Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009
Reviewed by Onur Kovanci
Dr. Parin Dossa, a Professor of Anthropology at Simon Fraser University, British Colombia treats her readers to another intriguing and insightful book after her first book, Politics and Poetics of Migration: Narratives of Iranian Women in the Diaspora, published in 2004. Her new book entitled Racialized Bodies, Disabling Worlds: Storied Lives of Immigrant Muslim Women is definitely an anticipated product of the author’s long-standing interest in displacement and critical feminist ethnography.
The book provides the reader with a thought-provoking account of the experiences of immigrant Muslim women with disabilities after their arrival in their new host country, Canada. The book focuses primarily on South Asian Muslims from East Africa and Iranian Muslims. By providing an in-depth analysis of immigrant women’s personal stories through narrative analysis, the book sheds light on the diverse and heterogeneous characteristics of these women and how they locate themselves in regards to the intersection of disability, racialization and gender in Canada.
The book’s main premise is that Canada continues to perpetuate discriminatory attitudes and practices that lead to more isolation and frustration for immigrants living in the Diaspora despite Canada’s seemingly open immigration policy and its participation in the United Nations Conventions and Protocols Relating to Status of Refugees. Investigating the structures of exclusion and oppression, Dossa poses a challenging question to the readers: “What is it like to have a racialized body in a disabling world?” (15).
The author states that it is possible to develop an integrated model that respects diversity and takes plurality into account as an alternative against what is called the “add and stir approach.” As Dossa indicates:
“Differences such as gender, race, and social class among people who have disabilities are subsumed under the mastery category of disability; hence, women and racialized women who have disabilities do not appear as categories, let alone subjects.” (18)
Having a critical perspective, the book clearly lays out the main issues embedded in the current immigration system in Canada. It argues that the immigration system, while accepting the new comers to Canada, has discriminatory practices. These practices are felt even more deeply when they are applied to women of color with disabilities due to the nature of a point based immigration system, which largely favors able-bodied persons.
In different chapters of the book, the question of what it is like to have a racialized body in a disabling world comes to the fore as a crucial question that needs to be answered. Dossa illustrates this answer by drawing us into the personal narratives of Mehrun, Tamiza, Firouzeh and finally Sara, all of whom migrated to Canada at one point in their life course already having disabilities or having children with disabilities. Because they are racialized disabled women, who cannot meet the so called labour skills criterion of the current immigration system, they remain invisible in many areas of life such as social services, health care, academia and even in their daily interaction with society. The author’s careful analysis of the women’s narratives tell us a lot about how discourses are produced, enacted and reproduced as well as the opportunities for resistance. Mehrun’s story for example is of great significance in that it illustrates the workings of the intersectionality of difference without sacrificing the context specific knowledge produced through the experimental reality. Mehrun’s experience is also important to point out how problematic the biomedical discourse of disability is in the sense that rather than reconstructing the world to be more accepting of and accessible to people with disabilities, the policies tend to reconcile women with disabilities to society (41). As Mehrun says:
“They are so specialized that sometimes you get put into a category that you do not belong in, like for example, people are treated as though they have developmental disabilities to a large extent, whereas they may only be borderline and need a little bit of assistance. There is no in-between.” (62)
In the stories of Tamizah, Firouzeh and Sara, the reader sees the problems within the system and the social services sector as well as avenues for change. In addition to cuts in social services, the personal narratives, show the reader that the problem is much deeper, as race and other markers of difference are not only felt as being embedded in state institutions and discourses, but they also have a spatial dimension. For instance, the reader learns from the book that the asymmetrical relations in the space of the clinic exist at two levels: biomedicine with its institutional power and the social exclusion of racialized bodies (147). The book in that sense makes it very clear that space is politically and socially constructed. Indeed, all the women with disabilities in the book suffer from not being recognized in their daily social interaction with society.
Dossa’s book goes beyond a critical discussion and offers us solutions to build bridges. Dossa argues that women with disabilities are not merely passive welfare recipients but rather proven community workers in their country of origin and caregivers. In a world that largely ignores women’s domestic labour, Dossa shows us that these women undertake important roles as volunteers, caregivers as well as domestic producers. Their personal narratives and how they perceive disability shows the reader that there are different ways of being (92).
Overall, the book provides a comprehensive review of disability literature from a critical perspective and discusses an alternative way to the “add and stir approach,” which is considered the mainstream in antiracist feminist literature.
The book has many strengths: its seamless methodological and analytical clarity, the powerful and compelling structure of the book, the consistent research method and the theory, and, strong, concise arguments. Ultimately, the book makes for a good reference source for advanced students or students who are looking for an intersectional primer in disability studies.
Onur Kovanci pursues his PhD in the Department of Sociology, Carleton University. His main areas of interest are social policy, gender and development.