Working as a research assistant for the Ford foundation sponsored project has been a very pleasant and educative experience for me. The fieldwork gave me the opportunity to interview different family members, interact with people from different backgrounds, and travel to the parts of city where I haven’t been before. Altogether, the experiences impacted me in different ways. In the positive light, being a girl and specially a student studying abroad help me conduct the interviews in an easier manner. For instance, when I was trying to arrange interviews with H2, the respondent accepted easily because she had high expectations of someone studying abroad. The same is true about H4P who told me she accepted to participate in the interview because she considered me as her own sons and daughters who are doing such projects and need participants. So, being a girl studying abroad helped me primarily conduct the interview in some ways.
Secondly, since I was the one who was initially contacting the participants, taking their consent, and setting up the timing and date of interviews, the participants did not really undermine me when we actually met. I think it would have had a very different result if my partner was the one who contacted the respondents because of the social expectations of girls and boys which exist there. While going to different households, I was the one who was introducing the project and did more of the talking than my partner until we actually started the interview. The primary impact this act had on my participants was giving them the impression that when boys and girls work together, girls can also take the lead and are not always the ones to be led.
I think the fact that I was the one who was initially conducting the interviewees was also making the whole research process more female dominated (I didn’t intend to talk to all female members of the household to set the interview but it just happened). I was contacting the female household members who then took the role to talk to their families. H4 was the only family, with whose male member I talked at first, and then he introduced me to his mother to proceed.
Before taking the interviews, I had the fear of going to strangers’ house and felt insecure. However, as the interviews went by well, I got more confident that interviewing strangers is not always insecure or harmful. Also, as a person studying about women’s rights and feminist topics at AUW, I felt really bad that I could not really change the perspective of female interviewees who themselves accepted male domination as a rule. As a researcher, I could not start an argument with the interviewee when they told things like “women should be beaten up if they go against social norms” or “it is okay to beat up wives if they disobey their husbands”, but inside myself, I had hard time listening to those ideas without even expressing myself.
Outside the household; however, I had a different experience with my male partner. Unlike inside house, where families treated us in the same manner, outside, my male partner was the one who was doing almost all the talking with taxi drivers and the bargaining part! –this actually gave me the feeling of being neglected and marginalized. I don’t blame the drivers or my partner for this because a huge part of this problem returns to the male dominated sphere of Afghan society and the huge gender gap which exists there. I also had to justify myself and explain that I and my partner only work together to most of these people outside the households.
While the gender gap was a plus point for my partner and helped him build friendship and social connections with the participants (some of them even got connected to each other through Facebook right after the interview), it didn’t work in the same way for me. This might be partly because they had more free time to talk to each other about different topics outside interview (when I was busy doing my second interview and my partner was waiting for me to get done) and build friendships after their interview was over.
Although unexpected, I didn’t facemuch challenge because of my gender while doing the fieldwork. The things I consider as a challenge, such as taxi drivers’ reaction, are too deep rooted in our social culture that most of the people consider it as a social norm rather than a gender issue. But the respect and equal treatment I got within the household and from the interviewees represent a change in the perspective of people. Yet, a question is still in my mind to be investigated, did they treat me nicely because I had a male partner accompanying me everywhere or was it actually a positive change in their perspective and their acceptance that women can also get involved in fieldwork?