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When your field is also your home: introducing feminist subjectivities in Central Asia

What happens when the “field” is your home, your battlefield and your livelihood? This new series examines the experience of Central Asian scholars in the global knowledge economy.

Diana T. Kudaibergenova
7 October 2019
A new series on how academic research is conducted in Central Asia
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Illustration: Tatyana Zelenskaya

What are the realities of research, teaching and political engagement around issues of sexuality, gender and body in Central Asia? How do we work, live and dream in this region?

These are questions that we, female scholars living in and working on Central Asia, are addressing in a discussion which spans our research, activism, public engagement and teaching. The articles presented here - and released every day this week - are designed to spark a debate between local feminist scholars and others interested in Central Asia about how we create knowledge about this region.

The authors are Central Asian women - scholars, activists, artists and academics - who want to examine the structural and institutional challenges we experience by living in and being from this region in an age of unemployment, funding cuts, political backlash and extractive data collection practices. The series was born out of an “Intervention” session at the Central Eurasian Studies Society (CESS) annual conference in October 2018.

Here, Central Asian feminist writer Gulya Maksat questioned the different structures of power which often frame research “subjects”. The latter often happen to be local activists and people for whom the “field” is home, rather than a site of field work - as it is for foreign researchers. Indeed, some of these “subjects” received dozens of invitations for research interviews, yet received very little in return. When it came to final academic publications, local activists’ voices were rarely mentioned, instead serving as background to “larger arguments”. The whole process of extracting data from personal experiences left them feeling abused and objectified.

As a local activist, Maksat herself experienced 15 years of identity tokenism and intellectual harassment. Foreign researchers reduced her to the role of respondent and appropriated her thoughts as their own intellectual labour. Various civil society actors and funders imposed their views on her community’s ideas and agenda of social justice work, exploiting them as indicators and targets.

In light of this experience, intervention participants wanted to discuss gendered and intellectual subjectivities in Central Asia as they are approached and problematised by Central Asian women themselves. This drew the conversation, which included several other participants apart from those publishing their essays here, towards subjects that are often hidden from neat academic texts and policy reports collected with the “invisible” help of many local research assistants, and which had been previously only whispered about.

These articles draw from the contributors’ personal experience of being simultaneously “local” and also alienated as a consequence of colonial legacies

Initially we discussed “big questions” about voices and visibilities of Central Asian female scholars. Through these encounters, we understood that these issues are often hidden from mainstream academic discussions in the West, or intertwined with public shame that silences many researchers, who refuse to discuss openly these deep challenges to their work and positionality in the field. By telling personal stories in this series, we aim to empower those who decide to follow our paths.

As Elena Kim highlights in her opening contribution, this series echoes Sara Ahmed’s feminist thinking, which identifies hierarchies of knowledge production whereby non-Western field locations are considered peripheral and only as spaces of data extraction. Just as Ahmed frames the possibility, and indeed necessity, to complain within a feminist critique, we believe it is time to speak up on these pressing issues, such as the positionality of women from Central Asia - whether they are researchers, activists, respondents, educators, consultants, journalists, politicians or public influencers.

With the growth of Central Asia studies, where does the local female researcher find herself? What if, as in the case of each contributor, the field is your home, your institution, your battlefield and livelihood, and eventually the field is you, your own body with its own aspirations, perceptions, experiences and thoughts?

These articles draw from the contributors’ personal experience of being simultaneously “local” and also alienated as a consequence of colonial legacies, such as linguistic hierarchies and hierarchies of knowledge production. This eventually brings many local scholars to ask whether their voices will be heard if they choose to publish in local languages, in Uzbek, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tajik, or any other languages apart from the more dominant English and Russian.

We discuss tokenism in academia and civil society, commodification and alienation of research labour, intellectual harassment and appropriation, institutional exploitation and structural views. However, in doing so we aim to build a movement, not a victimhood. We refuse victimisation: our voices are active and resistant to labels, stereotypes and frames dictated from above or outside our lived contexts. Our ability to reflect on the multiple constraints, frames and systemic inequalities allows us to sharpen our thinking and our agency as activist scholars fighting against all such constraints.

This is a call on others - scholars, researchers, activists, writers, artists - to open the field of inquiry on intellectual subjectivities inside and outside the “field”

Elena Kim opens this series with self-reflections on publishing in a foreign research team -where their “government” paid for her “capacity building”. This is about exploitation, about a hidden yet open system of inequality which often shames “alien” scholars in the Western system of knowledge production. Kim’s self-reflections offer a powerful manifesto to stop feeling ashamed and to start complaining. Complaining is a form of “asserting my agency”, Kim claims. It is also a form of collective assertion for more power and visibility – the maksat (goal) that this initial publication aims to achieve.

In a similar light, Syinat Sultanalieva questions the networks of power and knowledge production in Central Asian scholarship. “Where are the local voices winning the prestigious book prizes? Where are the Western voices writing in local languages?” she asks. After all, Central Asia continuously produces its own academic texts and growing numbers of highly educated scholars. Sultanalieva touches upon the important issue of speaking back to the field and bringing back value from the research published abroad to the peoples of Central Asia. How can we establish a two-way communication and avoid the essentialising, orientalising views of the region that result from structural inequalities and extractionist fieldwork?

Davlatbegim Mamadshoeva turns to feminist scholarship to ask how a researcher can find methods that would be beneficial to their respondents. She “scales down” to important, but often underestimated issues of micro level power dynamics in the interview settings between the researcher and the respondent. “Could feminism ‘offer us a salvation’, give us space to express our subjectivities and recognition?” she asks, stressing her feminist commitment to rethink “home” beyond the mere field site but as the battlefield, a space of activism and livelihood. This raises further questions on how local female scholars are blamed equally at home and abroad for being too foreign for their theorisation in the eyes of the locals, and yet too distant from a “Western theoretical and methodological” framework.

Mohira Suyarkulova then pushes the discussion by questioning what happens when “home” is the fieldsite, which turns into a battlefield for research, livelihood and activism. Do Central Asian scholars benefit from being local in the “global political economy of knowledge production”? What are the obstacles to this complex positioning as someone from the “field”, who deeply feels the necessity to contribute to their local societies, but also is pressed with the need to comply with the rules of the dis-local system of knowledge?

Finally, Zhanar Sekerbayeva focuses on colonial optics and the perplexingly normalised systems of hierarchies in Russian and Central Asian knowledge production systems. Reflecting on her own experience, Sekerbayeva unveils the complex canvas of language-based subordinations, hierarchies, divisions and alienations as well as deeply-rooted systemic but simply overlooked inequalities between the coloniser’s knowledge production and the colonised “catching up”. She offers a critical piece of decolonial writing and analysis, in the hope to generate more critical optics on the colonial past, the present and ongoing post-Soviet, post-colonial, decolonial transformations and a different future.

This series of essays is just the first step in a broader discussion on decolonialising local Central Asian knowledge. We hope that through our own stories, self-reflections and critical analysis, readers will be able to draw on their own experiences, remember and reflect on their own encounters in light of the critical development of our own Central Asian systems of knowledge production.

This is a call on others - scholars, researchers, activists, writers, artists - to open the field of inquiry on intellectual subjectivities inside and outside the “field”.

If you are interested in contributing or responding to this series, please contact the editors.

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