It’s early morning, and I log onto my computer to start a zoom call. I am armed with a cafetière of coffee, but seven hours ahead and sitting in sunny Kuala Lumpur, Reena is waiting with an envious glass of freshly squeezed watermelon juice.
Dr Haezreena Abdul Hamid, known as Reena, is a Malaysian criminologist. She spent – six years at the Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand, and has recently returned home to take a senior position at the University of Malaya.
Reena trained as a criminologist and her work focuses largely on the experiences of trafficked women in Malaysia. Much of her research emphasises the need to respect and give agency to these women.
It was this research that I came across that led me to sending her an email the week before. In my email, I outlined Acume’s mission to promote regional academic’s research that can support practitioners working in the area. I was not surprised to learn that Reena was already an active advocate for the cause.
“There are not many voices from women across the South that are being heard – this needs to change. As the voices exist, but they’re not being listened to. And we have real value to contribute”.
She adds the context.
“For example, I am a South-East Asian woman and so I understand South-East Asian women. I understand the language, how to hang out with them, how to communicate, how to decode meaning.”
“In New Zealand, I heard excerpts of interviews from English speaking victims and it was a criminologist’s dream. They described in detail the events they experienced and how it made them feel. They were Western victims who were behaving in a way that is representative of victims from the west. Consequently, this is how Western researchers assume all victims to behave – West or not.”
“But South-East Asian women victims often don’t want to be interviewed, and if the interview is being conducted in English then they often don’t know or have the words to express themselves properly.”
“And even if I interview them in their language, it is a different technique than interviewing a western victim. And unless you are from the culture, you might not know how to attain the right information – and may just assume they have nothing to say.”
Reena continues to explain that cultural codes and nuances are often missed when a researcher is not from that community. Of course, this seems obvious, and we frequently acknowledge its inevitability amongst our studies limitations – as if it’s not really a big deal. But what happens if it really is?
From listening to Reena talk about her research, the significance of these nuances become evident. They translate into how we interpret the real world and may even alter the conclusions we draw. Western researchers often use western contexts to interpret social life.
For example, Reena has researched extensively into human trafficking. And she explains that because of Western contexts, there’s a tendency to interpret human trafficking as a complex organised crime, which fits a Western understanding, but this is not always the case. She states the problem: “This fails to acknowledge the small-time players, who are more representative of the situation in Malaysia – which means that they can escape persecution and prosecution”. This is evidently a big problem, and an example of how Western interpretation can lead to misunderstanding.
Another example would be deciding who is and who is not a victim of human trafficking. Reena’s research has revealed tensions in identification that do not fit neatly into a western understanding of human trafficking. In the west, we label almost everyone who has been trafficked to be a victim – rarely considering this not to be the case.
However, Reena clarifies: “I have had interviews with numerous women who have been trafficked and are now mostly working as sex workers. When I ask them if they consider themselves to be a victim, 90% of them said NO. We tell them they’re being exploited, and they reply, ‘but I’m receiving five times the amount I was previously earning, I’m not being exploited – I’ve chosen to be here’.”
Of course, this is not to say that many women are not victims, but it adds another dimension to how we interpret human trafficking. Gaining insight into how trafficked people interpret their own situation can change the context significantly – thus how practitioners deal with it.
But how do we gain such insight? Reena’s answer is simple and stresses the need for systems thinking. She says:
“You ask them. And the – questions should be made by someone who can understand them.”
And here we arrive full circle. We return to exactly why it is so valuable to listen to regional researchers who can navigate and understand cultural cues and social nuances.