By Nawal Shaharyar | Issue 23
Imagine if you will: you’re 18, fresh out of high school, deciding what to do. As the only daughter to two medical professors, your path is obvious. Surely, STEM, no? Yet, you’re convinced, you want to branch out – already a feminist, an atheist, and a social activist – you think sociology will be the answer to figuring out how inequality and exploitation can be curbed.
Fast forward 4 years, you’re graduating with honours from a university in Turkey, far removed from your Indo-European education and linguistic background. Now, equipped with the basics of philosophy, sociology, and political science, you choose to specialise in development studies through a Master’s degree.
All great, you’re learning, you’re growing! …Now! It’s time to pick your MA thesis focus, you wander the halls of the university creating pitches that might attract supervisors. Yet, by now, your interests have moved beyond Pakistan and the social experiences of your childhood. You’re in love with Turkey and the experiences that have shaped you so far. Naturally, you pitch a social issue from Turkey that troubled you, as a potential Master’s thesis, and BANG!
‘Why don’t you focus on Pakistan?’ Supervisors and colleagues alike inform you that you have the expertise to understand Pakistan and the academic responsibility to focus on Pakistan. However, neither of those ideas ring true to you. You know less about Pakistan now than you did before: you haven’t followed the news in over 5 years. Yes, you feel obligated to contribute to Pakistan, but surely, you can contribute as a Pakistani researcher investigating something else as well, no?
Struggling with these ideas, you look around. You ask your friends what they are planning for their thesis. Your closest and dearest American friend is planning research ‘somewhere in Africa’, your British friend is planning ‘something on Russian policy’. Your Pakistani, Indian and Bangladeshi friends are all planning research in their respective countries. Are you wrong to plan research in a country that’s not your own? You make a quick call to get a supervisor and graduate in time. You settle for research on your country.
Thesis written, graduation complete, you are back home. You find a job teaching at the local university. The administration encourages you to draw on your foreign experiences to diversify classroom discussions. Indeed, you’re hired because of the uniqueness of your foreign education. You ask yourself, how can I draw on my foreign experiences professionally when I haven’t researched anything abroad?
Seems like there’s no winning – so you decide to focus on your interests. You focus on what you want to learn, ignoring the responsibilities of being a global south scholar. You decide to explore the fringes of Europe, you know relatively little about the subject and are hungry to learn.
Fast forward 2 years, you’ve taught yourself most of the background information to prepare a PhD research proposal focusing on ethno-linguistic inequalities in Estonia. You’ve found the ideal university, and the ideal supervisor. You send in your pitch, and you luck out! When you arrive in Estonia, your peers remind you of the “sheer” luck by which your application was accepted. Are you just seeing monsters everywhere? Perhaps they aren’t sinister, just honest. Nevertheless, you feel the burden of being the only person of colour in your research team. As if you have something to prove to the world, you do more than you need to show you’re relevant and that your ideas matter. A few acknowledge your hard work and insights – recognizing that you too can contribute to research in Estonia. Well assured, you continue your academic journey – and then, bang!
Every conference, every external meeting, every networking event – you find yourself justifying your choice of topic. You are asked, ‘why didn’t you focus on Pakistan?’ A fair question, with a long answer. Yet, you encounter two semi-unsettling truths. No one else, ever, needs to present a reasoning behind their academic choice. Even when the people asking you this question are of European backgrounds researching cases in India and Africa. Further, no one ever needs to demonstrate expertise in the historical context of their research. Why does this not extend to you?
You look back over your academic journey, noticing all the fears and insecurities that have shaped you, and the strength of your voice. A bit irked, you look up the number of global south scholars researching issues in the global north and its peripheries. Surprise, surprise, they are a rare type.
Academic honesty, commitment and integrity drive your research: framing the context in which you can claim expertise, yet… As a Pakistani migrant, you must reassert this expertise every single time! You recognise this is a rare circumstance, so you accept this as part of your job description.
Once normalised, you ignore this, till the next reminder, when your American, British and mainland European friends claim surprise at your experience, saying that they have never felt this, even when researching social contexts removed from them.
What do these experiences reveal about claims over knowledge that shape academic participation for scholars from the global south? Which of us should claim knowledge and where? By addressing these experiences and locating them in broader relations of exclusion – perhaps we can re-explore what global south academics can contribute to research away from their origin countries.
Nawal Shaharyar is a lecturer and early career researcher, pursuing her doctoral studies at the school of Law, Governance and Society at Tallinn University, Estonia. Her research examines the social construction of spaces and is focused on the socio-political implications of ethno-linguistic segregation in urban residential spaces of Tallinn, Estonia.