Ethnographic Fieldwork and Female Dilemmas

I often write about my experiences as a Black woman researcher in Albania, and the intersectionalities of race and gender. When I use the term “intersectionality”, I am referring to the ways that my identity as both Black and a woman intersect, so that when discussing my positionality, it is critical to note how the two interplay. For this post however, I want to focus particularly on gendered aspects of fieldwork in Albania. Tonight after finishing coffee with my neighbors I felt very pressed to take note of the ways in which I feel my research as a woman is impacted differently than a male researcher, particularly in Albania, and so below I have gathered thoughts to share with you (please note that many scholars have discussed these subjects at length, for more information on sources, see my comments at the end of the post).

1. Very often my research is not seen as valid

Tonight while having coffee one of my neighbors asked me about my research, and while I discussed it, his mind seemed to drift towards another subject. Now I know that I can be very verbose and oftentimes folks stop listening to me when I go on and on. What he said next though confirmed his thoughts of my project: “Don’t worry, next time I will bring my wife and when you meet her, she can teach you about having a baby. You should have a girl. Don’t be afraid of children!” As I have noted in several posts, I am asked every single day why I am in Albania doing research rather than at home with my husband birthing babies. Generally speaking, folks here are usually perplexed that foreigners would come to Albania at all, especially from the US (everyone’s dream is to be in the US!), so both foreign men and women are questioned for even being here. Women, however, are more critically scrutinized and furthermore, are often instructed NOT to do their research, as they are better served as wives and mothers. Even before I was married, when I conducted research here people told me that I was losing time and getting older, and that it was important to head back to the States and find a husband. 

2. I have to fight for my voice to be heard

While having our coffee tonight I was discussing a subject with my neighbor that he thought he knew all about (a typical response). On this particular thing though, I happened to be more well-versed and as I was relaying my thoughts he was very disturbed by my apparent awareness. So he just started saying louder and louder, “Yeah I know, I know” though it was clear that he did not know much at all. I was reminded of a recent ride in a taxi in which the driver began to castigate my research in Roma communities, because as he said, “There is nothing special about them, they are all liars.” I told him that he could share his thoughts but asked how he knew what he knew, what type of research had he done, how often had he visited Roma communities, how many Roma people he knew, etc. There were two other people in the car, both men, and the driver began getting upset as I spat off statistics and talked about my research. So he then just started yelling at me, shouting that he knew everything because he just did, and that there was no way that I could know, besides he was Albanian which meant he must know more (again, gender is not the only thing at play in this example). 

3. My body is constantly surveilled and critiqued. 

My colleague and I once wrote a conference paper on this subject, and the way that we are physically perceived in the field, as few people talk about this aspect of research. The female body, especially in Albania, in not treated the same way as the male body. Sure people discuss and critique all bodies publicly in a way that we do not do in the States, but the female body is dissected and oftentimes publicly shamed for what folks perceive to be “abnormalities”. Women globally have made this case and have discussed it thoroughly (i.e. the various Dove campaigns, the Body Project), and this too has a big impact on female researchers, especially for a woman such as myself that packs a big more junk in the trunk. During interviews I sometimes have to describe and even defend my body for long periods of time before we can get to interview questions. When I say defend, people will ask many personal questions about weight and size, that in the case of a male researcher, he would probably be the big fun guy who drinks lot of beers instead of the the thicker woman who is subjected to harsh criticism for her body. This led me to begin a focus group with young Albanian women about body perception as this is a larger subject to be studied here. 

4. Many times I am now allowed to set my own agenda

Folks here are very friendly and very hospitable, so they often want to host guests and accompany friends places. As a woman however, many people feel that I should not be able to go anywhere or to do anything on my own. This includes going to cafes, traveling to nearby small towns for interviews, or even simply going home in the evening. Now I am not unaware of cultural norms, and I am also conscious of existing dangers. As some of you may have seen in my previous posts about a temporary stalker, I know there are issues that I should keep in mind, places to avoid, things like that. At the same time however, male researchers get to occupy a different space that women cannot, regardless of how much we may demand to do so. Which brings me to my final point…

5. Women are regular victims of sexual harassment and assault

After tonight’s coffee I once again received unwanted and somewhat aggressive sexual advances. I have shared with you all some of the problems I have had with men and verbal harassment, but problems extend well beyond this point. This point speaks to women broadly, not just researchers (in particular sexual and domestic violence are big problems in Albania, a subject that I will attempt to write about later in a different post as it is very sensitive and dense). Female researchers are more likely than men to experience these types of problems, and like what happened with my situation with Kuqi the stalker, I was blamed for even being here alone, for not being with my husband, for even walking around alone. This type of response is all too familiar for females, in that many people tend to chastise women for their behaviors rather than blame and correct men for theirs. 


Of course there are other examples, all of which I believe provide a window into the ways gender is constructed both in Albania. Many scholars have written quite a bit on this subject, and for those interested I encourage you to check out such works as Black Feminist Anthropology edited by Irma McClaurin, Feminist Dilemmas in Fieldwork edited by Diane Wolf, or Women Writing Culture edited by Ruth Behar and Deborah Gordon. All are wonderful volumes and feature writings from excellent scholars. Also I would also highly suggest reading texts by bell hooks, Lila Abu-Lughood, Kamala Visweswaran, and also Zora Neale Hurston.