Orientalized Gender and the Field

Salma Moustafa Khalil

Salma Moutafa Khalil is an ethnographer interested predominantly in the democratic Western state and how citizens interact with it. In conducting fieldwork in European contexts as a Middle Eastern woman she hopes to tackle the issues of Eurocentrism as well as gender stereotypes in the field. She is mainly interested in interdisciplinary work linking anthropological theory with political and communication theory. 


During my Masters program, I went to Leipzig to conduct my Masters fieldwork. My interest was in the memory of the GDR and how eastern Germans perceive their citizenship situation 27 years after reunification. Throughout my fieldwork I was curious about the role my identity would play in the field. I wondered how being a Middle- Eastern woman studying the west would be perceived and reacted to. I gave special focus to the directions that my interaction with the research participants took. It was an incredibly complex experience given the highly diverse group I interacted with, and the confusing impressions I was told I give. The context of being a Middle Easterner doing research in Europe was a powerful catalyst to many interactions and expected and unexpected discussions. I would like to particularly focus on my interactions with one group among my participants; my neighbors and social acquaintances.

The building in which I resided opened the door to a very particular group of participants, a group that knew little to nothing about the Middle East and Egypt except for what they occasionally came across in the news. The only exception was my flat-mate. I shared the apartment with a girl who was working on her Masters on the Middle East. She was the only connection between that region and the friends and neighbors frequenting our house to meet her “Egyptian/Muslim flat-mate.” Being the only foreigner in the building led to many challenging moments. Culture, gender and ignorance on both sides played a huge role in the day-to-day interactions. I was not necessarily ‘the Egyptian’, but I was certainly the outsider. While my neighbors and the friends I made living in this predominantly white area of Leipzig were more than happy to help with my research, they also had expectations, questions and opinions of their own.

While I had to answer a lot of questions about the politics of my country and what I thought about German politics, my sexuality was never absent from daily discussions. At a certain point, my flat-mate felt it was important to tell me the following: “This is Germany. You are free here to do whatever you want. Nobody will judge you. You can invite whomever you want, as well, boy or girl. You should have fun, explore”. And whenever I would be away for a night or two for interviews in other cities, she immediately assumed I was with a guy or a girl – and smiled cheekily at me. My very well-intentioned flat-mate clearly had my best interest in mind. Having done research on the Middle East herself, she felt she understood the challenges that women faced “where I come from”. For her, this was my chance to finally enjoy being away from home. It was also her chance to help me see that. She gave no consideration to the fact that I came to Leipzig from Amsterdam, where I had been living over a year, and have had the time to “explore”.

Meanwhile, men were constantly concerned about my safety. They felt it was their responsibility to warn me from “horny German men”, and to be careful of how close I become to other men who could only want sex from me. Some men would be very forward with me, visiting my house without earlier notice, making sure I knew they were available every day, faking coincidence meetings at places they know I frequented. Those same individuals would spend endless time warning me about the signs of untrustworthy men, signs they fulfill to the dot. The women around me constantly encouraged me to “be free”, while the men wanted me “safe” – mostly from themselves! Both were building on the fact that since I did not grow up there I did not know what my options and challenges could be, rarely considering how similar or different where I actually grew up might be; never bothering to ask. I was constantly being educated in my freedom and about the risks of becoming a finally liberated woman.

When it comes to gender and ethnicity during my fieldwork, I realize that there are issues women doing research struggle with anywhere. While in the field, I could read a lot and have conversations with other colleagues on fieldwork about our experiences as women. It goes without saying that western women do face stereotypes while doing work in the Middle East, mainly of already being ‘liberated’ and hence “easy”. In my case, I was the supposedly sheltered girl who needed to be guided out into the world. Chivalry is not dead in Germany – throughout my entire time there I wished it was. While my freedom was allegedly respected, my private life was a battlefield.

I often reflect on how much more difficult it would have been for me to interact with people in my fieldsite had I come directly from Cairo and not spent a few years back and forth in Europe prior to that experience, and learned what to expect. How would I have then reacted to questions like “is Islam really violent?” or “do you wear the headscarf in Cairo?” knowing the arguments that come back, mainly acquired through the media. My academic training did not prepare me for this. Instead, my ability to conduct this research altogether was more doubted than supported. Mostly, there was concern about my safety in a highly right wing area, but I could have benefited a lot from brainstorming over what to expect and how to react. There was also concern over the language barrier, but none over the cultural one; after all I seemed adjusted enough to my highly intellectual environment in Amsterdam. Meanwhile, I constantly had to balance between making sure I answer the questions sufficiently and in a nuanced manner, and asking my own questions. The answers had to be sufficient in order to fulfill the demand of reciprocity and it had to be nuanced so I would be taken seriously within my own research – fending off assumptions of Middle Easterners as unable to represent themselves intellectually (Said, 1979). My gender did not make achieving this balance any easier. My challenges – language, cultural or sexual, were not addressed in the literature I am commonly exposed to which mainly focus on data gathering method and taking fieldnotes – participant observation, is discussed as participation through observation and not much more. I had to discipline myself over my time in Europe to focus on what is important, and not to lose focus and resources, by maintaining respect and diplomacy in my reactions to questions mainly inquiring about my political views, on situations the inquirers knew little about.

Fieldwork is an exhausting experience, where you not only risk challenging the identities of your participants, but you are faced with your own identity being ruthlessly and consistently challenged as well. I am an Arab woman working on political issues in Europe and every day of my fieldwork I had to justify my presence there, I had to answer questions and be reflective and reciprocate. There are responsibilities that were made even heavier by a desire to be authentic and sincere to my participants and my work. By the end, I was left in an overwhelmed state. I remember the moment I sat down to write my thesis as being one of an emotional split. Looking through my field notes and re-listening to my interviews was an exercise in identifying what had a place in my thesis and what did not – an exercise that ended with the realization that gender expectations, my religion and nationality did not only guide my answers to their questions but, more importantly, my participants’ answers to mine. I might not have reacted very differently to what my field threw at me, but I might have been better prepared for it, gone through it with much less emotional drainage.

And this brings me to my main point. As an anthropologist, I consistently struggle to place myself within the field of study. The closest “type” of anthropologist I feel I could belong to is what Leila Abu Lughod calls “halfies” in her Writing Against Culture (1991). She defines this group as non-western academics doing research with a western education. However, even within that group, I am an exception. I do not study my community as an indigenous member, I study the west. As part of this group, I use western education and my eastern subjectivity to study a field I am unfamiliar with. Binary as these categories are, and important as it is to question them, they are still relevant – and that is the issue at hand.

Abu Lughod also discusses the different feminist challenges that the field brings about. Women’s experiences in the field are not the same anywhere and the place of non-western women in fields other than their own has not been sufficiently explored. Issues of orientalism, Eurocentrism and sexism are not ones the anthropologist needs to be aware of only within her own frame of thinking; they are also matters that she is faced with everyday while in the field. Being a woman has put me in a particular position among my participants, where my sexuality took a bigger place than I would have liked. Being a non-western woman gave another layer to that, where I was not only “unthreatening”, I was also seen as highly “vulnerable” and it was their responsibility to educate and shelter me – making it all the more difficult for me to assert my place as a researcher. Constantly, I was balancing, not only observing and being observed – but educating my surrounding about where I come from, fending off stereotypes, while accepting being educated on freedom, regardless of whether or not I actually wanted it.

While in the field, I always calculated when I would respond to certain comments or questions, and when I would choose to dismiss them, or brush them off as unfortunate humor. When a joke started with a disclaimer of being “potentially politically incorrect” I would give a calm face preparing to not laugh but not be upset either – as if to say “I accept your ignorance”. When my sexuality and personal choices were openly discussed or questioned, I would try, whenever possible to ask what people expected for an answer before responding. Very early on, I realized if I interpret all comments and questions as a response to my otherness, I would find it very difficult to cope and focus on my actual research. Instead, I took it all at face value, questions and comments, and reflected on what they could have meant later. The most valuable aspect of this experience was having a supervisor who despite not being able to anticipate what I will face in the field, encouraged me time and again to log in those experiences too, not deal with them immediately and not forget them either. They ended up being an integral part of my research and now a resource for me to work with, to accept and take on as part of my work. I have accepted being an woman, Middle Eastern anthropologist as the way in which I inhabit my life in Europe (Johnson 2016), I do not learn only from my field, but from my daily existence in an academic environment that struggles with placing me under a specialty, and from daily discussions with colleagues and professionals who welcome or challenge my choice of work. All of this, I hope will one day pave the way for other ethnographers to be more prepared, to have somewhere to look for guidance and advice the next time a non-white ethnographer studies a field other than their own.


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