Interview with Samia Khatun, Postdoctoral Fellow and Author of “The Book of Marriage: Histories of Muslim Women in 20th Century Australia” in a forthcoming Issue of Gender & History
We stopped by the office of Samia Khatun, Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Melbourne and author an article in the next issue of Gender & History to discuss how her work is changing the way histories are told, and to solicit her advice for those looking to get into a career in humanities research.
Listen to her conversation with Deb Wyatt, Editorial Director at Wiley, below. Or, scroll down further to read the transcript.
DW: Hi there. My name is Deborah Wyatt, and I’m Wiley’s Australian Editorial Director for research journals. I’m based in Melbourne, Australia, and joined today by Dr. Samia Khatun.
Samia is a McKenzie Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Melbourne here in Australia. She’s also a visiting scholar at the University of Liberal Arts in Bangladesh in Dhaka. Her research and activism interrogates power regimes across the Indian Ocean, world, and Australia. Using archives of sung poetry, she’s currently researching a cultural history of textile workers from Mughal Bengal to contemporary Bangladesh. Samia is also working on a monograph that tells the history of Indian Ocean connections from perspectives of South Asian travelers and Australian Aboriginal storytellers.
Today we’re talking with Samia about her article, “The Book of Marriage: Histories of Muslim Women in 20th Century Australia”, which is published in Gender & History.
DW: Welcome to the Wiley Humanities Festival, and thanks very much for joining us! Samia, your article “the Book of Marriage…” explores some remarkable histories including the story of your own mother, Eshrat, her mother Zobaida, and her dream guide. Can you give us a little background on how you approach this particular project, and about the process of writing the article itself?
SK: It’s an absolute pleasure to be here. I was writing this history of marriage and I have to say I have been struggling with it for such a long time. It’s one of these pieces that have been kind of confounding me for years and years and years almost. Eventually, the moment that I worked out how to do it, was when I started focusing in on mom’s dream, because I was like, listen – histories of South Asian women need to be returned in order for South Asian women to make sense of their lives and their most intimate archives and most intimate experiences and moments. And, obviously that dream is a story that I keep returning to again and again and again because it’s very important for me and it was very important for my mom. Of course, it looks ridiculous when you ask the question, “do histories of Muslim women help me make sense of this dream?” The answer is, “no.” So, the way I approached it then was, well, in that case, it’s the history that’s wrong. Everything that’s written about South Asians or South Asian women needs to help us actually make sense of our lives. This is the thing of my life that I want to make sense of, so I am going to structure an entire discourse around it.
I guess when that fell into place, that’s when I was finally able to finish this article. It’s almost like I just couldn’t finish it until I had that sort of magic key.
DW: That’s a beautiful description of what is actually such a vivid set of stories laid out in this article. Talking about stories, your article brings to life stories of five very different women in Australia, and their experiences. They’re each navigating through culture spaces and interpretations of the law, which I found very fascinating. You’ve spoken about how these play out in terms of your own perception of your own mother’s history and your own family’s history – how do you use these gender and cultural identities of the past playing out in contemporary Australia more broadly, and women here in contemporary Australia?
SK: I think that because women in enlightenment thought have played such a key role in progress narratives, in always marking precisely where we are at. “Are we savage or are we civilized?” is determined by apparently where women’s rights is at. For that reason, I think that the stories about women are sort of the places where you can see power operating, how it varies; different forces in society are trying to conscript people into acting the way that they want. That would be the one thing that I think remains in common between all the different women – their stories, they’re continuously being conscripted into stories that aren’t actually about their hopes, desires, dreams, wishes for the future. Sometimes they are, but most of the time they’re not. And they’re of course the stories they’re telling themselves. This entire case was a way of getting women today – particularly women who are not of the dominant culture – giving them tools to be able to start understanding the stories that are being told about them in the past, and then start making their own stories, scripting themselves out of the stories that they continuously get inserted into.
DW: That’s really interesting. Your discussion around progress narratives was particularly interesting to me personally. A question about your approach to the history of Australia here and Australian history broadly – there are some that would say that Australian history, certainly Australian histories of privileged white male narratives at the expense of others, excluding Aboriginal voices and stories and the experiences of migrants that you just mentioned, you referred to the “failure of Australian history books to offer adequate precedence to the contemporary experience of South Asian migrants”. How do we approach the study of history in a way that brings in these new narratives that we’ve spoken about? Storytelling – how do we actually introduce that practice into the study of history more broadly here in Australia?
SK: I think it’s a really, really big task, and a really difficult one. We’re currently meeting at the University of Melbourne, right? As far as I can see, the moment that the foundation stone for the university is set and it’s in 1054. It’s an act of saying that the stories and the knowledge that settlers bring are superior to the colonized peoples’. How did people used to tell history before that foundation stone was laid? These are the types of things that really interest me. The way that I think you can get out of the bind of privileging the white narrative or the white male narrative is actually by looking to the storytelling traditions of the various and the complex story tellers that have existed on this land and have moved to this land since British colonization. In my article I try to use that original storytelling, I try to engage that aboriginal story telling tradition, and I try to structure the whole thing around a Muslim storytelling tradition.
DW: That’s so complex. In particular, Lallie’s story I found very fascinating in terms of the way she really traversed this country, but also different definitions of law, different definitions of culture, and ultimately returned to her home where she originally came from with her mother… which was fascinating tying in also with your mother’s story of returning or dreaming of returning to her own home…these movements of women across the globe.
I also had a question around the humanities more broadly and actually we’re here talking today, as you said, at the University of Melbourne, but we’re talking to a global audience who are listening as part of this digital virtual festival of the humanities. I’m wondering if you can reflect on the ways that digital technology has changed or hopefully improved our ability to capture different stories, different histories, and build on the humanities and the study of history in general?
SK: I can only speak for myself in a sense in what the digital humanities or digital methods are connecting have opened up. In my particular case, it’s made it really easy to feel connected to audiences outside of Australia, and that’s really important in being able to write the kind of history that I want to write because in a sense, if I’m extremely honest, my base imagined audience are my cousins. They’re spread right across the world. Some of them are legal, some of them are illegal. I have this extraordinarily complex family, and if that’s the base, there are larger bases of South Asian diaspora and an even larger base of Muslim diaspora. Imagining that you’re actually writing for them, imagining that you belong to that collective, which is made actually concretely possible with digital technologies and new digital platforms, it completely transforms the way in which you perform history, the way in which you set the stage. The stories you tell are completely shaped by these audiences. That, for me, is the potential of it.
DW: Certainly, if we look back in ten years or twenty years ago…we can [now] amplify research in a way we could never before. You mentioned before that you also have an honorary position at the moment in Dhaka. What’s the experience…how is the discipline of the humanities in these two different locations by comparison in terms of their engagement with these digital humanities and access to resources?
SK: I am about to take up a position at the University of Liberal Arts in Bangladesh, so I haven’t actually worked in that system yet. But, the university landscape in somewhere like Australia compared to somewhere in Bangladesh is extraordinarily different. One of the really strange things about this particular historical moment is that in the West, or in Australia in particular, it feels like the humanities are collapsing in on themselves, or it feels like universities are collapsing in on themselves. Very oddly, in South Asia, it feels like universities and the humanities are flourishing. I don’t want to make a really big statement about that because there are a lot of critiques that, you know, the rise if India in particular hasn’t been matched by an equal rise in humanities education. But I guess I’m hoping that these are the spaces that I want to find and seek out in South Asia. But it really does feel like the world of universities there is very much expanding. It’s kind of an exciting moment to be thinking about possibilities there. But, for people actually who hear this statement – probably situated in South Asia – this probably sounds extremely naïve.
DW: I wouldn’t necessarily say that! I mean, you are positioned in a really important part in time in terms of the globalization of research. What we find as publishers is that so many papers now than were before are multi-authored by international networks of collaborators, people joining together for what is actually a global mission to improve research across all disciplines. I can’t wait to touch base with you again in a year’s time when you’ve been working in Bangladesh.
I guess I had another couple of questions for you for those people listening who are considering pursuing an advanced humanities-based degree. I’m wondering what motivated you – I think we’ve learned quite a bit today about what motivates you personally – but what motivated you to pursue an advanced humanities-based degree, if you could talk a little about that?
SK: As an undergraduate student I started studying math! A classic maths/computer science/physics student. I had gone and done a maths major and was about to graduate. I was living in Sydney at the time, and I wandered into a classroom called “Race Relations in Australian Frontiers”. I was living in Redfern at the moment, which is an inner-city suburb in Sydney where Aboriginal politics were a big part of its history. It was a first couple of lectures that just made me go, “what have I been doing for all these years? Oh my goodness! This makes sense of the world!” So then, I went home to do a history major on top of the maths.
It’s one of these things that I guess in some ways I wandered into it accidentally. But it was a set of tools that, like my experience with this article ended up being able to make sense of the world. I would say that as someone who is a first generation migrant living in Australia, approximately 85-90% of my experience both in the family sphere and when I go back to Bangladesh, or when I’m traveling and I’m part of the world of global Muslim young people or something, 90% of what goes on I actually don’t understand. And I found that humanities education is exactly where I can find the tools to make sense of it. Particularly returning to Bangladesh regularly has sort of…it’s just a very full on thing to be continuously having to grapple with what it looks like to live on the contemporary forefront of imperialism today.
I guess in the end, humanities education grabbed me. It had those incredibly powerful tools and I’ve stuck at it because again and again when I don’t understand the world, it is what allows me to make some sense of it.
DW: That’s such a vivid description of a pivot for a maths student to walk into a lecture theatre and do an 180 degree turn into a humanities career! I love your description of using humanities to make sense of the world.
I’m just curious – to what extent do you think your background in maths might have influenced your approach to your works as a historian?
SK: I think there’s nothing better than mathematical training to actually really get you to absorb the joy of theoretical gymnastics. Following through an argument and doing theoretical backflips. It’s something I really enjoy. And I do think that mathematical training gave me that. In mathematics training you get a set of tools, a set of formulas or approaches, and then you have a problem and you just go and solve it. You very quickly learn that if it’s a difficult problem that hasn’t been solved, the only way it can be solved is to use the tools in the completely novel, wacky way. The sort of celebration of the wacky – I don’t know, I do think that mathematical training gave me that in a sense.
DW: Okay, so not everybody’s going to come to the humanities from a maths background, but many people listening today may be thinking of approaching a career in the humanities. What advice would you give to any listeners who are interested in embarking on a research career in the humanities?
SK: For future humanities researchers, I would say that the power of the humanities is critical thinking. That’s the one thing that we can do really well. That is sort of our mission in brief, from the world. At every single stage of my own development as a historian, it’s always been about interrogating power relations in the world today. Even though I’m writing about the past, it’s always about today. For future humanities researchers, I’d say that your ideas are given an edge, or your ideas matter when you have one foot in the real world, and one foot in the university classroom. That’s sort of the model that produces new, novel ideas that actually go out and shake the world. But, I don’t know! Who am I to say? That’s what I would say to myself back ten years ago.
DW: It seems like pretty sage advice to me. Thank you so much for talking with us and contributing to the Wiley Humanities Festival.
Those people listening today – do yourself a favor and have a look at Samia’s article, “The Book of Marriage: Histories of Muslim Women in 20th Century Australia” which is published in Gender & History.
Thank you so much!
SK: Thanks so much, Deb!
More about Samia Khatun
Samia Khatun is a McKenzie Postdoctoral fellow at the University of Melbourne and is collaborating with workers rights activists in Bangladesh to produce a 400-year history of textile workers from Mughal Bengal to contemporary Bangladesh. Be sure to look for her upcoming article in the next issue of Gender & History.
About Deb Wyatt
Deb is the Editorial Director of Australia, New Zealand and Southeast Asia at Wiley. She and her team currently have oversight for a multidisciplinary list of over 80 peer-reviewed journals across Australasia and Southeast Asia. In the course of her career Deb has led the launch of a number of successful social science and humanities journals, including Regulation & Governance, Asia and the Pacific Policy Studies, and PsyCh Journal and has forged relationships with partners across the region
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