December 20, 2008

othering

I usually like me some Virginia Woolf, but her whole statement that, "As a woman I have no country," has got to be the most assinine thing any feminist has said (that is, if you don't count Sarah Palin as a feminist, which I don't). As a woman, you have a country and more. You have a social location that affects what knowledge and experiences you were exposed to and when and how. For example, my social location exposed me to theatre at the age of 3, but I didn't step into a wal-mart until I was 16, and, snobby grumpy teen that I was, I complained the whole time. It was actually a punishment. My mom took me to Wal-Mart as an actual, honest-to-God punishment. This fact sums up my social location perfectly. When I look back, I realize that my upbringing was a tad sheltered and ridiculous.

At the moment, I'm setting up a research proposal for a PhD research project where I would be studying Islamic women. I am not Muslim. And while not everyone knows I'm not Muslim just by hearing my name, I've observed that most Muslims themselves can figure out I'm Christian just by being introduced to me. In most cases, this is okay. Muslim women might wonder why I, an outsider, want to study Islamic feminism, but if they do they don't tell me. They are usually all supportive of the idea. I have, however, thought about dropping my father's last name (which comes with a lot of baggage) where one specific group of largely Muslim people are concerned)and conducting my research under my mother's Scottish surname. It really wouldn't be that weird, as my mother's lastname is my middle name, anyway. Plus, as a feminist, the patrilineal nature of passing on lastnames has always kind of bugged me. And yet, I love my last name.

I didn't always love it. It's unusual. Well, unusual here. Where it's from, it's basically as common as "Smith" or "Jones." It also has the coolest meaning ever, "descended from laughter." This name also influenced how people saw me growing up, and therefore it shaped my experiences. Had I had my mother's last name, no one would have teased me at my 99% WASP elementary school for having a name that sounded a little bit "ethnic." My life would have been even more charmed than it already was. And yet, that would have made me a different person. The fact that I've ever thought about issues of difference at all in my life comes from the fact that I felt different from kids named "Williams" and "Jacobs." I didn't feel intrinsically different at first. They told me I was different by bullying me over my last name in the schoolyard. That's how I figured it out. That's how I got interested in the concept of "othering" and how it happens. I probably didn't know the term "othering" at 8, but I definitely understood the concept it describes.

So, if I gave up my last name to do research on the othering of a particular religious community, I feel like I would have disowned the part of me that made me give a damn in the first place. This is not to say that you have to have some sign of cultural difference to understand othering;it's just to say that's how I came to understand othering. If a couple of my interviewees want to other me because of my last name,I guess I'll just deal with it. I'm not about to validate that othering by erasing its source. Its source is part of my social location. As a woman, I have a country...

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