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The Gender Hubcast: Engaging in the Messiness of Field Work: Feminist Approaches to International Studies

The Gender Hub | Published on November 28, 2023

In this episode, hosted by Kirsten Ainley, Hubcast guests – Marsha Henry, Choman Hardi, and Keshab Giri – dive into the messiness of fieldwork in feminist approaches to international studies.

Whether you’re preparing for fieldwork, making sense of fieldwork, or just want to learn more about the messiness of fieldwork, join us for these expert, incisive, and honest reflections on the power of feminist fieldwork to capture complexity and transform societies, while calling on us to navigate discomfort and to hold an ethic of care at the forefront of our research encounters. 

About the contributors

Kirsten Ainley is Associate Professor of International Relations at the Australian National University, a visiting Associate Professorial Research Fellow at the Centre for Women, Peace and Security at the London School of Economics, and the co-Principal Investigator of the UKRI GCRF Gender, Justice and Security Hub. Her research focuses on international policy and practice in military, legal and development-focused interventions, and on the gendered impacts of these interventions.

Choman Hardi is an educator, writer, and scholar. Funded by the Leverhulme Trust, her post-doc- toral research, Gendered Experiences of Genocide: Anfal Survivors in Kurdistan-Iraq (Routledge, 2011) was named a UK Core Title by the Yankee Book Peddler. Since 2010, poems from her first English collection, Life for Us (Bloodaxe, 2004) have been studied by secondary school students as part of their English GCSE curriculum in the UK. Her second collection, Considering the Women (Bloodaxe, 2015), was given a recommendation by the Poetry Book Society and shortlisted for the prestigious Forward Prize for Best Collection.

Keshab Giri is a Lecturer at University of St Andrews, UK and Research Fellow at Women and Public Policy Program, Harvard Kennedy School. Keshab’ research interest include gender and war, intersectionality, intimacy and violent politics, and feminist research methodology.

Marsha Henry is Associate Professor at the Department of Gender Studies at LSE. Dr Henry’s research interests focus on gender, peace and security; gender and militarisation; gender and development; and intersectional feminist methodologies. Over the past 20 years, her research has concentrated on documenting the social experiences of living and working in peacekeeping missions. Her book on this two decades ethnographic-inspired research, ‘The End of Peacekeeping: Gender, Race, and the Martial Politics of Intervention’ will be out this spring with University of Pennsylvania Press.

Links to the work of the contributors

Articles Mentioned in the Episode:

Podcast producers: Claire Wright, Dr Michelle Callander, Tanya Bhat, Dr Chloé Lewis and Alan Keenan. A special thanks to L aura from Enlit audio for your production and advice, and to Nicky Armstrong for the communications.

Transcript

Intro: You’re listening to the Gender HubCast, where academics, fieldworkers, and practitioners come together to discuss and promote gender equality in the study and practice of peacebuilding. We are thrilled to share conversations with our remarkable partners and explore the critical issues of gender justice and inclusive peace, making sure these vital perspectives reach across the globe. Get ready to be inspired, informed, and empowered!

In this episode, hosted by Kirsten Ainley, HubCast guests – Marsha Henry, Choman Hardi, and Keshab Giri – dive into the messiness of fieldwork in feminist approaches to international studies. Whether you’re preparing for fieldwork, making sense of fieldwork, or just want to learn more about the messiness of fieldwork, join us for these expert, incisive, and honest reflections on the power of feminist fieldwork to capture complexity and transform societies, while calling on us to navigate discomfort and to hold an ethic of care at the forefront of our research encounters.

Kirsten Ainley: Hello, and welcome to the Gender Justice and Security HubCast. My name is Kirsten, your host for today’s episode. Joining us today are three members of the UKRI GCRF Gender Justice and Security Hub: Choman Hardy, who’s based at the American University of Iraq, Soleimani; Marsha Henry, who’s based at the London School of Economics; and Keshab Giri, who’s based at the University of Sydney.

I’m Kirsten Ainley. I have affiliations at both the Australian National University and the London School of Economics, and I’m co-Principal Investigator of the Hub. I’m joining you today from unceded Ngunnawal and Ngambri Lands in Australia, and want to acknowledge the elders past, present, and emerging who have cared for this land.

The title for today’s episode is ‘Engaging in the Messiness of Field Work: Feminist Approaches to International Studies’, which is based on the participation of several members of the Gender justice and Security Hub at the International Studies Conference held in Montreal back in March 2023. Today’s discussion is a continuation of that one, focusing on both the advantages and challenges that arise from incorporating feminist perspectives within research and international studies and indeed beyond.

Our guests will also highlight the potential of feminist field work to foster ethical knowledge production and contribute to a fairer global society. We’d like to acknowledge Alba Boer Cueva and Laura Shepard here as they’ve been instrumental in putting together the round table and this episode of HubCast, but unfortunately, they’re unable to join us today. So, before we begin on the chat, I want to invite our guests to tell us a bit more about themselves and how they came to the topic of feminist field work. Choman.

Choman Hardi: Hi, good morning, good afternoon, wherever you are. So my name is Choman Hardi. I am an academic and also a creative writer. I became a refugee in the UK. I ended up completing my education and returned home after 26 years. I now teach at the American University of Iraq Sulaimani, and I’ve established the Gender Studies Centre here. I guess I just wanted to start by saying how I started realizing why feminist field work and the feminist perspective on research is important.

As a young woman starting out, I couldn’t help noticing like many of us that most of the dominant narratives and the historical narrations written by men. And in that sense, they write them. The men survivors of genocide, men survivors of revolution, men leaders of movements, write their memoirs, write historical books. And in that, from that perspective, they highlight the role they themselves played and other men played in whatever subject they’re addressing.

And I always had this problem where I had many questions that were not answered, and those questions were usually about women and their experiences. Because men and women’s experiences in reality are different, men and women’s interpretation of events are different. They even recount and remember things differently. There are differences in gender in the way people remember, and memory’s gendered. I really had many questions about how women coped, how women suffered or survived, or what strategies they had access to, what support networks they had. And in particular, I had many questions about issues related to women’s bodies.

And most of the time when I mentioned these questions, men would respond by either trivializing it. So a man once told me when men were being killed, you are worried about women having access to clean clothing in prison; this is really insignificant. And another man once said to me, so one, one method was trivializing. The other method was not talk about sensitive subjects, because that’s better for women. So, when I, whenever I ask questions about sexual abuse or rape or prostitution, men researchers would be saying to me, if you want to help women, then you shouldn’t bring these topics up because it will further stigmatize the survivors.

And I was, the histories, the stories I was interested in, women’s migration stories, women’s survival of the genocide, women’s role in the revolution were all gendered subjects that were where the perspective of women and many other groups were missing. And that’s how I started my work in this area.

Kirsten Ainley: Thank you very much. Keshab, would you tell us a little bit more about yourself and your work?

Keshab Giri: Oh, thank you so much for inviting me to this talk. And I feel humbled as well as intimidated by so many luminaries here speaking with you. Before I start, I would like to acknowledge that I’m talking to you today from the traditional lands of Gadigal, people of the Eora nation, I pay my respects to elders past and present and thank them for their ongoing custodianship of country.

I’m from Nepal. I, before I was introduced to feminism research, I did my masters from the University of Essex quite steeped in a quantitative, traditional research method. And then my research based on my lived experience because my childhood and early adulthood coincided with conflict in Nepal.

For instance, in Nepal between 1996 and 2006 I was a victim of war. And then I wanted to write about it. Particularly I was fascinated by women combatants. Some of my friends also joined the Maoist group, so I wanted to write about them. But when I went to Nepal for my field work, I had, what I had on my mind was that I would do a large sort of survey, large survey and then try to uncover causal impact that women would have on conflict dynamics.

But then as I started listening to these complex stories of women combatants, it became apparent that the training that I had was inadequate. I could not capture the complexity, the complex experiences, of women in some kind of quantitative modelling and then, and then say that I represent their experience.

So that drew me closer to feminist research methodology, and then that’s how I started studying more and more feminist research and research ethics and methodologies. And I realized that this not only results in better research, but also it is transformative that it seeks to change unequal structures and change it towards equal, fair and just society. And that’s how I started, like that’s how I converted into feminist research. Currently I focus on intersectionality, and I look at, as a male researcher, how do I include feminist research tenets, praxis into my research and in, in the things in the work that I do.

That is something I’m focused on currently. Some of the things that I will talk about today is also based on our paper that I co-authored with Laura Shepherd, Alba Boer Cueva and Caitlin Hamilton on decolonial feminist politics of field work, centring community reflexivity and loving accountability.

So my association with Gender Justice and Security Hub has been, has had a transformative impact on my research. I got to not just meet so many feminist scholars, but also it had a deep impact on the way I understand research and not just to write better, write better do better research, but also how I live raise this for the, so for the betterment of society.

Kirsten Ainley: Thank you, Keshab. There’s so much here that I want to dig into already. Let’s turn to Marsha to learn a little bit more, Marsha, about you and what you do.

Marsha Henry: Okay. Thank you. Thank you again for organizing, all the organizers for arranging this panel that we had a very short rehearsal in Montreal.

But I think it was good because load of issues came up during that panel that have been, that I think are enduring themes and enduring questions that we have in fieldwork, and especially in feminist fieldwork. So I’m so glad to be able to engage in some of these. How I came to be interested in discussing and writing about fieldwork was through my own immersion and training as a sociological, as a feminist sociological researcher when I was doing my PhD.

And I was struck by the kind of the oppositional experience that I had. So, I had read in preparation for doing field work in India where I was researching reproductive decision making and family planning from a feminist sociological perspective. I came across mostly classical, but perhaps more critical reflections on field work. And I didn’t realize till I was actually in the field doing field work that I had, that my experiences did not bear any resemblance to what I had read and what I had learned through some of these more classical texts and some of these classical texts were even, were feminist texts.

They were texts about, mainly about three issues. And so, these are the issues that I think I’ve been engaging with for the majority of my research career. They don’t go away; I think they’re staples. Those are around power in research relationships and issues around reciprocity and whether we, whether we owe something to the people that we engage in our research and whether people owe things to us depending on our position, and I guess identities of the researchers is the third theme that I’ve been interested in.

And I’m interested in that theme. Like, who is the person that is going to do research and going to do field work, and how do they fit into the field or not fit in? But I don’t want, I’ve never wanted to look at that only as a, as self-reflective exercise as a kind of naval gazing exercise. I always wanted to look at how does that actually impact our research and the people that we work with and what are the consequences for the kinds of things we publish?

So those are the kind of three overriding themes that came out of my original, this unequal kind of, or this imbalance between what I read and what I prepared for and then what I experienced. And, and these are the three themes that I think contribute very much. And other people will talk about these experiences that relate to these themes, I think. And yeah, and I look forward to saying more in a bit. Do you want me to say something about where I’m located in gender studies?

Kirsten Ainley: Why not?

Marsha Henry: Yeah. I’ll just say that I’m in the Department of Gender Studies at LSE and I think that, that obviously that makes me, positioned in a certain way in relation to feminist field work. But it also, I think reflects this very interdisciplinary background that I have and the interdisciplinary environment that I’m working in. So it’s always great, I think, to share fieldwork experiences with a range of scholars coming from different disciplines or different traditions even if they’re from the same discipline but different traditions. And so yes, actually coming from a gender studies department, I think situates me epistemically and disciplinary-wise in a unique way. Yeah. Thanks.

Kirsten Ainley: Thanks, Marsha. And I would hope that the producers of the HubCast will be providing links to the work that these three scholars do because it’s outstanding. I’ve had the privilege of working with all three for many years now and know a lot of your experiences of the kind of the wonder and discomfort of field work, of the forms of conflict and violence exercise a gendered power that you’ve been exposed to. So, thanks for being willing to talk about some of that discomforting experience today because I think it really helps us understand a lot more, as you say, Marsha, identities of researchers matter. We used to imagine the researcher was a blank somehow, which is simply going and gathering data. But that recognition that our identities matter, our identities impact on the ways that we research and what we find out is really crucial. But it’s also messy. And Marsha, I wondered if you would tell us a little bit more about the idea of messiness in fieldwork. So, the HubCast is called ‘Engaging in the messiness of fieldwork’. So why might you characterize fieldwork and perhaps specifically feminist fieldwork as messy?

Marsha Henry: Okay, great. So I, I’ve been interested in this sort of mess, the idea of messiness for quite a while. From the perspective of, like, literal messiness, when you, when things don’t go right. So I’m using messiness in a very broad and literal sense. When you, when your flight doesn’t arrive or you show up and the people that you are supposed to meet are not there, or they don’t cooperate in the way that you hoped they would or, yeah, or research participants really resist and fight back to your research questions. So there’s lots of like literal and figurative messiness in the field. So I guess that’s one of the reasons why I characterize it like that.

But also, I guess I see field work as messy. And I remember once, actually, I’m just going to go back because I remember once participating in a workshop at the British Academy and it was about various themes in conflict and post-conflict sort of settings around security. And so people were talking a little bit about their experiences of field work and, and they were trying to carve out a space to talk about all the slippages and the messiness and the things that didn’t work out quite as they’d hoped and how they responded to it. And then someone from the, I think someone from the Foreign and Commonwealth office was like, I don’t think the funders would really appreciate a section in the report that was like the messiness of fieldwork, and then all the researchers got really anxious that I had somehow introduced this messiness.

And I think they took it literally in a different sense, because there’s so many senses, which was like, field work that did not work out, and therefore the results are called into question. But I think, yeah, so I, I always think that it’s really important to think about if you engage messiness in your reflections on field work, to be really cognisant and careful about what that means for the results and the findings that you have, what you produce as your account of yourself in the field, and others in the field. So messiness is, has to be with responsibility. You can’t just say, this is the mess of fieldwork and this is what I got from it and take it as you will. I can’t help that this person felt offended, or messiness is about, giving an account of the things that didn’t work out and how you responded to those, and some of the ethical quandaries that you have in the messiness of field work. So that’s so there’s the literal messiness of things as you experience it and how you cope.

But I think there’s the important aspect of messiness, which is about our feminist responsibilities. Which, I mean they apply to everyone even if you’re not doing feminist work. But I think feminists have been particularly vocal about some of these dilemmas and issues of messiness. And that’s partly why I like discussing these issues.

Kirsten Ainley: Thanks, Marsha. Choman, Keshab, would you like to add anything?

Choman Hardi: Yeah, if I may. So yeah, absolutely, I agree. There is the practical sense of messiness, the driver falling sick, the guide not being there, the accommodation falling through, some questions not working out, not getting responses, other questions appearing that you hadn’t even thought about, other issues becoming important in the context. But I think in terms of the ethicality, research has been produced, communities have opened the doors to researchers thinking that this research will be beneficial for them. It will carry their voice to a higher level where people would understand about their situation and then the result, they had been very unhappy about how they have been represented, how the data has been analysed, ethical issues about – are you trying to give us voice or are you actually trying to stigmatize us further or open us to more discrimination or expose us in some ways. So I think too for all of us as researchers, we continuously, we have fragments. There is this term of intersubjectivity where you think that at least as a young researcher, you start off thinking that if a subject was mentioned by several people, then obviously it has, this event has happened, this is true. But many times you also come across times when only one person talks about an issue. And it is true because it’s a very sensitive subject that the others don’t talk about. So you’re continuously having to reflect about, where is the truth, what does this mean? And sometimes, I think in particular, if you’re an outsider coming into a community, you have your own perceptions and background. And if you end up not checking that with the informants, your understanding, your analysis of a situation, then it, you may be completely misunderstanding and misrepresenting the group. So there are many issues, ethical issues that goes with knowledge production. And what is the purpose of this research? And is your interpretation a correct one? Does it provide opportunities for having voice or does it stigmatize and bring more problems to the community research? And I think many of us try to keep these ideas in mind and try to make sense of all the mess and all the different information we get and interpret the silence as well as the voice, the inter subjectivity and the lack of it, and try to have a coherent analysis, which may even that be a challenge because sometimes it is just fragments. And that’s the reality of the situation and our need for cause and effects, narration and, things leading to other, and things making sense in particular in tragic and conflict situations may not be the truth, may not be how things are.

Keshab Giri: Okay. I don’t think I have much to add here. Apart from as well as literal messiness of field work, I think this came, messiness of field work particularly in feminist research, came as a response to the traditional field work that is seen as orderly, linear, un-gendered, unreflective, and based on superficial reflection, very individualized and created in the line of Cartesian binary between emotion and reason, researcher and research field and so on. I think relationality is one way to highlight that messiness in field work that we do not create knowledge in vacuum. It is a product of complex relationships, negotiation, interactions between researcher, research participants and the field. So I think this highlights that knowledge is a mediated process. It does not exist prior to the research process and we, it is co-constructed by people involved in research and it was clear, as I mentioned my previous experience with my fieldwork, I had something else in my mind when I went to fieldwork in, into the field. And then it changed based on the relationship I developed and the negotiation I had and then, and it is not always planned. So research is a complex process, and it is not only researcher who is involved in this, but also research participants and then the broad community of research there.

I think the next challenge for us is to how we make research as a collective endeavour. It is a collective endeavour, but how do we acknowledge that. How do we credit our research participants in a more equitable way? I think that would be the challenge. I know there is a big debate, like who has authority final say on intellectual product. We had a discussion on this, in, in our panel in ISA as well. But I think that’s one area if we focus more, I think we can contribute to more equitable and just knowledge production.

Kirsten Ainley: Thanks everybody. You’re bringing up topics which I think are some of the key contributions that feminist work has made to shared discipline and others in emphasizing that the people we work with are people who have an interest in the research questions and they may have their own research questions that they may not be able to get funding for because they’re not academics, but are actually really important and generating knowledge around those questions could be useful. But there also is, as Choman says, people who are put at risk by participating, and we’re sometimes put at risk by participating in the research that we do. And so asking people to think about their research in ways which don’t centre them but acknowledge their impact on the research and the impact of those that they’re researching, researching ideally with, rather than simply researching as if they’re data, is such an important contribution. But also, of course then thinking about care, which hasn’t come up much at the moment, but is implied by a lot of what you’re saying is the care that may be needed for our research participants.

What do we owe in terms of duties of care and not just institutional ethics codes, which may sometimes be mostly about protecting the institution, but what do we owe to the people that we are working with and what do we owe to ourselves in terms of care when engaging in research and often very challenging situations, and I know for some of you situations in which you’ve faced very significant personal risk.

All right, we’re coming back after experiencing the messiness of Zoom meetings when our Zoom collapsed in the middle of recording our international HubCast. So thank you very much everybody for your patience. It’s great to see everybody back. Choman was speaking about the research, the responsibility that we have to our research participants as our call collapsed. And I’m going to ask Choman to finish that thought because it’s, it sounded profound until I lost you, Choman.

Choman Hardi: Thank you. So I was just talking about after the principle of do no harm. It’s empowering practice and how silences need to be respected, boundaries need to be respected, research should not be extractive. It’s a negotiation as many other colleagues here have been talking about between us and the participants. And I think another thing I faced personally was in the middle of interviews, women were also curious about my life. They were like, okay, you are asking me too many questions. I don’t know who you are. So either before or in the middle after, they would usually be questions about, are you married? Do you have kids? Where do you live? How was your life? Who’s your father? And I personally felt that I owe it to them to be transparent about all these things, and also many questions about why are you doing this research? Is this for poetry? Is this for research? Where is it going to be published? In what language? How is this going to be beneficial to me? To be open about the limitations of your thing as well. So there were women who would come to me, for example, survivors of gas attacks who were severely ill, and they came because they thought I would be working for an international organisation, and I could get them help. And it was always heartbreaking, but I repeatedly had to say that this is research. It may not lead to any form of direct help, but I am trying to make sure people will hear your voice and will hear your story. And this may hopefully at some stage lead to some help, but not directly. So these principles of being honest, of sharing power, of being open about yourself, of doing no harm, of being empowering and reminding participants that their trauma or whatever difficult situation they’ve gone into is only a part of their lives.

It’s not reducing their value to their victimhood, to their pain, but seeing them as a full human being and helping them also see that. So this may not happen during the interview, but in the time you spent with the people that you visit before or after, or revisits. I’ve done several interviews where I was able to revisit the participant again and have a conversation afterwards about why we did the research and what I think of them and so on and so forth. And I think if we have time, these are very small, but very important things that make sure that we care. We don’t just extract knowledge and leave the person to suffer whatever the consequences may be.

Kirsten Ainley: Choman, thank you for that. And there’s a lot more that we could say about care, but I want to pick up on what you’re talking about in terms of sharing aspects of ourselves, sharing aspects of our identities with each other, with the people that we’re conducting research with. And I wonder if I could turn to Keshab, who’s been doing work on intersectionality, to ask you about what the concept of intersectionality entails and how feminist approaches can integrate this concept effectively.

Keshab: Sure. Yeah, it was fascinating to hear, Choman, you talking about the ethics of care and also moral responsibility. I think that is also very relevant when we consider intersectionality. Normally we think that, okay, our relationship is with the research community. I’m speaking in terms of me as a scholar based in Global North institution going into Global South, like Nepal and conducting my research. And it involves a lot of different axes of power involved. And often when we think of reciprocity, it is not merely exchange of ideas, right? It is also in it, it’s also embedded the way we can help each other out in terms of, in a practical way. For example, I was, when I was doing field work, I still have relationship with that field work and we exchange ideas and sometimes I also help the community with writing grant proposals and so on. So how do we make this relationship more equal and sustainable and equitable? It’s not just that we are going there and then extracting the ideas, data for our own research, but also what can we do in return? And then that for me, that also involves, as I said before, reckoning with the power, and its impact on research process and in lives of people that we write on. And the power is a very complex concept.

Power operates in multiple axes simultaneously and feminist research, one of the core parts of doing feminist research is to expose this complex working of power in terms of, gender, race, class, cast, sexuality, and so many others. Intersectional lens, in this sense, is essential in feminist fieldwork and research.

And I want to input here a quote from Dzodan in 2011. She said that my feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit. It is a rallying call to critique any trajectory of feminism that does not directly advocate or recognize the experiences of people of color. While feminist approaches incorporate intersectional lens in theorising, in analysing, or in understanding complex working of power, it is also important to use feminist intersectional entity as a methodological tool.

Patricia Hill Collins said that our methodological practices are conduits or vehicles for intersectional theorising. So it is important that we integrate intersectional methodology in our research and there are different ways of doing this. So I, when I was writing on my research project on experiences of women combatants in the Maoist instance in Nepal I, the intersectionality as a methodological tool was just being used. It was in back in 2017 and 18. And I found a research article by obviously Patricia Hill Collins, and others have written on this. Marsha Henry also writes on this – sorry, I feel nervous speaking in front of Marsha here. Maybe you can add on to this. And there, there was, there is one article like by Misra, Corrington and then Green who write in 2020. They use the article name is ‘Methods of Intersectional Research’. So that came in 2020 on Sociological Spectrum journal article. And that they use operation, relationality complexity, context, comparison, and deconstruction as key methodological tenets of intersectional research.

And secondly, embedding reflexivity is a part of feminist practice throughout research process including in field work. Reflexivity is concerned with recognizing and engaging with our own intersectional and messy identities as well as reflecting on contextual, economic, social, political structures and processes that shape the form and effects of the field work.

And in my article also that was published in 2022, ‘Can men do feminist research?’, I reckon with my intersectional identity and how different axes of power embedded in my positionality influence my research before, during, and after my field work. Since we are prioritizing research as a value-neutral, objective, and purely rational enterprise, intersectionality brings much needed nuances and texture in thinking about knowledge production as a working of power.

So that’s why I think intersectionality is very useful. And then there are so many ways to do intersectional research, which makes it fascinating, but also at the same time really, I don’t know, intimidating the feeling or sense, okay, I might have missed some core element of intersectional method and so on. But that certainly, that was my feeling when I, and when I was thinking through this.

Kirsten Ainley: Thank you, Keshab, and you’re not alone. We’re all nervous speaking in front of Marsha! This work has been incredibly important to hear. Marsha, is there anything you’d like to add to that or reflect on what Keshab has said?

Marsha Henry: Oh I feel so sad that’s the effect I have on people! Actually I think it’s really great what you are developing, Keshab, and, I’ve been engaged with all of your work, not necessarily on field work, Choman’s poetry, for example, in a piece that I wrote with another colleague, Jelke Boeston on field, on the, some of the challenges of fieldwork.

So there are many different ways in which our work inspires each other, and that’s also part of the perhaps not messiness, but part of this collective narratives that we are, and it actually reflects what happens in field work, which is this co-construction that is going on.

But it’s very hard to acknowledge that co-construction without, either purporting that people in the field are equivalent to you, which is also problematic or giving them a voice that they don’t quite want, so I think, yes, so thank you for bringing that up. I would just say one thing about intersectionality that’s partly inspired by what you’ve said, Keshab, which is, for me, intersectionality kind of constantly reminds me – it does two things.

One is, I use it as this sensitizing tool. So I think about intersectionality when I come across a situation that I don’t know how to proceed with or I don’t know how to grasp, a kind of dilemma in the field, but also outside of the field. In the field, sometimes the intensity of doing field work in a particular place, you come across some kind of conundrum, some problem, some dilemma. And intersectionality can, I think, help you pay attention to things. So I use it as the sensitizing tool.

And the second thing is, what it does when you apply it as this sensitizing tool is it makes you pay attention to systems of power. So when I say systems of power, what I really mean is not just interpersonal power relations, those are important, but the larger systems of power that are at play.

And so for me, intersectionality really helps remind me of those larger systems. So, if I just think about an interpersonal kind of relationship between me and a participant, and I feel I can acknowledge in, in that this participant is exercising some power over me in the moment. And, but of course, if you think about it in a much larger picture on a global scale or a sort of, yeah, a geopolitical scale, then the power that they’re exercising over me is nothing compared to the power that I hold as a result of my situatedness in the world, my privilege. And so for me, intersectionality also like really brings up those issues and helps you navigate them.

And I think in particular, Keshab, both you and I have these very different situated messes in relation to being global, feeling like we belong in the Global South, or we’re doing research in the Global South. And then what does it mean to be from the diaspora. For you, a very new experience of being in the, a relatively new experience of being in the diaspora. Perhaps you don’t necessarily use those identity labels in the same way that I do, but yeah. So I think intersectionality really does help me do that work of unpacking power relations and, yeah, so thank you very much for doing that, that some of that work.

Kirsten Ainley: Thanks Marsha. Thanks also for highlighting the entangling of feminist communities and the entangling of the work that’s done within this group. I want come to Choman in a minute, but I want to add a question to you, Choman, when you are reflecting on this because what Marsha’s mentioned about feminist work is key to many of us in sustaining us in this work, is the idea of building on work that’s being done, standing on other’s shoulders, giving each other community both as scholars and within communities of research participants.

And this may be more important now than ever, the way that power is exercised against women, against trans people, against rights activists, against feminists at various forms in the contemporary world suggest that we might need these entangled communities now more than ever. Choman, in your reflections, I wonder if you might say something about whether the current sociopolitical climate is favourable to the discussion of this kind of feminist field work and intersectional approaches.

Choman Hardi: Thank you. If I may just add a little something to what Marsha said. I think that concept of sensitizing oneself to intersectionality, I actually use that a lot in my teaching because I find that students, when we talk about women’s rights, they’re much more resistant and then, but because they’re, the majority of the population are Kurdish here and they very much understand the concept of Kurdish history being written by the central governments that have oppressed the Kurdish community, for example. So whenever we talk about the necessity of women’s voices being heard, I usually compare it with a Kurdish story and that somehow clicks. And also the fact that many students would say, oh, but women are the key, the soldiers of patriarchy, they are the installers of patriarchy. I usually remind them that’s the same with the Kurdish community – we had many collaborators with the government. Oppressed communities tend to be divided and some of them are used as tools against others. So I think concept of intersectionality is not only important for research, but also for carrying important ideas forward and making connections with students who may not understand one level and understand the other.

On your question about the political climate and whether it’s suitable, I personally, speaking from this context, I think it’s not at all favourable to this discussion. We have I think an international backlash unfolding generally at this moment. An attempt to roll back on the rights, to block any new changes, to demonize activists and human rights defenders and feminists and all the different activists of different areas, this sort of portraying the activists and the academics in the field as corrupt, as disconnected from the community, as sometimes agents of imperialism. More recently in our community, they’re calling us the Trojan horse. We are bringing in the destruction of the community under the name of women’s rights, supposedly, according to them.

I think it’s a very shrinking space for conversations about rights in general and women’s rights and that’s probably why it’s very important to create these safe spaces where we can have these conversations. I’ve always said this, that the conservative forces are usually very much united, no matter how much they disagree they agree on certain things, and they work together. We haven’t been very good at doing that. So recently we’re having these conversations with small groups of people about what can we do to create this space to, to empower each other and to support each other, and to have these conversations.

And I think one, one of the things we are trying to do here is to find people in different fields. They may be not just activists or academics; artists, those who have sports clubs for young people, those who teach music to students, whoever has similar values and wants to create a similar world to us, to reach out to them to create these small groups and conversations and to create an understanding and a foundation from which we can build. Because at this moment, I think we, many of us feel under threat.

Kirsten Ainley: Thanks, Choman. Keshab or Marsha, would you like to add anything to that?

Keshab Giri: I will just echo what Choman already said. I think there is a huge backlash in terms of discussion of feminist ideas, feminist field work and approaches. In, I can speak of from Nepal based on my experience there. Because whenever we, like, whenever we have any discussion on feminist issues and then we post anything on social media, the immediate response we get is okay, you are like Choman said, you are receiving some dollars to, to do this. You are like Trojan horse, you are corrupting our culture, our tradition, and they always hearken back to this, culture and tradition and respectability, honour of women and so on. And then telling that okay, you are just foreigners actually, you are destroying, you are trying to destroy our society. You are making an, you are putting Nepal in a trajectory towards being another Iraq, another Afghanistan, another Syria, and so on. It’s very difficult to deal with this.

And then, and there is this international connection. We are talking about intersectionality, right? How those big structures, the power structures are connected. And recently there was a similar thing with the Hindu throughout India, and I have feminist friends there based in different part of India. They also tell me there is a huge backlash and that this is very difficult for them to express themselves. And recently we got there, there’s Wiki leaks came out – not Wiki leaks, but there was a revelation – that BJP was providing money in Nepal to uphold Hindu to dismantle secularism and so on. So these, all those forces are connected. This is not just isolated incident and that, that is, that makes life very difficult for especially people like Choman and other feminist scholars based in Global South, is very difficult. They, there’s a lot of regional backlash and even physical attack against them, so it’s really difficult that, that’s all I have to, yeah. And then I think you are familiar with what happened with the scholars, feminist scholars in Afghanistan, and I don’t need to explain that further.

Kirsten Ainley: Thank you, Keshab. Marsha.

Marsha Henry: Maybe just a note, just a recommendation of a piece in case somebody’s reading, listening to this and decides that they want to explore some older and newer articles. I think Keshab has mentioned a couple already and so I was just thinking about a piece that I read relatively late in my field work, the sort of journeys, and it’s a piece by Nancy Shepherd Hughes called Towards a Militant Anthropology. And I think it relates to the discussion that Choman and Keshab just been having about how you, I guess, situate your own research and who you want it to speak to, like what audiences you want it to, what individuals you want to read it or you want to affect. And in that piece, if I recall correctly, Shepherd Hughes talks about how for years she went to continually do her research in this environment. And over the many projects she did with the same community, they continually asked for her help in advocating for resources or political rights or political presence.

And she just kept saying, this is, in a way, she kept thinking, this is my research project. I can’t really get involved in this to a certain extent, or I can’t, I won’t represent them properly. I’m not from the community. So there was some real, genuine thinking behind it. But after 20 plus years of returning to this community, she began to think that really there was an ethical and moral responsibility. To somehow give something back to that community and to respond to the kinds of demands they had. So it wasn’t just about reciprocity in the simplistic sense, but it was about like what kind of life do we want to have as researchers? And what kind of lives do we want to advocate for or preserve to some extent. And so she argues for really a much more, I think when she talks about a militant anthropology she’s not talking about a militarized anthropology, but she’s talking about one that is politically forceful, politically wilful.

And I think that’s a really important point that I think Keshab and Choman were, we’re touching on about the need to think about: What does it mean to be a feminist researcher? What are the kind of ethical and political goals that one has in doing this research that reach far beyond the text and the individuals that you’ve spoken to?

And so what are our feminist political obligations, I guess, would be something that I would incorporate. Yeah.

Kirsten Ainley: Thanks, Marsha. So I can keep talking to you all for hours, but I think we’re going to have to wrap up soon. But just before we do, let me pick up on something you’ve just said, Marsha, about the way, what we owe to those that we work with and how to frame ourselves, think about ourselves as researchers, our ethics and obligations within that, and perhaps you could each in making some final comments build on the idea of what advice or recommendation you’d offer to early career researchers and field workers who want to incorporate feminist approaches into their work. Maybe we’ll, I’ll ask Keshab first, and then we’ll go to Choman and Marsha before we wrap up.

Keshab: Yeah. I feel guilty of, saying this in negative, bringing this negative feeling that there is a doom and gloom, but that’s precisely what makes this idea of community and kinship really important that we, if we hold together, then then yeah, we can fight, right?

And also that also foregrounds feminist commitment, willpower, and then ethical and political goals. We, I mean I am not completely feminist, I’m pro-feminist, right? There are contestation with the levels. But one goal when I decided that I’m going to be pro-feminist throughout my life was to, that I’m going to devote my life to make egalitarian and just society. So I, that, that’s the political goal of doing this research. And it’s not easy. I was not naive about this. I know there would be challenges. So based on that, I think for early career researcher particularly, and fieldwork workers, particularly those who are interested in feminist research and methodology, I would first ask myself like who I am, who am I? Why am I doing this research? What am I going to do with this research? And what are the implications of my research? How does this research benefit my community? And what is power in the research? I think I would question myself deeply. This kind of critical self-reflection and interrogation, this is very important. This is not something afterthought, but it is something I think we need to start from the very beginning. And I would suggest that we, that we read more feminist approaches to research and feminist works, but also based on my experience, because I also read a lot of conventional IR work and that gave me, when I decided that I will be pro-feminist, I was well informed, like why I am coming to this side. And then it makes, this kind of eclectic reading, also makes you better informed and it keeps you, you better with the concepts, frameworks, and tools to do your research and also respond to the people who say that, okay you don’t know much. And then, you can tell that, okay, I know I am familiar with the debates in both side of divide. And then this is why feminist research is important, so you can answer that with well-informed thoughts.

Kirsten Ainley: Thanks, Keshab. Choman, did you want to add to that?

Choman Hardi: Yeah, I really hope people who start doing this kind of work are better prepared than I was. I personally thought I was bulletproof, and I really didn’t, wasn’t ready for what was going to hit me. I think working with marginalized, voiceless or oppressed people, which feminist work tends to be, can have a significant effect on your life, on your mental wellbeing. So be prepared. I think it’s very important to have a good support network. Academics, friendships, but also maybe if you can budget for therapy because you may need it. It’s some forms of knowledge can poison you and really hurt you. They transform into illnesses, infections, nightmares, sleeplessness, insomnia, eating problems, all sorts of things they can interfere with your daily life.

Look after yourself, but also look after your informants. Please accept silence. Silence is also data; don’t always work. You would expect words. You can interpret the silence and check the interpretation with the informant if you are not sure, if you want to be ethical. But I think it’s very important for all of us to recognize whoever we interview as survivors, not as victims.

So just as you would be kind to yourself, be kind to your informants, be willing to share power, be willing to eat together. Be willing to be open. And addressing sensitive issues with lots of care, giving it enough space, enough time, and accepting ‘no’. Most of the time things like, theft, prostitution, sexual harassment, all these taboos, social taboos are very difficult to address for people. And acknowledge that. And if you are going to do it, be prepared and take no for an answer.

Kirsten Ainley: Thanks so much, Choman. Over to Marsha for almost the last word.

Marsha Henry: Oh gosh. I think both Keshab and Choman have said things that are so important and so spot on in terms of what you need to think about.

And I guess I would echo both of the kinds of comments that were made by saying, just to, to reiterate that you really need to be prepared both in your thoughts and in your research. And you need to be prepared for all kinds of things. I think Choman mentioned earlier that people very often have lots of questions about your own life, your own situatedness, whether you’re married, whether you have kids, whether what your parents do, how much money they make, all kinds of questions. And I think you need to be prepared that you might not always be in a clear position of power in relation to other people. You may also feel powerless. That doesn’t mean you are powerless of course, but you may feel powerless. And I think you need to be prepared for being uncomfortable and being out of place and, all those things. And sometimes that’s really hard to prepare for, but just to be aware that, field work has this messiness to it or this non-linear trajectory.

And I guess the other thing I would say is that there’s, now, unfortunately when I started, I turned to a very traditional set of literature, although there was already quite significant feminist literature on the experiences of doing fieldwork and some of the issues. But I would say now there is an absolutely a gargantuan body of work. And so you don’t have to read the masters. You should really be reading feminist work in a variety of journals, and that can actually prepare you in many ways, much better than reading the how to do your methods, in the most clearcut way. And I think a dogmatic clinging to your methods can really, I think, truncate the kind of connections you can make and the kinds of, and just being able to listen. Because people will tell you extremely meaningful, extremely important and devastating things regardless of whether you’re good at asking the questions or not. People will engage it. And I think you have to prepare yourself to handle that.

And I, just one thing to, to add to that, which is very often people do tell you very devastating things and then they ask you what you can do about it. So I’ll never forget being in Haiti and a woman revealing a very violent episode that had occurred to her child her very small child in this women’s collective that had come. And then she asked me, what will your research do? You know, what will your research do for this kind of situation? And I was so under, I was so underprepared for this, the gravity of this request. And I remember stumbling in a response by saying yes, this will go into an academic journal and I’m not, and eventually I almost said this will have no bearing on what you have said.

And, and I think actually thinking about the kind of academic clinical response, but then also thinking about the human response, like the response that you would give if somebody were to tell you that in your community, your own home community, how would you respond to that? So being prepared for really being a human being and being a good human being and being a good feminist regardless of the research questions and research structure.

Kirsten Ainley: Well, a great way to end. Thank you, Marsha. So with that, we have reached the end of this episode of The HubCast. I want to extend a heartfelt thank you to our guests for generously giving us their time and sharing their often challenging, sometimes messy, always invaluable, and deeply personal insights on the topic of feminist field work.

I’d also like to thank you, our listeners, for staying with us till the end. Tune in soon for another HubCast.

Outro: You’ve been listening to the Gender HubCast – where academics, fieldworkers, and practitioners come together to discuss and promote gender equality in the study and practice of peacebuilding. Make sure you subscribe to stay connected and be part of this global conversation. Thanks for listening.