Beyond the burqa

Research questions media’s portrayal of the Middle East

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Do Muslim women need to be saved?

When the Taliban overtook the Swat Valley of her native Pakistan, Lubna Chaudhry, chair and associate professor of human development, watched Western news reports that suggested the answer was “yes.”

“I used to watch news coverage of Swat, and the representations were always girls in need of protection from the Taliban and boys needing to be stopped from joining the Taliban,” Chaudhry says. “I knew their realities had to be much more complex.”

The mainstream media’s portrayal of the conflict left her wanting to understand the experiences of Muslim women firsthand. So when the Taliban were forced out, Chaudhry went in to research the impact of conflict on Muslim women’s identities and collect the stories of civilian resilience in rural Pakistan.

“Westerners make assumptions that Muslim women are weak and helpless, but the reality is far more complicated,” Chaudhry says. “We continue to talk about these women as oppressed, poor beings. We see them as victims, which is reducing and belittling them. It is important to focus on the resilience and resistance of these women and see them in a stronger light. Then we can begin to form connections between them and ourselves.”

The power of ethnography

Chaudhry is a self-described Third World feminist and ethnographer who has lived what she calls a “transnational life.” She earned a BA and MA in Pakistan before moving to the United States to pursue a second master’s degree and PhD.  She started teaching at Binghamton in 2003.

The Swat Valley — known for its high mountains, clear rivers and green meadows — has faced plenty of turmoil over the past decade. Taliban militants overtook this conservative part of northwestern Pakistan and established headquarters in the region for more than two years. In 2009, Pakistani officials urged Swat’s approximately 1.5 million residents to temporarily evacuate as the army prepared to launch a massive — and ultimately successful — operation against the Taliban.

After peace was restored, Chaudhry spent three years conducting fieldwork in Swat, studying women and their experiences to “debunk the myth of passive Muslim women.”

Her research is twofold: She participates in socio-cultural observation of individuals or institutions, and she engages in ethnography, a process that involves in-depth interviews and systematized notes.

“During the Taliban rule, it was not uncommon for bodies of the executed to hang from traffic lights and in Swat’s town squares,” Chaudhry says. “My research follows the stories of Swati people through the reconstruction process.

“The composition of oral histories gives people an insight into their own lives,” she says. “If I get my subjects to talk from their experiences, then the data becomes richer.”

Chaudhry used her research to contribute a chapter, called “Women in post-conflict Swat, Pakistan: Notes on agency, resistance, and survival” to a book titled Asian Muslim Women: Globalization and Lived Realities, published in October 2015 by SUNY Press.

Life stories of the Swati

Pakistan’s antiquated ways are portrayed as having negative effects on women. Chaudhry’s interviews — which she translates, edits and condenses — expand the narratives of Muslim women, who have historically been reduced to simplistic stereotypes.

“People assume that these women are not strong, that there is no emphasis placed on educating women. But I found that there was a lot of resistance in Swat when the Taliban stopped girls from going to school,” she says.

Chaudhry befriended a local man who allowed her to stay in his home for most of her fieldwork. And while women have limited mobility in the Swat Valley, men and women reacted to her presence by “treating me like a token male,” she says. “I gained access into spaces that women wouldn’t normally be allowed in.”

She discovered that while Pakistani women face systematic gender subordination, the degree to which that happens varies across classes.
“Ultimately, what is most compelling about my data is the inability to categorize the Swati people,” she says.

During Swat’s post-conflict era, many men left the valley to fight for the Taliban, leaving women to take care of themselves and their families. In the face of abandonment, women had to start exercising their voices outside of the home.

Chaudhry recalls a woman named Mor, a matriarch who “ruled her household with an iron fist,” forbidding her children from listening to the radio channels that played local Islamic militant propaganda.

“Mor’s rejection of the Islam put forth by the Taliban demonstrates her pride and strength,” she says.

The residents’ warmth and hospitality left a lasting impression on Chaudhry.

“Their capacity for laughter in the face of misery really surprised me,” she says. “Their generosity — they embraced me and took care of me despite the hard time they had been through themselves.”

A case for Third World feminism

Chaudhry says Westerners ascribe simplistic stereotypes to Third World women and the reasons for their oppression.

“Western feminism does not do justice to women in the Third World. We need to write from the voices of Third World women,” Chaudhry says. “There has been a history of Western feminism that puts Western women above Third World women. We need to understand that it is not a matter of inferiority or superiority — just a different form of patriarchy.

“These women have very different realities than we do. Western women are oppressed in our own way, but Third World women’s realties are very different from ours. When I first started my research, I had to learn how to connect with these women across our differences,” she adds.

Chaudhry says Swat’s mountainous terrain makes it difficult for residents to access nearby hospitals and schools. Even then, poor infrastructure and lack of mobility are key obstacles for Swat women.

“In addition to education, the health facilities in Swat are really abysmal,” Chaudhry says. “Women cannot even go to doctors unless they are accompanied by a chaperone, and that really restricts them.”

Education as a pathway to justice

Chaudhry shares her passion for social justice with her students, helping them develop the perspective to become social justice-minded citizens, both locally and globally.

“I talk about my fieldwork to my students. It is important for them to understand the realities and different experiences of Islamic women,” she says.
“I think education can solve a lot of issues,” Chaudhry says. “If there was more access to education there would be fewer terrorists. Fewer women would be oppressed.”