Salomé Okoekpen studying and drawing Muslim women’s engagement
"With my drawings, I have no interest in reproducing an exact ‘reality’ but in transmitting a lived experience, so it is less about exactitude and precision than narration and emotions. I see this tool as useful/necessary in my research practice: it completes my daily note taking, it is reflexive, since I include myself in the drawings."
Salomé Isibhenmen Okoekpen, a PhD student from the Global Studies Institute in the University of Geneva (Switzerland), currently hosted as a guest researcher at IFRA-Nigeria, shares in this interview about her research in anthropology on Muslim women’s engagement in religious associations and/or organisations in rural towns of South-West Nigeria which includes drawings as a method.
What is your academic background? What brought you to study religious organizations in Nigeria?
I did my first degree in philosophy and social sciences and second in socio-anthropology of Religions in the University of Lausanne (Switzerland). I was not so much planning to do a PhD after my master, but I found the research project The contemporary expansion of corporate Islam in rural West Africa (CECIRWA) very interesting because the phenomenon is quite understudied, and has a lot to offer to our understanding of Muslim associational practices. I was thrilled I got the position and I could embark on this collective research project.
As I started to design my research proposal, I immediately knew that I wanted to work on Nigeria, as it is my country of origin on my father’s side. For my Phd research, I decided to focus on Muslim women’s engagement in religious associations and/or organisations in rural towns of Oyo State, south-west Nigeria. My research includes an 18-month ethnographic fieldwork which I started in January 2022.
Can you tell us a bit more about your research interests in course of your PhD and about your current fieldwork?
Being deeply interested in the daily experiences of Muslim women in Muslim organisations, I adopt an experiential approach rather than an only discursive one, focusing on their daily lives. Therefore, I accompany them in their daily activities, family routines, and so on to get a glimpse of how these women live, perceive and make sense of their actions and religiosity within the organisation.
Figure 1. Sunday ablutions before Asalatu, Yidi Praying Ground, S.Okoekpen, March 2022, Ink on paper.
Combining an interest for the history, the purposes and the structures of the organisation as well as the lives of the women, I wish to combine an institutional and a phenomenological approach to Muslim women’s engagement in South-West Nigeria.
For now, I have started my fieldwork with a few women from the Federation Of Muslim Women’s Associations in Nigeria (FOMWAN). This umbrella organisation is very active in the whole country with a hierarchical structure from Abuja to every State and Local Government levels. As I wished to explore the grassroots of the organisation in lesser urban context, I have identified small branches of the organisation in two rural Local Governments of South-West Nigeria. In these branches, each participant is representative of a local Muslim organisation.
What are the questions you could raised at this point?
On the individual level, I question the women’s experiences as links between the FOMWAN and the other organisation they represent. I wish to explore further how their involvements, their religiosity, and their family life are (or not) constructed and intertwined.
At the organizational level, I am intrigued in the Organisational Culture of the FOMWAN and the way it is appropriated and disseminated by the women at each level of the organization, even in the most remote places. I am also fascinated by the organisation’s ability to bring together, at the national and local level, women from different Muslim horizons such as NASFAT, Ansar ud Deen and Ahmadiyya Muslim Jamaat to name but a few. I have also witnessed very distinct ways of public appearance, engagements and struggles between the few branches I observed, and I think this will be interesting to study further.
You’re quite talented at drawing and you decided to include drawings as a method in your research. Can you explain us how you use it as a method and what do you think it brings to your research?
As an anthropologist, my main research tools in fieldwork is participant observation plus note taking. But during my master thesis I already felt something was missing in the way I translated my ethnographic engagement into words. Therefore, I have tried to integrate other tools such as drawing, pictures and sound recordings. Since I wish to build a more trustful relationship with the women first before to sound record and take picture I decided to concentrate on drawings for now.
With my drawings, I have no interest in reproducing an exact ‘reality’ but in transmitting a lived experience, so it is less about exactitude and precision than narration and emotions. I see this tool as useful/necessary in my research practice: it completes my daily note taking, it is reflexive, since I include myself in the drawings.
Figure 2. Welcome to FOMWAN, S. Okoekpen, April 2022, Ink & collage.
It also allows me to express some things I would not write about. It is also a great way to share my research as I do it with the women I study, they give me feedbacks and impressions on what I depict, which brings deep conversations and completes my understanding. Finally, and it is of great value to me being the first academic in my family, drawing allows me to share about what I do, my research interests and results to a non-academic audience.
Figure 3. Navigating Fear in Ethno’Graphic Fieldwork, S. Okoekpen, March 2022, Ink on paper.
I share drawings and pictures on my Instagram account that I use as an EthnoGraphic field notebook. I also published my fieldnotes and drawings on the blog we have for our Research Project The contemporary expansion of corporate Islam in rural West Africa.
Can you tell us a bit more about your personal experience doing an ethnographic fieldwork in South West Nigeria?
Even though I have never lived long term in Nigeria, I identify as a Nigerian. Thus, my first months of fieldwork were also a very personal experience: becoming the Nigerian I pretended to be. In fact, I think when we read (and write) anthropological papers and books we tend to forget part of the reality behind the scenes: the strong emotional and corporeal experience that is doing fieldwork.
And this is what I tried to depict in these drawings:
Figure 4. Becoming a Nigerian, S. Okoekpen, March 2022, Ink on paper.