Challenging the marginalisation of ethical narratives in research with women survivors of violence in Afghanistan

This co-written blog post has emerged from a series of conversations between the authors and grows out of reflections on the research experiences of Dr Ahmad in Afghanistan.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban has systematically written and implemented policies to envelop women in silence. Silences and camouflage now define and govern how women conduct their lives. Since August 2021, when the Taliban assumed control of the Afghan government, the conditions in which women live have devolved. Over the last decade, I have participated in several team-based studies in Afghanistan. Carrying out a study in a setting annulled by war necessarily creates confrontation between the unimaginable circumstances revealed through research and the researcher’s capacity and willingness for imagining the truth of what they have heard from those living in conflict. For academics who conduct research in conflict, refusing to utilise collected narrative data in ways that enable fuller descriptions of the lives and circumstances of their research participants may generate an unexpected ethical blind spot.

Sharing fuller narrative accounts of lives lived in conflict would position researchers to acknowledge themselves not only as stakeholders in the studies they conduct, but also as stakeholders in the lives of the very people whose experiences they reimagine and repackage as data for analysis. When academics attenuate, cherry pick from and suppress such narratives in part or in whole, we also escape having to address our ethical responsibilities to our research participants’ stories. While we often debate, with varied levels of abstraction, a researcher’s obligations to people deemed vulnerable, we also usually neglect to even consider what kinds of duties we have undertaken to our research participants’ narratives, beyond basic data protection considerations.

When we don’t tell a story, relate only part of it or homogenise it with statistics, we also marginalise and dodge the ethical duties that arise from the story itself for us in our roles as story collectors and amanuenses. I strongly oppose such avoidance because it silences and distorts the many truths of lives lived in conflict. When a woman emplots her life in war as a story, she speaks against violence and silence. A story from a woman in war possess different tactical functions in comparison with stories of violence told elsewhere, because they directly confront the conditions that gave rise to and silenced what women could say. In the case of Afghanistan, women risked their lives to tell us their stories. Ought we not share the stories we have received in the most faithful and in-tact ways we can?

The research team in Afghanistan collected life histories from women survivors of violence in three provinces. Some of these women had sheltered in Safe Houses from the violence and depravation that shaped their family’s lives and their own. As the Taliban assumed administration of the State, Safe Houses closed, and women fled. I no longer know the whereabouts of those women. I can only expect that many have returned to the familiar certainties of household violence. Some, most likely, hid in informal settlement camps. Surely, others were killed.

The women residents in those Safe Houses entrusted us with their stories. Today, I fear the data collected in the shadow of the Taliban have been actively silenced by everyday academic behaviours. I assert frustration that the silencing will continue in all likelihood because of research norms and academics’ priorities. These include: producing merely descriptive articles, imposing and emphasising Western ideological and theoretical frameworks as modes of analysis, arranging authorship to promote junior researchers, whom have already secured their academic pathways, over Afghan researchers who risked their lives to collect the stories of Afghan women survivors of violence.

This image is a mural in memory of Farkhunda who was murdered by a mob in public around the Persian New Year/Nowruz in 2015. The words express that the shame of Farkhunda’s murder is the shame of every Afghan man and was organised by Selay Ghaffar, an exceptional and wonderful politician who is now in exile. (Photo credit: Ayesha Ahmad)

 

Routine academic bricolage produces normative omissions that may not matter much in research environments that do not threaten life and health and peace. Where endemic silencing and epidemic violence shapes the context of research, as in Afghanistan, academics’ decisions to find no use for part of women’s stories becomes tantamount to them never having been told. The opportunity to write or speak about her experience gives an Afghan woman hope for visibility, aural and ontological presence and perhaps justice. Unproblematically choosing not to disseminate all or part of these narratives as told or to quantify them, obviates the ethical responsibility that arose when Afghan women agreed to become research collaborators (not mere “participants”). The crux of this ethical issue is that at any one point, the researcher is the audience for the storyteller, and academics have duties towards the story that is told and not just to the storyteller. That other published research may tell some part of or someone else’s stories does not discharge the obligation to the stories we receive.

Another silencing behavior operates through abstentia and concerns the not uncommon academic practice to accept Principal Investigators (PIs) who never set foot in the homeland of the women who tell their stories to us. Such PIs thus remain aloof and on the periphery of data gathering, research analysis and production. Yet, raising such issues, even from the vantage point of a senior position, attracts hostility and disengagement. Under such conditions, doing academic work marginalises ethical narratives and the urge to ethical behaviour and responsibility by privileging the prestige markers most valued by grant-makers, promotion committees and research active institutions. I wonder at how these behaviours persist in an academic practice supposedly shaped by feminist values and promoted as a violence preventative, healing undertaking?

The marginalisation of ethical narratives, in my view, stems from fetishising the lives of silenced, and victimised, women—but from a spatial, temporal, and existential distance. When confronted with reminders of ethical behaviours with respect to how to receive and honour stories of suffering, marginalisation and silence often emerges as the rejoinder.

Whilst a publication may mark a research project’s completion and the final stop for its data, it may also start a journey of hope for research participants through their quoted words. Publications about Afghan women freely circulate in societal contexts that do not imprison and annihilate Afghan women. Though the majority of Afghan women may not live in these environments, their words can and do. Because of this, as academics, we must embrace the reality that we can create listeners and new contexts for silenced and invisible women. However, doing so carries a moral imperative deep within that one could easily overlook, so I will state it. We have an obligation to prevent silencing in all forms—especially those that arise from the kinds of accepted academic behaviours described above. This calls for a renewed approach to academic and scholarly activity, where we attend to ethical duties entangled in the very stories themselves.

To overcome marginalised ethical narratives in practice means training researchers not to substitute the difficult to imagine experiences of their research partners, who live amidst conflict and violence, with distancing research constructs and practices. For researchers, accepting the fact that the facts of lives disclosed through research compel analysis and dissemination means aligning the research imagination with more than the required research deliverables. Not doing so means refusing the immiseration of the very people and circumstances who make our research necessary.

In conclusion, I call for a renewed and enlightened compass for navigating the thorny academic terrain beyond academic journals and books. The stories I work on define what humanity means, and we need to imagine a better world where such stories can be received, responded to, and told to cement connections between the storyteller, story and audiences. Marginalisation of ethical narratives breaches ethical academic conduct, and we all share an obligation to prevent such silencing through research. To treat a woman’s story born from war ethically is to receive her words as a gift. The researcher is merely a vessel to transport the story to another place or platform and to communicate why her story matters; and, ultimately, why she matters. Our storytelling, as researchers, separates the amanuensis or scribe from the storyteller. I am not the storyteller, but the scribe and my ethical responsibility extends from the storyteller to her story.

 

About the authors: Dr Ayesha Ahmad is a medical ethicist in global health. She specialises in war trauma and traditional storytelling and developing trauma therapeutic interventions for women survivors of violence in conflict.

Dr. Rodney Reynolds is a medical anthropologist specialising in global health with a focus on Latin America. His research interests are in older adult’s mental health in crisis and health promotion strategies for recognising agency in policy-based initiatives.

Competing interests: None

Handling Editor: Neha Faruqui

 

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