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Blog: Conducting Research within one’s own Religious Community

January 12, 2023
By Arwa Hussain

Wide-angle shot of a mosque ceiling. What are the considerations that come with researching a religious community that you belong to? | Photo by Arwa Hussain.

What are some of the challenges that researchers face when they decide to make their own communities the subject of their research?

This question becomes more complicated when it comes to a religious community.

Religion is often considered personal, so what does it mean when the personal becomes research?

These are some of the questions that plague me in my own research on agency and representation of the women of my religious community, the Dawoodi Bohras.

In this blog, I reflect on the ways personal belonging to a religious community intersects with research and the motivation and challenges that come with conducting ethnographic research in my own religious community.

Although it has been proven that people who belong to the same community as their participants are best positioned to conduct such research as they can ensure that the knowledge and experience that community members entrust to them is used in a respectful manner.

There are many advantages of the insider perspective including the ability to assimilate easily, gain rapport, better verbal and non-verbal communication, less likely to subscribe to stereotypes or caricatures, and more politically engaged. It also provides deeper insight into unspoken rituals and behaviours. Speaking the same language as participants enables cultural understanding through language, proverbs, and non-verbal expressions within their relevant contexts.

My own dissertation project stems from a very real need to challenge dominant narratives about the women of my community which have been from those outside the community or those antagonistic to it. The project was inspired by women who refused to allow others to speak for them by taking up the issues and criticisms on social media platforms and contribute to their own narratives. Their initiative showed me that we are best situated to tell our own stories despite the challenges.

One of the major challenges with this kind of research is the issue of representation wherein researchers must be careful not to be cast into the role of a community spokesperson, especially regarding religious practices that may be controversial. Ethnographers who are insiders are often accused of being advocates rather than researchers or defending cultural intimacy by virtue of their positionality. Researchers who interview their community members have also found that participants would guide the conversation to what they wanted to tell the world rather than their true opinions. On the other hand, the positionality of the researcher as an academic scholar can also shape participants' responses and make them reluctant to reveal details that they might not want the world to know regardless of confidentiality agreements.

The issue of trust and divulgence of private knowledge becomes amplified when it comes to religious communities that have esoteric teachings.  Similar concerns were raised about my own research from within the community. This is because minority Islamic communities such as the Ismailis or the Bohras, have followed the policy of Taqqiya – mandated public dissimulation of belief – for centuries due to persecution by other Muslim sects and secular rulers. Esoteric knowledge and texts are safeguarded through oaths and controlled dissemination whereby community members can be excommunicated if they reveal this knowledge.

Being an initiated community member, I take my vows seriously and refuse to jeopardize the trust and knowledge entrusted to me. One of the ways that I deal with this issue is working with learned scholars from the community to ensure that these boundaries are respected, and the wishes of the community are not disrespected. In this I take inspiration from Indigenous theorists who have reframed the concept of refusal as a decolonizing research methodi whereby researchers and research participants together decide not to make certain information available for use within the academy such as access to knowledge that may be sacred. This ensures that the research produced is not exploitative and harmful to the community under study.

Within religious communities that have levels of gender segregation such as the Bohras, being a woman provides an intimacy and relatability as well as access to female-only spaces. The community has gender segregated spaces in its mosques and community halls where women can participate fully in religious life as well as organize their own events and activities. An outsider would interpret these spaces and activities as separation and relegation of women from mainstream religious and community life.

However, as a community member, not only do I know that the segregation boundaries are not rigid especially in events such as weddings or celebrations, but they also enable women the freedom to occupy spaces without worrying about the male gaze. This personal insight ensures that the research does not fall prey to common biases and ideas about veiling, segregation, and Islamic communities. It also means that personal experience of these spaces and rituals helps me better relate to and understand my participants lives and experiences.

Despite the challenges, reclaiming narrative sovereignty is a vital endeavour which gives us the power to tell our own stories and enables us to fight against prejudices, biases, and stereotypes all of which “other” us.

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