“...As an Early Career Researcher”

During and after completing my PhD I attended and presented papers at seven conferences focusing on the theme of gender in organisations, entrepreneurship, education and sociology in the United Kingdom and Europe. Whilst each conference was insightful and inspirational, I eventually found it frustrating that my abstract was read and automatically placed in an “international” themed group/stream. Indeed, by the third conference it became clear that because my title included the words “women” and “Saudi Arabia” I was added to a stream of research on women in “other” developing and third world countries, regardless of the contribution and purpose of my paper. It was fascinating hearing about gender issues in Iran, Indonesia, Tasmania, Brazil and India, but the contributions of these papers were not relevant to my research; neither was mine to theirs—and we knew this. I would look through the other streams at the conferences and realise my paper could have been better placed within other themes, even if those studies were based in the United Kingdom, United States or Canada. During the closing lecture at the last conference I attended, the organisers were boasting about the number of international abstracts they had received beyond western Europe and North America. I thanked them for this opportunity and voiced my concern that they in fact were still treating us as “the other” by placing us in themes that were implicitly deemed “international streams”. It was as if researching women/gender in contexts outside of western Europe and North America was interesting but did not have significant philosophical, theoretical and methodological contributions to feminist research. Whilst our voices were provided with a platform to be heard, we remained (sub)consciously segregated from “mainstream” feminist research. In many ways this was regressive, as first-, second- and third wave feminisms have addressed these issues extensively; yet it seems that “other” forms of feminism remain regarded as secondary by some.

My biggest honour as an early career researcher took place in April 2015, as I was invited to be the first female keynote speaker at a conference at a university in Amman, Jordan. The Dean of the business school, a woman, had become aware of my research and asked me to present my research focusing on the importance of Arab women’s economic and political contributions in the Middle East. The attendees were academics and non-academics from Jordan, the Middle East and North African region. My speech was the last during the final day of the conference after six academic and non-academic male speakers. As I took to the stage, it suddenly hit me—I had never presented to the very people I wanted to address for the past seven years. This made me nervous. At the end of my presentation, I was asked very interesting and constructive questions. Men gave me encouraging and overwhelmingly positive feedback. Women told me I was an inspiration and wished more Arab women would do such research. I was tremendously flattered and honoured. Of course, being within a business school environment, one male academic critiqued my findings for not being “generalisable”. However, he seemed happy with my well-rehearsed feminist “justification” and explanation for my “depth rather than breadth” methodology.

After my presentation, a professor from the university pulled me to one side alone and confronted me. He harshly attacked me for being a “Western feminist”, whose research was too “subjective”. He stated that my work was academically weak with an imbalanced argument, as I did not discuss the negatives of women participating and being paid equally in the workplace. I kindly asked him if he could give me examples of the negatives of women equally contributing economically and politically, to which he replied, “Well, when women work they face sexual assault and even rape, so it is safer to keep them protected in the home; why should she be subjected to this? They should not be mixing in the workplace. This is what men are like, it can’t be helped”. I did not know where to start. I realised that whilst most attendees were in agreement with me, a lot of work still needed to be done. Midway though my explanation that work and sexual assault are not directly correlated, he quickly cut me off and said, “And why earn the same amount of money as men ? As soon as a woman is highly educated and starts working and earning her own money she becomes independent. She becomes more demanding, picky and won’t accept any man that asks for her hand in marriage. Then she is left a spinster. And if she is married, she neglects her home and her children... what is going to happen to the family and our society if women get equality in the workplace? The children will grow up misbehaving and be lost Muslims and useless citizens in our country.” We discussed these issues for a while and then I realised that I was not going to change his opinion in any part of this debate. I thanked him for his comments. I felt shaken up by this experience, as I never enjoy such confrontations.

As I turned to attend one of the seminar streams, a young Yemeni woman came up to me and said, “Thank you for your presentation, it was interesting, but I don’t understand, it really frustrates me, why are you fighting for us to work? You know it is the man’s job to take care of his wife. She is a gem in his eye that he needs to preserve. This is what our religion says. Women like you are calling for us to work and earn money and now men are looking for brides who work so she can share the household bills. It is a big problem for us women now!” I surmised that this woman held the Islamic fundamentalist feminist position (Yamani 1996), as she felt protected within the current classic patriarchal system (Kandiyoti 1988), which she legitimised within an Islamic framework. She seemed uneasy with the blurring of the dichotomous lines of the traditional gender roles when women participated in the workplace as men did. I explained that I believed a woman should have a fair choice and opportunity to work and take care of herself. I also explained that economically it has become almost impossible for many families to live off one income; and therefore, it made sense that women work and contribute to the household. Alas, she did not agree. She could not see how this could be empowering for women or families in society. I did not know enough about her class, education or family background, which are key factors in women’s active resistance to such systems (Kandiyoti 1988), but it seemed that breaking away from the status quo was not something she could realise, regardless of her desire for it.

As I was walking down the business school corridor feeling disheartened, a young Jordanian woman with a colourful long flowing skirt and beautiful headscarf came up to me and held my hand. She looked into my eyes and said, “ Thank you Sophie. Thank you for coming from far away to tell us about your research. You have really inspired me, beyond what you can imagine. We need women like you. I am an ambitious and hardworking girl and I would like to do a PhD after I complete my master’s one day. I think Arab women have so much to contribute to society. I think I can contribute a lot to my country”. My eyes filled with tears. I could not begin to describe to her how she had come at the perfect time and that I needed her in that moment just as much as she claimed she needed me.

My original perplexing question at the beginning of this chapter was, “You have to decide, are you one of us, or one of them”, which I (sub) consciously evolved during the narrative of my academic journey to “What kind of feminist am I?” Amongst all the categories of feminism, I (and others) wonder, “Who am I representing?” Am I a “Western” or an “Arab” feminist? Am I a “secular” or “Islamic” feminist? Are these categories mutually exclusive? How do I fit into these categories in conferences and amongst my peers? However, these somewhat paradoxical incidents (where my hybridity was either welcomed or rejected) throughout my academic journey have made me realise that I did not need to decide what “kind” of feminist I was in order to ‘be’ as a feminist. My current passion and curiosity for my research subject, and the contribution to knowledge that I make, are not confined to one country or one continent or to a particular feminist approach. I am aware of the grave dangers of collectively placing women within one category without respecting the intersectional nature of women’s lives (Crenshaw 1997; McCall 2005); but nonetheless, I feel that regardless of our nationality or feminist stance, many of us are fighting for the same things. We want gender equality and our human rights. We are striving for our freedom—our freedom to be educated, to work, to be paid equally, to be independent, to practice our religion, to be ambitious, to have families (or perhaps not have families) and be able to choose whether we would like to stay at home with our children or balance family life with work. We want to work in safe environments, where we are respected and commended for our efforts. We want our voices to be politically heard and represented—amongst many other wishes. Why does it matter what “kind” of feminist I am so early on in my career when I should be exploring my freedom to contemplate these notions, free from the social or academic pressure to commit to a label at this stage.

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