I grew up in Bangladesh, where my family are from a village background. This gives me a useful and unusual vantage point which informs my research. I relate directly with women in South Asian villages, I can empathize with their concerns as well as having the ability to make sense of their position sociologically and to communicate my understanding effectively to a wider audience.
My initial research focussed on women and development in Bangladesh, and particularly on how ideologies of purity and honour, in combination with processes of communal self-definition, acted to restrict women’s lives. My subsequent research on women and health followed on from this. This new direction enabled me to integrate my research more closely with the Department’s established research interest in medical anthropology. Similarly, my work on women and Islam developed in the context of teaching at Newcastle, on the Islam and Modern Society subject and the Women and Islam module for Gender Studies subjects.
In addition to my own specific research interests I have pursued collaborative work with colleagues at Newcastle, as in our joint research project with Tibetan refugees. Other collaborative research has included the development of Gender Studies research at Newcastle, and participation in the Centre for Asia-Pacific Social Transformation Studies (CAPSTRANS), a joint ARC Key Centre of the Universities of Newcastle and Wollongong.
Nov. 1982- April 1984 Anthropological fieldwork in rural Bangladesh on women and development (18 months)
1984-5 (Dec.-Jan) Follow-up field trip to Bangladesh (7 weeks)
1990 Research on fertility and health behaviour of Muslim women in Australia (5 weeks)
1991-92 Fieldwork on reproductive health of rural Bangladeshi women (6 weeks)
1993-94, 1994-95 Comparative research project on women's experiences of birth, motherhood and contraception in Hindu, Muslim and Christian communities in Bangladesh and Nepal (8 weeks, 6 weeks)
1996 Field research on birth and reproductive health among Tibetan refugees in northern India (5 weeks)
1997-8 Field research on birth and reproductive health in Kerala and Sri Lanka (5 weeks)
1999, 2000, 2001 Further research in Bangladesh on Grameen Bank, NGOs, women and development; also on return migration (3 months, 4 weeks)
This was the topic of my original doctoral fieldwork (1982-84). My PhD was published as Purity and Communal Boundaries in 1992, and drawn on for book chapters in Intersexions (1991) and Claiming Our Rites (1994). In this work, which analysed a large multi-religious village in rural Bangladesh, I demonstrated how relations between classes and religious communities reinforced relations of gender domination through concepts such as 'purity', 'honour', jati and 'community'.
I maintained an interest in these issues, and on subsequent research visits to Bangladesh I have continued to gather relevant material, and to develop further aspects of the research through conference and seminar papers, journal articles and book chapters. These include work on the effect of development on women, on identity formation among South Asian women and on the role of NGOs in development.
During the 1990s, my research in South Asia developed a second major focus, in which I studied the implications of purity, shame and related concepts for women’s health. Birth for rural women in Bangladesh, as elsewhere in South Asia, is a risky, life-threatening experience. It is handled poorly by both "traditional" and "modern" components of the health system, in part because of the dominance of ideas of birth pollution, in part because of limited understanding of the village situation by international and urban Bangladeshi health authorities. This research, while remaining fieldwork-based and ethnographic in approach, has developed a social policy orientation, and I have presented my results at a major international medical conference and also became involved in work on family planning policies in South Asia.
I followed up my initial study in the Bangladeshi village where I had earlier undertaken my PhD research and in Dhaka with further research in Bangladesh, southern Nepal, and a Tibetan refugee settlement in India. This last study was undertaken in June-August 1996 in collaboration with two other members of the Department who were carrying out research on Tibetan refugees. This research and the subsequent conference also enabled closer collaboration with my colleagues, students in the Department and international conference attendees working in medical anthropology.
In April 1995, in developing a wider comparative perspective on my own research material on Bangladesh and Nepal, I (jointly with Geoffrey Samuel) organized a panel on Birth in South Asia at the Association of Asian Studies Conference in Washington D.C. In December 1997 and January 1998, I made a research visit to Kerala (South India) and Sri Lanka for comparative research on childbirth, female healers and birth attendants. An edited volume (The Daughters of Hariti: Childbirth and Female Healers in South and Southeast Asia: Midwives and Female Healers) is forthcoming in late 2001.
In 1990 I carried out field research on health issues with Asian Muslim women in Melbourne. This research, and my work for the subject Islam in Modern Society, encouraged me to look further at the complex series of issues concerned with gender and Islam, both in Islamic societies and among Muslims in Western societies. I was especially interested in the widespread recent adoption of the veil, with its impact on Muslim women and its enormous political and cultural significance for the Muslim communities everywhere. While in the UK for my 1995 study leave, I carried out comparative research focussing on the contrast between the Australian and UK situations, which led to my contribution to the volume Women, Power and Resistance, an undergraduate reader compiled by staff teaching at Lancaster University, and to a further article on Islam and women in Australia.
My major recent research project, returning to my initial focus on women and development, has been on the role of NGOs and microcredit provision in relation to women in Bangladesh. I carried out field research in this area in December 1998 and January 1999, and library work in the UK from March to June 1999. I returned to Bangladesh for further field research from January to April 2000. During this period, I was also involved in a DFID consultancy on the role of big NGOs in development, and later wrote a report on gender issues in development for a second DFID project.
Other recent research,, carried out as part of a Ford Foundation/CAPSTRANS project, has been on return migration to Bangladesh.
GBS updated 03/03/2002