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Maria Jaschok

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About the author

Maria Jaschok is director of the International Gender Studies Centre, Queen Elizabeth House (Dept of International Development), senior research scholar at the Institute for Chinese Studies, University of Oxford, academic director of China projects undertaken within the ‘Women’s Empowerment in Muslim Contexts’ Research Programme Consortium (DFID, UK Government), and senior researcher affiliated to the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, Copenhagen. Her research interests are in the areas of religion, gender and agency; gendered constructions of memory; feminist ethnographic practice; marginality and identity in contemporary China. She is involved in on-going collaborative research projects in central China, addressing issues of religious and secular identity, and the implications of growing female membership of religions for local citizenship and civil society. She is the author, with her long-standing collaborator, Shui Jingjun, of The History of Women's Mosques in Chinese Islam: A Mosque of Their Own (Richmond: Curzon, 2000), and of many articles and papers. She is currently writing, together with Shui Jingjun, the final chapters of a comparative study of religious female leadership, authority and social engagement which is based on fieldwork in central China.
Email: [email protected]

Ethnographic ‘World-Travelling’: Of Passages and Boundaries, Of Aspirations and Differences

Maria Jaschok, reflections on an enduring relationship with her collaborator Shui Jingjun 1

Vignette 1

Not many years ago, at an international conference in the UK, a well-known China scholar declared that removal of her Chinese collaborator from the authorship of the final text reflected a pragmatic decision brought about by the ‘theoretical distance’ between the collaborators. Yet in her presentation of the oral histories of central informants, the guiding intervention of this Chinese colleague was all-too-apparent. Thus, whilst the Chinese colleague had been essential to the ‘writing down’, she was excluded from the process of ‘writing up’, and from the authority of authorship.

Vignette 2

A Chinese colleague described to me how, at a recent international conference on women’s organisations in China, in Shanghai, she spent most of the rest periods in between presentations comparing notes with other local academics involved in collaborative research with Western scholars. Names were bandied about and a ranking order established from ‘to be avoided’ to ‘ideal’ laowai 2, to ideal foreign colleague. Disconcerting, intriguing – but also illustrating the turn of the tides of discursive power in the corridors of international conference venues.

Moving on from corridor gossip and an ever lively academic grapevine, let me consider how my collaboration with the Hui Chinese Muslim scholar, Shui Jingjun, (see Figure 1) has been noted in the more formal sites of academic discussion. Not surprisingly, in view of the many years (since 1994) that Shui Jingjun and I have been researching and writing together on religions (importantly Islam), religiosity and gender in Chinese society, our work and methodology have been treated with some critical attention. The appraisals which follow come from different locations, approaches and positions within Chinese Studies discourses. However, whether observing the dismantling of Centre-Margin binaries (the American anthropologist Susan Blum), a conscious striving for ‘emancipatory’ non-hierarchical relations (the German sinologist Mechthild Leutner) or dialogic modes of ethnography (the Chinese historian Du Fangqin), each one of the reviewers chose to treat as most noteworthy the relational aspect of our work.

Susan Blum – in a state-of-the-field article in 2002, which appeared in The Journal of Asian Studies entitled ‘Margins and Centers: A Decade of Publishing on China’s Ethnic Minorities’ – takes under her critical lens the ideological and cultural implications of structural dominance of the Chinese Communist party/state for ‘muted’ marginalised groups. Blum identifies certain common features in a number of recent anthropological studies which challenge entrenched hierarchies of Centre and Margin-derived thinking so long implicit in China scholarship, questioning both the (highly politicised) nature of this relationship and also its continued validity for interrogating Centre/Han/Chinese identity. She takes it as an achievement of the books at the heart of this recent trend to have begun to dismantle the construct of a homogenous and Han-centred ‘Chinese/ness’ and discusses each work in this list for its innovative features. Her arguments are complex, and I shall not go into them here. Relevant to this paper, Blum notes in her discussion of The History of Women’s Mosques in Chinese Islam 3 our explicit naming of the identity of authors of chapters, written independently of each other each with a distinctive voice, distinct position and with academic references reflecting respective academic discourses. She says this may be regarded ‘a beacon for Western scholars to figure out a way to interact with our Chinese colleagues without regarding them as ethnographic drudges providing raw materials for our sophisticated theorizing’ (Blum, 2002:1293). Blum then continues to take to task my colleague’s assumptions about liberating aspects of women’s participation in work, talking about Chinese Muslim women’s slow road to participation in the labour market, marking these assumptions as ‘innocent’, and, she then adds, ‘… but the existence in these observations of differences from Western scholarly assumptions is refreshing’ (Blum, 2002:1293; emphasis is mine). In its very condescension, Blum’s tone of voice succeeds in negating the proposed objective of her article, a critical postcolonial interrogation of historical legacies of inequalities. She also thereby succeeds in assigning to our collaboration qualities of an enduring inequality (based on my colleague’s ‘refreshing innocence’, on an abiding absence of conceptual sophistication) without ever subjecting the problematic of ethnographic relations to a necessary critical scrutiny.

Mechthild Leutner is more directly concerned with ethnography as relational dynamic, and I now turn to her observations. Leutner has used a number of conference presentations 4 to examine the place of feminist reworking of ethnographic relations in the historiography of German-Chinese scholarship. Under the theme of ‘Interaction as Hierarchy or Equality’, Leutner (2004) gives an historical account of relations between German sinologists and Chinese academics within a three-phase periodization: colonial, post-colonial and the contemporary era. Within this broad time sequence, colonial relations are characterized by hierarchical relations, followed by complementary relations which she attributes to the post-colonial era, for example, the era of Richard Wilhelm then dominant in German China scholarship, and finally the contemporary era, characterised by a neo-liberal hierarchy of theory over empirical work (see above for my remarks on Blum), on the one hand, and, on the other hand, by an emancipatory minority position whereby scholars strive consciously and reflexively for a relationship of equality. Leutner argues that

If we generally accept that an “interplay of foreign and native elements in shaping Chinese national culture, national and cultural identity” has been the case and is the case all the more today, then on the micro-level of knowledge production, it is the structure of working relationships as power relationships that has largely shaped the findings to date (Leutner, 2004, quoting Wang; emphasis is mine).

We, Shui and I, have come to occupy and to exemplify this minority position.

Equal interest in the relational aspect of our cross-cultural research is shown by the well-known Chinese historian Du Fangqin. Moreover, she most directly addresses the link between ethnographic collaboration and the nature of scholarship engendered by such a working relationship. In her review of our Chinese edition of The History of Women’s Mosques in Chinese Islam (Zhongguo Qingzhen Nüsishi, 2002), which appeared in the academic journal Shehui Xingbie (Gender Studies) in 2004, she asks how our working relationship might have shaped findings and questions arising from these findings.

Du Fangqin sees as overdue the problematization of the construct of Chinese Women (zhongguo funü) and of the history of women’s aspiration for liberation as treated in Chinese mainstream women’s studies (for example, no longer exclusive focus on Han Chinese women and on secular models of progress).5 Instead, our academic partnership, which, as she put it, brought together two collaborators ‘from different countries, from different ethnicities, from different faiths and from different cultural and educational backgrounds’ (Du, 2004: 232), facilitated the dialog and debate between the two authors. This has added, she says, to the nuances of the study of complex relations between feminism and religious faith.

Theorization of cross-boundary academic collaboration is still relatively recent in Chinese Studies.6 I have therefore thought it worthwhile by way of responding to the above observations to look more closely at our collaboration and at the progress we have made, but also at the multiple difficulties which attend such a work-in-progress. For this I am able to look back at our writing over these past years, in which we both reflect on ourselves and on each other, in what is an on-going, sometimes not painless attempt at a continuous working against a priori essentialist assumptions – on both sides.

This has been a commitment which involved for the two collaborators unprecedented, extensive conversations to learn about the project partners’ motivations, respective backgrounds and engagement in the joint project – and about the question at the heart of it all: what does all this have to do with feminism?

The methodological framework which we developed over the years to arrive at a more critical understanding of the process of ‘transnational cultural transfer’ (Mechthild Leutner, 2004)7 has been influenced by the approach which Isabelle Gunning formulated in her seminal article (1992) ‘Arrogant Perception, World-Travelling and Multicultural Feminism’. Its ideal of imaginative, sensitive and process-based feminist collaboration is also our ideal. The traveller is for Gunning a metaphor for the transformation entailed in changing ‘arrogant perception’ in order to shift the imaginary and to transgress the cultural boundaries of our identities as academics and as activists. The researcher intent on engaging in cross-cultural collaboration must travel outside familiar certainties and be ready for an engagement of a most personal, existential and intellectual nature. Moreover, the collaborating researcher makes the choice to learn of another society through a pathway of mediated knowledge, that is, through a process by which the reflective voice and life experience of her collaborator (the anthropologist of her home culture) come to shape the acquisition of knowledge. It is what Kirsten Hastrup (Hastrup, 1992) theorizes as intersubjectively constituted dynamics of fieldwork through which on-going conversations and dialogs implicate, variously, autobiography, history and the ethnographic present. This state of ‘betweenness’ (Hastrup, 1992) is also the site of ‘borderlands’ evoked by the feminist Gloria Anzaldúa (Borderlands/La Frontera, 1987), where travellers must pass through volatile frontiers of transition and liminality, ever at risk, ever uncertain over what may lie ahead. Liz Stanley develops Anzaldúa’s idea of a borderland of ‘”crossing over” between two states of being’ (Stanley, 1997: 2) to conceive of ‘epistemological borderlands, as sites of interface between different knowledges, different knowledge-claims, in which difference is spoken through the conjunction knowledge/power’ (Stanley, 1997: 2, italics in text). Gunning’s feminist travelling as well as Stanley’s critical interrogation of the frontiers crossed in travelling, their material and political organisations and institutions, are pertinent to the experience of our research collaboration, pertinent to our attempt to understand under what conditions people ‘cross over, pass over, go through the confines of the normal’ (Stanley, 1997:2); and pertinent also to what such understanding might tell us about the constitution and construction of ‘difference’ and ‘sameness’ and about our capacity for transgression.

Boundaries and Ramifications

Isabelle Gunning, an American professor of law, was confronted with the feminist predicament over balancing universal women’s rights with respect for cultural diversity in her writing on female genital mutilation. Out of this perplexity, Gunning evolved a three-pronged methodology for understanding culturally challenging practices in an “Other’s” culture. These involve, she says: ‘1) be clear about the boundaries and ramifications of one’s own will and interests, i.e., understand one’s own historical context; 2) understand how as an outsider one impacts on the “other’s” world and is perceived by the “other”, i.e. see yourself as the other woman might see you, and 3) recognize the complexities of the life and circumstances of the other woman, i.e., see the other woman, her world and sense of self through her eyes’ (Gunning, 1992:194).

Back in 1998, in a first joint public presentation of our ethnographic conversation at Monash University in Melbourne 8, we said this (our dialog was published in the feminist journal, Feminist Theory, 2000a):

We feel that through our collaboration, we have started to respond to [Kamala] Visweswaran’s challenge to (western) feminist ethnography to rethink its one-directional epistemological and methodological traditions. We related to the other as a source of stimulation and testing of theory, facilitating more ‘experimental’ conversations during field visits. In the course of our conversations, disagreements and differing emphases expanded our field of observation in response to each other’s personal narratives, and sensitised us to the multiplicity of factors which inscribe personal, but also family and collective, histories. Both collaborators were forced to confront each other’s precariously, sometimes painfully, fragmented and contradictory natures (2000a:36).

Our central concern has been to preserve our two very different, individual voices in all their nuances. We have sought to make our respective identities carry into the written text in order not to submerge either – i.e. the multiple identity of Shui as a Chinese academic and member of an ethnic/religious minority, and my identity as a Western academic and feminist socialized into a different morality as well as a member of a more liberal political society. For this dialog to develop we had to familiarize ourselves with each other, with each other’s understanding of our respective responsibilities as researcher in sensitive areas of investigation. Shui has been telling me about a deeply felt tension as an intellectual researching in a pious Muslim community of which she is an integral member. She talked to me about her misgivings over patterns of collaboration between Chinese and Western academics which all too often, she said, conveyed a condescension and even contempt of their Chinese colleagues’ academic capacities that had made her hesitate as she pondered working with me. I conveyed to her my experience of work with other Chinese academics and that I had been looking for opportunities to practise a more engaged and critical ethnography. Although initially slow and hesitant, we developed in the course of on-going and searching conversations an increasing mutual understanding. How else would Shui have come to learn about the conflicted nature of this detached, liminal traveller whose professional duty as ethnographer to nurture an assertively questioning and curious persona could create deeply felt ambivalence over her role? How else would I have come to recognize the depth of Shui’s identification with her Hui Muslim community at the same time that she despairs of ever protesting those intense communal demands to demonstrate, again and again, unquestioning loyalty to the aspirations of long-suffering generations of believers (Jaschok and Shui, 2000: xvi-xvii)?

We made the situated identity of the two co-authors the fault-lines of our differing interpretations through which could be gleaned, and allowed, our divergent perspectives, concerns, commitments, and audiences. Blum’s discussion welcomed the dismantling of rigid Centre/Margin binaries in political and academic discourses in Chinese Studies, but she bypassed what feminist and reflexive anthropology have sought to address – our bringing of the person of the researcher into the frame of investigation.9

In continuous dialogue, the unfolding of Shui’s biography, both personal and collective (Shui as a member of an ethnic minority, the Hui, and of a religious minority in China, Muslims), became part of the past of suffering and of the present experience of religious women and women under Chinese party/state treatment of religious groups since Communist rule in 1949 (Shui, 2001). Shui’s narrative of her personal and family’s experience is intertwined with the narratives of Muslim women we interviewed and whose collective history we uncovered through the material culture of women’s mosques (Jaschok and Shui, 2000). Shui’s remembering of the passages of time flows into conversations on the impact of fluctuating, often unpredictable Chinese state treatment of religious minorities. Our understanding of the past is entangled in Shui’s strongly felt pain as she recalls the silenced suffering of her fellow-Muslims.

When Shui in a recently published co-authored article ponders our writing, she refers to the review by Laura Newby (2001) of the English version of The History of Women’s Mosques in Chinese Islam in which Newby commends our collaborative work as contributing to quality of work and as symbolic of the ideals of cooperation. Shui 10 continues, ‘… what happens to argumentation? To disagreements over questions to be asked and interpretations to be offered? Conventionally, the mantle of privacy conceals what is seen as non-academic matter and of concern only to the collaborators. What the readers see tend to be only the final product in all its harmonious and homogenised glory, shaped by the dominant party. In regard to our book, Newby observes that some of the most interesting chapters are those which reveal very clearly the intellectual tensions that were left unresolved between the authors. And because of their trust, and trust of the readers, Newby writes, Jaschok and Shui write in a format in which their contrastive voices are heard; where the readers are given to understand that differences over interpretation remain unresolved.

Laura Newby spells out the characteristics of our joint product. The Chinese version of this book is the second product of my collaboration with Jaschok. It maintains the fundamental characteristics of the English version but we have done the necessary amendments, additions, revisions and editing adjustments in order to suit the Chinese context and readership. In our preface we explicitly inform the readers of our shared assumptions and (sometimes) different interpretations. Because readers are informed, they can participate in our dialogue’ (in Jaschok and Shui, 2007:120).

However, dialogs need writing up and require editing; often further research is done to deepen particular arguments or illustrate theoretical points. We address ourselves to specific readerships through the choice of publishers; such approach to publishers and subsequent involvement in the complex process of publishing happens in both the English language and the Chinese language contexts. In other words, we agree to take over responsibilities in our respective community of readers and assume the right to speak on the other’s behalf (with due attention to consultation). My editorial role is dictated by extensive consultations but also by local expediency. And I discovered early how quite imperceptibly what appeared motivated by pragmatic editorial decisions might reveal certain ethno-centric sub-texts that lie concealed in the rich ambiguities of the translation process (from Chinese to English). The dividing-line between contextualization and objectification of the Other is easily blurred. But in the same way that my editorship can at times entail distancing of a kind, Shui in turn directs the interrogative gaze at me, ‘the European academic’ and the epitome of ‘Western feminism.’ In particular in relation to the latter role, I have embodied the measure of epistemological ‘distance from the West’ (which most often invited an exposition on immutable differences as far as the study of Chinese/Hui/Muslim women is concerned, thus a source of tension for us) but on other occasions, and increasingly so over time, frustrations over tense disagreements are giving way to closer understanding of the embeddedness of theoretical positions in structures of power, that is, our place within them, and how insights from such dissection benefit our ethnographic enterprise. In becoming personal, we have been incorporating the political (a source, and a condition, of growing trust between us). With a developing ease born of such familiarity, Shui has assumed in relation to the Chinese readership the authority of a cultural interpreter so as to illuminate for their benefit the context for my biography (and thus alternative approaches to feminist study). Specific references to my central European background, to the refugee status of my parents, to the impact of second wave feminism in Europe (all part of our conversations) have begun to make inroads into assertions of an essentialised ‘Western feminism.’ In this interplay of ethnography, friendship and biography, we are also practising what Judith Okely calls ‘personal anthropology’ which, she explains, borrowing from D. Pocock, ‘recognises and explores a person’s assumptions about his [sic] own society, embedded in written texts and recorded interaction with another people’ (Okely, 1996:41).

We believe, moreover, that a genuine collaboration, if constructed as a dialogic partnership, widens and enriches the scope of anthropological enquiry and interpretation. We have thus found that conversation allows a more critical appraisal of mainstream discourses in each of our home communities as well as encouraging continuous self-examination. In this approach we agree with Nancy Naples who argues that a dialogic approach to ethnographic relations addresses issues of inequalities and insider/outsider divide, bringing a more processual understanding of the ‘interactive’ forces which constitute fieldwork (Naples, 1997:75-6). Such an emphasis on reflexive ethnography and dialogic conversational anthropology is held by certain writers to be highly gendered. For example, Hom and Xin suggest, quoting Maggie Humm, ‘that collaborative work is more feminine than masculine because women are more able and willing than men to collectively share knowledge and emotional experience’ (Hom and Xin, 1995:48). Whilst long experience of participation in joint research projects have taught me to think less sentimentally on this matter, nevertheless collaboration with colleagues based on affinity of values and ideals, as is the case with the collaboration under discussion, suggests that perhaps many women, given the predominantly gendered nature of socialising, incline to be more readily responsive to the other person. This may facilitate a culture of openness and support which is beneficial to the research collective.

Intrusions, Crossings and Others’ Perceptions

Imagining my collaboration, what comes to mind is a constant movement, or ‘border crossings’ – a constant travel, whether geographically, conceptually, intellectually, emotionally – which in the meaning of James Clifford (1992) challenges all fixities of native/outsider boundaries. And yet such crossings can not automatically weaken all constraints internal to a given society ruled by tight official surveillance and depending on individual self-censorship. As concerns Shui, awareness of political sensitivities (heightened in the collaboration with me), of conflicted feelings over expectations from the local Muslim community (over proper Muslim conduct, over Muslim gender roles, over her own accountability to the umma 11 of besieged believers), she says that the on-going exchanges between us helped her to articulate tensions and conflict. And she refers to a concept which has been at the core of her identity, often repeated to me as her significant mantra: ‘Hui the world over are of one family’.

The obligation to the community of origin is one built on empathy for the history of suffering and for the marginality of status in current Chinese society; and it is complicated by the urge for emancipation from the collective narrative of aspiration for a better (Muslim) life for all. The greater the sense of injustice, the more locked she feels into the story which is not her own. A few years ago she said about her relationship with the Hui Muslim community, ‘I strive to understand the real situation of my nationality; however, what I decide to tell outsiders depends on whether or not it will harm the interests of my community. Often when engaged in field research, my dual identity as Hui and as researcher means that I unconsciously change identity – sometimes I am a researcher talking with an interviewee, at other times I am a Hui engaged in an exchange with a member of my own community’ (in Jaschok and Shui, 2000a:45).

In pursuing research in collaboration with a relative outsider, the relationship provides space for my collaborator to express tension and conflict. In this space, called by Hastrup (1992) the ‘betweenness’ of ethnographic collaboration, boundaries can be articulated, dismantled and also shifted, transcending the simple binary of Insider/Outsider boundaries.

In such an environment, the nature of my working relationship with Shui, the vicissitudes of our friendship, my responsiveness to overtures from her social and cultural network, were closely observed and evaluated. We demonstrated, or I might say that I was given the opportunity to demonstrate, that it was possible to cross boundaries of religion, nationality, life habits, material practices, to become friends. We demonstrated the possibility of ease of confidence in the sharing of tribulations. This was more the case in central China, where Shui lives and researches, and where I have spent a good part of fieldwork time, and it strengthened in the course of the years. Sometimes others’ evaluations were less encouraging. Where this happened, as in more closed Muslim communities in borderland areas of China, where many minorities are settled, my colleague’s demonstration of belonging could at times entail distancing from her friend and collaboration. In turn, this enabled me to observe the diverse constellations of power and fault-lines of vulnerability which mark relations between the central government and given Muslim communities.12

But however real our inroads into fields of exclusion and boundaries of rigid demarcations, we also encountered distinct limitations. Shui’s experience of marginalisation is expressive in deference and fear of authority that necessitates tributes to ‘leaders’, visits and reports, which by their very nature objectify me, the troubling ‘foreign object.’ Sometimes pragmatic decisions dictated by political exigencies have led to a division of labour that would exclude me, and we needed to do much work, through at times awkward and uncomfortable conversation, in order to process alienation (expressed however mainly on my part) over exclusions which I felt to contain subtle but wider subtexts of exclusions (which we were simultaneously trying to dismantle).

This is an abiding perplexity: Shui’s ‘deficient’ insider status ultimately made possible my ‘transgression’ into Muslim culture. But because this culture inhabits a diasporic, and a liminal, space in which are played out tension over Islamic identity and Chinese nationhood, my move towards insider status carries with it the constraints of marginality of those with whom I work. If and when whisper is called for, then all of us are lowering our voices.

Crossing Over, Encountering and Shifting Positions

The more liberal Chinese government attitude towards academic dissent in recent years (which however should never be taken for granted) has shifted Shui’s position, as held in the early 1990s, from expressions of deeply felt existential perplexity and ambivalence (preface, in Jaschok and Shui, 2000) to a more assertive advocacy of official tolerance of diversity, pointing to the benefit of religio-cultural diversity for a society. She is also asserting the invaluable contribution Chinese Muslim women can make to international discourses on justice and equality, given their unique and remarkable standing in Islam as inhabitants of their own space of prayer, education and congregation evolved over hundreds of years (Jaschok and Shui, 2000).

Here Shui Jingjun in a recent communication with me has this to say:
In the current ideological climate of Chinese society, the secular has primary status in relation to the idea of the sacred. In the on-going modernisation of China, we are faced with questions over legitimacy of religion, of status, position and identity of believers – indeed, whether those who believe have rights entitling them to legal protection of individual and collective religious practice. This problem, as far as Chinese scholars are concerned, is both old and new. It is old in the sense that China has never been a society anchored in one dominant religion; new in the sense that discourses on modernisation have problematically positioned religion. Misunderstanding in regard to religion has always existed. In recent years religious believers have often been treated as a distinct social group – as the Other – and Chinese society has derogatory notions about them. Popular discourse reflects this prejudice. Indeed, although more attention is paid now in Chinese academia to religious culture and to gendered life experience, to a human perspective, a scholarly consideration of subjectivity in Chinese culture is absent. In this context, ordinary believers are rendered a muted people. We have little knowledge concerning their ideas, emotions, and values – about their spiritual and worldly lives. There is especially little known about the negotiation of the dual impact of religious and secular cultures.

As far as women believers, above all, are concerned, current Chinese culture is governed by a secular orientation. The religious culture that determines their lives and subjectivities leads to a marginal social and academic position of women believers. They are invisible in the public (secular) spheres of society. Their impact on the mainstream secular women’s movement, represented by the All-Chinese Women’s Federation, a mass organisation set up by the Chinese Communist Party, is at best peripheral. The history and socio-political status of Muslim women have to be seen in this context of religious repression, which is compounded by their ethnic identity. Until we began our study of the emergence and history of women’s own mosques under a female leadership, a history of more than three hundred years (Jaschok and Shui, 2000; Shui and Jaschok, 2002), this major contribution of women to the development of Chinese Islam was unknown. Women were even missing from the chronicles of Hui scholarship on Islam in China.

Yet we have discovered that Muslim women constitute an active religious group, enriching both the history of Chinese Muslims and Chinese history at large. Silence or absence is not equal to non-existence and to a lack of capacity for their own voice. In their material constitution and spatial positioning, women’s mosques display their own unique history, an impressive testimony to a uniquely female religious culture, and a long journey from gender segregation to women’s autonomy.13

Gunning’s exhortation, I contend, namely that the researcher must ‘recognize the complexities of the life and circumstances of the other woman, i.e., see the other woman, her world and sense of self through her eyes’, entails a reversal of conventional ethnographic relationships. In such a convention, as Mette Thunø put it, the local colleague was treated as ‘a glorified assistant,’ covering up weaknesses of the outsider researcher (Thunø, 2007:16). Instead, I have come to feel that not only I, but also my collaborator, should have the opportunity to grasp some of the realities of an ‘Other’ kind. When Gunning exhorts the Western scholar to see her ‘Other’ in the complex circumstances of her world and changing realities, the exhortation must be extended to both sides of the partnership. She needed as much an opportunity as I had enjoyed, as a matter of course, to learn about the other’s realities.

That two-track travel began with Shui’s journey to Australia. With the help of the Monash University’s Women’s Studies Centre, as it then was, I made it possible, in 1998, to organise Shui’s first trip abroad, to present together with me a preliminary account of our research findings to an audience of Australian feminist academics. Shui was then provided with an opportunity to visit and interview diverse ethnic female Muslim communities in Melbourne and in Sydney. And I performed the role of interpreter and mediator, that is, what is commonly the task of the native informant (despite the fact that I have been in Australia only intermittently). Such other opportunities arose in subsequent years when Shui assumed the role of the investigative scholar gathering knowledge for her home institution and readership, members of her home mosque congregation. This development shifted the balance in subtle ways. Information flow, contacts and academic networks, direct experience of the other’s ‘home’ culture, all became a part of both partner’s travel record. Our conversations, and our respective audiences, benefited with the broadening of knowledge of the Other.

Sameness and Differences

We are developing the epistemological and theoretical implications of a dialogic model of research still further in our current research, and will be carrying this into a new phase of applied research in which we investigate indigenous models of women’s organizing for development and social change.14 Our fundamental, joint objective has been to tell of the diverse local Muslim cultures that constitute the great umma of international Islam and of the contribution that women have made to render China’s Islam one of the most remarkable instances of female religiosity. We have added to this quest our interest in thinking about, and thinking through, alternative models of collaboration, thus to chronicle the contrastive lives of Muslim women in a way that expresses situatedness and partiality of our respective learning at the same time that we problematize the complex nature of knowledge production and necessary open-endedness of our interpretations, and of our conversations (see, among others, Ahmed, 2000; Bondi et al, 2002; Strathern, 1995; Visweswaran, 1994, 1997).

Isabelle Gunning describes Maria Lugones’s feminist methodology 15, which influenced her work in many ways, as ‘a method by which feminists of various colors can learn to identify their interconnectedness even as they respect independence: world-travelling’ (Gunning, 1992:202). ‘World-travelling,’ Gunning says, ‘has been described by women of color, in jest, as “schizophrenia”. One moves or travels among different “worlds”. “Worlds” are any social situation ranging from “an incomplete visionary utopia” to a subculture or community within a larger dominant community to a “traditional construction of life”. “Travelling is the shift from being one person in one world to a different person in another world. But the “difference” is part of a coherent whole; one does not act or pose as someone else’ (Gunning, 1992: 202-203).

Gunning‘s world-travelling methodology does not diminish however the sometimes seemingly intractable problems which lie in the intimate entanglement of knowledge and knowledge production with powerful, vested interests represented by states, by their bureaucracies and various agencies (Chopp, 1996). For instance, Shui had editorial control over the Chinese version of our book which although overall faithful to the English language text, was also different in instructive and subtle ways. The difference points to our situatedness within specific constellations of power, within tight webs of mutual obligations tying together author, publisher, and readership – and not to forget, agents of censorship. When the Chinese edition emphasises women’s contribution to the development of a modern Islam as consistent with a rapidly modernizing China, the important audience consists both of Islamic patriarchy and Communist Party/state organisation. The importance is both of religious and of political import, explaining and lauding the institution of women’s mosques as uniquely ‘Chinese’, even a product of Communist Party progressive women’s politics, and therefore worthy of establishment support. Against a background of tight State regimentation of religious practice and organisation, Shui makes the argument a forceful one, namely, that within Islam Muslim women’s own traditions of prayer and congregation are doctrinally pure and within Chinese socialism ideologically faithful. In the English language edition of our book, on the other hand, the framework of reference is Arabic Islamic orthopraxy and a global Muslim feminist movement. Our stated objective is the widening of debate within Islam, but also outside Islamic discourse. We suggest that Chinese Islam has contributed much to a richly diverse and progressive strand of Islam which challenges an opportunistic homogenization of Muslim women and men.

Gunning’s model, which framed much of my thinking, comes from the critique of an enduring Centre-Margin binary sustained by persistent material and cultural inequalities and deficient imaginaries. She suggests that dismantling of the hegemonic discourses may give rise to transformative capacities. Gunning says:

It is not that there are “universals” out there waiting to be discovered. But through dialogue, shared values can become universal and be safeguarded. The process by which these universal standards are created is important. A dialogue, with a tone that incorporates world-travelling concerns and respects cultural diversity, is essential. From that dialogue a consensus may be reached, understanding that as people and cultures interact they do change and learn from each other (Gunning, 1992:240).

World-Travelling dialogs do not change the world, but we are finding that they can begin to trouble boundaries of what the cultural critic Rey Chow (1991) calls ‘authentic orginariness’, whereby societies are constructed as bounded cultural entity, as ‘culture gardens’ derived from nation-centred theory. Instead of ‘clashes of civilisation’, instead of hierarchies of tradition and modernity, the multi-cultural dialog is rooted in an assumption of co-temporality, of ‘different societies facing each other at the same Time’ (quoting J. Fabian, Chow, 1991:155), confronting us with the need to engage with each other.

Engagement with each other demands on-going reflexivity on both sides. Whereas the geographical distance I have to cover may cover many more miles (Britain to central China), Shui is as deeply affected by our encounter and by the implications of an on-going international collaboration in what is always a volatile and difficult ethnographic environment. Both of us, in the process of long years of joint fieldwork visits, of interaction with studied communities, authorities and readerships have been challenged and have changed in shared experiences. There is, however, also a poignant awareness in us of differences which play themselves out in our respective access to resources, our respective relationships with readerships or our different positioning within political systems of power and surveillance – and how these realities, over time, are moulding identifications and engendering tensions.

Borderlands, in place of conclusion

We have come a long way, but we are also vulnerable in other ways to the hold over us by the existential comforts of certainties and of belonging, grounded in the familiar narratives of our respective histories. A leading scholar of ethnogenesis and politics of identity in China has argued recently for a discursive ‘dislocation of China’ (Dru Gladney, 2004) from its state-sponsored myth of origin in a homogenous, collective Han Chinese identity. But that process by which China must be known, as Gladney says, from ‘the liminal others, the subaltern subjects that usually do not fit our notion of Chineseness and China’ (Gladney, 2004:1) is not unproblematic if seen from the position of ‘subaltern subjects.’ Expressions of identification with Chineseness in relation to the outside world, sustaining notions of the ‘insurmountability of cultural difference’ in relation to ‘the West’ – a ‘preferred Other’ (Chow, 2000: 5), are the obligatory tribute too often exacted from ‘minority’ intellectuals 16 by an autocratic state. Awareness of the Other’s vulnerability whether in their own situation or that of their circle of dependents, however such awareness problematizes the ethnographic quest for knowledge, is both a tribute to, and a price exacted from, our effort to realize an ‘ideal of imaginative, sensitive and process-based collaboration’ (see above) . Thus, unsurprisingly, an appraisal of our work together will show up ambiguities (never ambivalence, however) in that despite real progress and accomplishments, apprehension will always linger of a divide that might emerge when faced with powerful ideas of difference, dissolving or intensifying as we move within tensions of ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ borderlands. Yet, it is in the on-going process of collaboration, in the practice of ‘personal anthropology’ whether as co-researchers, co-interpreters, or co-authors (and friends), that the dedicated fellow travellers may discover how much (challenging) knowledge and many (unfamiliar) insights are gained when ‘crossing over’ is negotiated in partnership.


1. This article continues the theme of feminist collaboration in the contemporary era explored in joint presentations and co-authored papers; see Jaschok and Shui, 2000a; Jaschok and Shui, 2007; Shui and Jaschok, 2003. Shui Jingjun has given me permission to represent her voice and viewpoints through citations relevant to my argument.

2. Colloquial term used to refer to ‘foreigner’.

3. Co-authored for English language publication in 2000 (Jaschok and Shui, Curzon, UK) and then revised for the Chinese language publication in 2002 (Shui and Jaschok, Sanlian Publishers, Beijing).

4. References to our collaborative methodology feature also in Leutner’s review of our book (Berliner China Hefte, 2001).

5. Du’s own work during the 1980s reflects somewhat reductionist notions of the motivations which led so many women to join the growing memberships of religious organisations, see (1988).

6. The publication of Doing Fieldwork in China, edited by Stig Thøgersen and Maria Heimer (2007), is a recent and positive development which suggests also the continued urgency for such reflective self/examinations. I suspect that the ever stronger and critical participation of China mainland scholars in international discourses will accelerate such a trend.

7. Leutner’s term to describe relations between researchers from within and from outside the studied culture.

8. Fields of Knowing; Gender, Culture, Praxis. A Research Symposium (joint presentation: “How Do We Know What Is Worth Knowing”), Monash University, Melbourne, 27-28 August 1998.

9. This is not to say that all reviewers were oblivious to the ‘conversational’ model of anthropology we adopted. See Mechthild Leutner’s review in Berliner China Hefte (2001), Laura Newby’s review in Journal of Islamic Studies (2001) and Zvi Azis Ben-Dor’s review in Arab Studies Journal (2003). Blum’s state of the field article, least sensitive to reflective issues, is published in the foremost journal in Chinese studies, The Journal of Asian Studies, which occupies a place of influence.

10. Shui’s own words are given in italics, a visual representation of her distinct voice in our partnership.

11. The term umma (or ummah) is used by Chinese Muslims to refer to the global “Family of the Believers” of which they form an integral part.

12. China’s Muslim population, generally estimated to comprise about 25 million believers, is made up of ten ethnic nationalities (or ‘minorities’) among which the Hui nationality is the most numerous. Islam in China is referred to as xiaojiao by non-Muslims, that is, as a ‘minority religion'; see Gladney (1991).

13. Shui Jingjun wrote this reflection for an anthology entitled Identity and Networks. Fashioning Gender and Ethnicity Across Cultures, a tribute to the work and impact of the anthropologist Shirley Ardener; in Jaschok and Shui, 2007: 122-123.

14. We participate in the Research Programme Consortium, Women’s Empowerment in Muslim Contexts: Gender, Poverty and Democratisation from the Inside Out (2006-2011), DFID, UK Government.

15. Maria Lugones (1987) ‘Playfulness, World-Traveling and Loving Perception’ in 2 Hypatia 3.

16. Islam in China is an ‘ethnic religion’, with the Muslim population (estimates vary between 18 to 25 million) consisting of ten ‘national minorities’.


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