Veiled Sociology: The Epistemologies of Purdah in Gender Segregated Ethnography

Fauzia Husain, University of Toronto

In this paper, I reflect on ethnographic research I conducted in Karachi with three groups of working-class women – police officers, “air hostesses” and “lady health workers” – frontline workers who provide security-service to the Pakistani state and its various global allies. Women security-service workers enable women citizens to maintain purdah (a form of gendered privacy) in their interactions with the state (and its allies) but do so at the cost of their own privacy and respectability. By investigating how security-service workers navigate the dignity dilemmas their purdah-violations produce, however, I too was forced to undertake various purdah-violations of my own. Specifically, my work with women state agents required me to adopt various modalities of purdah as part of my ethnographic practice. These modalities were very generative, providing new insights into purdah, and its connection with security. Yet, the modalities I adopted were also fraught by questions of power, representation, and encroachment. In this paper, I detail the various ways I incorporated purdah in my ethnographic work, how I did it and failed to do it in the course of my research, what I learned from doing it, and what I felt I had lost. The paper reflects on the tensions-- around issues of betrayal, belonging, and membership-- that emerge when native-born sociologists use tools and methods forged in the west to study their home societies in the name of a foreign social-science

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 Presented in Session 62. Decolonizing Sociology From South Asia