Understand or Change?
What is the role of the anthropologist in the field? This question has been on my mind since I started to collect data for my master’s thesis in 2008. My main focus was the female body and women’s clothing choices as both independent agent and a part of self-identity. During my thesis, I questioned the implications of modest dressing in terms of the multiple meanings of the term oppression based on interviews, participant observation, group discussions, life stories and a literature review. In addition to modest dressing, I analyzed veiling as another dimension of covering the body. Overall, my purpose was to explore why women who belong to different communities, nationalities or religions dress modestly and the extent to which religion, ethnicity, family and peer groups connect to the motives of covering the body. For my sample, I interviewed 33 women from an American university belonging to a variety of faiths and cultures who considered themselves as dressing modestly. Based on this experience, I share my own story within the anthropology and advocacy debate here.
Muslim women were a significant part of my study since Islam requires women to dress modestly and veiling was going to be a chapter in my thesis. One of the study’s participants was a Muslim university student who covers her face and body. As I had expected, she had a very interesting story behind her dress choice. She insisted on covering her body and face even though she did not have any support from her community including her parents. In addition to her relevant contribution to my study, her courage, self-confidence and firm belief on modest dressing and veiling impressed me enormously.
Then, I remembered my college years in Turkey where women with headscarves were not allowed to study at college. There were different responses from women toward this ban: either taking off the headscarf or insisting on wearing it no matter the consequences. On the other hand, if a female student rejects removing her headscarf, she must have it concealed from the public view. If she is lucky not to be seen by the gate keepers, she could go to class with the headscarf as long as the professor allows her in. Trying to hide, unable to join any public educational event, and having constant fears about being subjected to college disciplinary action caused long-term traumatic stress on the majority of veiled women, including myself. Therefore during the course of my research about modest dress and understanding the underlying reasons behind it, I had to draw clear boundaries between understanding and changing (that is, advocating the group that is being studied).What was my role as an anthropologist: to analyze and understand modest dressing from an academic point of view using research methods and share my findings? Or to take a step further and have a tendency to address challenges women who dress modestly have and use my findings to advocate them?
Advocacy and Native/Insider Anthropology in General
Advocacy and insider/native anthropology have been discussed for years. Some anthropologists argued that advocacy is against the neutral nature of anthropology since the rationale behind advocating a particular cause can never be anthropological or scientific. It is also argued that anthropology seeks to comprehend the context of local interests, while advocacy implies the pursuit of one particular interest. It could be acceptable that anthropology may provide an important background for engaging in advocacy, which in some cases may present itself as a moral imperative. Overall, it is argued that anthropology and advocacy cannot be juxtaposed and the notion of advocacy cannot be anthropological.
On the other hand, according to some scholars, advocacy is an inevitable reality in some situations. Stuart Kirsch conducted an ethnographic study among indigenous population who lives by the Ok Tedi copper and gold mine in Papua New Guinea. Indigenous population has been affected adversely by the gold mine and the copper facilities belong to international corporations. So Kirsch argues that neutrality may not be possible in disputes between transnational corporations and indigenous communities because of structural inequalities. This is only one example that it is hard to be neutral while experiencing and observing an obvious exploitation due to the structural inequality.
There are certain situations where advocacy is inescapable. Being an insider in the field you study may also be discussed in this context. In fact, native anthropology already breaks the rules since it is against the dominant anthropological perspective which supports the customary position of anthropologists as detached from the local people being studied. Insider/native anthropologists experience the fluidity of identity as being an insider and outsider to the community. So, when we come back to the theme of advocacy, how can a native anthropologist distance herself from what is happening in the field and sustain the neutrality during the fieldwork?
Headscarf Ban and Advocacy
My research also triggers the questions about advocacy and anthropology especially as an insider. When I interviewed and observed the women who cover their entire bodies in a US university with all of their self-confidence, I wanted to relate their story with veiled women who were banned from entering universities in Turkey. At this juncture, I would like to provide a brief background on the headscarf ban in Turkey.
Starting from the 1980s until recently, even though there was not a clear statement about headscarves in the constitution or higher education regulations, existing regulations were interpreted in such a way that would ban women with a headscarf from getting a university education. Veiled women were seen as a threat to secularism and the regulation of the government (Göle 1999). The aim of secularism in Turkey was the modernization of all aspects of culture, state and society whose roots sprang from Islamic tradition, especially in the early republican era (1923–40). Due to this fact, veiling as an Islamic tradition was seen as a symbol of backwardness and oppression (Olson 1985). Practicing veiling in public institutions was viewed as jeopardizing the principles of modernization and secularism. Consequently wearing headscarves in schools, hospitals and governmental offices was banned. While Muslim women claim that veiling is an obligation for every woman according to the Quran, and their choice to practice veiling is due to the dominant Islamic commitment, it is argued that this practice exposed risks to the regulation of modernization and secularism. Therefore, veiled women faced numerous restrictions in the public arena in Turkey.
The essence of scholarly research requires the researcher to be honest. Successful researchers are the ones who question even the most basic assumptions. An insider (or sometimes an outsider) may not even realize how assumptions may shape the outcome of her research. Research questions, methodology, assumptions and their justifications must be laid out very clearly in any scholarly research. A researcher should not be concerned whether her findings advocate the group or not as such concerns may significantly deviate from the study from academic standards. Therefore researchers who are also insiders should pay extra attention to distance themselves from such concerns.
Insiders, however, can be more productive and contribute to the literature if they can figure out ways to challenge norms accepted by the group that may be unknown to an outsider. Insiders also have an advantage in collecting more information that may increase the quality and reliability of the study. When it comes to whether or not these findings advocate the group, I believe, researchers must rely on the collective wisdom that may develop in the long run. I also believe, even though this may take a long time, any objective research finding may eventually help the group that is being studied.
In my research, I tried to challenge women who dress modestly. My aim was not to justify their decision or to advocate them but to understand different motivations behind modest dressing. I personally believe that wearing a headscarf or dressing modestly is a personal right and should be respected but this should not form the basis of my study.
The laws and regulations that apply to higher education institutions in Turkey are the same. The attitude toward a headscarf, however, is changing. Most people who used to think it was a political symbol now see it as a religious right and a form of expression of identity. Wearing a headscarf or not is no longer a criterion for college admission. It is difficult to say how much of this change is due to scholarly research but I have a firm belief that studies aimed at understanding the group and analyzing the dimensions of the headscarf ban had more impact than the ones that advocated the group.
Hülya Doğan is a PhD student in cultural anthropology at Texas A&M University, College Station. Her research interests include immigration, refugees, identity, gender and Meskhetian Turks. Her current research is the identity (re)formation process of Meskhetian Turks in the United States.