Parin Dossa, Canadian Scholars Press, 2004

Reviewed by Rose Wishall Ediger, graduate student in
Anthropology at American University

Interested in mental health and displacement, in Politics and Poetics of Migration Dossa focuses on Iranian women who moved to British Columbia in a wave of 47,000 post-revolution Iranian immigrants during the 1980s and 1990s (pp. 2, 17). These immigrants became “racialized minorities” whose human rights and sense of well-being were violated by widespread discrimination and lack of opportunity (p. 2).

During her three years of fieldwork in British Columbia, Dossa interviewed a total of 15 women, four of whom gave their full life narratives over the course of about two years (p. 7). About half of those interviewed chose to speak in English while the others were interviewed in Farsi through two Iranian research assistants. Dossa also spent time in the mall, where she talked to senior citizen mall walkers and the younger Iranian service providers, and at ESL classes (p. 7). The data from interviews, her diary, newspapers, and participant observation are presented as description intermixed both with her analysis and interpretation using relevant literature (p. 9).

The women with whom Dossa interacts experience emotional stress that stems largely from their position within Canada’s socio-economic structure. This stress manifests itself in women feeling that they are not able to deal “meaningfully with life situations in their adopted country” (p. 42). They are not able to better their lives and they are isolated, feelings echoed in phrases such as, “I am tired of life,” or “I have nothing to live for” (pp. 35-36). While social service providers explain these feelings as depression stemming from the unrest in the women’s home country, the women themselves take a broader view, recognizing the social and economic roots of their problems. Citing Malkki (Purity and Exile: Violence, Memory and National Cosmology among Hutu Refugees in Tanzania, The University of Chicago Press, 1995: 8), Dossa notes that the process of displacement challenges the norm of the nation-state. Social service providers thus individualize “social and economic concerns” using medical notions such as “refugee mental health” (p. 4). Instead, Dossa takes a multi-faceted look at social suffering–the “painful experiences” of people who have been socially marginalized–as it involves the impact of capitalism on daily life, the institutions that intensify and normalize social suffering, and the alternative discourse voiced by those who are marginalized (pp. 2-3).

In Iran, while the women were subordinated because of their gender and other factors such as religion, they were able to negotiate some rights and social space there, largely working from within female networks of kin and peers (pp. 34, 165-167). However, in Canada, where the individual is emphasized and where there is a lack of funding for social services, women are in a marginalized position that precludes space to better their lives and to voice their concerns (pp. 32-35, 165-167). It is only through storytelling that they are able to overcome their social invisibility. Here, they “create a new and more expanded space where they can tell the stories of their lives without having to use the parameters of the dominant society” (p. 42). Through this book, Dossa also aims to affect social change, to attain a humanistic goal (pp. 37-38).

Dossa works to understand both the speakers’ everyday reality and how systems of domination and power relations shaped it (p. 5). In conversing with the women, Dossa recognizes patterns in women’s stories and is often told that “one woman’s story is everyone’s story (pp. 7-10). The book thus focuses on the life stories-testimonials-of four of the women (pp. 7, 13). Sultan comes up against multiple barriers to achieving her desire of being active and working (p. 55). Nadia is a professional woman who is fluent in English but can only find work in the “marginalized service sector targeted for immigrant women” (p. 93). Sahra’s story demonstrates how sufferers use silent symptoms of the body to implicate the system for making Iranian women invisible (p. 134). Finally, Fatima must live with discrimination against the disabled, a category that has not been included in the “race/gender/class paradigm,” while occupying the socially invisible role of caregiver/woman/mother (pp. 136, 159).

I found this book to be particularly strong in its theoretical direction. Dossa does a good job of uncovering the voice and thus self-created space of these marginalized women. The time and sensitivity Dossa must have put into this work are rewarded when we understand what these women think and desire. Dossa is also generally successful in explicating both structural factors and the agency of the women. I find the book’s main shortcoming to be the wandering nature of its prose. The language is often vague and the repetition is distracting. A more straightforward presentation of her data could have resulted in a shorter, more concise and more accessible work. This might also help to clarify her method; while her insight could only come from terrific fieldwork, I am not sure that I understand what Dossa did on a daily basis while in the field for these three years. With these comments in mind, I would recommend this book to those interested in issues of gender and displacement, but probably not to those new to the subject matter.

Rose Wishall Ediger is an anthropology student interested in political economy and migration. She is currently engaged in her dissertation fieldwork among francophone African and Haitian immigrants in the Washington, D.C. area.

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