Viewing Anthropology as Politics “from the Ground Up”

Amahl Bishara’s global take on what we can learn from other communities by direct observation shapes her outlook on justice and human rights
Amahl Bishara advises the next generation of women not to be afraid to define a good life on their own terms. “When we take those bold steps to imagine what a good life is for us, sometimes the world follows,” she says. Video: Meredith Berg
March 29, 2021

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This is an installment of our Women’s History Month 2021 series.

Being from the Washington, D.C. area all but guarantees an innate knowledge of U.S. politics. Indeed, Northern Virginia native Amahl Bishara grew to care deeply about politics, and not only the American variety.

Through close relationships with family members and a young adulthood spent observing global politics “from the ground up,” the associate professor in—and current chair of—the Department of Anthropology shifted her interests during college and graduate school from social studies to anthropology and then, ultimately, to a focus on one region of her family’s heritage: the Middle East.

“I knew there was a broader politics than what I was usually encountering in the news or most academic texts, related to being a woman, thinking about gender politics, and power relations in the everyday. Certainly, I thought about what it means to be a Palestinian either in this country or in Israel where I have a lot of family,” said Bishara, whose father is a Palestinian citizen of Israel.

Anthropology has offered “a way of thinking about and listening to new kinds of people, people that maybe I’d been told not to listen to and not to think about as experts, and maybe a way of opening up new possibilities for writing and expression that I found exciting,” said Bishara, who has also recently finished writing a manuscript about the relationship between Palestinian citizens of Israel and Palestinians in the West Bank.

For Bishara, Women’s History Month provides an opportunity to continue conversations about the impacts that women worldwide have had—and, on a personal level, to celebrate people who have inspired her. She noted her Palestinian cousins and sisters-in-law who, she said, regularly take on new challenges professionally, politically, and personally, to care for others, build a better world, and work for justice.

“I’m just blown away by the way in which they center caring in their lives, including caring for children but also for parents, for each other, for cousins and sisters and for nonkin members, for people in the community who need a lift in a personal and nurturing way,” Bishara said.

For women today—in particular, her students—Bishara encourages them not to shy away from community engagement, activism or political volunteerism, despite the time it takes and its inherent challenges, because of how invigorating it can be, both for the individual and for the community.

Bishara’s teaching at Tufts centers on human rights, justice and refugees, media and popular culture, and language and politics that emphasizes studying women, people of color, people in struggle, and gender-nonconforming people.

The bulk of Bishara’s ethnographic research has focused on capturing the experiences of Palestinian citizens of Israel and Palestinians in the West Bank. Documenting their journeys and forming relationships with residents of the West Bank Aida refugee camp over the last 18 years, for example, is one of the many reasons Bishara said her fieldwork has been meaningful to who she is and what she does.

“I am very grateful that I have set up my life to be one in which I can be committed to a group of people and a community in a place far away, as well as to communities and people closer by, and that those commitments can span many years. I find it fulfilling intellectually, personally, and politically,” she said