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Listening to women’s stories: the ambivalent role of feminist research in Central Asia

Scholars look to feminist research methods to make their field work more equal. But how does radical research work out in Central Asia, where feminism is not the only language for analysing women’s lives?

Davlatbegim Mamadshoeva
9 October 2019
Welcome to our new series on how academic research is conducted in Central Asia
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Illustration: Tatyana Zelenskaya

The politics of knowledge production in Central Asia has been a significant topic of discussion both in academia and beyond in recent years. Researchers have discussed the hierarchies functional to this process, issues of safety, academic freedom, engagement with authoritarian states, as well as knowledge transfer. A feminist perspective on the research process has been missing in this conversation.

As an MA student developing a feminist study about the meanings and practices of sexuality among young women in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, I was aware of the sensitivity of my research topic amid the country’s “retraditionalisation” of gender roles. In particular, I was concerned about repercussions for my potential participants and the ethical side of the project. Would anyone feel comfortable to talk to me about this subject? What would be the best way to provide safety and anonymity for my participants? Who else could benefit from my research or am I merely objectifying young women for my own career advancement? Would I be able to create conditions of fairness and reciprocity beyond the researcher-interviewee relationship?

Feminist scholarship suggests ways to fulfil those principles of equality and cooperation during fieldwork. In this piece, I discuss how certain feminist contributions influenced my research on sexuality in Tajikistan. Using examples from interviews I conducted, I argue that, while feminist scholarship can offer useful analytical and methodological tools to research women’s lifeworlds on more equal terms, it also faces challenges that may derail such objectives.

Historically, feminist scholarship has been a “source of epistemic rupture” in mainstream social sciences, as it changed the ways gender and the social world are understood. Despite the many different feminist voices, some scholars claim that there are at least two aspects defining feminist research. First, all feminists agree on the importance of using “gender” as a category central to the organisation of all societies. Second, their research makes a commitment to be politically transformative through progressive social change. Feminist scholars have been primarily involved in bringing visibility to women and other marginalised social categories by “documenting their lives, experiences and concerns”.

To change the extractive and objectifying nature of academic research, the majority of feminist scholars attempt to make their relations with the participants more trusting, mutually beneficial and equal

This has profound methodological implications. Feminist scholarship is very sensitive to issues of how power inequalities shape the process of knowledge production through existing research methods. In order to change the extractive and objectifying nature of academic research, the majority of feminist scholars attempt to make their relations with the participants more trusting, mutually beneficial and equal, thus rejecting the position of an “objective researcher” and giving primacy to the participants in meaning-making.

A study on motherhood conducted in 1981 by British feminist scholar and sociologist Ann Oakley is one of the early examples of this kind of practice. In a seminal article, Oakley reflects on the gap between interview guidelines and her own experience. In particular, she expresses her dissatisfaction at how such traits as neutrality and detachment, which are frequently attributed to “men” were encouraged in interview settings. As her respondents sought a mutual exchange during their conversations, Oakley argues that being detached and neutral would not only be rude, but also “morally indefensible”.

Instead, to overcome the distance created by their different positionalities in the research - Oakley as researcher, her informants as interviewees - she pursues an approach that is based on developing close and reciprocal relations with them, which eventually evolved into friendships.

Although I am very cautious of dangers that “friendship-like” fieldwork entails, Oakley’s experience of mutually empathetic interaction strongly resonates with my own research. My informants frequently asked me for opinions on a range of issues, indirectly prompting me to break the alleged golden rule of a good interview, namely “keep your eyes and ears open, but mouth shut”.

I was aware that breaking this “rule” might lead to my increased authority. Nevertheless, I carefully shared my thoughts with my informants, frequently emphasising my desire to learn from our interaction.

It was my first interview that left me no choice but to do so.

Feminism, intimacy and power dynamics during fieldwork in Tajikistan

During an interview, an informant told me how she was raped by one of her ex-boyfriend’s relatives, adding that “well, maybe, this was indeed my fault. I mean, I knew he was no good and I should have expected that whoever is related to him would be even worse.” This came as a surprise. From the beginning, the woman sounded very confident that this incident was not her fault. Knowing how prevalent and problematic victim-blaming rhetoric is, I could hardly “keep my mouth shut” (the “golden rule”), and wait for her to finish. Instead, I told her I disagreed with her, choosing my words as carefully as I could, given the sensitivity of the situation.

My informant confessed it was difficult for her to remember she was not guilty because she had been directly and indirectly blamed by others. This is when I became even more convinced that she would interpret my silence as complicity with violent narratives that blame victims and increase their suffering. In other words, keeping silent would be “ethically indefensible”. In this case, my feminist conceptual and methodological tools made me aware of the nuances of victim blaming in public discussions of rape, helping me to take my informant’s concerns seriously and, importantly, express my empathy and support. And yet, it also created unexpected tension in other interviews.

For example, as I listened to the final informant in my study, I could not help but notice an overwhelming amount of sexist stereotypes in her narrative, as well as justifications of deep gender and class inequalities. Later, she also mentioned that strong hatred towards her body prevented her from enjoying her sexuality. Learning more about this, I could see how sensitive this information was. I felt vulnerable, too: it was a moment of increased intimacy and I was not sure if I should comment on what I interpreted as the internalisation of harmful gendered discourses about “proper bodies”. I eventually did make a comment. This was followed by a long pause, after which my informant said:

“Listen, I am not really a feminist and I do not really support all these things… I think all this feminism is already too much…”

Suddenly, the intimacy was lost and I felt how quickly my informant was labelling me as “yet another Western feminist’” in her head. The rest of the interview went fast, the young woman seemed more distant, sometimes articulating in even clearer ways how she does not identify with feminist politics. To me, this sounded even more hurtful as the more I learnt about her, the more I became convinced that a feminist lens would definitely shed useful light on her own life.

Not only do feminist scholars happen to be embedded within relations of power, but they also desire power over political representation

This interview epitomised the power dynamics in the fieldwork-interview setting. I found myself questioning whether the participant’s interpretations were “the most valid” not only for my own future analysis, but also for herself. My naive feminist ambition to give voice to the oppressed was being challenged by many unsettling questions: did I want to hear only feminist voices? Did I misconstrue any narrative of women’s agency within the frames of “feminism”?

Such reflections are not new. In her groundbreaking book on the women’s piety movement in Egypt, Saba Mahmood writes about the tension within feminism due to it being both an analytical framework and a politically prescriptive project. “Feminism is not only offering scholars elaborate conceptual and methodological perspectives to grasp the lifeworlds of women but also suggests ways of changing the situation of those who are oppressed,” she claims. As a result, certain conceptions of “emancipation” and “freedom” are taken for granted in the scholarship on gender and sexuality.

In the context of the young states of Central Asia, where feminism is frequently seen as a “foreign threat to the national culture”, I was always convinced of the need to defend the legitimacy of local feminist sensibilities that are deeply sedimented, lived and embodied by those in the region who claim them. So, the integration of emancipatory concepts in my research was natural in my research projects, but unfortunately it deprived me of the ability to understand other historically situated desires, to take my research informants seriously on their own terms, and to approach alternative ways of being with humility.

These tensions, and the questions they generate, point to the larger issue at the centre of anthropological debates, namely the representation of research participants in scientific writing. Interpreting their lives within the researcher’s own subjective frames, which might differ from the participants, involves enormous responsibility on the part of the researcher. However, it also involves the prior acknowledgement that not only do feminist scholars happen to be embedded within relations of power, but they also desire power over political representation. This recognition will, surely, push discussions about feminism and knowledge production to new perspectives.

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