I wonder how I can portray such a rich life, where I prepare the meeting with Unni Wikan (1944–) in her attic apartment in Oslo. The conversation about her work as a professor of social anthropology lasts a full five hours. The battery in the film camera runs out, but the sound recorder works.
Wikan herself has never used a sound recorder during her many fieldworks as an anthropologist in the Middle East and Asia. She has always relied on listening and remembering, which she believes has given her a better ability to observe.
Her recurring themes constantly relate to the individual’s freedom: forced marriage, child marriage, rape, and honour killings.
There have been many books; before we met, I was sent and read two as yet unpublished scripts. In Norway, for example, Wikan is known for Towards a new subclass (1995), and later as a connoisseur of Islam. After decades of descriptive fieldwork in Muslim countries such as Egypt and Oman, Indonesia and Bhutan, she chose to stay at home in Norway.
She publicly criticised the Norwegian authorities’ treatment of immigrants. She went on the contrary and claimed that higher demands had to be made on the immigrants – something she was convinced was in their best interests, especially for Muslim women and children. She supported their individual rights in contrast to what in Norwegian society considered to be too high a tolerance for Muslim culture – for example, to accept forced marriage. She ended up losing many friends, was ignored by colleagues at the University of Oslo and was branded as both a racist and an inspirer for the Progress Party.
I ask her now, almost 20 years after the book was published Generous Betrayal: Politics of Culture in the New Europe (University of Chicago Press, 2002) – about how she looks back on the reaction:
«I watched with dismay as immigrants were received in Norway. To me, they were treated with little respect. I argued as a public anthropologist against the charity of failing immigrants. The economic welfare benefits showed that the authorities did not take them seriously. To take them seriously is to do their utmost to get them to work and teach them Norwegian. Too many remained on social security with bad consequences – especially for women and children. Muslim men had it easier when, according to their own culture, they could move freely».
«I became normative – I felt an obligation as a citizen».
For Wikan, it was a typical Norwegian expectation that «immigrant children should obey their parents’ culture – no matter what. This was a misunderstood idea of Islam. I knew it because I had lived in the Middle East. The Muslim culture strengthened the man’s position. I could not sit still and do nothing. So I became normative – I felt an obligation as a citizen ».
Generous Betrayalwas published in 2002, when there was a 50 per cent drop-out rate from pupils with an immigrant background in Norwegian upper secondary school, while ethnic Norwegian pupils had a drop-out rate of 30 per cent. Immigrants accounted for 70 per cent of reported violent crime: «I knew it was important to use facts. I first wrote the book Towards a new Norwegian underclass. When it came out in 1995, both unemployment and crime among immigrants was high. But both the authorities and colleagues at the university thought we should not talk about this – it could give us a bad image and lead to racism» .
Wikan’s attitude is that respect is something you deserve, not something you automatically get because you come from another culture. Individual rights take precedence over cultural ones – honour should not give parents a «right» to take the lives of their children.
As an academic, Wikan chose to publicly defend the rights of some women: for example, the singer Deeyah Khan, who in 1995 was threatened with death by the Pakistani community in Norway. At the age of 16, she was forced to move abroad: «I was the only one who spoke for her in public – as I was interviewed in VG. Norway did not have a climate to speak out, people were afraid to express themselves. «People were afraid to say anything in favour of Deeyah, as it could offend Pakistani society». Khan herself has told Wikan that she was the only one who publicly supported her in 1995.
Wikan looks back and says: «I felt rejected. The attitudes I had towards immigrants and integration were so different from the majority’s opinion. And although as a professor I loved to teach and was popular with the students, I became ‘an enemy within’».
Wikan thus discouraged students who asked, to have her as a supervisor for doctoral degree applications – as it could drag them down. But it all became even more serious when her committed criticism of an honour killing resulted in being threatened with death: «Yes. I lived with death threats». And somewhat embarrassed, she tells me how relieved she was when the person who made the threats was later shot by the police in Sweden.
Growing up on an island in northern Norway, with temperate winters, she is clear that the sun and heat drove her south. As a child, she was with her grandmother giving away clothes and food to people who had nothing, so it was perhaps not so strange for Wikan to do fieldwork with the poor in Cairo – as mentioned without a notepad or recorder. She lived with them, and observed. As she emphasises in our conversations the observation-based descriptions themselves, was her method – as she later demanded «evidence, evidence, evidence» from her students.
Travelling for 40 years Wikan constantly returning to Egypt as an anthropologist. But also as a close friend of the people she lived with in Cairo – who gave her deep knowledge and understanding of what it is to be a Muslim. She learned Arabic in the 70’s: «Yes, I spoke fluently in a short time. I had studied it, but you do not learn to speak it at university. The people I lived with wanted to be understood, and helped me in a childlike way, almost like taking a child by the hand. My Arabic is ‘low-class’ everyday speech – almost like you hear in soap operas».
«Respect is a key value in large parts of the Middle East and Asia».
We jump to 2011, to the Arab Spring: Wikan is again the opposite, where she is clear that the majority of the population, the poor Egyptians with whom she lived, were not particularly happy about the freedom revolution: «They wanted stability. The opposite of autocracy is not freedom, but chaos (fitna). For them, it was better to live in an autocracy than in chaos. This is something Western democracies do not understand. People wanted predictability – it was about feeding the family».
When Wikan was in Egypt in 1969, the population was 44 million – in 2011 it was over 90 million. At that time, you could – as Wikan has written – buy 60 kilos of meat for the same amount that in 2011 you only got 6 kilos for. Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign. Subsequent president, Mohamed Morsi (Muslim Brotherhood), promised that in 100 days he would find better arrangements for bread, petrol, security, electricity prices, waste and traffic chaos. But nothing was fulfilled – and the road to al-Sisi’s military coup was short.
Wikan adds: «Around 70 percent of the population is under 30 years old. No one has a younger population than the Arab world. There is high unemployment, and wages are too poor. They have expectations that are not met».
I remember when I, as a director, filmed on Tahrir Square in Cairo in 2011, surrounded by Egyptians shouting «freedom!» (huriya!). According to Wikan, it was either fairness that was the point, it’s just that ‘word adl (justice) does not sound so good when you shout it out, so it was huriya instead». She points out that they would have the freedom to choose the country’s leaders, rather than Mubarak’s son.
Equality and extended families
In the West, freedom is often put before equality, while in the Middle East it is the opposite. Wikan adds: «The typical Western concept of freedom is related to the freedom of the individual. Among Muslims, freedom for the individual should always be thought of in the context of what is the collective good, what is good for the family, for society. Freedom must be associated with respect».
Freedom is thus contextual. The order in the human rights idea of «freedom, equality and brotherhood» is interpreted differently here. So what exactly is equality in the Middle East, when it is clear that Muslim men and women are not treated equally? Wikan has worked a lot on this issue. Interestingly, in her writings she emphasises the importance of equivalence, more understood as a balance – rather than being and having the same:
«Equality is a problematic concept. Equivalence works better in the Middle East, where men and women do not have the same rights. They are not equal before the law. For example, the wife – the daughter – inherits half as much as her brothers. Is it similar? No, not from our perspective. Nevertheless, many will say that it is balanced, since the man is obliged to provide for the women. The woman has no such obligation provision. That’s why he needs to inherit twice as much as her».
«In Bhutan, they did not even have a word for rape.»
When I myself traveled with a film camera around in the Middle East and Africa over the last decade, we constantly came across the Arab extended family versus the Western individual. Where the individual is taken care of by the Muslim family, as opposed to the western «hermit» with his own apartment, loneliness, and existential anxiety: «Yes, I have thought about it a lot in recent years when I have looked at my fieldwork from the mid 70’s. When I visit, I’m part of the extended extended family. Especially in these days of the corona, I think of these homes where everyone has someone. Well, people have their problems too, and extended family can be awful at times. But everyone belongs in a larger unit with the right to care».
I ask if we have thus lost anything in the individual West, and the answer is «absolutely!».
But then where is the self-determination, is it fair to constantly have to ask their parents? «Well, for them, it depends on where you are in the extended family. And within the extended family, you may feel better as a man than as a woman. You may be best off as older woman – because with age comes respect. There are differences and abuses of power – but everyone has a sense of belonging. But let me now add: There are also places where daughters can even be killed by their own – if they do not follow the rules of the extended family».
Wikan and her husband, the famous anthropologist Fredrik Barth, went on fieldwork to Oman in the United Arab Emirates in 1974 – and traveled constantly, most recently in 2009. Wikan has a book script of 21 chapters ready, of which I have read parts. Oman has a different history than Egypt:
Wikan writes that Qaboos bin Said took over as sultan (14th paragraph in the family line) in 1970. Qaboos was the «only child» (he had a sister) who was sent to London for education – a young man with a musical and aesthetic sense. After touring the West, he was introduced as Oman’s new sultan, according to himself evolusion – not revolution. During his reign, he modernized Oman – a country with a population the size of the Norwegian. Fifty years later, around the time of Qaboo’s death, Oman was at the forefront of the development of the Arab world.
Oman was the first country in the Arabian Gulf where women were given the right to vote, in 1994. Some women became ministers, and for example, the country had a female ambassador to the United States. Women could eventually decide for themselves who they wanted to marry, keep their last name, get the right to own their own property – and Qaboos modernized the country’s infrastructure.
«Life is what happens while you make other plans».
But despite the many advances, Wikan also writes in her forthcoming book that women still have only half the significance of being a witness in a trial. They must also ask their husband for permission to travel or obtain a passport. In addition, men in Oman, as in Egypt, have the right to marry more – polygamy can also be entered into without the existing wife knowing about it. And women cannot have surgery (neither abortion nor other procedures) without the husband’s consent.
In Norwegian eyes, this seems somewhat backward from the «country with equal rights”, and I ask Wikan for comment: «The country was changed to a welfare society. When I did fieldwork in Sohar and Bahla in Oman in the 70’s, it was common with child brides of about 13 years. Today, the age of marriage for women is 24 years. And for example, today there are more young women than young men at the University of Muscat». What about inequality, then, I ask: «It is not such a big problem if you have an understanding man. But many do not have it, and polygamy is a heartache for many women».
As Wikan writes, the development since the 70s has nevertheless been formidable: then there was slavery with children, only three primary schools for boys, two hospitals – and a ban on wearing sunglasses or listening to the radio.
If you read Wikan’s books and articles, or hear her lectures, the descriptive examples of women are many. Talking is the story of Fatima, who was married off at the age of 13. Despite the age difference, she and Wikan made strong contact: «I met her again over 20 years later. She came and picked me up with dark sunglasses in a white Mercedes – the adult son had to sit in the back seat. She was around 40 years old. When we met in 1974, she was 13 and I was I was 29 – but at the same stage in life as newlyweds. And the following year we were both pregnant. She meant a lot to me».
Another «sister» was Umm Aisha, a small woman of 150 centimetres – who had 12 children. Like typical westerners, Wikan and Barth had only one son. To my question about the difference between the two, and the choice between a career or a housewife, Wikan answers: «Well, of course, with twelve children, she could not have chosen a professional path, even though she was actually well educated. She went to night school, learned to read and write. Her goal in life was to have children – she considered it a reward from God. When I look back and think about my own life today, I mean she achieved at least as much as I did – if not more».
At the age of 30, Umm Aisha became a widow. Wikan adds that she is now over 80 years old and is «highly respected as the centre of the extended family – where she constantly travels around visiting them all».
The method of silence
A completely different topic where we talk for hours about the West’s attitudes towards Muslims is calm: «It was striking in the 70’s to come to an Arab society like Oman, where silence reigned. In Egypt and Cairo it was rather noisy. But in Oman, they were graceful, quiet – and they still are today. Well, with air conditioning, they speak a little louder. And since many now have an education, they are more expressive».
I ask Wikan what she means in her Oman script that “silence is pregnant with meaning”. She answers that according to researchers, 90 per cent of all communication non-verbal. She says: «As a pregnant woman in Oman in 1975, I learned how much it meant just to be present, to observe, and to listen to the unsaid. The same thing happened then in northern Bali, where the non-verbal was common. Learning non-verbal communication also helped where I later spent 22 months in Bhutan – where silence was appreciated. These experiences became enormously important for my work then».
Another theme for Wikan is esteem («Deference«) and respect. But can we really take some of this tacit in our media-dominated utilitarian western world? «It’s an important question. Respect and respect are key values in large parts of the Middle East and Asia. It’s a way of being in the world, with less emphasis on self-assertion. In the Middle East, respect is also linked to hospitality, and to treating a guest with dignity».
In Bhutan, Wikan worked for UNICEF. When she approached the Bhutanese authorities with disturbing reports of a series of rapes of girls in schools around the districts, she was rejected. There they did not even have a word for rape. More «tacitly», she told a single story – and was met with understanding: «This actually changed the laws of Bhutan. It taught me to talk to politicians. Without such a background, I might not have done what I did later in Norway».
Wikan and Barth – all the journeys
It is interesting how much anthropological academic knowledge can contribute politically – as both Wikan and Barth have spent their entire lives describing, interpreting and debating? For example, as Wikan says, Barth from Afghanistan tried to get the authorities to see the other person, to understand the culture – but to no avail. The Afghanistan war broke out and continued with Norway’s participation. I wonder if it makes her discouraged, and she looks at me, still with some defiance in her eyes.
I also wonder what it was like for the couple to travel together – maybe something adventurous? An exotic island out in the Indian Ocean? The rainforests of Papua New Guinea? The answer I get is: «We were married, and we were anthropologists, with many good discussions at the dinner table. We also had something extraordinary because it is unusual for a couple to be so close-knit professionally».
He was 16 years older, was she his student? «In many ways he was my teacher, but I was never a student under him. We did a lot of field work together, but never wrote together, with one exception. But we read every sentence the other wrote, we always commented enthusiastically. Yes, it was very special».
Still, how experienced all of it, I repeat: «We both went out into the world curious and wondering about fieldwork. I think we never worked better together than when we traveled. Because we were very different as human beings, very, very different. But we both had a passion for travel – a passion for learning about people we met. Fredrik is known for systems theory, but his passion was like mine, for the lives of ordinary people and what happened on the ground – rather than big concepts. We had to anchor our writings, interpretations or explanations in actual observations out there».
I wonder why the ordinary for so many decades – ordinary people, their lives and behaviour – could inspire for so long? Did she never get bored? «Generally speaking, no, things always happen».
Grief and death
Wikan conducted «grief studies» in Bali, with a fieldwork completely different from what famous anthropologists wrote – which meant that such a book was difficult to get published. Well, at a later lecture, the insight was picked up – she was invited to teach at Harvard, and her career took off.
In the book Beyond the Words: The Power of Resonance (1992) and in a new script I read about grief, Wikan tells of the Balinese that when they lost their loved ones, they did not sink into negative emotions: «I came to discover that Balinese, when they are in deep grief, laughing instead of crying, they mourned with humour and by laughing and joking. It was incomprehensible. When I first discovered it, it went against established anthropological understanding, and the discovery confronted well-known American Bali scientists such as Clifford Geertz and Margaret Mead».
«Life is what happens while you make other plans» is an expression you can find in Wikan’s writings. At the age of 87, Fredrik Barth died. Now our conversation becomes more personal in this fifth hour we have together:
«Well, I’m a widow now. When he died in 2016, I felt like I was losing myself. The self was gone – this very strong experience that there was nothing left of me. It took time to learn to recreate a new type of life. One would not think that it would be so difficult, because I always had my own things – I was an anthropologist in my own right. Still, not half of my world was gone – all of me was gone. Should I go into a convent – no. Time passed and things got better. Still, I’m still aware every day that he’s not here anymore».
Grief is something we all want to experience in life: «I think grief is perhaps the most basic human emotion. People experience grief differently, every death is different. But grief is probably strongest when it comes to creating empathy between people».
Wikan has studied religions such as Islam and Buddhism, but is she an agnostic. Finally, I ask 76-year-old Wikan about her own relationship with death – even though her mother turned 94 – and the loss of someone. She ends our long conversation with the following story:
«A few years ago, some of my friends in the Middle East asked why I did not become a Muslim. I could not understand why they asked, because it had never been a question – but then they became insistent. And I felt somewhat violated. I replied that I could not, my husband is not Muslim – at that time he was still alive. The answer was that if I converted, he would probably do the same. Then I protested that my mother was not a Muslim either. The answer was again that if I became a Muslim, she would be too. I felt this pressure as uncomfortable. But then it turned out: They were worried that we were all getting old now, and would eventually die. And if I did not become a Muslim now, not all of us – not even Fredrik and I – would get together in heaven».
This portrait is also the basis for an upcoming documentary about Egypt, called The Significance of Justice.
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