‘Standpoint’, ‘Difference’ and Feminist Research Samia Bano


Standpoint’, ‘Difference’ and Feminist Research


Building more inclusive ways of seeing requires scholars to take multiple views of their subjects, abandoning the idea that there is a singular reality that social science can discover.

(Margaret L. Andersen 1993:43)1

While a fair amount has now been published about relationships in the actual interview situation, much less has been written about researcher negotiation with people that they want to be in a study and about how participants themselves feel about being involved in particular pieces of research.

(Ann Phoenix 1994:50)2

There is a growing feminist literature which seeks to understand the relationship between the experiences of women as complex, multiple and dynamic and which can only be understood in interaction with other identities and social structures. This intellectual strategy in feminist social research derives from the ‘standpoint’ of women and seeks to produce a ‘feminist’ subjectivity. With regard to understanding the complex lived experiences of women, standpoint theory draws upon feminist critiques of power to highlight the differential position women occupy within social, familial and legal life. More recently, however, standpoint theory has been criticized by black feminists, who argue that such approaches remain imbued with simplified and unqualified understandings of culture, religion, identity and community and hence subsequently fail to adequately engage with the multiple positions women occupy in relation to race, ethnicity, class, family and community. Indeed, it is this complex reality that leads black feminists to draw upon the categories of ‘difference’ and ‘translocational positionality’, with the intersection of race, gender and class subordination to gain a more fuller understanding on the specificities of black women’s lives.

This chapter draws upon these debates to explore the methodological dilemmas faced by the socio-legal researcher while collecting fieldwork data in the area of ‘religious personal law’ in Britain.3 In doing so, it explores the methodological dilemmas in accessing, collecting and analysing data in an area of study that is confined to the ‘private’ sphere, is traditionally defined as non-legal and remains largely under-researched. Moreover, it questions whether these issues raise a specific set of ethical and methodological challenges for the feminist socio-legal researcher. Seeking to explore the ontological and epistemological tensions presented by feminist standpoint theory with cultural difference, it addresses the need to develop a multifaceted approach to conducting feminist social research that recognises complexity, difference and diversity within its analyses.

The chapter addresses three main issues. The first draws upon observational research to explore issues of ‘access’, ‘consent’ and ‘disclosure’ in undertaking empirical research with Shariah Councils in Britain. In doing so, it questions whether traditional research methods need to be used in specific ways when faced with a particular set of methodological issues.4 This issue also relates to questions surrounding the centrality of privacy, the relationship between public and private ‘space’ and the situation where the researcher has little control over the research process.5 The second issue draws upon debates on ‘reflexivity’ and the ‘self’ to analyse the role of the feminist researcher in conducting in-depth qualitative interviews. Here we draw upon debates on identity and cultural difference to consider how ‘differences’ may affect the research process and to question whether sharing a gender, ethnic or religious commonality with the interviewee leads to any difficulties and/or advantages.6 It draws upon the concept of ‘positioning(s)’ to consider the limitations of categories such as ‘insider/outsider’ that fail to capture not only the complex and varied experiences within the various groups under study but also obscures the richness and diverse experiences between the researcher and the researched.

The final part of the chapter addresses the issue of the researcher ‘leaving the field’ and explores ways of managing the personal relationships formed with one’s informants.7 If we take the view that the decision of the informants to participate in the research project may be conditional then we must also consider the implications that this may have upon the interpretation and presentation of data. In this way, questions can be raised about the interpretive process, and the chapter concludes by briefly considering the social and political implications of writing up research deemed ‘politically sensitive’.


Muslim family law, like other South Asian religious and customary corpuses of law defines the position of women in relation to marriage, divorce, child custody, dowry and inheritance.8 It is often referred to as personal law as there have been some voices within the Muslim community in the UK demanding that a ‘personal regime of law’ be adopted for the Muslim community as a whole within the area of family law.9 In the case of Islam, Muslim Family Law is subject to interpretation by different religious leaders and communities as there is no one comprehensive Islamic legal system but varieties exist according to ethnic or religious backgrounds.10 There are two main groups of Muslims in Britain, Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, and the practice of Islam within these groups varies in accordance with the different Shariah schools of thought. There are also many class and sectarian divisions, operating according to different Islamic codes of laws; for example, Ismaili Muslims are part of the wider Shi’a group but practice distinct laws applicable only to them. It is, therefore, difficult to speak of ‘Muslim family law’ in Britain when it varies so widely according to ethnic and sectarian affiliation.

Existing literature presents the socio-legal reality of Muslims in Britain as a complex scenario whereby official and customary laws interact to produce a new set of hybrid laws.11 In attempting to develop a conceptual framework, which both adopts a ‘postmodern approach’ to the study of law and recognises pluralism and diversity in social life, Menski employs the analytical framework by the jurist Masaji Chiba12 and constructs a legal model that he defines as ‘Angrezi Sharia’. According to Menski, Asian Muslims in Britain have not simply given up Islamic law but combine Islamic law and English law to form ‘Angrezi Sharia’. As part of this complex process, redefined Muslim laws in Britain have become ‘hybrid’ and thus ‘all ethnic minorities in Britain marry twice, divorce twice and do many other things several times in order to satisfy the demands of concurrent legal systems’.13 This complex socio-legal reality of Muslims in Britain also raises fundamental questions of whether, in a multicultural and heterogeneous society, there must be a commitment to cultural diversity and pluralism in the area of family life, just as in other areas, and whether the state should uphold and support a diversity of family arrangements. This raises a number of important conceptual and theoretical questions regarding the relation between individual and groups rights, how these are distinguished and how clashes between individual and group rights may be reconciled. Embedded in these is the key question of what makes a community a community of rights? Does the state, in granting individuals the right to enjoy their culture, have an obligation to foster that culture and ensure its survival? These issues also raise questions on what we mean by the term ‘community’. Communities nest within one another: local, national, and global. They also intersect: British Muslims belong to the global Muslim umma, for example. Some individuals may regard the recognition of a cultural/religious practice as a ‘right’ and by other members of the same community as a means of oppression. A particular cause for concern for liberal feminist theorists has been whether the practice of personal laws within the familial context leads to the unequal treatment of women within these communities. This area of work has been couched within the context of tensions between multiculturalism and feminism.14

It is within this context of liberal multiculturalism that we have seen the emergence and development of unofficial non-statutory bodies identified as Shariah Councils in Britain. Framed as sites upon which family law matters are resolved according to Muslim family law, they have developed frameworks that are characterized by specific cultural and religious norms and values. This mobilisation of communities challenges the hegemonic power of state law and unsettles the multicultural project in its attempt to reconfigure social and legal discourse in matters of family law. Most interestingly, for the socio-legal scholar, this process opens up the conceptual space in which to see in evidence the multiple legal and social realities in operation, within the larger context of state law, liberal multiculturalism and rights discourse.


The central methodological questions for this study relate to formulating ways to observe how Shariah Councils operate in practice, and to encourage British Pakistani Muslim women to speak about their experiences of using Shariah Councils to obtain a Muslim divorce. The first method, which comprised observation of Shariah Council ‘proceedings’, was chosen for a number of reasons. As discussed earlier, existing research documents the development of Shariah Councils in Britain as evidence of an emerging parallel legal system. Thus the socio-legal reality of Muslims in Britain is presented as a complex scenario whereby official and customary laws interact to produce a new set of hybrid laws.15 The present study attempts to problematize this approach by examining the gendered nature of the informal legal sphere(s). In doing so, it deconstructs the binary oppositions of ‘state law’ and ‘customary law’ and seeks instead to explore the contested ‘space(s)’ that Shariah Council’s occupy as an empirical reality rather than a theoretical construct. Observational research included observing counselling and mediation sessions, interviews with Shariah Council scholars and observation of ‘court’ proceedings when a religious divorce certificate was issued.

The second method comprised in-depth qualitative interviews with 25 Pakistani Muslim women. The interviews sought to elicit the experiences of women using Shariah Councils to obtain a Muslim divorce. It is the ‘voice’ of the women that the research seeks to bring out and hence a feminist approach to interviewing is adopted.16 In particular, it explores their motivations for using the Shariah Councils, drawing upon their experiences of marriage and analysing strategies to obtain a religious divorce. In doing so it considers how women balance social expectation based on cultural duties with religious obligations and how gender frames the relations of power on which negotiations may be based within the family and unofficial decision-making bodies.17


Shariah Councils operate as unofficial legal bodies specialising in providing advice and assistance on Muslim family law matters. They are neither unified nor represent a single school of thought but instead are made up of various different bodies representing the different schools of thought in Islam.18 In essence, the Shariah Council has three main functions: mediation and reconciliation; issuing Muslim divorce certificates; and producing expert opinion reports on matters of Muslim family law and custom to the Muslim community,19 solicitors and courts. In addition to providing advice and assistance on matters of Muslim law, Shariah Councils have also been set up to promote and preserve Islam within British society.20 The process of dispute resolution, therefore, is produced through various discursive practices. That is, Shariah Councils must be understood in relation to the locus of power in which they are embedded. Similarly, the emergence of Shariah Councils in Britain can be traced to a diverse set of social processes. According to Yilmaz21 there are four conditions under which Shariah Councils emerge in Britain. Firstly, under Muslim tradition, family issues are purposively left to ‘extra judicial’ regulation and diasporic communities continue this tradition and resolve disputes within this sphere. Secondly, Muslims do not recognise the authority and legitimacy of western secular law on par with Muslim law and, therefore, deliberately choose to resolve disputes through a non-adversarial process. Thirdly, the familial notions of honour and shame prevent familial disputes from being discussed in the ‘public sphere’ and subsequently religious laws are given greater potency and legitimacy within the communities. And finally, the failure of the state to recognize these plural legal orders has led to the development of these ‘alternative’ dispute resolution processes within the private sphere. In short, what we see in this analysis is the development of a parallel legal system in opposition to state law.


Conducting research on ‘sensitive’ issues raises a specific set of ethical and methodological challenges. Sieber and Stanley define sensitive topics as those studies in which there are ‘potential consequences or implications, either directly for the participants in the research or for the class of individuals represented by the research’.22 This can include topics that involve taboos for the local community, for example sex or death or topics which may be sensitive in relation to the socio-political context in which the research is undertaken.23

Research on Shariah Councils can be deemed ‘sensitive’ for a number of reasons. Firstly, issues of marriage and divorce embody notions of familial honour and shame and consequently remain confined to the private spheres of family and home. The implications of discussing private matters through what is ultimately viewed as a public forum can have detrimental effects for the women and their families. In the observation of Shariah Councils, a number of scholars voiced concern about the implications of discussing personal matters of marriage and divorce ‘in public’ with a complete stranger. It became apparent that my presence was deemed an ‘intrusive threat’ by some Shariah Councils since I was attempting to gain entry into areas deemed ‘private’ by respondents, their families and the communities to which they belonged. One religious scholar explained,

You must understand confidentiality is of utmost importance in our work. It is very difficult for our people to discuss these issues and we spend a lot of time and effort convincing them to seek our help. Divorce is shunned in our communities and rightly so. It should not be given the air of respectability but that doesn’t mean we condemn those who want to divorce. Divorce is permitted in Islam and we work with Muslims to achieve the best possible situation … to allow someone they don’t know to sit through our sessions would mean they would lose our trust and confidentiality.

A further issue concerned the rise of Islamaphobia and the perception of ‘risk’ associated with collaborating with the research project.24 Again discussions with religious scholars revealed concern about the possibility of such research contributing to the demonisation of Muslims and what one scholar described as ‘the growing climate of fear and discrimination against Muslims’. One Muslim female worker at a Shariah Council voiced concern about the possibility of the research contributing to existing stereotypes of Muslim women as passive victims of archaic religious traditions.

It’s quite understandable why Muslim women don’t want to contribute to research projects because mostly we’re presented as some kind of alien species, especially if we choose to practise our faith. For example discussion normally is confined to why we would choose to wear the hijab … well if we’re Muslims why shouldn’t we? And also you must remember that its not that many of us are reluctant to discuss issues such as marriage and divorce in a public space but it’s the lack of tolerance, and understanding in this space that makes us reluctant to engage.

There were also concerns from religious scholars on the presentation of data. One scholar informed me, ‘We discussed your request at our weekly meeting and a number of us are concerned about what will happen to the material once you’ve completed your project.’

When access to observational research was permitted it was made clear that it was on the basis that as a Muslim researcher I was expected to present that data in a fair and accurate way. What then can be said about the ethics of conducting research under such conditions? Perhaps not surprisingly, this link between private experiences and public discourses on Islamaphobia raises questions regarding the theoretical framework upon which the research is undertaken. For example, Lee suggests that the researcher must provide a ‘framework of trust’ based upon confidentiality and a non-condemnatory attitude that in turn allows them to encourage those under study to confront issues that may be perceived as ‘personally threatening and potentially painful’.25 Moreover, we must remind ourselves that ‘sensitive’ research can only be understood as ‘sensitive’ according to the context and conditions under which it is situated. In this way, the necessity presents itself for all researchers to address their own religious, moral and political beliefs.

In this study, gaining access to some Shariah Councils for observation research proved difficult, lengthy and problematic. It is well documented that the aim of observation fieldwork is to provide a rich insight into the organisation under study. Yet this process can be limited when access to private organisations is controlled and in some cases blocked by its ‘gatekeepers’.26 Some writers point out that the ‘access processes’ need to be more fully explored. For example, Lee complains that ‘neither has much attention been paid to patterns of access and non-access across studies, or to the potential consequences of differential accessibility to some settings rather than others’.27 In this study, the absence of direct measures—a result of restricted access to Shariah Councils—meant that comparisons between the bodies could not be sufficiently drawn.

This raises the question of the ways in which gatekeepers may exercise their power to curtail or prevent access. Form28 points out this unequal relationship leads to the researcher ‘bargaining in the access situation’. He identifies this as the ‘politics of distrust’ that can only be overcome if there is trust between the gatekeeper and researcher, even though there may be differences of opinion. In Morrill, et al,29 the researchers found that identifying gatekeepers acts as a useful analytic device for learning about the vocabularies of structure in an organization, and that successfully managing gatekeepers requires that one understands the vocabularies of structure in use in an organization. For other scholars, the issue of ‘mistrust’ can only be overcome if the boundaries of the research relationship are clearly demarcated prior to the start of fieldwork. For example, Lofland and Lofland30 devise a series of questions which the researcher must address before the research begins. These include, ‘am I reasonably able to get along with these people? Do I truly like a reasonable number of them, even though I disagree with their view of the world? Why did I pursue research when it became obvious that it was going to be difficult to maintain in the long run?’ These questions provide a useful criterion to explore the issue of ethics in fieldwork research but we must also remain aware of a new and different set of ethical questions arising during the course of the fieldwork.