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“Are You One of Us, or One of Them?” An Autoethnography of a “Hybrid” Feminist Researcher Bridging Two Worlds

Sophie Alkhaled

A Feminist Is Born

I woke up feeling rather nervous. I was about to start the second grade not only in a new school but also in a completely new country. I recall putting on my new uniform and watching my sisters getting ready too. As my mother adjusted the buttons on my blue dress, she said, “Hurry up girls, the driver will be here soon”. I looked at her in confusion. I asked, “What do you mean driver ? Aren’t you taking us to school like usual?” My mother paused, looked troubled and replied, “No, I am afraid I cannot take you to school anymore. But your father has hired us a wonderful driver who will look after you and make sure you get to school safely—and I will be here waiting for you when you come back home”. I recall being perplexed by her reply rather than comforted, which clearly was her intention. “Why can’t you take us?” I exclaimed. She replied, “Because I am not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia”. I continued to protest, “But why aren't you allowed? You drove us around all the time in the UK and Syria. I know you have a driving license. I know you can drive!” My mother sighed, looked into my eyes and calmly replied, “I am not allowed to drive here, because, I am a woman”.

S. Alkhaled (H)

Lancaster University, Lancaster, Lancashire, UK © The Author(s) 2017

R. Thwaites, A. Pressland (eds.), Being an Early Career Feminist Academic, DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-54325-7_6

I was six years old and this was a profound moment in my life and the cornerstone of the feminist identity I have fostered into my early academic career. Indeed, this incident revealed to me a cold, harsh reality—that is, differences between girls and boys go beyond our biological makeup. Over my 11-year schooling in Saudi Arabia, my confusion on the subject turned into intrigue and eventually overwhelming frustration. For example, I learnt that girls did not follow the same curriculum as boys in school, as ours did not include Earth Sciences or Technical Sciences because girls could not be engineers. It was clearly stated in the mandate of the General Presidency of Girls’ Education that girls’ education was designed to bring her up in a proper Islamic way to perform her duty in life, which was to be an ideal and successful housewife and a good mother ready to do things which suit her nature such as teaching, nursing and medical treatment (Hamdan 2005). Women were also not allowed to vote, rent or travel without signed permission from a male guardian. I knew this was not the case in the United Kingdom, or indeed other Middle Eastern countries, and I began to appreciate how pervasive patriarchal and tribal cultural traditions influence local policies and pollute interpretations of women’s human rights in the name of religion, which in this country was Islam.

Born to a Syrian father and a British mother and living between Syria, Saudi Arabia and the United Kingdom, I was brought up with a balance of both “traditional” Arab, and more “liberal” and inherently “Western” ideas of how life should be conducted. I learnt to respect and adapt to different environments and celebrate the differences each culture comprised. This was different from the life my peers led in Saudi Arabia, and I was aware of that. Every time I voiced my dismay with the inequalities outside the walls of my home, for instance, in school or to my friends and neighbours, I was reprimanded for being a “bad Muslim girl” or “rebellious”. Whilst I loved Saudi Arabia and all the good it gave my family and I, I simply could not wait to move to the United Kingdom for my higher education and finally live as an equal in society. However, within a short amount of time, I realised that gender inequality was very much alive in the Western world, albeit not as overtly as in Saudi Arabia. In addition, my return to the United Kingdom less than a year after the horrific events of 9/11 in 2001 meant I witnessed aspects of “Islamphobia” and the contemporary nature of the issue of women in the Muslim world (Hamdan 2009). My feelings on the issue were somewhat paradoxical, as whilst I was aware that the Middle East was lacking in gender equality, I noticed that arguments by politicians and the media lacked cultural awareness and, on many occasions, were misleading and biased towards Western imperialism.

Furthermore, during my undergraduate and postgraduate studies, I began to uncover gaps in academic research on the Middle East, especially with regards to issues concerning women and Islam; I realised there was more room for research and understanding of women's lives in the Middle East.

After contemplating the media and academic debates, I began to realise that my bicultural position could be a valuable asset in bridging the two worlds. Growing media fascination with women in Islamic countries, the lack of academic research on the topic and my mixed feelings towards the country I once called home led me to pursue a PhD relating to women in the Middle East, with a focus on Saudi Arabia. A generous scholarship from The College of Arts and Social Science at the University of Aberdeen and the Federation for Women Graduates provided me with the opportunity to undertake research on women’s entrepreneurial experiences in Saudi Arabia.

*

I was taken to my desk, on the PhD student corridor of the Business School. I was about to embark upon an incredible journey. I was away from taught courses. I was finally in a safe space, where I could research, think freely and openly discuss and contemplate delicate issues in social research. I walked into our PhD social room and heard voices, Arabic voices. My heart raced, after six years of living away from the Middle East, it felt wonderful to bring my “other half’ back to life. I went in and introduced myself. I found that around 70% of the PhD students were Middle Eastern, from Egypt, Jordan, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Libya. There were two of us who were women and the rest were men between the ages of 27 and 45. They were very warm and welcoming, particularly when they learnt that I was a Muslim of Syrian decent. However, our friendship began to take an uncomfortable turn when they learnt that my research went beyond “women’s entrepreneurship” and was in fact examining and critiquing Muslim women’s lives in the patriarchal Middle East. The men clearly felt uneasy with my research. Indeed, whilst my research was centred on a Middle Eastern country, it departed from objec- tivist, positivistic and quantitative methodologies in business research. Therefore, the socio-anthropological nature of my research, my debates around feminism, men, Islam, culture and my position as both an Arab and Westerner, which they believed should be an either/or binary, meant I faced hostility on a number of occasions. During one of the most heated and poignant debates, one of my colleagues firmly stated, “You have to decide, are you one of us, or one of them?” I was rendered speechless.

*

This chapter is an autoethnographic personal piece. It evolves around the abstract yet provocative question, “Are you one of us, or one of them?”, which eventually and implicitly develops into the questions, “What kind of feminist am I?” and “How will this affect my academic career?” Drawing upon a feminist autoethnographic approach (Allen and Piercy 2005; Wall 2006), I illustrate the opportunities and boundaries that I faced as a “hybrid” (Abu-Lughod 2006) British/Syrian researcher during my schooling in Saudi Arabia, undergraduate/postgraduate education in the United Kingdom and postdoctoral research in Sweden. The personal narrative elucidates how I “played the game” as a feminist early career researcher in a business school, a traditionally male-dominated environment. It addresses the opportunities/challenges of practicing feminist values as a PhD student and early career researcher. Furthermore, I also address the challenges, opportunities and dangers of having to place oneself within a certain feminist category and maintain it, in and out of the classroom, and in an environment where gender is a variable on the periphery of the curriculum. I problematise being a feminist researcher in higher education who is researching “the Other” (Beauvoir 1953), in a historically male-dominated discipline. I also delve into how I aim to develop my feminist identity whilst continuing to bridge my two worlds, where the nuances of patriarchy vary explicitly and implicitly.

Before delving into the narratives, I must briefly declare my support for the notion of gender as constructed in various forms across historical, cultural and societal contexts, rather than “essentialist” or “a-historical” (Butler 2002). The welcome shift towards studies analysing what causes a certain form of construction of gender has raised awareness about loosely using categorisations such as “man”, “woman”, “femininity” and “masculinity”, which empowered feminist research in opposing oppression (Flax 1987). I recognise that the analytical independence of sex and gender is essential for understanding the relationship between these elements and the interactional work involved in “being” a gendered person in society (West and Zimmerman 1987). However, within this narrative, my primary aim is not theoretically debating the issues around gender but to discuss how my gender, as a biological “woman”, was performed and perceived (Butler 1988) across societies in the Middle East and Europe. Therefore, I find myself using the words “man” and “woman” within this narrative to illustrate the social context of “doing gender”, as a relational and continuous creation of the meaning of gender through my encounters with these individuals.

 
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