Feminist ethnography is an ‘ethnography with women at the centre written for women by women’ (Abu-Lughod). Discuss.
Lila Abu-Lughod is a scholar at the top of her discipline, and she has written on some controversial subjects like veiling. Feminist ethnography tackles the issues of intersectionality and lived experience or insider perspectives. Historically, anthropology and ethnography have been done by outsiders looking in. The very first ethnographers like Jordanes wrote their ethnographic texts without ever having visited the peoples and places they were writing on! As the field of anthropology was really developing in the 19th century, it was common practice for explorers or "natural scientists" to travel to new places and write on the peoples and cultures they encountered. Most of these early ethnographers were upper-class, white, Christian men. A major criticism of early anthropology and ethnography is that the accounts written by these men are framed from an upper-class, white, Christian, and largely colonialist perspective. The values of the ethnographer shaped what they found to be important and chose to write on. This resulted in outsider ethnographies that either left out or misinterpreted entire parts of culture. Early ethnographies also tend to focus on the people the ethnographer found to be most interesting or easy to relate to- that being upper-society men of the culture. The roles and perspectives of women and children are narrow and devalued if mentioned at all.
Anthropology and ethnography have come a long way since the 19th century, with increasing criticisms of earlier works and new perspectives from the very people who were once left out of the picture. Feminism, disability studies, gender and sexuality studies, and ethnic or racial crossovers have really been shaping anthropology over the past fifty years or so. Feminist ethnography is a work of intersectionality that tells the unique perspective of being a woman in a particular culture or cultures. Body politics are a major theme in feminist ethnography, as women are generally oppressed to some degree the world over. Much self-ethnography, especially, deals with the unique struggles of being a woman and a person of color, or being a woman and disabled, or dealing with other life-shaping factors.
What would a white, upper-class, able-bodied, Christian man have to say on the struggles of a disabled, lower-class, Muslim woman of color? Similarly, what would the woman have to say of the man? Very little of value. A persistent trouble in anthropology is how we understand our subject. Self-ethnography is one way of overcoming this trouble. Who understands us and our predicaments better than ourselves? Outsiders often do not have the knowledge and experience to explain every aspect of a culture, especially where oppression is involved.
Lila Abu-Lughod's work on the veil has enlightened many people on the elements of choice and personal security involved in wearing the veil (also called hijab, tichel, burqa, niqaab, or headscarf.) Western culture commonly misinterprets the headscarf as a symbol of possession- that a woman who veils is owned by a man (the husband or father) and is not on display for anyone else's eyes. It is misinterpreted as a symbol of oppression. Abu-Lughod's writing has been pivotal in revealing to the Western world that the veil is not inherently forced and does not symbolize oppression but devotion and personal security. When a woman chooses to cover herself, she is making a statement that she values her relationship with herself, her body, and/or the divine more than she values the opinions of others. Veiling offers personal security in places and cultures where the gaze of others may be sexualizing or consumptive. Many Muslim women describe it as a way of carrying the security and privacy of one's home with them out of doors.
Feminist ethnography tells the story of these women who veil (and others) in the way that they understand it to be, and not from the perspective of someone who has never and will never live that experience.