Reversing the Gaze: Sunaina Maira

By Tory Brykalski - The effects of the War on Terror can be felt as far afield as Pakistan and Palestine, and as close to home as on the UC Davis campus. Exploring what some of those effects might be for her forthcoming book THE 9/11 GENERATION: YOUTH, RIGHTS, AND SOLIDARITY IN THE WAR ON TERROR (NYU Press, Fall 2017), Sunaina Maira, professor of Asian American studies, enlisted the help of local Muslim American students. In the process, she found herself wondering: who exactly is social science for?

The project emerged from two discrete, but related, events. The first took place when Dr. Maira first moved to the Bay Area and became involved in anti-war and rights-based activism. The second occurred when she began teaching at UC Davis, where extended conversations with Arab, Afghan, and South Asian American students compelled her to explore their experiences of Islamophobia, racist violence, and war.

Building on her work in Jil Oslo: Palestinian Hip Hop, Youth Culture, and the Youth Movement (which focused on how the Palestinian youth movement engaged in political action in an increasingly constricted political space), The 9/11 Generation brings Dr. Maira’s larger questions closer to home. How do UC Davis students negotiate a post-9/11 political space? How do they persist in engaging in anti-colonial resistance and solidarity in an environment of increased surveillance and scrutiny?

Personal questions

For Dr. Maira, these questions are not just theoretical—though they are grounded in sociology of “youth” and in traditions in psychology that explore the production and policing of that category—they are also profoundly personal. Surprised to find out that many of these students grew up together in the South Bay, Dr. Maira was compelled to explore the complex negotiations these students must make as they move between these spaces.

For them, the UC Davis campus does not exist in vacuum. The violence faced by their extended families in Pakistan or Palestine is connected to the kinds of surveillance they face in the South Bay, which in turn is connected to their experiences at UC Davis. How do these students, The 9/11 Generation asks, forge solidarities across ethnic, racial, religious, and geographic divides?

Typically, the answer is through collective rights-based advocacy work and activism, often in opposition to the War on Terror. But even as they engage in such critical and oppositional actions, they inevitably run up against the fundamentally limiting institutionalized human rights apparatus established by European politicians after World War II.

Limits of liberal empathy

The 9/11 Generation highlights the cases of mobilization against military violence in Palestine, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and anti-war and anti-colonial solidarity activism undertaken by young people in the South Bay and at UC Davis. Such cases are typically read as humanitarian problems—an interpretation that Dr. Maira finds to be profoundly depoliticizing, not least because liberal empathy extends only rarely to certain racialized groups. As a result, whenever young people try to talk about the effects of the War on Terror—about Afghans killed by US drones or Palestinians killed by U.S.-funded military technology—rights-based discourse proves inadequate.

In some cases (particularly when it comes to Palestine), rights-based activism is also repressed and stifled in the U.S. For Dr. Maira’s young subjects, this exceptionalization of Palestine, as well as the widespread surveillance and repression of Palestine solidarity work in the Bay, is educational, highlighting the deep contradictions inherent to the rights-based agenda. For example, though rights-based discourses are fundamentally compromised and limiting, they are also, especially when repressed, the best tools they have.

Family tree of research

As her project deepened, Dr. Maira continued to work with the students by which it had first been inspired. They became, in effect, her co-researchers. They interviewed other young people from their social networks, came up with their own questions, and wrote up their own analyses.

“This project is really driven by UC Davis students,” Dr. Maira says.

As a result, it took on a life of its own. As these students interviewed other young people, these young people would, in turn, want to become research assistants in the project and conduct their own interviews. It became a “family tree of research” that grew over several years.

“Muslim American youth is a community that has been over-researched and over-studied,” Dr. Maira says. “I think they wanted to reverse that gaze for once—to take control of the research project. It was really eye-opening for me, and really rewarding.”

Research for survival

For what and for whom, Dr. Maira’s work asks, is collaborative social science research conducted? What would it mean for social scientists across the disciplines to engage in collaborative work that is both driven by and responsible to the communities in which they live?

One project attempting to answer these questions is the Palestine-based Campus in Camps. Seeking to reverse the gaze of research and knowledge in Palestinian refugee camps, Campus in Camps is an experiment in collaborative social science that explores how intersecting rigorous academic research with perspectives from everyday life in the camps could change the very structure of university education. It consists of self-run courses organized according to the interests and needs of refugee youth, as well as courses provided by faculty from a consortium of six universities, including Birzeit University and Goldsmiths University of London.

Since it was established in 2011, other Campus in Camps schools have sprung up in Bahia and Curitiba, Brazil; Shufat, Jerusalem; and Cuernavaca, Mexico. For these schools, learning and research is most critical in communities where knowledge is linked to action—where research is linked to survival. 

Dr. Maira’s research attempts to do something similar at UC Davis. By attending to the lived experiences and questions of UC Davis students, she too tries to rethink the kinds of knowledge social scientists produce, and for whom. Her work, together with that of Campus in Camps, challenges social scientists to broaden their investigation of how spaces for collaborative research and learning are constituted.

Learn more about Sunaina Maira at her faculty webpage.