Grad Student Jessica Ott Receives Fulbright

Ott pictureGraduate student Jessica Ott received a 2016 Fullbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad fellowship to investigate legal advocacy and women’s rights in Tanzania. Starting in early 2017, she will begin dissertation research tracing the work of feminist lawyers in Zanzibar who draw on historical ideas about women’s and human rights in order to provide advocacy for women today.

In Zanzibar, when women experience family strife, it often falls under the purview of local islamic courts. But women are increasingly bypassing this court system and going to women’s law offices where feminist lawyers provide mediation and contract negotiation between couples, which represents a major cultural shift for addressing family issues in Zanzibar. For cases that go to courts, these women lawyers can also provide legal representation, which differs from how the Islamic legal system has historically operated, with a judge or kadhi presiding over a given case in the absence of lawyers. Jessica is interested in exploring what these shifts mean for Zanzibaris. Feminist activist lawyers also engage in legislative advocacy, trying to change laws in ways that will make things better for women.

While bypassing Islamic courts is relatively new, Jessica hopes to look at how recent framings of women’s rights draw on historical depictions of women as legal subjects. How do female lawyers frame their arguments? Are women depicted as helpless or worthy (as would be consistent with many colonial representations), or do they contest these depictions? Jessica hopes to reveal the ways in which feminist lawyers and other women’s rights activists in Zanzibar have strategically drawn on the specific rights history of Zanzibar as well as global ideas about human rights. This contrasts with the work of other anthropologists who have analyzed similar actors as mere ‘translators’ of global ideas, without adequate attention to local inspirations.

Jessica first became interested in women’s advocacy in Tanzania while working for an NGO called EngenderHealth in Dar es Salaam, prior to starting graduate school. There, her work related to HIV infection and ideas about masculinity. In some ways, the NGO was positioned as a ‘gender expert’ compared to local feminist groups in the context of USAID funding. This was surprising to her, as the NGO was staffed mostly by foreigners, while the local organizations were staffed by feminist activists who had been working on gender issues for decades. As a result, Jessica decided to look more closely at what grassroots feminist organizations were doing.

Jessica has conducted pre-dissertation research and was able to live with a prominent women’s rights activist in Zanzibar this last summer, getting a head start on exploring how activists were engaging with different notions of rights. She also spent time in the Zanzibar National Archives investigating three local rights organizations. Jessica will be conducting her research in Swahili, thanks to FLAS funding which allowed her to study the language at an advanced level at the State University of Zanzibar (SUZA). During that course, she began reading literature in Swahili, which was another fascinating way to look at women’s roles throughout history.

Jessica’s work has been shaped by her mentors here at MSU, especially Dr. Elizabeth Drexler’s seminar class on Violence and the State and Dr. Mindy Morgan’s class on knowledge, memory, and the archives. While in Zanzibar, Jessica plans to conduct a discourse analysis of past legal cases to understand how women were positioned as humanitarian subjects. Dr. Monir Moniruzzaman’s class on medical anthropology also helped her think about how women’s bodies are used for political causes. After obtaining her PhD, Jessica hopes to teach or become a critical voice within a larger research or policy institution that focuses on women’s issues.

This article appears in our Fall 2016 newsletter. Read the entire newsletter here.