Research on marginalised communities has a history of being weaponised against those very communities, marginalising them even further. This weaponisation, and the fear of it, can silence discussion on important social issues. Here, Sandra Elhelw Wright reflects on how this plays out in the context of her research on domestic violence in Australian Muslim communities.
In early 2017 I began conducting research on domestic violence in Australian Muslim communities. I was resolute, at the outset, that I would not be influenced by Islamophobia. I was determined that I would not sweep anything under the rug to avoid inflaming stereotypes. As a matter of principle I believed I should be able to discuss domestic violence in Muslim communities rationally and truthfully, without Islamophobia, or the fear of it, influencing my expression.
It didn’t take me long to discover the problems with this approach. I quickly found that pretending Islamophobia didn’t exist was unhelpful. As a Muslim with a distinctly Anglo-Saxon name, I had to convince some Muslim participants in the research that I wasn’t motivated by Islamophobia before they’d even speak with me – an apprehension that is completely reasonable given how Muslims tend to be portrayed in the media and academia.
And throughout my research, Islamophobia reared its ugly and obstructionist head. I came across a refuge worker who told me that the reason Muslim women experience violence is because Muslim men have no respect for Australian laws.
I was grilled at length by a Sheikh who I wanted to interview about whether I was a journalist, or planning to leak his words to one. In fairness, he had recently had an unfortunate experience with a journalist who had twisted his words and portrayed him in a very unsavoury light.
As I started considering writing for a broader, more public audience, I found it impossible to remain ignorant of the impact any publication I write may have on my community. I could not pretend that the readers who would just roll their eyes at those ‘awful Muslims,’ didn’t exist.
I saw horrible comments and terribly prejudiced reactions to articles written by others on domestic violence in our communities. Those comments served as a stark and semi-regular reminder of how our imperfection can be weaponised against us.
I had been bombarded by these types of comments throughout my adult life, and I could not pretend that these weren’t real people and that these people would not fuel their fire with my research findings.
Was it an article that discussed the social problems Muslims face that empowered someone to throw empty beer cans at my sister and I and tell us to go ‘back home’ one day while we were walking home from school? Was it a factual, but negative piece of information that led a woman at a networking event a few months ago to casually remark to me that “Arabs have little regard for human life,” with a look that said “you’re one of them, you know exactly what I’m talking about right?”
It is not enough to have faith in the truth of my words, and the validity of my research. What good is research about domestic violence against Muslim women, if it serves to fuel Islamophobic violence against Muslim women?
Stereotypes around Muslims have traditionally been very gendered. Muslims in general, but Muslim men in particular, are portrayed as angry, violent and extremist. And Muslim women are portrayed as weak and oppressed – they are the women who need saving from those violent Muslim men. Muslims in this country have spent decades fighting against the narrative that paints Muslim men as violent, and Muslim women as oppressed. And here I am providing fuel for exactly that narrative.
And so I find myself reckoning with Islamophobia all the time in my research, despite my initial adamance not to. There is a part of me that desperately wants to be loud about some of the issues specific to my community – in defiance of both Islamophobes, and the conservative Muslim community leaders who frown upon the airing of dirty laundry.
On the other hand, I want to confine my speech to a Muslim audience. An audience that would be kinder. An audience that is less likely to require constant and tiresome explanations about how violence against women is not a Muslim-specific problem. An audience that understands that ‘honour killing’ is just another word for a domestic homicide—a phenomenon that occurs approximately once a week in Australia. An audience that realises that Muslim men aren’t actually habitually quoting the Qur’an when they strike their wives, but are usually using all the same lousy justifications white Anglo-Saxon men use. An audience where I would not have to focus on debunking myths at the expense of talking about the actual substance of my research.
I know that I am not the only one. I know a lot of Muslim women feel tired just thinking about how to frame the issues to a Western audience. And we get uncomfortable sometimes about the backlash we feel is inevitable. Sometimes it muffles our voices and stifles us – as disappointingly un-brave and non-heroic as that sounds.
I look forward to one day being able to sit at my computer and write about domestic violence without the internal struggle outlined in the preceding paragraphs. I look forward to not getting side-tracked by discussions about Islamophobia and debunking stereotypes for a prejudiced audience.
But for now, this elephant will occupy more space in my PhD than I would have liked.