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The online version of this article can be found at:

DOI: 10.1177/0886109907310462
2008 23: 10 Affilia
Parin Dossa
Creating Politicized Spaces : Afghan Immigrant Women's Stories of Migration and

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Creating Politicized Spaces
Afghan Immigrant Womens Stories
of Migration and Displacement
Parin Dossa
Simon Fraser University
Drawing on an ethnographic study of Afghan women in metropolitan Vancouver (200205), this
article argues that it is necessary to recognize research participants as producers of context-
specific knowledge. Afghan women, a disenfranchised population, deploy particular strategies
to foreground two interrelated scriptsthe political economy of migration and resettlement and
the remaking of a worldthat help to bridge the analytical divide between the political econ-
omy and human agency. Within this blurred space, the women bring forth three themes that
speak to policy makers and stakeholders: social provision as entitlement, valorization of the
womens multiple identities, and transnational networks that contain but also go beyond the unit
of the nation-state. The article concludes by making a case for locally-informed policy and ser-
vice provision to effect progressive change.
Keywords: Afghan women; entitlement; human agency; political economy
n her seminal work, Number Our Days, Myerhoff (1978) showed how elderly American
Jews in California established a vibrant community, despite their social invisibility.
Freidenberg (2000) drew a parallel profile of Hispanic/Latino elderly persons in New York
City, who, socially excluded and marginalized in their country of settlement, remade their
worlds in the contexts of their everyday lives. The two ethnographies revealed the dynamics of
the political economy of migration and resettlement, as well as the remaking of the world. The
two approaches pose particular challenges. The political economy approach subsumes human
agency, but an exclusive focus on the multiple ways in which people remake and engage with
the world masks the workings of power (Das, 2003; Farmer, 1997; Scheper-Hughes, 1992).
The issue is to recognize research participants producing context specific knowledge of every-
day life and the language of the body (Das & Kleinman, 2001; Dossa, 2004). It is through these
mediums that the participants critique the system in their own terms and remake their worlds,
always in relation to the larger society. Research accountability requires researchers to dialogue
with policy makers and stakeholders who can effect progressive change in concert with spe-
cific populations. Toward this end, anthropologists have questioned how they should address
the issues of social justice and democratic citizenship as voiced by their research participants.
This focus does not preclude a delineation of the political economy perspective.
Affilia: Journal of Women
and Social Work
Volume 23 Number 1
February 2008 10-21
2008 Sage Publications
hosted at
Authors Note: The research on which this article was based was funded by the Social Science and Humanities
Council of Canada and Research on Immigration and Integration in the Metropolis, the Vancouver Center for the
Metropolis Project. The author thanks the participants in the study. She also acknowledges the important contri-
bution of Poran Poregbal, research assistant, who assisted in translating and transcribing the interviews, and Poran
and Ramzia, who accompanied the author to the womens homes. Special thanks go to Froozan Jooya and Gulalai
Habib for their useful insights.
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Dossa / Creating Politicized Spaces 11
Drawing on my research on Afghan women in metropolitan Vancouver, I discuss this
issue in relation to the political economy of migration and resettlement, on the one hand, and
human agency on the other. In this article, I first examine the politics of exclusion of Afghan
women, attributed to two moments of displacement: Afghanistan (there) and Canada (here).
Contrary to the common wisdom, I argue that the two moments are substantively intercon-
nected. Then, I discuss the womens take on the political economyhuman agency divide.
Although the women implicated the system for not meeting their basic needs, they also
remade their worlds in the context of everyday life. Critical to the study is the notion that the
social order is never a single structure of constraint or merely the source of unnecessary
forms of human suffering. Rather against the official politics of exclusion and indifference,
society is better conceived as sets of multiple potential sources of collective empowerment
and as multiple spaces of resistance (Chuengsatiansup, 2001, p. 35). In the conclusion, I
make a case for a bottom-up and locally-grounded policy with a focus on entitlements.
Ethnographic Setting
From 2002 to 2005, we (my research assistant/translator and I) conducted field research
among Afghan women in two low-income housing locations: Valley View in Burnaby, and
Meadows in Coquitlam, British Columbia (both fictitious names). Contacts were established
through service providers and a snowballing strategy. Of the 22 women and their families
who we visited, 8 were aged 60 or older, and the rest were aged 3559. The former group
had elementary or no formal education, and the latter included professionals (teachers, sec-
retaries, and paramedical workers) and homemakers. Of the 22 participants, 12 had come to
Canada as refugees, 8 as family-class immigrants, and 2 as landed immigrants. The latter
precedes full citizenship that follows after a person has lived in Canada for 3 years. All the
women migrated from a second country: Pakistan, India, Iran, Ukraine, or Russia. The
women had been in Canada from 1 to 13 years. They talked about their lives in Afghanistan,
migration to Canada from a second country, their everyday routines, their health status, the
provision of health and social services, and the story of my life. We gained valuable
insights through participant observation of celebrations, such as Navrooz (New Year),
Ramadan (fasting), the two annual Idd celebrations, attendance at a mosque, and visits to
ethnic stores. All the interviews were translated from Dari (the participants mother tongue)
and transcribed into English.
The Politics of Exclusion: Family Class and Immigration
It has been well noted that women (especially homemakers and those who are aged
50 and older) are disadvantaged by Canadian immigration policy. Their entry into Canada,
under the designation of family class, renders the women a dependent population. The pol-
icys emphasis on skilled workers creates two kinds of immigrants: deserving (because of
their economic contribution) and undeserving (McLaren & Black, 2005), compounded in the
case of women. Women are shortchanged on multiple fronts. First, they receive fewer ser-
vices, which are further reduced through the restructuring of the welfare state. Second, their
multiple contributions within their households and in fostering community life, including
diasporic networks, are dismissed as insignificant. Third, the states construction of these
women as dependents renders them vulnerable to familial exploitation.
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This scenario applies to refugee women. To begin with, the host countries tend to share
the premise that refugees are necessarily a problem. Not just ordinary people, they are con-
stituted, rather, as an anomaly requiring specialized correctives and therapeutic interventions
(Malkki, 1995, p. 8). This discourse translates into indifference and the societal neglect of
people who need social services the most to rebuild their lives.
As a country that signed the 1951 United Nations (UN) Convention and the 1967 UN
Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, Canada is obligated to accept a certain number
of refugees each year. However, this move is framed within a particular kind of discourse,
namely, that of the West as the savior of people, fleeing the chaos and violence in their own
countries. The West is implicated in the displacement of people through economic, political,
and military interventions, a part of the colonial legacy and of global capitalism (Jiwani,
2005; Razack, 2000; Thobani, 2003). Refugee applicants who spell out this reality jeopar-
dize their status (Razack, 1998). Masking this script of responsibility and accountability has
a major implication because refugees are then constructed as the problem. This state of
affairs explains the unusually large body of mental health literature on this population. In
reality, the system shortchanges refugees. It does not provide them with adequate services to
settle down and rebuild their lives. The restructuring of the welfare system has reduced social
provision to the bare minimum. This is indeed the case with Afghan refugees. The next sec-
tion addresses two interrelated questions: Who are the Afghan refugees, and what are the
conditions that displaced them en masse?
Afghanistan: A Wounded Country
Two moments stand out in the recent history of Afghanistan: the invasion by the former
Soviet Union (in 1979) and the invasion by the United States and its allies (in 2001). The
two events are interconnected. It was the Russian occupation of the country (197989) that
brought in the United States, a cold war entanglement. For more than a decade, both powers
provided arms and ammunition to different factions to the extent that when the Russians left
in 1989, Afghanistan was destroyed and its people incurred deep wounds, physically and
otherwise. The United States invasion of Afghanistan is attributed to its war on terror after
September 11, 2001. What is left unsaid is that the United States and the Soviet Union were
responsible for turning Afghanistan into an armed camp. The former supported Osama bin
Laden and had a hand in the rise of the Taliban, a regime that brutalized the country from
1995 to 2001 (Cooley, 1999; Goodson, 2001; Mamdani, 2004). Through the invasion of the
country, the United States sought to get rid of the monster that it had helped to create. In the
process, Afghanistan was destroyed, and its people were displaced en masse, a reality reit-
erated by all the research participants. The women told stories of pain and suffering that they
attributed to 25 years of war and violence.
In the words of 35-year-old Afsana: My mother got martyred, and my father, along
with my three brothers and two sisters and their kids, went to Pakistan. So I still lived in
Afghanistan until my husband got captured. Afsana feared that the Taliban would murder her
husband and force her to remarry. Without any agreement, with force they [the Taliban]
would take the women and divided their kids how they wanted. So we were scared that things
like that would happen to our family. So we fled. We left our house and everything we had.
We just left.
Afsanas words were echoed by other women, who talked about bombs and the killing of
people during the times of the Mujaheedin (anti-Soviet fighters) and the Talibanboth
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Dossa / Creating Politicized Spaces 13
groups received arms and ammunition from the superpowers. Mina left Afghanistan because
the Mujaheedin tried to abduct her daughter. She told how their homes were bombed. Three
or four times we had bombs in our house. . . . For a minute, all our houses were shaking.
Mirrors got broken, and shattered glass came like rain on our heads.
The women in our study not only told a collective story (testimonial) on the destruction of
Afghanistan, they assumed the stance of wounded storytellers to make a connection between
there (Afghanistan) and here (Canada). It should be noted that this connection is barely
recognized because the West has and continues to assume a superior position. The hierarchy
is pronounced. The West considers itself to be the liberator of the oppressed Afghan people,
especially women. How the women told their stories to establish this connection at a partic-
ular moment in time is discussed in the following section.
The Wounded Storytellers
Older and some younger women listed their health status as not well. High cholesterol
and blood pressure were common symptoms. Other women talked about pain in particular
parts of their bodies. A number of women (14 out of 22) were depressed, a condition that they
expressed as anxiety, sadness, parishan (worry), and unhappiness. Yet, they received poor-
quality health care. Translators were not available during their visits to physicians. As one
woman said, When we go to the doctor, we tell him pain here, pain there, and he gives us
pills. A second woman noted that the medication she received for her depression was not
effective and was outdated; what was available in the pharmaceutical industry was expensive
and not covered by her medical plan. A third woman stated that sometimes her physician felt
sorry for her and he gave her pharmaceutical samples. It must be noted that many of the women
were actively engaged in self-care, such as walking, using home remedies, and praying.
The women had a good understanding of the social origins of their ill health (Dossa,
2005). But they did not convey this message textually; rather, they took on the stance of
wounded storytellers, an effective and powerful way to ensure their message is understood.
Stories that emanate from wounds have a collective ethos. They are testimonials that both
implicate and seek to evoke a moral response. Consider the following excerpts:
Our life was spent there in Afghanistan. Our daughters grew up there. They were small. Then
gradually we moved out of Afghanistan due to war. We fled. It was war, you know. War. We
had life. We had our house. We had relatives close to us. Then we fled with one son and three
daughters. We left when the killing started.
I have high blood sugar. Illnesses unknown to me. I got the high blood sugar in India
cholesterol, dizziness. Everything turns around in my head.
So it is all mental anxiety. I am upset. I am sad. The doctors say it is nothing. All the mental
anxiety from back home in Afghanistan.
We had so much happiness, family life. So many parties, nice clothes. Everything we had.
Then this revolution and war came. Everything was destroyed. Ruined. Now I am here, and
nothing is here. Nothing is left. Only far from everyone. Just being lonely [bitter laugh]. Crying
tears and only tears.
The rockets came to the houses, just came. We did not know where to go. People died. People
were buried under the ground. We had to pull them out. Pull them out. Pull out the hurt. It was
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one room, one kitchen there. We had to hide. God knows how we got there [in one house]. We
hid behind walls, behind things. It was burr, burr, burrrrrrrr. Only sound overhead. We cried. It
hit, hit, and hit.
In her work on violence, suffering, and human rights, Hastrup (2003), an anthropologist,
observed that one must ensure that the human experience of suffering and violence is not
confined to legal language. Otherwise, one risks erasing peoples lived realities. Hastrup
maintained that violence is always a social fact, which can be apprehended through inter-
subjectivity and dialogue (p. 309). In the foregoing excerpts, one can see that the women
undertook the task of ensuring that their experiential reality will not be appropriated and
what they have to say will be taken seriously. The women used the metaphor of the house
to bring home the reality of their lives before and after the war. They talked about having a
house (shelter) in which social interactions took place and their everyday lives unfolded,
embedded in family life, careers, and celebrations. The physical and the social destruction
of their homesmentioned by the majority of the womenamounted to the annihilation
of their everyday lives as they had known them and lived for generations. An account of
war and the destruction of Afghanistan and its people are reflected in all the narratives. The
women also conveyed the message that their suffering has not abated in their new home-
land in Canada. It is at this level that they sought to establish a politicized link between the
two countries: here and there.
Sixty-three-year old Roshan, for example, stated that she was unhappy that her son and
her widowed daughter, Meena, had not found work in Canada. She recognized that the fam-
ily had not been in Canada for more than two years. Her concern was that the job prospects
for her children were dim because her children did not have much opportunity to learn
English (2.5 hours of English as a second language every day) and were not registered in a
vocational program. Her first words to us were these: Will they give a job to my son?
Will they give a job to my daughter?
The family had lived in Ukraine for four years as undocumented residents; family mem-
bers were accepted into Canada as genuine refugees. They received governmental assis-
tance in Canada for one year. The family is currently on social assistance that they receive
upon the production of documentation. As Roshan noted, They give us papers, and we
ask for a job. We have to go on the streets. Ask the stores to give us a job. They sign a paper
that we asked. When we take this paper to welfare, then we get money. Furthermore, the
family has been asked to pay back the money that the government lent them to purchase their
air tickets to Canada.
Roshans concern is that without jobs, her son and daughter are depressed. My son is sick.
My daughter is sick. What to do? I do not know. Referring to her daughter, she noted: She
has no husband, no kids. She is sick. Night to morning. She is awake. She has no sleep. Pain
in her legs. No sleep in her eyes. Myself, too. We sleep in the same room. She has no kids, no
husband, no life. Nothing. Only pain and suffering. Rehanas husband was killed by a bomb
in Afghanistan. Khatoun, the daughter-in-law, related: My husband is sick. He does not talk.
He is sad. There is no work. No jobs for him. He has headaches. Doctor says depression.
Roshan has an additional worry. Her 7-year-old granddaughter was hurt while in
Afghanistan. In Khatouns words: My daughter was hit by rockets and bombs. Her feet are
gone. Half is gone. She gave a physical demonstration of how one walks with the heels. She
repeated: The front part of the feet are gone. She walks with the heels. I put many socks on
top of each other. Socks, socks to make it thicker. In response to our question on whether
her daughter has received any help, Khatoun stated: When we came, they made her boots,
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special boots. She needs a wheelchair. Immigration has not approved it. We have no money.
They said school is two blocks. She can walk. She has pain. My husband carries her.
It is her children and granddaughters condition that has caused Roshan to be sick. Roshan
stated that she has a lot of anxiety (pareshani), stress, and sadness. I know people who talk
and cry. Their stomachs get cold. I have cried a lot. My eyes are bad now because of crying.
She continued: I cry a lot. My eyes are damaged.
Fifty-five-year old Nargis, a war widow, lives by herself in a one-bedroom apartment.
She, too, feels unsettled. She has one son in Germany and several siblings scattered in var-
ious countries because of violence in her home country. As she stated,
Mostly I think of my son who is away from me, far away. Why did this all happen? If the situa-
tion in Afghanistan did not occur, we would not have separated like this. One here, one there. One
sister in Afghanistan. One sister in Pakistan. One somewhere else. One brother in Afghanistan.
This all makes me suffer. I have a sister. She was like my daughter when she was little.
Other women talked about the suffering of their families in Afghanistan (over there) and
in Canada (over here). Each woman had a story to tell. One woman related that her greatest
regret is that she married off her 14-year-old daughter, otherwise the Taliban would have
taken her. She wanted to sponsor her to come to Canada, but had no income to do so. Another
woman stated that she was worried about her sick daughter in Pakistan, but she had no money
to send her for treatment. Still another woman talked about her separation from her husband;
he is in India and is unable to join her because the immigration office has been holding the
documentation for four years, even though his file is complete. The family stories speak to the
larger issue of the destruction of Afghanistan and its aftermath. As one woman put it,
My husband was killed. My kids would have been killed as well. There was nothing left. My
kids had gone to school, and they also bombed the schools. So if my kids had gotten hurt or
killed, I would never have forgiven myself. But I did work hard. I had the strength and the
money to get out of there, to India. There we had no work permit. There were no jobs either.
We had a problem. Our relatives in America helped us. If I did not have them, I could not have
managed my life. Many people did not have that help.
The women embody the scars and wounds that tell a larger story. To recognize the body
in speech, two approaches have been put forward. With regard to the first approach,
Kleinman (1988) suggested that the body speaks through the symptoms of illness. These
symptoms contain two messages: the embodiment of pain and suffering and transformative
possibilities, also referred to as bodily praxis (Lock & Kaufert, 1998). Franks (1995) work
exemplifies the second approach. Bodies are communicative by nature and hence use stories
to convey critical messages to the world. Rather than being individual acts of narration, the
stories, Frank noted, contain narrative truths that are suppressed by the dominant language.
Stories then make it possible for sufferers to act as witnesses to their trauma, inviting audi-
ences to reciprocate by becoming witnesses in turn. This is what gives the stories their power.
As Frank expressed it, What makes an illness story good is the act of witnessing that says,
implicitly or explicitly, I will tell you not what you want to hear but what I know to be true
because I have lived it (p. 63). For Frank, reclaiming a voice begins with the body.
Several features may be identified in the story that emanate from the body. First, the story
ensures that the self is not constructed exclusively as the victim. Second, it brings home the
reality of suffering to render it socially visible. Third, it tells a collective story. These aspects
call for one to read the language of the body.
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16 Affilia: Journal of Women and Social Work
We cannot live other peoples pain and suffering (Das 2003; see also Kleinman, Lock, &
Das, 1997). But we can listen. Using a family lens, the women in our study made a sub-
stantive connection between their lives in Afghanistan and their lives in Canada. Although
they expressed relief that they are not subject to the bombing and violence that they experi-
enced in their home country, their suffering has not abated in Canada. They expressed con-
cerns of isolation and alienation from their environment. We questioned an older woman on
what life would have been like for her in war-free Afghanistan. She responded: I would be
visiting other people during weddings (huge affairs) [and] birth ceremonies and paying my
condolences during death. I would be with my children and family [extended]. I would be
visiting neighbors. I would be going to the stores. In comparison, she described her life in
Canada as being mostly at home. I wait for the grandchildren to come home from school.
Our listening must take into account two salient points. First, here and there must not
be discursively constructed as separate. Otherwise, we will perpetuate the Orientalist dis-
course in which the West positions itself as the savior of the Other. Recall that the West is
implicated in the destruction of Afghanistan. Logically, then, we are responsible for Afghans
who have sought refugee and landed immigrant status in Canada. This point needs to be
emphasized, because this connection is not recognized. A poignant reminder of interconnect-
edness came from the women themselves. As one woman expressed it: When our children
were growing up, there was not a single day when they did not hear bombs and rockets.
Consider the situation in Canada. A second woman related that she does not take her children
to the malls because they want to buy things like other children in their school. I do not have
the money. I have to keep them home. I do not have the money to take them to a movie. You
need money to go out. The bottom line is that the children are confined in both settings.
The women did not talk only about the destruction of Afghanistan, which left them with
wounded bodies here and there. They relayed how they are remaking their worlds in
the context of everyday life.
Remaking Their Worlds
Everyday Life
Everyday life is of interest because it problematizes what is considered normal prac-
tices. The study of everyday life tells us about the society in which we live. It is the every-
day scenarios, such as a child not being able to play outside the house or an older woman
who is confined to the house that should make us question the socially constructed nature of
our norms and practices. It is also in the realm of everyday life that seeds of change are
planted. I draw on the narrative data to explore the latter aspect, but do not overlook struc-
tural factors that are embedded in particular contexts (Dyck & Dossa, 2007).
It was 2:00 p.m. when we arrived at the home of Jamila, a 63-year-old widow. Having vis-
ited several families in the Meadows, it did not take us long to find the place. Jamila welcomed
us and directed us to sit on the sofa, covered with a handwoven Afghan throw cover. This cover
was one way in which families covered up the secondhand furniture from the welfare depart-
ment. The throw cover provided an Afghan decor to the house, along with Afghan rugs placed
on the worn-out living room carpet. Mixed nuts and raisins were placed on the table, a tradi-
tion to welcome guests. Jamila referred to us as guests, not as researchers, a shift that
reframes the power dynamics in field research. It is through such a reciprocal relationship
however momentary it may bethat research participants create a space to tell their stories in
their terms.
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We were struck by the way in which Jamila, along with her daughter-in-law, Shenaz, had
created a homey atmosphere. This aspect needs to be mentioned because this family of six
(Jamilas son and daughter-in-law and their three children) live in a two-bedroom apartment.
The family is cramped. The toys were piled neatly in the closet and on the windowsills, the
kitchen was small, and there was barely any space for the dining room. Bags of onions and
rice were placed tidily under the dining table. Yet, this was an Afghan-Canadian home,
revealed by the fact that beside the Afghan wall hangings, there were Christmas lights,
because this was the holiday season. The childrens toys were from local stores. Shenaz wore
Canadian clothes (slacks and a top). Jamila wore a long dress and covered her hair with a
loose scarf (a modified Afghan outfit).
Canadian and Afghan activities and items were woven into each other or juxtaposed.
Canadian as well as Afghan/ethnic programs, such as Bollywood, were viewed on televi-
sion. Items bought from local superstores, such as beans and dried coconut, were used to pre-
pare Afghan foods. Likewise, Afghan recipe and food items were used to make Canadian
popular foods like beef sausage and pizza (with halalritually cleanmeat). In their every-
day lives, the women endeavored to create a space where they could claim an Afghan-
Canadian identity, however fragmented and uneven it may be. In the following sections, I
discuss three everyday activities: food, prayers, and transnational networking.
Food. All the families consumed Afghan food. This is not unusual. What is of interest is
the modification of food from back home. Multiple strategies were at work. Afghan food was
bought at both superstores and ethnic stores, especially Iranian and Indian. Notably absent
were a sizable number of Afghan stores, an indication of a displaced and relatively young
community. Older women accompanied family members on food-shopping trips. These trips
constituted outings, a form of recreation that they looked forward to, because they are oth-
erwise confined at home.
The women did not merely tag along with their families. They played an active role in
looking for authentic foods that evoked a nostalgic gastronomy of their homeland. I was
struck by the womens culinary knowledge of the food items displayed on the shelves. But
the women were painfully aware that these items did not come from Afghanistan, once a self-
sufficient country. Furthermore, they could not always afford to buy what they needed.
Mankekar (2005, p. 210) noted that homeland stores invoke and produce powerful dis-
courses of home, family, and communityall of which are contested, and all of which are
gendered in important ways. The women both relished and bemoaned the culinary memory
of their homeland. Although Afghan food brought back vivid images of the good times, which
the women equated with familial celebrations, the women also knew that those days were
over and that it was time for a new beginning.
With the exception of those who were not feeling well, the older women cooked either an
entire meal or part of the meal, assisted by the other women in the house. The women had
modified their foods (less salt and less fat) in keeping with the advice they had received from
their physicians. More important, they were particularly skilled in preparing certain Afghan
dishes and had knowledge of healing foods, especially for minor ailments, such as colds and
stomach pain.
Food preparation is an everyday activity, consuming time on a varying scale. It is also a
social activity. Yet, it has not received substantive research attention on a par with other sub-
jects of inquiry. Emerging work in the area reveals symbolic, social, and political dimen-
sions. Of interest to our study is the role of the Afghan women. To begin with, the topic of
food was engaging and meaningful to them. Through food, the women evoked memories of
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their native land and of the time when families got together and participated in festivities.
They did not talk about days gone by in a nostalgic way. One woman related how she was
pulled out of school at age 14 because her father wanted her to learn how to cook in prepa-
ration for marriage to her cousin. Another woman talked about having to cook for 12 people
for her in-laws extended family at age 16. Other women took pride on their culinary skills.
In their homeland in Canada, the women are confronted with challenges. They told how
they have to improvise cooking (use beans instead of meat) owing to financial constraints.
Some women lamented that they could not get herbs from Afghanistan. As one woman put
it: The soil where we grew herbs has landmines. There was also the issue of their grand-
children wanting to eat popular Canadian foods. To accommodate the grandchildrens taste,
the women made hamburgers and beef sausages from halal meat.
On the basis of the foregoing observations, gleaned from the interview data and participant
observation, I would like to make several points. First, through food, the women negotiated two
realms: life as they had known it and their new life in Canada. Their visits to the shops, need
to eat healthily, financial constraints, and awareness of cooking Canadian foods for their chil-
dren and grandchildren kept them occupied in no small way. Second, the women had become
skilled in looking for bargains. Once, as I was purchasing walnuts from an Iranian store, Fatima
(a research participant) suggested that I buy the loose walnuts in a bucket in the corner of the
store because they were much cheaper than the ones on the shelf. Third, their experiential
knowledge of Afghan cuisine and herbal medicine (although not put into full use) were valued,
especially in a situation in which the families are scattered and on the move. Fourth, many of
the women told food stories. One woman stated that when her husband was imprisoned in
Afghanistan, she decided to do nazr, feeding the poor for seven days. Another woman related
how her 12-year-old son was picked up by the army while visiting a grocery store to purchase
a food item that she needed for a dish. Still another woman stated that her neighbors were hav-
ing a meal when their house was bombed. What we saw was rice and bowls beside bodies.
Fifth, food lends poignancy to the recall of events. Given its polygon nature (including sensual
and visual aspects), it has the potential to soften the harsh reality of life. As one woman put it,
Even if we get dry bread, I am going to be grateful. I have gone through so much pain that
I can make something of this dry bread. Dry bread refers to the bare minimum. Her comments
are reminiscent of womens efforts to use affordable ingredients and cook Afghan food and
Canadian food, according to their particular circumstances.
A salient theme in these stories concerns womens agency, which is exercised in relation
to particular contexts that are at once political and social. These stories grounding in the
everyday culinary scenario makes them compelling because we can all relate to food, shop-
ping, preparation, and consumption.
Prayers. The women stated that they prayed three to five times a day. They also read
Quran-i-Sheriff. At one level, this observance suggests personal and therapeutic time. The
women talked about gaining solace and comfort from prayers. At another level, we need to
be attentive to social and political dimensions. Some women used prayer time to withdraw
into a room, away from the noise in their cramped two- or one-bedroom apartments. A
younger woman explained: When my mother-in-law goes into the other room [shared], no
one disturbs her, and we always make sure that the TV volume is low. How the women used
prayers to withdraw from situations was revealed during the interview process. One woman
excused herself in the midst of an interview on the grounds that it was time for her to pray.
She did not leave us alone, because her daughter-in-law was present. We got the cue: This
was her cut-off point from the interview.
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Dossa / Creating Politicized Spaces 19
Reading or reciting verses of the Quran was satisfying, especially for the older women.
Because the women were not fluent in the English language, this was one area where they
could claim expertise and feel totally at home. Two aspects are noteworthy. The women
related verses in relation to particular situations. They recounted how they instill values in
the children by quoting Quranic verses. One woman put it this way: The children do not
always respond right away, but they will remember the verses. How can they not? The verses
are so beautiful. Particular areas that the women identified included respect for the elderly
and guests, kindness and care for others, honesty, and being a good Afghan-Canadian.
The women did not talk in abstract terms. They cited verses in relation to context-specific
situations. A younger woman summed up the association between the bodies of older
women and prayers. Even if they do not say much, the fact that they pray matters to the
family. Their presence brings barak [grace and the blessings of Allah] to our homes. The
older women tended to pray more to fill in the time because they were often at home for long
periods. Prayer is an activity that the women found meaningful. As one woman put it, I can-
not watch TV the whole day. I pray a lot. This way I pass my time. You remember Allah, and
He will take care of you.
Transnational kin networks. The social landscape of Afghan women in Canada is thin.
The women did not report knowing too many people outside their immediate families. They
knew the Afghan families in their apartment buildings. They exchanged greetings and talked
a bit when in the elevator or in the nearby park. If they made friends, they did so only with a
couple of families. Their interactions with non-Afghans were minimal or nonexistent. Some
women reported being approached by Jehovahs Witnesses who must have noticed their iso-
lation. Ironically, the family physician was mentioned as one person whom the women saw a
couple of times a week or a month. However, the women interacted actively with relatives in
other parts of the world. Most of the women used phone cards and talked with their kin one
or more times a week. Some women used e-mail assisted by children when the women were
not fluent in English. This was their medium of communication because the women do not
have access to computers that include dari (their native language). The womens conversa-
tions included such topics as life in the country of settlement, problems and issues in settling
down, health, child rearing, and news from Afghanistan. The women also shared information
on events and developments within their extended transnational families. They are the repos-
itories of familial knowledge. Stories of growing up, including life-cycle events, are of inter-
est to younger family members who want to know about life back home.
All the women made reference to their transnational networks, either in passing or through
a particular incident, such as the birth of a baby in Germany or the death of a relative in
Pakistan. The struggles and accomplishments of family members abroad were featured in
their conversations. Some women talked about families moving forward through the educa-
tion of their children or through entrepreneurial activities. Others talked about family mem-
bers whom they had not seen for many years. The women did not forget that the dispersal of
their families occurred through war and violence in their country of origin. The importance
of family was brought home by 55-year-old Soraya: We had family. We had a father, mother,
and relatives. We had a social life. People came and left [regular visiting]. We were happy.
Now we have nothing.
Soraya yearned to see her son in Sweden and her parents in Afghanistan. Her husbands
siblings are in Pakistan. Her social landscape encompasses these countries and constitutes
part of her life in Canada. She said: Home is where family is. She and the other women,
then, live lives that go beyond the unit of a nation-state. Their imagined community is global.
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People live within, outside, and in between nation-states. For Afghans, this state of affairs
was brought about by war and violence in their countrycircumstances they did not create.
Policy Implications and Social Provision
The political economy profile of the women in our study is not unlike the one portrayed
in the literature on other young and aging immigrant and refugee women in North America
(Khan, 2002; McLaren & Black, 2005; Morioka-Douglas, Sacks, & Yeo, 2004; Salari 2001).
Canadian immigration policy renders women, especially homemakers, dependent because
they entered the country under the family-class category. This socially-ascribed dependence
translates into the lack of services, because these women then are not able to access services
on the same scale as their mainstream counterparts (Morioka-Douglas et al., 2004, Salari,
2001). The insensitive institutional response has resulted in the social invisibility of both
younger and older women. The womens residence in the low-income housing complexes,
the sites of our study, revealed an ironic situation. The women lived near a malla place of
consumption and socialitybut the products sold were beyond their reach. Their social
interactions were also limited; the language barrier and racism are salient in this regard. The
women did not talk directly about racism. One woman stated that she would not like to crit-
icize the country that has given her asylum. But the women were aware of institutional indif-
ference or racism that made its way into their everyday lives. Some representative comments
were these: When we go to the welfare office, we notice how the workers give more atten-
tion to the white people. They actually talk to them. They make us wait just because we are
not like them. They dont even tell us what services are available. When we go to the
mall, people do not talk to us. We know some English. They could say Salaam [greeting].
The women are by no means passive. Their everyday lives, the site of resilience and
agency, can inform policy and service provision in ways that have not been explored in a
substantive way. At issue is narrowing the hiatus between macrostructure policy directives
and the micro-organization of daily life within a neighborhood (Freidenberg, 2000, p. 272).
Suggesting local-level policy thinking in the policy process, Freidenberg called on policy
makers and service providers to take the actual environments of service users into account.
Only then can programs be implemented that are meaningful and effective.
The Afghan women in our study suggested two salient issues. First, there is a politicized
connection between the West and the developing world. Spelling out this unrecognized
script would amount to acknowledging the role of the Western worldthe United States
and its alliesin the uprooting of the Afghan people. Policy and social provision would
then have to adopt the discourse and practice of entitlement as opposed to that of social bur-
den. Second, the women bring home the domain of everyday lifea significant site for
rebuilding lives. Through food practices, observance of prayers, and fostering transnational
kinship networks, they reveal that the home, integral to everyday living, is not a discrete
and isolated unit. It is an open space that extends into the larger local and transnational are-
nas. This is one way in which women cope with their social isolation in Canada. For the
delivery of effective and meaningful services, policy discourse needs to be grounded in the
lived everyday realities of people. The starting point must always be the voices and con-
text-specific knowledge of disenfranchised people, indeed an important avenue for effect-
ing progressive change.
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Parin Dossa, PhD, is a professor in the Department of Sociology/Anthropology, Simon Fraser University,
AQ5060, 8888 University Avenue, Burnaby, BC V5A 1S6, Canada; e-mail: pdossa@sfu.ca.
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