CBRL pilot study: The first step into researching refugee communities in Jordan

Art exhibition at a Jordanian NGO in Zarqa, August 2018. (Credit: Dr Yafa Shanneik).

By Dr Yafa Shanneik, University of Birmingham and 2018 CBRL Pilot Study awardee.

During the summer of 2018, thanks to a CBRL Pilot Award, I travelled to Jordan to undertake fieldwork for my project, ‘Muslim Marriages, Multiple Identities: Syrian and Iraqi refugee women in Jordan’.

The idea of this pilot study emerged out of my ongoing project on Syrian and Iraqi war widows and their marriage and divorce practices in the UK and Germany funded by the British Academy. According to this research, the rupture caused by migration and the uncertainties about the refugees’ legal situation lead women to question patriarchal gender structures and traditional conceptions of femininity and masculinity. During my ethnographic fieldwork, I realised that many of these refugee women had a series of multiple displacements before coming to Europe either within their countries of origin or in neighbouring countries such as Jordan.

Thanks to my CBRL funded pilot study, I examined whether these changes in women’s understandings of family structures are a product of their new lives in Europe or whether their refugee experience itself influenced their views on gender roles. My research in Jordan has shown that refugee women are provided with easier access to work, in contrast to men: international NGOs, in particular, have prioritised the employment of women with the aim of empowering women within their family structures which these NGOs perceive as inherently patriarchal. These work opportunities facilitate women’s access to and active engagement within the public sphere. It also facilitates their economic empowerment, impacting therefore on the nature of their patriarchal family structures and understanding of gender roles.

I conducted 42 interviews with various Syrian and Iraqi refugee women in the Jordanian capital Amman as well as Zarqa, Irbid and Karak so as to include women living in both urban and rural areas. To support my one-to-one interviews and focus group discussions, I collaborated with the artist Rachel Gadsden to use art as an additional methodological tool and provide women with various ways of communicating their experiences, views and feelings through art.

We used body mapping as an artistic technique for creating life-sized images that trace the contours of the women’s body. Women’s displacement experiences very often involve various socio-religious and legal challenges that affect their body either physically or emotionally. Using an artistic technique that allows women to use their own bodies to trace their displacement experiences has proven to be very helpful and often therapeutic for the women. As one woman explained: ‘loading my emotions onto my body on paper makes me feel much lighter. I have pushed all these negative feelings out of my own body onto the painted body. I love this. I feel much lighter.’

Rachel Gadsden and I organised two art workshops and two exhibitions in August 2018: one at the local Jordanian NGO Khawla Bint Al-Azwar Society for Women Empowerment and another, a few days later at CBRL’s British Institute in Amman. CBRL Amman provided us with a welcoming space to share our research findings with other scholars as well as a space to connect with journalists and policy makers. CBRL organised a meeting with the office of Prince Hassan bin Talal’s Royal Institute for Interfaith Studies (RIIFS) at which I was able to present my research findings and share my future research plans. Through CBRL’s close links to media representatives in Jordan, my project was covered widely in local Jordanian and regional Arab newspapers.

Art exhibition at CBRL Amman, August 2018. (Credit: Dr Yafa Shanneik).

Both the initial grant from the British Academy and the CBRL funding allowed me to conduct preliminary fieldwork as well as access links to the refugee communities. This enabled me to develop a larger research proposal that not only investigates further challenges and looks into the wider socio-political, religious and economic impact of refugee women’s change in their understanding of family structures but also provides sustainable solutions.

In September 2018 I was successful in securing British Academy funding, supported by the UK government’s Global Challenges Research Fund project on Negotiating Relationships and Redefining Traditions: Syrian and Iraqi Women Refugees in Jordan. The project is in collaboration with Dr Sahar Almakhamreh (Al-Balqa’ Applied University) and Dr Rana Dajani, Director of the NGO Taghyeer, both in Jordan. Based on our research findings, this project will offer awareness sessions to women refugees and social workers to find solutions to local problems. We will deliver judicial training programmes to raise awareness of the women’s legal refugee and religious status. Through art and virtual reality, we will bring the experiences of refugees closer to the wider Jordanian public. This will function as interventions to support social cohesion between refugee groups and the Jordanian society and to alter majoritarian perspectives on refugees. The project supports the argument that sustainability can only be achieved when programmes are developed in dialogue with the targeted group and not through importing a ‘one size fits all’ model from abroad. The CBRL funding I received lay the initial steps towards fulfilling this goal.

Yafa Shanneik is Lecturer in Islamic Studies at the University of Birmingham. She researches the dynamics and trajectories of gender in Islam within the context of contemporary diasporic and transnational Muslim women’s spaces. Currently, she is working on a project which explores women’s narratives of transnational marriage practices performed by Iraqi and Syrian women who have settled in Europe or other countries in the Middle East since the 1980s. It focuses on the historical developments and contemporary understandings and approaches of marriage practices among displaced Iraqi and Syrian Muslim women and foregrounds questions of identity, home and belonging of women constituted through local, national and transnational scales of migration experiences. She has published several articles on gender and Islam and migrant identities in Europe and their marriage practices such as: ‘Shia Marriage Practices: Karbala as lieux de mémoire in London’ Social Sciences. Special issue: Understanding Muslim Mobilities and Gender, 6 (3): Accessible via: http://www.mdpi.com/2076-0760/6/3/100

The views expressed by our authors on the CBRL blog are not necessarily endorsed by CBRL, but are commended as contributing to public debate.