Before I arrived in Lebanon, my supervisors and I had discussed where I might conduct interviews. I had gamely listed ‘public places’ and ‘safe areas’ on my ethics and risk assessment forms. But what this actually means in practise is far more complicated. Conducting focus groups in a local cafe, not a 5 minute walk from the centre of the neighbourhood in which most of these women lived, was a big deal. For some, it was the furthest they had been without their husbands or family members. Most arrived with others that they knew, walking across the road in a tight knit of hijabs and conversation. To ask individual women to meet me alone in a public cafe for an hour long conversation, touching on matters of harassment and fear, wasn’t always realistic. So, a majority of the interviews took place in their homes.
This raised another conundrum that I had also tussled with before I had arrived: When you interview someone in the privacy of their own home, you sometimes also get their children, friends or husband sat in on the interview as well. It’s difficult, albeit impossible to get around this. You cannot ask someone to leave their own home, you may well cause offence or concern if you want to only interview one member of the family, and in homes where everyone lives in one room, there sometimes just isn’t the space for privacy.
The husband dynamic is particularly difficult to negotiate. My work focuses on women and their experiences, but when a husband is present it quickly devolves into a conversation about the husband’s experiences, or the family’s experiences – and not the particular experiences of the individual woman. I don’t intend for my work to be exclusionary and I do seek many other’s opinions and perspectives to inform my work – but I am focused on highlighting the experiences of women.
The additional challenge is that I am working through a translator, so you miss some of the fluidity to shift the conversation back towards the individual or topic you want to focus on as you would in a regular conversation. Furthermore, women ware less inclined to share on certain topics and be open when their husbands are present. This may seem like a gross generalisation but in my experience it is accurate. During our ‘family’ interviews, women often referred a majority of questions back to their husbands if they were present. On other occasions, when we did one to one interviews, women shared stories of sexual harassment or difficulties in public which they said they would never share with their husbands– mainly due to fear that they would be confined to the house for their own protection. Therefore I realised fairly quickly that I was not getting the whole picture when I interviewed women in these contexts. That is not to say that these interviews were a loss. The husbands were warm, welcoming and very hospitable. Often they shared very interesting dynamics of the gendered experiences of being a refugee. Occasionally they didn’t intervene or contribute at all, but overall, interviews tended to disintegrate into a family narrative, or be dominated by the man’s experience.
There is no easy or quick solution to this. For me, it was a balance of a few things, including ensuring interviews times would coincide with when women were more likely to be home alone – in the morning during the week, and never on weekends. If we did have a family interview, to use the time as an opportunity to get to understand other perspectives, and lastly, perseverance – redirecting questions specifically back to the women we were interviewing in order to emphasise that their perspective was important.