Gendered bodies

As a single, European woman working alone in a highly militarised and multi-ethnic region of the Middle East, I am harassed daily, by men of a range of ages, religions, and backgrounds. I am touched in the street, my interest as a researcher is regularly misunderstood as sexual advance or invitation for a relationship. Men who I work and do business with often come too close and touch me in ways NGO workers and other foreign female workers here do not expect or experience. Or if they do, there are often protocols in place that help to manage the situation or prevent them having to return to an unsafe space. As a lone fieldworker, attempts are made to break into my car when I drive alone. I am strip-searched in airports. I have been sexually assaulted outside my house, twice, and the police have informed me that this is a ‘family matter’ and they were unable to help me locate my assailant.

When I reported these phenomena to my university, I found my supervisors unable to cope with this information. “I’m sorry that happened to you,” was one response. I was sorry too. “You can come back to London if you can’t handle it.” Maybe I’m not cut out for the job? “We need to know, legally, that you’re safe. Please confirm that you are safe.” As a woman I find that I can rarely be totally convinced I am safe, let alone in an environment where harassment is commonplace. The double sexual assault and the adjusting to being objectified in new ways has been a difficult challenge that not only affects my mood but also my ability to do my work, my confidence, and some days my ability and desire to leave the house. This is not a call to point the finger of blame either at individual men or different cultures; good anthropologists know the ‘risks’ and their research environments before they embark for the field.

An excerpt picked at random from my fieldnotes:

I hail a minibus heading to the centre of town after a meeting at the refugee camp where I conduct my research. It’s Friday afternoon and the streets are pretty quiet. There are two seats free on the back row of the minibus. The man sitting in the back slides over from the middle to the window seat to put space between us. Three women with two children are in the front. Everybody is silent. I pass forward a note to pay for my ride and await my change. The change doesn’t come. Used to this treatment, I lean forward to ask one of the women the price of the ride. She doesn’t hear me, she is busy with the children. The man in my row pipes up: ‘it’s 3 and a half. He didn’t give you change?” The man then tells the driver to give me my change, and I, slightly embarrassed, take it and smile gratefully at the man. “Where are you from?” he asks. This is normal, I am obviously foreign, people are curious. I explain, and he asks what I’m doing here, if I’m married to a local. “I’m a researcher,” I explain, avoiding the marriage question. I am tired of being asked if it is by virtue of male relations that I came to live in this difficult place, but I know he doesn’t mean it that way. It’s unusual to have come alone. “What is your research about?” he asks, and I explain, haltingly. Every day life, family life, what it’s like to live in these conditions. “You live with a family? You have your own room?” Without thinking, pleased to be chatting in Arabic, I explain that I live in a family building, but with my own rooms. “I need quiet to write. But it’s nice to have people around too.” My stop arrives and I get off the bus. I start walking towards my house, stopping in a shop to pick up a few things. The man from the bus is behind me. He offers to buy me a drink. I decline. He asks if there is anyone in my house now. I say yes, many people. I leave the shop quickly without the things I needed. He follows me out. He follows me up the hill, along the busy road, though most of the other shops are closed. I have a loud pretend phone conversation with an obvious male character. He follows, unperturbed by my increasingly frantic pace and the times en route that I told him to go away. Finally, just before I am about to enter an open hair salon and wait for him to leave, as he cannot hang around outside such a clearly female space without attracting attention, he gives up and turns around. I burst into tears and run the rest of the way home. I tell no one. I am embarrassed that this has happened again, and that it must be my fault. I led him on, I was friendlier than a local woman would have been, this is just part of living in this kind of environment. The next day I stay at home. I don’t have the energy for coping with this kind of thing.

The sad thing is, not only are these situations in which I would have not hesitate to call the police in the country of my university, but they are commonplace. I am sure it is not only female researchers who have conducted fieldwork know these unique situations where we have accidentally compromised ourselves, or our status as outsiders places us in positions of danger.

As ethnographers, we are constantly working; observing, noting, analysing, storing away facts away for later, thinking of new lines of questioning. Since we are always ‘on,’ we feel that we should always be polite, friendly, welcoming. This is not only my nature as a researcher but as an individual. I do not walk around town extending my hand to every stranger I meet – in fact I have adapted to walk quickly with my eyes down. I do not respond to the many shouts that follow me in my wake, ranging from “hello what’s your name,” “you are welcome here,” to “I love you,” “I want to fuck you” or, spoken to a group of men; “she looks like she’d be fun.” And again, I’m sure many researchers know this experience.

There seems, then, to be an essential conflict between the three simultaneous roles we may embody in the field: ethnographers, language students, and gendered bodies. As ethnographers, we understand that we should be hyper-social, interested, questioning, enthusiastic. As language students, we should be constantly chatting, practicing, improving. And as gendered bodies we try to adapt to local norms, even those that conflict with our understandings of ourselves as powerful, independent, and equals. My constant battle with these three elements of my being as an ethnographer often puts me in difficult and potentially dangerous situations. Our status as outsiders, long-term residents and ‘interested’ can make it very difficult to negotiate a boundary of respectability and professionalism. We are also humans, and we have emotional needs and want to make friends and family in the field. The enduring message in my transactions with men in such public spaces, is that I have given them a sexual invitation and they are permitted to behave aggressively towards me.

This is by no means a conversation limited to those who identify as female, but a call to put into question the way we as anthropologists are trained by our universities for fieldwork, and the way these universities respond to and support us in areas of research where we find that our gender impacts us. My pre-field training at top UK universities consisted of weekly seminars covering topics such as ‘interviews,’ ‘visas,’ and even ‘sex in the field.’ As a cohort we have largely agreed that in retrospect, seminars on ‘coping in emergencies,’ ‘gender and the field,’ and ‘mental self-care,’ would have been extremely useful. When we made these suggestions to the university, however, no response was offered. I also suggested, in the wake of my experiences, that supervisors be trained and provided with guidance and resources for recognising the signs of students in distress and directing them to the help they needed. This request was also ignored. The university directs students’ ‘emotional needs’ to be immediately diverted by supervisors to the over-stretched university counselling service. Obviously no university or supervisor is individually responsible for the unique gender dynamics and religious or political cultures of our fieldsites, but neither can they completely absolve themselves of responsibility for us as their students, colleagues, and friends.

So my enduring question, then, is why aren’t we talking about this? What kind of professional environment have we created for ourselves in the space of anthropology where there is no room to discuss and analyse, respond sympathetically to, and treat the daily aggressions we face as gendered anthropologists? Why isn’t there space and time made in pre-field seminars to provide us with necessary coping strategies, plans for emergencies, and a safe space to use these experiences constructively. Why aren’t women talking about the daily hazards that impact our emotions, our wellbeing, and our methodologies? I should add that while Amy Pollard’s (2009) brave and well-researched provocation for supervisors and departments does address many of the issues here, it appears to not have made its desired impact in departments. In pre-field training and methodology courses, a great deal of emphasis is placed on fluidity and flexibility in fieldwork, which also extends to the student-supervisor relationship. But hiding behind this fun, casual, laid-back culture of versatility and accommodation, of fieldwork as Malkkian (2007) jazz, is a deeper fear of facing and coping with the necessary effects and traumas inflicted upon us by our work. The older generations of anthropologists coped, so why can’t we? Fieldwork is a ‘rite of passage,’ and as anthropologists we are well-versed in the literatures on the many different and exotic trials of various cultures’ rites of passage, so perhaps we believe ours should be as painful and frightening. This attitude is neither helpful nor sympathetic to the circumstances of current and future ethnographers, but seems to be the prevailing and rather macho sentiment in the classroom.

I hope the readers of this post feel encouraged to contribute to this discussion and turn it into something positive and pragmatic. We are not weak, we do not need our hands held through fieldwork. We are powerful, qualified researchers trained in world-class institutions. We do not need to change fieldsites or give up our PhDs. But we do need our universities to advise and support us through the challenges of fieldwork, and react appropriately when we inform them of local hazards and their impact upon us.

Most importantly, we need to workshop a way of preparing ourselves mentally and physically for these hazards. We need to move away from the machismo culture of ethnographers ‘getting lost in the jungle’ and instead embrace the fact that we are real people, with real and valid emotions and real safety and health needs and concerns. The culture of reflexivity and self-awareness within anthropology is great and powerful, but we need to harness it to the experience of all genders in the field and use it to reform our methods and our writing styles. As anthropologists we cannot silence violence, that which is inflicted upon our interlocutors or ourselves. Witnessing our experiences in the field as well as duly preparing us for them is the responsibility of the universities that train us, but it is only with our input that we can bring change in our departments.


Malkki, L. (2007) Tradition and Improvisation in Ethnographic Field Research. In Cerwonka, A. and Malkki, L. (Eds.) Process and Temporality in Ethnographic Fieldwork. Chicago, IL. : University of Chicago Press.

Pollard, A. (2009) Field of screams: difficulty and ethnographic fieldwork. Anthropology Matters 11(2): 1-24.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s