*Charlotte Sefton is currently doing her PhD at the University of Exeter and conducting fieldwork with Sudanese women in her hometown of Portsmouth. After coming from an undergraduate background in Arabic and French language, Charlotte moved into Middle East Studies for her MA and MRes with a particular focus on Gender Studies.
With the Sudanese community in Portsmouth, Charlotte’s research focuses on the role of gender in diasporic experience, with a particular interest in ritual practice. From a wider research-philosophy perspective,Charlotte is most concerned with interrogating the (in)ability of mainstream feminist theory (being western and academic) to apply to non-western ‘other’ women and with encouraging the need for intersectional understandings of the complexity of women’s lives and experiences.
UoP_Francophone: How did you come about your research project to interrogate the (in)ability of mainstream feminist theory to apply to non-western ‘other’ women?
Charlotte: I was doing the module on gender identity and modernity and I just decided to go ahead with that for my BA and I looked at the gender and religious rituals in the Hezbollah resistance community in Lebanon. From there, seeing the ways in which crisis shook up the notion of what gender (especially women gender) truly was in gender roles and expectations, I began to think about migration as a crisis. I then started to see in the same way as in the context of war. Migration could be considered a crisis in the sense of rupture from old social contexts into the new, and I decided that it would be a good thing to see whether religious rituals had the same impact…
UoP_Francophone: …so the context of migration as a disruption to the world of these women……
Charlotte: Absolutely. I guess even more than rituals, religion practice as well, how they helped women to renegotiate themselves or navigate the new situation.
UoP_Francophone: So, your focus when you interview these women is on how their practice of religion enable to adapt or whether that has changed as a result of migration?
Charlotte: I think that is still true to say; at the moment, my PHD is looking more at ethics, every day ethics of being good virtue. So, I am trying to take it out of the religious paradigm for some of the reasons I explained. I think sometimes, even though it’s not my intention, I think focussing anything on Islam particularly in the current context kind of gives an impression that everything is explainable by reference to Islam.
UoP_Francophone: So, it’s more about morality rather than religion itself!
Charlotte: Exactly! I think it’s important to note that from the gender prospective anyway, with nationalism and visions of the nation, women are often paramount, (particularly with women). Ideas of what a good woman should are usually tied to a political project and in the case of Sudan this is true as well. So, I am looking at the issue of morality. I’m sure religion will come into it a lot, but I’m trying to take it bit broader focus.
UoP_Francophone: On the other hand, once could also challenge the notion that virtue is always related to religion.
UoP_Francophone: Point of methodology. I am wondering in terms of not forcing yourself to have only those women who fit the criteria of good research ethics like those who could accept to be recorded and have them in numbers that would say “oh this is a very good sample size”. What about the prospective of mixing those women who would like to be voice recorded and those who do not like. Do you think these different people will have different things to say or have different perspectives?
Charlotte: I think, from the perspective of intersectionality, this is very important because I have voice recorded very few. I think maybe just two women from the Sudanese community with whom I work. And both (I think it will be a stretch maybe just from two people to jump to this conclusion) have been educated at university level in Soudan and have been in the UK for very long time; come from quite middle /upper middle class families. Looking at the ways in which education and business tie to social class and other impact of migration even on their jobs. Some women have lived here for long time and said I was their first British friends. So, I think as well that those kinds of experiences affect how someone sees something like voice recording. So, if you’ve been here for long, if you understand academic processes, if you have studied to degree level in this country and if you have a job, that means you spend a lot of time with white British women and all those things can in a way make you more likely to trust something like voice recording.
UoP_Francophone: But does it affect what they say?
Charlotte: It does, yes but not so much. Other women who haven’t been voice recorded have also offered different perspectives.
UoP_Francophone: Different perspectives amongst those women who have not been voice recorded.
Charlotte: Yes. What I found so interesting about that community ( which is why it is sort of ridiculous to call it community) that I work with is that you can go from someone who has that degree education I just described right through to someone who has never been to school and that’s part of the reason why I came to think really deeply about intersectionality was the difference not only in the research results from working with such diverse group of women, but also in the way I was able to carry out that research methodologically and because across that spectrum of people there are things that you can do with some people and things you can’t do with some people but that aren’t anywhere near as effective because of their own personal life stories.
UoP_Francophone: Thank you very much Charlotte and keep us posted on the development of this very fascinating project.