Guest blogger, Afshan Jafar, writing from Connecticut in the USA.
For a while now, everywhere I go--whether I’m teaching, doing research, interviewing for a job, or cooking—authenticity rears its ugly head and demands that I answer questions about myself, about my teaching, my research, the clothes I wear, even the spices I use in my cooking. Questions that I sometimes don’t have answers for, questions that sometimes I’d rather not answer, and questions that sometimes I am too exhausted to answer all over again.
To label something as authentic is almost always a positive label. Inauthentic, on the other hand, is almost always something that is to be shunned or not held in high esteem. Let me try and persuade you to think of authenticity differently- to think of it as a dangerous idea that is capable of doing much harm. Allow me to give you a couple of examples, both from my personal life and from my scholarly interests. I am a Pakistani Muslim woman living and teaching in the United States. I came here in 1995 as an undergraduate student, having never left Pakistan before that time. One would think my background would qualify me as an “authentic” Pakistani Muslim woman.
Not so. A few years ago I interviewed for a job which fit very nicely with my research. The institution was looking for a scholar of Islam (in a very broad sense), and my research on women’s NGOs in Pakistan and Islamic fundamentalism seemed like a good fit. The people on the search committee must have thought so too because I was interviewed for the position. I never did get the position and was later told by a friend of mine (who worked at this institution) that it would’ve been better had I shown up in a burqa! Apparently, my (very) short hair and my “Western” dress somehow did not live up to the image of a female Muslim scholar that the institution had in mind. I have no way of knowing what the precise reasons were for why I was turned down, but the fact that my appearance played a role (even if it was a minor one) cannot be ignored.
Several years ago, when I was doing research on women’s NGOs in Pakistan, the issue of authenticity became hard to avoid as it is quite central to the question of activism and feminism in a non-Western country. Change, and agents of change (such as NGOs), are often criticized by Islamic fundamentalists for aping the West, for not being respectful of traditions and practices that are authentic to local cultures. This makes the work of social change agents very difficult since they become labeled as traitors, or unpatriotic, simply because they are questioning something that is seen as tradition (read: authentic). An interviewee said to me once: “We [Pakistani women] shouldn’t become so Westernized that we forget that our place is in the home. For instance we shouldn’t work once we have children. As Pakistani women it is our duty to raise our children.” Here being a working mother was seen as an inauthentic version of Pakistani womanhood. What this interviewee failed to take into account is that many women in Pakistan have not been raising their children themselves: Poor women have always worked outside the home, and women who belong to the upper classes have hired domestic workers and nannies.
In a strange turn of events, these examples have brought together academics and Islamic fundamentalists, both of whom subscribe to similar notions of authenticity. Calls for authenticity are always calls for stifling change; they are almost always calls for promoting a one-dimensional, and an ahistorical view of a culture or people. The search committee for the position I interviewed for wanted the stereotypical Muslim woman- disregarding the fact that Muslim women are just as diverse in their practices and appearance as women anywhere else. The fundamentalists in Pakistan who denigrate NGOs as Westernized or unpatriotic view culture as unchanging, and also want to hold on to an image of Muslim women that does not reflect the diversity of their lives. Both of these examples ignore the reality of cultures – that they are porous, permeable, changing, and dynamic--and by so doing, limit the portrayals of and expectations of the people from these cultures.
My hair is long now. And every now and then I wonder: Did I give in? Did I grow my hair long so I would be seen as more authentic?
Afshan Jafar is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Connecticut College. Her research and teaching interests are cultural globalization, gender, religious fundamentalism, and trans-national women's movements. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.