In our little Zoom room, I hear my interviewee break into sobs. Her part of the Zoom room is engulfed in darkness, and I have no way to see her. Can a woman connect with another over the tangible intangibility of cyberspace? Well, not really. But the stunted efforts at connection did give me access to a woman whose story is one of resilience.
An Afghan by birth, three-month-old Arezo (name changed) was carried to Iran by her parents in the 1990s. Arezo and her family were not the first refugees to enter Iran, as the first wave of Afghan refugees had set foot in the country in 1979 after the communist coup and Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
The flight of Afghan refugees, like Arezo, in the 1990s, took place with the fall of Mohammad Najibullah’s pro-communist government and the emergence of the Taliban. While Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE extended their support to this new political wave, numerous Afghans tried to escape the harsh reality of a country that sanctioned public executions and banned female education. Arezo and her family were among those who felt the tremors of this new reality, and decided to forsake the security of their home and family business for a life of safety in Iran.
But the Iran of the late 1990s that Arezo’s family had stepped into was gearing up for ways to repatriate Afghan refugees. In a study titled “Repatriation of Afghan refugees from Iran” in the Journal of International Humanitarian Action, the authors observe how the Iranian government, owing to a huge inflow of Afghan refugees, had started initiating policies to push Afghans into volitional repatriation.
The severity of these larger government policies trickled down into Arezo’s childhood memories. When I asked Arezo about some special memories from her childhood, she had nothing to offer. This was not an act of voluntary forgetfulness — the forceful jerk of a hand to shut tight the door to a childhood you want to escape — but the answer of a woman who never had a childhood to begin with.
How could she offer or reminisce about something she never had? For a refugee, the countless struggles of every passing day are discarded at the sight of new struggles that greet them. It is a life tethered to a half-eaten past at one end and a hungry future at the other end, with a present that is forever starved.
As she spent the first 13 years of her life in Iran as an undocumented refugee, Arezo realized that despite her desire for education, she could not study beyond fifth grade. Her family could not afford the expenses of her education, and being undocumented did not help her move through the gates of secondary or higher education in Iran. When she was 14, Arezo and her family were deported to Afghanistan.
At this time, the U.S. had already invaded Afghanistan and toppled the Taliban regime. Though Arezo found some hope in this new world, family tradition intervened and she was married off a year later. At 16, she gave birth to a baby girl. Resentful of the socio-cultural trappings of early marriage and motherhood, Arezo explained to me: “Over there, people never want a woman to stand up for herself or be above them. And it was really heart-breaking at the time … I never interacted with a baby before this, but I had a baby when I was 16. And I had to do the best I could to raise that kid.”
Today, Arezo lives in the U.S. with her daughter and husband. It has been close to a decade since she arrived in this country. Though she struggles with memories of her life as a child, a daughter and a wife with no agency, she is thankful to have met educators and friends in the U.S. who listen to her and support her through difficulties.
As she breaks into sobs worrying about the fate of her people in Afghanistan, she states resolutely: “Each achievement I have is after huge fights. It was hell getting to where I am today. I don’t want my daughter to go through this. She is a natural leader, and I will do everything in my power to make her realize that gender does not define who you are.”
Feminist scholar Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak has criticized the tendency of people in power to tell the stories of those without socio-political agency (the subaltern). But does that mean we resist the urge for an ethical intervention? Maybe not. As Spivak suggests, we can be learners — in this case, we can learn from Arezo’s difficulties, expose ourselves to the desires and needs of women like her, and find humble ways to empower them to be the masters of their own voices.
Dr. Jayendrina Singha Ray serves as Faculty of English at Highline College. Her research interests include postcolonial studies, spatial literary studies, British literature, and rhetoric and composition. Prior to teaching in the U.S., she worked as an editor with Routledge and taught English at colleges in India.