Monday, 28 January 2019

Lessons for Gender Activism and Analytical Reflections from Research among a group of Pious Women

Mukadder Okuyan, M.S., M.A.
PhD Candidate in Social Psychology
Clark University

In an article published in Feminism & Psychology entitled ‘‘You don’t belong anywhere, you’re ‘in-between’’’: Pious Muslimwomen’s intersectional experiences and ideas about social change incontemporary Turkey”, Nicola Curtin and I explore the experiences and action-related attitudes of pious Muslim women in Turkey. 

Findings revealed distinct experiences of disadvantage in both secular and religious settings. These experiences informed pious women's approach to what types of changes are desired in the larger society and in their religious community. One of the biggest take-aways from our study is that it points to a subjectivity we called "in-betweenness"* that constrains women's public voice and willingness to act on their critique. In my observation, this subjectivity is not acknowledged enough by feminists or other social groups, or simply seen as an obstacle to be overcome on the part of pious women. With this study, we hope to have contributed to the representation of pious women who are critical of gender relations in society, stereotypes that portray them as devoid of feminist sensibilities while at the same time tapping their distinct subjectivity and hesitations around collective action. 

I leave the details of the analysis to interested readers, and move on to talk about my reflections on the findings as they relate to gender activism. These are (1) the importance of finding common causes for women of various backgrounds in coalitional activism, (2) differing opinions on the tactics used to tackle difficulties women face, and (3) increasing the inclusivity of feminist practices and spaces to pious Muslim women. I will close with reflections on the strengths and weaknesses in our use of the intersectionality framework, and thoughts on the challenges of working with overly-researched topics and communities of which you are not an organic member. 

First point–all-too-familiar to scholars and activists of coalitional work here in the U.S.–was differences in what participants thought of as issues affecting women and difficulty of finding common goals. Women from different backgrounds might perceive different experiences as grievances; one issue that one group finds intolerable might be perceived as acceptable by another, leading to problems in agenda setting. This was readily apparent in our interviews when participants talked about various kinds of struggles in their communities that do not get as much attention from the secular feminist movement (hereafter “feminist movement”). Some issues such as violence against women, however, are accepted to be problems across difference, forming a common ground for mobilization. Turkey has a high rate of femicide. Structural issues such as judicial protection of the family unit in domestic violence cases, a small number of women shelters, societal perceptions and media depictions of violence against women as a fact of life or the acts of a few deranged men abound which make gendered-violence a stable topic on feminists’ agenda. Certainly, coalitions formed around these common issues still require working across difference and fine-tuning, but it is much easier to negotiate on this and similar issues compared to others on which women have differing opinions such as abortion rights.

Secondly, while women expressed distinct difficulties they face as pious women (e.g., responsibilities and social constrains justified by traditionalist religious interpretation), not all women agreed that these issues needed to be confronted with collective action. Alternatively, some participants agreed on the collectivity of actions but did not condone the movements tactics they perceived as too confrontational. Some pointed to country-specific conditions (e.g., religiosity, conservativeness, socio-economic or educational background) that make feminist language inaccessible or undesirable to a large portion of (pious) women, including themselves. Some preferred more individualized, reformist, and less confrontational ways of bringing about change. Participants did express appreciation and acknowledgment of the work and progress made by the feminist movement in the country, however they did not see themselves as an organic, assumed part of the movement and its preferred tactics. Disagreement about tactics do not get as much attention as the discrepancies between a secular feminist agenda and that of pious Muslim women—the issue covered in the above paragraph—but it mattered a great deal to our participants who did not agree with confrontational movement tactics in their aims and functions. To reach a large audience especially among pious women, it seems important not to assume agreement on tactics and allow for creativity in forms and capacities of involvement without expecting every participant to show up for protests or other types of public action. 

A third point related to gender activism is the inclusivity of activist spaces for pious women. While only half of our participants had direct engagement with the feminist movement, the experiences described were mostly alienating such as being asked for pictures at protests, not being taken seriously at activist meetings, being seen in stereotypical ways etc. Coalitional campaigning, and activist spaces in general should strive for more representation for pious Muslim women, taking difference seriously and tailoring some practices to make activist spaces more comfortable for pious women such as having organization meetings or celebrations at more inclusive places (for instance not at bars), avoiding slogans that directly clash with women's faith in coalitional campaigns, allowing for the inevitable differences in opinion on certain topics unless they are actively harmful. Another point is to understand that although pious women engage in many acts that undermine harmful practices in their communities—evident in many interviews in our study—they are not responsible for all the problematic voices and practices in their communities. In this regard, being seen as part of a homogenous group rather than as an individual may make activist spaces unwelcoming to pious women. On a different point, however, pious Muslim women should also not be expected to distance themselves from their communities which is a source of social support, friendship and family for them. 

Next, I want to talk about some points that probably appeal more to researchers, but hopefully they also speak to how we think about this subject in general. Using intersectionality as a framework proved both insightful and challenging for this project. For instance, asking participants about distinct struggles in different settings allowed them to talk about their experiences in its complexity, and not limit themselves to only one aspect of their identities or oft-repeated issues in this literature (e.g., headscarf, Islam, feminism). A central idea in intersectionality is that women’s quest for change depends on problems related to their identities and collective histories. This approach led to the insight that our participants’ ideas around change had a close connection to their everyday experiences as well as the collective experience of pious women in Turkey, shaping a distinct set of goals and tactics among this group of women. 

While intersectionality provided a rich characterization for our findings, our questions were posed only in relation to disadvantages, leaving out the many advantages associated with being a majority group member (i.e., Sunni Muslim majority) in Turkey. More recent accounts in intersectionality encourage examining the interplay of advantages and disadvantages (Cole 2009; Curtin, Kende, Kende, 2016), however in our study we repeated a tendency among at least some intersectionality researchers to look only at disadvantage. Admittedly, there is a certain difficulty of tapping advantage in societies where power distinctions in social hierarchy are not clearly demarcated around identity markers as it is in the U.S. A middle-aged pious woman who lost various educational and professional opportunities due to structural barriers in the past, still not feeling welcomed in some communities in her city or profession and live daily with constrains of a conservative and traditional community might not find a question about advantages all that meaningful. The discrepancy between individual-level experience as opposed to aggregate levels of advantage and disadvantage makes it difficult to ask such questions, especially for researchers like me who do not share our participants’ experiences. However, in a country where societal expectations, everyday interactions, politics, employment, public service etc. are all influenced—if not directly driven by—conservative religious practices, advantages attached to being a part of this community are abundant. Therefore, an analysis that incorporates advantages associated with this intersection remains to be an important piece of the picture, a necessary step for future research. I encourage researchers working in contexts with complicated and competing histories of collective victimhood to pay attention to experiences of both privilege and oppression in participants’ lives.

I want to finish up with some reflections on the process of recruitment and the authoritative role of the researcher. While we are all too familiar with suspicion towards researchers in marginalized communities, or in conflict contexts, I would argue a similar barrier exists for studies conducted with overly-researched topics or populations. While everyone has a unique angle they take in their projects, studies examining Muslim women’s experiences are admittedly common especially in the field of women’s studies. Therefore, initially participants had some questions about my intentions. These concerns dissipated not long after we started the interviews­ as I come from a family upbringing close to my participants which I disclosed to them early on (I am not a complete outsider to this topic). However, at the outset participants had fair suspicions about me being yet another secular-looking woman interested in their experiences. When we think about discussions about researchers' authoritative role in representation, the literal erasure of participants’ individual identities in the writing process, negligent research practices (e.g., not informing the sample/community about study findings), these concerns are very understandable. Researchers should expect to encounter such suspicion, potential criticism and inquiries about the rationale for your project. If you’re not someone from the community, also be prepared to feel anxious about representation when you sit down to analyze and write about your findings. The trust built between you and your participants as well as motivations behind the project (in this case, increasing representation of critical pious women) may make the writing process especially difficult. While there are no easy solutions to this problem, I can say a researchers’ responsibility to the community is to create a careful and thorough analysis and not to be paralyzed by awareness of your voice in interpretation. Hopefully, our participants agree with us on this last point. 

On a personal level, this research was an enriching and challenging experience for me during and after the study. During interviews, I changed moods from one interviewee to another, getting excited by more hopeful and inclusive participants who look for ways of finding common ground for different groups of women; and feeling discouraged after interviews in which the participant saw very little commonality in concerns and goals, and expressed little motivation to work through difference. I follow online activities of the groups I recruited participants from, and even ended up writing a piece for a website discussing some of the points I talked about in this piece. While there were suspicious and critical voices in the comments section, there was also positive reception and engagement. I consider that as being part of the conversation and giving back some of the insights I have had through this process. Taking an up-close picture of the grievances of women marginalized within a majority identity, I now explore a broader question about majority groups in my dissertation work: Why do advantaged group members feel marginalized and how does this affect their attitudes towards other groups? More specifically, I’m examining the social-psychological sources of discrimination claims among White Americans and men in the U.S. society. Going forward, I want to explore the relation between objective advantage and subjective victimization and how the two can speak to each other in unpredictable ways.

*We owe credit to a participant who coined the term to describe her experience, using the same English phrase.  

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