Photo/stories from the field: do you obey your husband?

What can we learn about childhood if we consider it through a lens of liminality? A time of changes and passages, some being ritualistically annotated while others not, and a time in which identities are fluid and negotiable as is the experience of the social world. The usual order of things may be questioned or turned upside down, by actors who may find themselves being between and betwixt. In this series of short blog posts we explore experiences at various thresholds as we encountered them in the fieldwork over a three-year period.

In a previous post, I described my time in the field as feeling ‘one foot out the door’ more than I would have liked.  At the same time, the image of ‘one foot out the door’ brings to mind that of the threshold. Arrivals and departures are moments in everyday life when a threshold is literally crossed, with all the liminality that offers. The fieldwork in London provided such moments in which the typical order of things are overturned. With one family in particular these ‘threshold’ moments were when the children in the family would take the opportunity to have discussions which might be recognised as ‘political’, asking questions about identity and belonging, gender dynamics and religion, which resonated with them as much as with me, as they tried to make sense of this strange interloper into their family life and their own place in London life as a migrant family. In terms of our research questions it also shows the ways in which ‘the political’, whether a feeling, a conversation, an experience, is often fleeting and ephemeral, both conversations from the fieldnotes below happened a few minutes before I stepped out the door.

It’s end of May 2015, and we’re approaching the end of the first six months of fieldwork. I have spent the day with Dana, the middle of the three siblings, going to school with him and coming home with the family after participating in a family after school activity.  Leila has spent the afternoon cooking ‘proper Asian food’ on her husband’s insistence, she had wanted to order pizza for us instead. She’s informed me that the bitter melon that she’s cut up is really good for pregnant woman, during my visits Leila regularly asks me when I will have another baby or if I’m pregnant.  While dinner is being prepared I watch Bollywood films dubbed into Farsi on the TV with the children – the image of the male protagonist ironing his trousers and getting burnt with by the iron in a slapstick comedic moment the children find hilarious, forever etched in my memory.

For dinner we sit in the traditionally furnished front room, with cushions on the floor, all together as a family eating chicken, rice, kidney beans, and salad. We finish dinner. Hamid has to go to work and goes off to change into his Western clothes, he’s been wearing a kaftan. He says goodbye to me and leaves. It’s time for me to leave too. The children are asking me if I will bring my son with me next time. I show them some pictures of Elias on the mobile. Yasmin says ‘he doesn’t look like you’ and then adds ‘he looks Muslim’. I respond ‘that’s because his dad is Muslim’. Leila, Donya and Yasmin all look at each other as if they have been having this conversation since my previous visit, when I had also showed them photographs, and had been trying to work it out. Donya, the oldest, seems quite excited at my response. Leila is smiling as I show them all some more pictures. They want to see a picture of my husband can I bring one next time? ‘I can show you one now,’ I say and do so. ‘He’s Indian!’ they exclaim. I explain that way back his family came from South India most likely but his parents are from Trinidad, condensing and simplifying a much more complex story of 18thcentury migration and indentured labour. Hamid comes back to the flat for a minute, he’s forgotten something, and Yasmin, the youngest, four and a half at the time, runs to him and says something in Farsi and then in English, she’s really, really excited, ‘he’s Muslim!’ she tells her father who doesn’t look like he knows what she’s talking about. I’m gathering my things together. It’s time for me to say goodbye. I try to get an indication about when next we can meet but Leila says ‘just call me’. Yasmin and Dana are hovering around the door. Dana on his scooter. We all say goodbye and I leave.

My next visit to the family is in October of the same year. It’s time for me to leave. I collect my things and start putting my jacket on and get up from the floor. As I’m doing so, and as if continuing our conversation from May, Donya asks me ‘are you Muslim?’ ‘No,’ I say, ‘but my husband is’. ‘But you follow the oldest,’ she says her eyes searching my face inquisitively. I don’t follow what she says and ask her to repeat it. She has to repeat it twice and then Leila says ‘she means your husband’.  Of course, I don’t like the premise of the question, and I want to respond in a way that both challenges the question but also answers it. I say ‘well sometimes I do, and sometimes he follows me,’ and I wink at her. Leila is standing behind her and grinning nervously. I can’t quite tell, is she’s telling me to cut it out (she makes a little hand waving gesture)? Or is it that this is not a discussion she wants her daughter to have or have I’ve just walked into a negotiated space? All three siblings have been trying to work me out from the outset – whether it’s my son’s complexion or my tattoos. This must be stuff that the family has to negotiate all the time between their more traditional family life and the (post)modern city they live in. It feels like I’m a person through which these negotiation happen.  Leila asks me what my son’s name is again and I tell her. She recognises it, we talk about my son’s name as existing in a number of cultures and that being the reason we chose it, because it’s oecumenical, I tell her, a name that wanders across borders. I say he will grow up with (at least) two cultures and religions. Donya is still looking at me quizzically.

Any thoughts?

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