? The Dilemmas of Gendered Approaches in Personal Encounters: reflections on a dialogue with Lubna - Lisa Haferlach - Imponderabilia

The Dilemmas of Gendered Approaches in Personal Encounters: reflections on a dialogue with Lubna

When I set out to do fieldwork in Oman, a country at the tip of the Arabian Peninsula, many people were surprised when I explained that my dissertation was going to be about economics. There was an expectation that I would work on gender issues, an area that young women frequently choose to study. In this article I seek to give voice to the complexities of my own experience concerning ‘the gender question’, as well as to explore the presumption from outside and urge from within for women to describe these issues in Muslim countries, and in particular in the Arab world.

My engagement with gender relations in Oman is going to remain within a very small circle of par-ticipants. It is a reflection on conversations that I held with Lubna, my host sister. This article will be based on my own experiences and difficulties - as both a feminist and an anthropologist - and my working of these views into a critical anthropological discourse.

Lubna, one of the most alert 15 year old girls I have met, was able to voice her own concerns about the society she was growing up in and to reflect critically on the way people interacted in her social world. Although she did not contribute directly to my fieldwork, she gave me an insight into Omani life from a critical perspective that nobody else did. Her bitter, almost cynical engagement with her life in Oman in comparison to her description of the summers that she spent at her aunt’s house in the United Kingdom, was incredibly mature. Her presence allowed me to balance my neutral stance on issues of belief while I was doing fieldwork in an investment bank in Muscat, with a critical en-gagement with social life, as a woman, during my time at home with my host family.

Life in Oman for Lubna was restricted, boring, degrading and made her feel constantly on edge. However, of particular interest to me were my own reactions to our conversations. Although I was very sympathetic towards issues concerning belief and Muslim identity during my ‘actual’ field-work, Lubna created a space in which I could critically engage with the society I found myself liv-ing in and thus engage freely in discussion of gender-related issues. Yet this side of my narrative is already influenced by studies in feminism. My reactions made me feel uneasy. I want to argue that both narratives - feminism and anthropological discourse - have their own ‘truth’, or their own real-ity, yet bear difficulties in a dialogue with each other. I found myself caught in what Marilyn Strathern (1987) calls the “awkward relationship” between feminism and anthropology, the way in which we cannot think of the two together and yet also cannot think of them apart. It is the everlast-ing split that arises when we are anthropologists and yet feminists.

Under the influence of an Islamic resurgence, it is interesting to look at the seemingly contradictory example of women who are both Muslim and feminist. Mir-Hosseini describes the problematic po-sition of feminist Muslim women. She argues that “they live in a tension between the different components of their identity: their Muslimness is perceived as backward and oppressed, yet authen-tic and innate; their feminism as progressive and emancipated, yet corrupt and alien” (Mir-Hosseini 2000: 9). Traditionally, feminism has found it difficult to accept a multiplicity of differences as part of an identity formation that can separate women’s experiences. By constructing its own raison d’être through an attack on the patriarchy under which women live, it loses sight of the complexity of women’s experience and identity. Although feminist anthropology as a whole has begun to ap-proach this difficulty, as Abu-Lughod (1990) notes, its influence on the awareness of the public to-wards Middle-Eastern studies has remained limited. We carry on believing that women should op-pose the Islamic movements, because we assume that these “women [...] actively support a move-ment that seems inimical to their “own interests and agendas,” especially at a historical moment when these women appear to have more emancipatory possibilities available to them.” (Mahmood 2005: 2).

Abu-Lughod argues that one of the influencing factors for this theoretical underdevelopment is the fact that people do not want to ‘lift the veil’ from Arabian women. She argues that we have been unable to disengage from colonial history and hence “unwittingly partake in a colonial discourse upon women” (Abu-Lughod 1990: 104). There is no doubt that these colonial assumptions are be-ing strongly criticized and challenged by feminist anthropologists. However, the trends of the book market tell a different story - the bookshelves are filled with the sufferings of Arab women, a ‘suf-fering’ lacking theoretical engagement. “[T]here is still a sense, with regard to women in the Middle East, that what people want is a glimpse into a hidden life, “behind the veil”” (ibid: 104). This con-centration on the veil, Malek Alloula (1986) argues, is a remnant of the colonial era, where penetra-tion of the private space of women became an influential sexual phantasm. Furthermore, contempo-rary attempts to counter images of the Arab women as dominated individuals governed by public stereotypes leave no room for the multiple affiliations and identities that must be accounted for aside from our longing for empowered women.

Contemporary approaches face a dilemma: on one hand, we feel the guilt of a colonial influence that has changed people’s lives, affiliations and livelihoods, yet we embrace the feminist awareness that has been created in the same breath. The problem is not that these are one and the same thing, but that it is difficult to hold them apart, because the two developments become conflated and nar-rowed down. As Mir-Hosseini (2000: 4) describes it, we take away the self-determination of wom-en, as we take away the possibility of being Muslim and feminist. It is by continuing an underlying search for the authenticity of these women that we symbolically re-veil them.

Conversations with Lubna opened up angles of feminist thinking to me and inspired me to write this article. Although her life is most possibly different to that of other Omani or Middle-Eastern wom-en, it is her complexity of experience that moved me to think about her situation, which resulted in questioning my own positionality. Lubna left me torn between agreeing that I would not want to be a young woman growing up in Oman, and worrying that this did not fit with my ‘impartial’ anthro-pological outlook.

From such an anthropological point-of-view, much feminist thinking propagates constructs that in-form Western concepts of personhood and identity. Should I have supported Lubna’s longing for England, which was, in her eyes, a more liberal country? Or should I have underlined a conviction of cultural relativism? We are dealing with complexities of identities and affiliations that cannot be split so easily in the two ways I initially set out. My fieldwork made the complex relations that permeated the situation tangible through my own reactions. The dilemma I face can only be recon-ciled, I believe, by accepting the complexity of women’s identities, by ending the search for consis-tency in these women’s voices that is modeled on our Euro-American ethnocentric categories. “I haven’t got several identities: I’ve just got one, made up of many components combined together in a mixture that is unique to every individual (Maalouf 2000: 3).


Abu-Lughod, L. (2006) ‘Writing Against Culture’ in Feminist Anthropology A Reader. ed. Lewin, E. Oxford: Blackwell

Alloula, M. (1986) The Colonial Harem. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

Maalouf, A. (2000) On Identity. London: Random House

Mahmood, S. (2005) Politics of Piety. Princeton: Princeton University Press

Strathern, M. (1987) ‘An Awkward Relationship: The Case of Feminism and Anthropology’ in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 12(2)

Mir-Hosseini, Z. (2000) Islam and Gender: The Religious Debate in Contemporary Iran. Princeton: Princeton University Press

Lisa Haferlach is reading social anthropology in her final year at Cambridge University. For her dissertation she did fieldwork on alternative Islamic economics in an investment bank in the Muscat, Oman.