Tawakkol Karman and Peace and Conflict in the Middle East: What Meaning for a Qualitative Researcher?

Tawakkol Karman explains that her name means “work hard and God will aid you”.  A small phonetic shift in her name–Tawaakkol instead of Tawakkol–would signify the opposite, “laze about and call for God to help”.  As one of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winners for her role in bringing about the Arab Peace and instigating the non-violent movement for human rights in Yemen, she lives up to her name, and is pleased her father named her as he did.

Karman, the 2018 Greeley Scholar for Peace Studies at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, spoke this morning (4/5/2018) at a meeting sponsored by the Greater Lowell Interfaith Council held at the Dracut United Church of Christ, where she shared her experiences standing up to dictatorship and fighting for the rights of women.  She described her beginnings in the peace movement as a solitary journalist whose stories were published by a small socialist newspaper in Yemen, which launched her involvement in what became the Arab Spring movement, continuing to this day, post-Nobel Prize, to address the counter-revolution that has swept over the Middle East.

Everyone can take action to injustice and disparities, she emphasized, describing how the women’s movement in her country had started with small groups focusing on discrete goals.  A national transformation occurred as smaller groups coalesced and goals moved from small to large.  In the next stage, small goals were enacted under the umbrella of a new constitution, guaranteeing new rights for women.

I was struck by her passion and determination to address the issues women (and children) face in conflict torn nations.  As part of her mission, she had visited refugee camps throughout the region talking to refugees from different areas, learning first-hand of the ways systematic violence is perpetrated on women (rape) and their families (killing, maiming, and desecration of the dead).

I was also struck by her political savvy and capacity for determined political action.  I admire people who can bring together coalitions, knitting together different views with some relationship or goal to each other, hanging on through the tensions and divisions to stay the course.  I bow to their stamina for the everyday conflict that can be so wearing.

Qualitative research, like most forms of research practiced in academic contexts, presents itself–teaches and replicates itself–in relationship to a master narrative of objectivity, meaning claims about facts, truth, avoidance of conflict-of-interest situations, and neutral stances.  This proclaimed world of objectivity makes it difficult to utter the word subjectivity, much less claim it as a resource.  So, imagine what it would be like to take up strong political positions in such an environment?  When you hear the words of a witness like Tawakkol Karman, I began to wonder at my silence.

I am over generalizing of course, as there has been an important counter movement in our field–one that calls for critical methodologies and participant action research.  Many researchers pick their topics–the study of human trafficking, school inequity, and food scarcity, etc.–on the basis of their passions and desire to address inequality in civil, economic, and social spheres.  Social justice is a call that qualitative researchers have heeded in numerous ways.

As I thought more about Karman’s message, I wondered, how do we (I) raise up a new generation of qualitative researchers with the skills and knowledge to address the objectivity/subjectivity/social justice continuum with greater strength and assurance?  What am I doing to make this happen in my small corner of the world?