and the memories of them.   

Immigrants’ memories and bodies are marked by these emotional entanglements. Some immigrants have a good image of their homeland due to the bonding relationships and support they had there, while other ones have a grim picture and traumatic memories of those collective and personal hardships. 

Stressful, hidden activities, coupled with women’s constant resistance against body controlling regimes, trigger a traumatic body and mind interwoven with women’s everyday lives.– Halah Mir Miri

Thinking of my homeland, I remember the gloomy days of myself and other women. Being a woman in Iran intersects with class issues, patriarchy and a male-dominant mindset. Women’s bodies and clothing are largely restricted in their private lives by their families’ traditions, and in the social sphere and workplaces by the moral police.

‘Diasporic, immigrant Iranian women carry these traumatic memories and internalized bodily boundaries with them. They always remember their cultural backgrounds, belongings and those past days that were engulfed with terror and anguish,’ writes Haleh Mir Miri. (Submitted by Haleh Mir Miri)

 

However, many Iranian women willingly break these regulations and challenge traditional customs. They violate the normative dressing codes in the street and challenge the moral police for being oppressive. They demand their rights. I remember when a friend of mine and I unveiled our scarves in the streets to show how normal a woman’s hair is. We also wore skirts in the streets even though we knew we were risking our liberty by resisting the moral police. 

Dancing is another disobedience. Dancing and singing in public spheres are forbidden for women in Iran, as from the clergies’ point of view, it causes men’s sexual evocation. They will be arrested for doing so.

WATCH | Haleh Mir Miri performs a dance conveying the idea of being trapped in a metaphorical prison:

Haleh Mir Miri performs a modern dance expressing the idea of trying to move within an invisible prison — which can take on different forms for different people. 6:00

However, there are many underground dance classes and private places where women covertly dance with partners. Young adults of both genders would gather under the guise of actors in theatre rehearsal spaces. While we were dancing contemporary dance, the female participants had our scarves at our disposal in case of a police raid. Maybe we could not dance with music blaring, but we could bypass those dogmatic ideological looks.

Oppressive as the police are, Iranian women are resilient. Still, these stressful, hidden activities, coupled with women’s constant resistance against body controlling regimes, trigger a traumatic body and mind interwoven with women’s everyday lives. 

Diasporic, immigrant Iranian women carry these traumatic memories and internalized bodily boundaries with them. They always remember their cultural backgrounds, belongings and those past days that were engulfed with terror and anguish.

Together, we will squeeze into the wall’s cracks and rescue them from their impassibility.– Haleh Mir Miri

Their dichotomous entity — here and there — inevitably causes them to constantly compare their situations, identities and moments between their two homes. Free bodies in the new lands can remind them of their physical confinements and their agonies back home. That happened to me in the middle of the deafening roar of pub’s music on Saskatoon winter night. While I was dancing with my friends, a sad feeling stopped me. I became a forlorn figure sitting all on my own, thinking of those politically choreographed female bodies that remained motionless and silent in prisons, societies and homes.

Similarly, COVID-19 showed us how easily we can be surrounded by hidden walls. Our bodies now have been fenced in various political, ideological and economic imprisonments. 

Be that as it may, together, we will squeeze into the wall’s cracks and rescue them from their impassibility. We will travel from our boundaries and be porous to any borders with our imaginations and our agencies.

This piece was inspired by Threads: Cultural Conversations, a two-day online event of national scope being organized and hosted by the Saskatoon Open Door Society. It will be held virtually on Jan. 20 and 21, 2021. Learn more about it here.


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