What does it mean to be an exiled lesbian? Exile is usually seen as expulsion from one’s country for political reasons. To me, however, it is more complicated than that.
Since citizenship is based on the relationship between the State and the individual who is essentially seen as a man in male-chauvinistic societies, a female lesbian is never perceived as a full citizen in her country. Hence, physical exile turns the lesbian from being less than half a citizen in her familiar milieu to becoming stigmatized as a “refugee” or a non-citizen, stripped of self-esteem and worth in the world. The question raised by Hannah Ardent was: how can the displaced realize dignity and human belonging in tangible political terms in a world where rights and liberties are attached to citizenship? And my question is: how can an exiled lesbian become a citizen anywhere?
Many years ago, I was a University professor in Syria, defending my personal rights and freedom of expression. I had to be interrogated about my motives behind teaching Sylvia Plath and lesbian poems in my course on American Poetry. I was subjected to a ‘tight siege’ that included several disciplinary practices, discriminatory restrictions on my freedom of movement and costly, material punitive measures. So, I ended up becoming a refugee in my home. Writing was my only means of salvation, existence and resistance.
In a hetero-sexist system that treats every single girl as a potential heterosexual woman, self-assertion becomes an exhausting journey that has no foreseen destination. When I was still a University student, a classmate shouted at me angrily, “Why don’t you get married?” I proudly said, “I am a lesbian.” He responded, “So what? You can marry a man.” Such a disturbing argument used to be repeated in different ways with various members of the society. The more I openly asserted my lesbian identity, the more I was denied and persecuted.
Though I was an outlaw to the system and an outcast to society, I somehow liked my solitary life in my flat. I did my best to enjoy my self-exile, but I couldn’t escape harassment and intimidation. I was the only resident in my building, but I was never left alone without surveillance. After I painted the front door of the building blue, a new neighbor emerged to re-paint it in a brown color. He never lived in the building; he simply forced his point and vanished afterwards. I had no freedom to make any change in my surroundings, even when it came to choosing the color of my door.
Despite annoyances, I didn’t wish to leave my home. Perhaps I got used to my difficult situations in it, so I found it safer to stay in the insecurity of the known than to move to the insecurity of the unknown. I couldn’t see my position in the world till I was stuck abroad unable to go back home and unable to build a new home somewhere else. I left my country on the assumption that I will soon return to my self-exile in it. I had to travel to many cities and in each country, I had to confront new ways of looking and new systems of control. Coming out of my internal exile in my country to an external exile in other countries, I somehow became more free to move in a bigger box, but I also became more dis-empowered and marginalized without citizenship rights.
The relationship between the exiled person and one’s country and the host country is complex. Exile is not only a bodily consuming experience; it is a mind-draining one. Starting anew anywhere and leaving the memories of the past behind is almost impossible. One has to establish a support system which usually takes a lifetime. Besides, the relationship between the exiled and any new system is like the relationship between the guest, and the host or the owner of the house. There will always be a sense of insecurity, instability and subordination on the part of the displaced guest, and a sort of superiority, suspicion, caution and expectation of gratitude for the philanthropic hospitality on the part of the host. It takes a lot of courage, intelligence and self-esteem on the part of the displaced guest to liberate the self from the hegemony of the host.
In organizations that promote the rights of the exiled LGBT groups, lesbians tend to be invisible. When I was a Post-doctoral researcher in The Netherlands, I noticed that many displaced gay men had not enough respect for lesbians, and they shared the same chauvinistic attitudes of many heterosexual men. Most organizations focused on Gay Parade and on holding the rainbow flags as a sign of gay liberation, disregarding the fact that most exiled groups rarely understood its meaning. Despite the importance of the Gay Day, it does not provide the most vulnerable groups with the power to create their own tools of existence and their means of resistance. What a displaced lesbian needs is to make everyday in life a Pride Day.
Though most EU laws support LGBT rights, European societies are still conservative and conventional in their attitudes towards gays and lesbians. Even in gay-friendly countries, a lesbian can face denial. My interpretation of the Swedish poet Karin Boye as being lesbian was firmly rejected by some Swedish men who strongly believed that “there are no lesbians,” disregarding my clear and loud assertion of my lesbian identity. Nevertheless, my presence was unseen and my voice was unheard.
In my childhood, I told my parents, “When I grow up, I want to marry a woman.” My father laughed and my mother said, “Live your life as you wish.” I knew then that my homeland is in a woman’s heart and in the zones of the female body, not within the borders of a particular land. Deep down, I hear the echo of my mother’s cherished saying, “East or West, home is best.” But, when homes and countries are turned into prisons and borders, it becomes harder for an exiled free soul to belong anywhere.
More than half a century ago, Virginia Woolf wrote, “As a woman I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world.” I can now add: “As a lesbian, my country is nowhere in a controlled and prejudiced world, but elsewhere in a free and tolerant world.”
This post originally appeared in Expressen.
Iman Al-Ghafari is a poet, doctor of literature and refugee author in Sigtuna.