“Fitting in” – Being a White, Female Archaeologist in the Middle East

…a (controversial?) dissertation chunk…

Entreaties to “fit in” aside, the excavation team was constantly harassed by the locals on the street, particularly the women on the team; no amount of discreet dressing or walking in pairs stopped rocks from being thrown or come ons from local youth. Being up on the opposite tell was a relief from living in the small, rural town; only a few goatherds and our trusted workmen accompanied us while we were on site. Still, the relationship we had with our workmen was complex—most of them did not speak English and most of the archaeological team did not speak Arabic. The workmen were primarily older men who had lived and worked in the area for most of their lives, while the archaeology team was young and foreign; as a younger woman directing older men within a landscape that was more home to them, I negotiated the difficulties in customs and language as best as I could.

It is a truism in the Middle East that white women are to be treated as men by Muslims, though in truth we inhabit a third gender, an ambiguous pastiche of impressions gleaned from foreign media, personal experience, true curiosity and a profitability assessment. While we could negotiate this ambiguity on an individual basis, or in small groups, our status as outsiders made us extremely vulnerable to harassment and insulting encounters outside of the confines of the accommodations and the tell. Many female archaeologists are loathe to discuss this aspect of working in the Middle East (or, indeed, in other contexts–sexism is not an exclusive trait); we are expected to “fit in” and not complain so that we will be viewed as equal to male archaeologists. Complaining about ill treatment would jeopardize our standing as equals to male archaeologists. Not “fitting in” bears a stigma, if you are harassed then it is seen as a failure as an anthropologist to successfully negotiate your surroundings, and this has a serious chilling effect for women working on archaeological projects.

In 2011, journalist Lara Logan was attacked while covering the Egyptian revolution in Tahrir square, but she spoke out regarding her sexual assault, and in doing so both highlighted the embodied violence that both western and local women are threatened with on a daily basis. Working in much of the Middle East is a tacit acceptance of treatment that would not be acceptable in the United States, submitting to this treatment in hopes to “fit in” and remain silent and professional is part and parcel of this arrangement. Working in the Middle East is a constant negotiation of gendered terms, re-positioning our identities as professionals and respectable women in a context that has absolutely determined that we are neither of the above.

6 responses to ““Fitting in” – Being a White, Female Archaeologist in the Middle East

  1. Alexis McBride

    I had an interesting experience this past year in the field – the first year I took my 18 month old daughter with me. Suddenly, men in the village (Turkish) made eye contact with me, would stop in the street to talk to me (about the baby of course). More interestingly, the local women smiled and talked to me. In previous years, while the locals were polite, they were very distant. The fact that I had a baby with me suddenly made me safe, solidified my status as a woman, making me ‘safe’ and made it possible for the locals to place me in a role they could comprehend.

    While I have never had experiences as negative as rock throwing and harassment, I found that this really crystallized how far outside the comfort zone archaeologists are for locals.

  2. Thank you for openly sharing these details about your professional experiences in the Middle East. I am really sorry that you endured this kind of treatment and find your account to be chilling and disturbing and one that almost anyone I know in the region would be embarassed about. I can’t be sure of the environment you were working in and why it seemed to create feelings of hostility among the community around you. Having personally lived and worked as a white woman across the region in both humanitarian community-based experiences and professional office spaces, I cannot relate to what you describe here. I was always treated with respect and experienced some of the warmest and most authentic hospitality imaginable. That is not to say that just beneath the well-manicured surface there does not swirl a whole other layer of reality. It exists. Yet it’s as true as the inequities and discrimination that are in our own communities, that are easier to turn a blind eye to when not faced with feeling under the microscope as the ‘other’. I have also found that while it was the professional pursuits that brought me to the region, it is the personal side to life that was the magnetic draw for those I encountered in every situation. Putting aside that I was an aid worker, an NGO professional, a talent management specialist, was essential. Even learning to disentangle myself from the identity of white and western and just simply human was equally as important. It can’t be done 100% but the attempt in doing so shed some unnecessary layers. The stories of harrassment are true and pervasive and will take awareness and work to overcome. I hope the qualitative work you are doing will help raise necessary awareness and for your own personal and professional benefit, I also hope you discover a weave of light through some positive interactions as well in your journey.

  3. I probably should have presented more context with this dissertation chunk, as many of the people that I met while in the ME were amazing and very hospitable and I say that in the dissertation–I think that incidents like the above are often ignored or chalked up to “being a wimp” and I think that it is important to speak out.

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