“Well behaved women seldom make history” – Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
I know many of us have already seen this quote several times, but it is the most apt description of the ideas racing through my head before I leave for the countryside. I am about to leave for my first phase of intense research and a recent comment I received has thrown up questions in my head regarding the role of an anthropologist in the field.
A few months ago while at university, I jumped at the opportunity to do my presentation on militant anthropology, because of its relevance to my life and how I approach the field. ‘Militant Anthropology’ was a term coined by Nancy Scheper-Hughes, an anthropologist at Berkeley, regarding how she worked with people in impoverished situations. She was a peace-core worker and later a researcher in the town of Bom-Jesus, Brazil, a sugar-plantation area with great economic disparities between the workers (whose children died at massive rates due to malnutrition) and the plantation owners. As a peace-core worker, Scheper-Hughes worked with the locals to create a community center and start workers’ rights groups to get the local community electricity, better pay, literacy and healthcare.
When she went back years later to do research, however, she was plagued with the anthropological legacy of colonialism and ‘objective’ research. Anthropological theory advances cultural relativism; the belief that every culture is unique, complex and equal to any other. Anthropologists were to only observe the intricacies and not make judgment calls.
However, what do you do if those around you are suffering? She didn’t know if she should help the people or just observe them, which caused anger amongst the locals: In reaction to her fears of being ‘colonial’ if she helped them, the locals told her that the local sugar plantation owners were the colonial ones, not she. She was their friend and as such should try to help them.
So, in reaction, she picked up her activism where she has left of and coined the term ‘militant anthropology’. As opposed to the anthropologist as a ‘spectator,’ someone who supposedly objectively watches and stays removed from the events happening around them, she advocated the anthropologist as ‘witness.’ She stated that anthropologists should be driven by an ethic responsibility that is pre-cultural, and that ignoring the pain and suffering of the people studied was to de facto become part of the power relations hurting them.
I find myself embarking on a situation that stirs up similar feelings. The Steppes Without Borders NGO, who is helping me and wants me to go to the south Gobi, has partially asked me to go due to local mining activities. Mining is pushing people off the land and poisoning the surrounding areas. So, nomads who have lived there for generations can no longer utilize that land and are pushed into smaller and smaller segments. And the women, who historically took the brunt of economic impact in nomadic families by sacrificing their share of food for the family, are hit hard. With a poisoned land and a failing of historical traditions, the women are forced to resort to utilizing their bodies in order to support themselves. Thus, I am going to the South Gobi, the only area in Mongolia were women were traditionally allowed to live on their own to see how this economic changes and the incoming companies are changing the experience of women in the Gobi.
I am not going to pretend that I am going there to be completely ‘objective.’ I know already before going from my research and through interviews that women are suffering greatly and I do not intend to keep my mouth shut about it. Unfortunately, exactly that is the problem. No body hears the voices of nomads; they do not speak English and every time they express themselves, their voices are drowned out in choruses of disapproval, claims as to the ‘benefit’ of economic development and media silence:
Case in point: Tsetsegee Munkhbayar, an environmental activist and former nomad, who resorted to shooting mining trucks last year after his years and years of activism continued to fall on deaf ears… and he is just one of many who share his feelings:
http://www.minegolia.com/?p=599 (this article is incredibly long, but you only need to read the beginning to learn about Tsetsegee’s story)
Furthermore, these hierarchical relations also affect me directly; I can’t ignore that fact that the rising violence towards foreigners is a result of the voicelessness and helplessness a lot of locals feel in face of the massive foreign companies and mining activites that are depleting the countries resources and not benefiting the locals.
So, to conclude: I am super excited to go to the Gobi, but also know it will be hard. And I do not intend on sitting back and ‘objectively’ observing, but go, knowing fully well that those helping me go need my help, and are thus helping me in return. I want to be their friend and comrade, not the removed, western, white person scribbling in the notebook in the corner. Even if that means advocating some ‘uncomfortable’ truths.
❤ See you later!
If you happen to be German-speaking, you can hear me being interviewed on the Trans-Siberian railway on the 13th of June at 18:00, Berlin time. The interview on BR (Bayerischer Runkfunk) is called “Aus einem weiten Land – eine russische Weltreise.” Someone wanna record it for me?