Incredulity, skepticism, disbelief, doubt. These are common reactions to researchers who propose to study sex, sexuality, and sexual and reproductive health in the Middle East and North Africa. From ethics boards and dissertation committee members to journal editors and funding bodies, concerns about the sensitivities associated with studying sex in the region abound. And when researchers successfully complete their projects, they are often met with some form of the question, “How on earth did you do that?”
This roundtable offers a space to critically engage with approaches to conducting fieldwork on sex, sexuality, and sexual and reproductive health in the region. Researchers in very different career stages with projects in a range of countries will reflect on their experiences. Through a candid exploration of successes and challenges, this session will demystify the fieldwork process, allow for sharing and exchange, and spur discussion on what constitutes “best” practices. Our aim is to challenge long held assumptions of what fieldwork on sex in the Middle East and North Africa “looks like” in different disciplines. In reflecting on positionalities and praxis, presenters will set the stage for a broader discussion that we hope will help build a sense of community and foster new collaborations.
An Egyptian Archive of Sexual Education: Towards a Communal Approach to a Private Matter
This presentation results from a recent project carried out by researchers at Shubra’s Archive, a communal archival initiative in Shubra-Misr, Cairo. “Homes as Archives” is its new project that reflects the importance of the everydaynesss of households for understanding the history of the neighbourhood, the city, and the nation. Part of this project explores how young girls from impoverished classes in specific learn and talk sex. In Egypt, there is an absence of sexual education at public schools, universities, and religious institutions. During the last few years, individual online initiatives have emerged on social media platforms that, however, take a more secular stance by choosing not to grapple with relevant theologies and fatwas (religious opinions). While these initiatives have a base of audience and supporters, their existence in parallel with the religious sphere tells about the exclusionary framing followed by their stakeholders and curators. Moreover, these initiatives are not delivered for free. They contain courses and seminars offered to socio-economic classes in the Egyptian society that can afford their expenses. Last but not least, the initiatives rely more on English terms with which the majority of Egyptians are not familiar. Against this backdrop, the researchers of “Homes as Archives” project have started to collaborate with mothers and daughters from the neighbourhood of Shubra and its adjacent districts to learn about and from their talks about sex. While making sure to respect and protect the privacy of mothers-daughters’ interactions and the silences they embrace, the researchers at Shubra’s Archive believe that this participatory approach is key not only to emphasize the undeveloped formal sexual education in Egypt but also the communal (and private) efforts to craft alternatives.
The Covid pandemic, with its travel restrictions and limitations on physical contact, job losses and new caring responsibilities, shifted assumptions about anthropological fieldwork. It laid bare the assumptions of class, race, gender, age, sexuality and health privilege that had underpinned the research expectations for anthropologists since Bronislaw Malinowski: fly to another country, embed oneself in a new cultural milieu, and spend days engaged in participant observation and nights writing fieldnotes. This methodological ideal assumed an anthropologist unencumbered with caring responsibilities (either not having children or having a spouse who was willing to do the majority of the caring work), possessing enough wealth to not work for months or years on end, with a nationality and physical/racial appearance that allowed them to cross borders and obtain visas and entice busy people to talk to them, and physically healthy and able to travel and engage in participant observation for long periods. Feminist anthropologists and anthropologists of disability, such as the Patchwork Collective, have argued that the pandemic forced those in positions of privilege to struggle with the burdens that had previously only limited fieldwork opportunities for the disabled, the single parents, the poor, the queer, people of colour, and those lacking passports that let them easily cross national borders. But anthropology's fieldwork ideals have been the result of "making do" ever since Bronislaw Malinowski, whose manifesto of participant observation resulted from him being politically detained in the Trobriand Islands for several years during the first World War. Malinowski made virtue out of necessity. In the Middle East, while some male anthropologists' opuses relied on the barely acknowledged fieldwork labour of their wives, in other cases, fieldworkers who previously sported the identity of "wife" became anthropologists themselves, such as Elizabeth Warnock Fernea. "Native" and "halfie" anthropologists like Lila Abu-Lughod used kin connections to gain access to social worlds barred to outsiders. Brown anthropologists like Amitav Ghosh used their brownness to highlight the white privilege underpinning fieldwork encounters. "New" limitations that the Covid pandemic placed on anthropological fieldwork echoed with historical resonances even as they threw into relief the assumptions of privilege still underpinning the discipline. Since Covid, fieldworkers have turned to new methods of remote and physically-distanced participant observation, and we are rethinking the discipline's methodological standards. This roundtable contribution will invite participants to reflect on new and emerging modes of "fieldwork" and what assumptions or disruptions of privilege underpin them.
For my dissertation project, I am investigating the sexual and reproductive health (SRH) and gender-based violence (GBV) needs of women in Libya. My research questions are: What are the SRH/GBV needs of women aged 15-49 in Libya? What SRH/GBV services are available? And how can these services be improved? My multi-methods qualitative study is taking place in Tripoli, Benghazi, and Sabha and includes in-depth interviews with women and girls of reproductive age, focus group discussions with women and girls stratified by marital status, and semi-structured interviews with key informants.
In many regards, my positionalities make me especially well-positioned to undertake this project. I was born and raise in Libya and have experience working on SRH and GBV issues in the humanitarian sector. My native familiarity of local cultural norms and traditions, language fluency, and knowledge of the country’s contex and history is helping me mitigate misunderstandings, discomfort, and taboos surrounding these “sensitive” topics. I am able to lean into my professional experiences and this credibility helps me transcend some of the political and socio-cultural dynamics shaping this field.
But I am also aware that being an unmarried, cisgender woman from a deeply gendered community also influences both the way I see the world and the way my interlocutors see me. As a young activist with a relatively large social media presence who is currently a student at Western university, other aspects of my personal and professional history are also subject to scrutiny and influence the way that I am perceived. That I no longer wear a headscarf (hijab) is both a personal decision and an act that has ramifications for my relationships in the field.
During this roundtable, I will focus on how the issue of dress, and donning the hijab in particular, impact both fieldwork and other positional dynamics. I will reflect on: 1) My decisions with respect to the hijab and how those of influenced my engagement with interlocutors and my social position as a woman with a family member known as a respected religious figure in Libya; 2) The ways in which my decisions regarding the hijab have been publicly scrutinized across different social media platforms in Libya; and 3) How other comportments have influenced my fieldwork on sexual and reproductive health in Libya. By sharing my own experiences in the field, I will reflect on the considerations involved in the choice of dress among “insiders.”
Conducting multi-methods fieldwork on sexual and reproductive health in Algeria: Reflections on the importance of the preparatory visit
For my PhD dissertation project, I am exploring the contraceptive knowledge, attitudes, and practices of Algerian women. Through an online survey, in-depth interviews with Algerian women of reproductive age, and interviews with key informants. My aim is to understand better the contraceptive context in both urban and rural settings. As an Algerian woman from the capital, I am familiar with the local context and the overarching social, political, economic, and cultural dynamics. My fluency in relevant languages and dialects is an asset that allows me to establish and build rapport with women from a variety of backgrounds as well as professionals.
And yet conducting fieldwork in my home country also presents challenges. What kinds of authorization do I need? How do I establish partnerships, especially in areas outside of Algiers? How do I navigate government bureaucracies? Even though I am an “insider”, I am also a doctoral student at a university in North America in a program where no one has previously conducted fieldwork in Algeria.
In the summer of 2022, I spent four months in Algeria to conduct preliminary fieldwork. In my remark for this roundtable, I will reflect on the importance of having dedicated time in the field prior to developing the dissertation proposal. During this preparatory visit, I was able to conduct a preliminary feasibility assessment to ensure my proposed project was viable. I was also able to identify and engage with local stakeholders and potential partners and establish an affiliation with a local university. Through this process I established my three fieldwork sites (Algiers, Oran, and Touggourt). But this process also allowed me to learn valuable information about participant recruitment and the importance of avoiding online spaces that can be easily “trolled”. Indeed, the enthusiasm I encountered for my project on sexual and reproductive health contrasted sharply with Internet-mediated exchanges. These lessons shaped the way I designed my dissertation project, continue to influence my fieldwork, and showcase the importance of the preliminary visit, even for researchers who have native familiarity with the topic and setting.