Academic journal article Human Organization

A Foreign Woman Researcher in a Purdah Society: Opportunities and Challenges for Knowledge Production in the 2000s

Academic journal article Human Organization

A Foreign Woman Researcher in a Purdah Society: Opportunities and Challenges for Knowledge Production in the 2000s

Article excerpt

Introduction: Re-rethinking the Woman Fieldworker in a Purdah Society

Hanna Papanek's (1964) and Carroll Pastner's (1982) contributions to this journal in the 1960s and 1980s provide an inspiring ground to reflect fieldwork experiences today and compare fieldwork situations (including fieldwork methodologies) in Pakistan over a time span of nearly 50 years. Papanek and Pastner, drawing on their own fieldwork experiences in Pakistan, discussed opportunities and challenges of doing field research as a foreign woman in a "Purdah society," defined by them as a society that is strongly characterized by institutionalized forms of gender segregation and women's seclusion.

Papanek argued in her paper that, in societies where local women are physically and socially secluded, foreign women actually enjoy a higher degree of "role flexibility" than either local or foreign men. She posited that foreign women could take advantage of ambiguities in the social structures of Purdah societies to flexibly position themselves and to be able to access male and female physical spaces and interact with both local men and local women, in particular for the purpose of producing new research knowledge. Pastner largely agreed with Papanek; yet, she highlighted that there could be situations of Purdah in which role flexibility was substantially reduced. Pastner (1982:264) closed her text with calling on male and female fieldworkers to "take under advisement the experiences of their predecessors."

In this paper, I reconsider Papanek's and Pastner's arguments and evaluate them vis-á-vis my own fieldwork experiences as a foreign woman field researcher in Pakistan in the late 2000s. Like Papanek and Pastner, I focus my writing on women field researchers and do not discuss other types of fieldworkers such as doctors, teachers, and development workers. With this focus, I aim to contribute to discussions about access to "foreign" worlds, limits in knowledge production, and the role of gender in field research beyond the context of Pakistan on the one hand and on current political aspects of research relations connecting "Muslim worlds" and "Western worlds" on the other hand.

The paper is organized as follows: First, I provide some background on the concept of Purdah and how it has been interpreted in Pakistan. Second, I outline the three different fieldwork contexts from which Pastner's, Papanek's, and my reflections emerged. Third, I provide insights into the feasibility of foreign women's role flexibility in rural situations today. Fourth, I describe how the changing sociopolitical context in Pakistan-rooting in geopolitical developments of the 1980s and after 9/11-is one reason for a new limitation to women fieldworkers' flexibility and physical access to men and women's worlds. Fifth, I demonstrate that categories and categorical differences beyond gender have mediated my access to knowledge about Purdah society beyond physical limitations. Sixth, I show how conceptual shifts have reshaped the ways I think of role flexibility and the field since the 1960s. Finally, I discuss opportunities and challenges related to future knowledge production in Pakistan and beyond.

Purdah in Pakistan

Purdah (literally meaning "veil" or "curtain") is a common word used to describe a cultural practice or institution in much of South Asia to deal with gender order at a societal level. Purdah is largely associated with Islamic religion, values, and culture. However, Purdah, as it has been practiced among Muslims, has many features in common with other cultures and social systems, and the form and degree of observance has been highly variable among Islamic people (e.g., among different national cultures, social classes, and in different times). In the 1970s, Papanek (1971, 1973) herself developed the concepts of "separate worlds" and "symbolic shelter" to describe Purdah in South Asia. She used the notion of "separate worlds" to describe a gendered division of labor in terms of actual work allocated to different categories of people that creates two segregated worlds (one for men, one for women) characterized by a symmetrical relationship and mutual dependency. …

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