Meet Dr Romina Istratii, LIDC's featured member
Dr Romina Istratii is an Honorary Research Associate at the Department of Development Studies and the Centre of World Christianity at SOAS, an LIDC member college. She specialises in Eastern Orthodox and pre-Chalcedonian (also known as ‘Oriental Orthodox’) Christian Churches and traditions and is particularly versed in Orthodox theology of gender, marriage and the conjugal relationship. We spoke to Romina shortly after she received a UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship award of £1,287,659 for a project entitled “Bridging religious studies, gender & development and public health to address domestic violence: A novel approach for Ethiopia, Eritrea and the UK.”
What are the factors in your background that led you to embark on an academic career?
I had not decided to necessarily follow an academic path.
I was born in Moldova around the time of the end of the Soviet Union. We migrated to Greece when I was four years old. From an early age, I had a calling for world service and a strong feeling that I needed to do something to address poverty and the inequalities I was exposed to in my surroundings. I eventually reached the United States with a scholarship to study at Bates College, a liberal arts institution in the state of Maine. That was a transformative experience in general, but it also brought me to work with economics faculty researching agricultural development in Africa. I started as a researcher looking at sustainable farming techniques such as conservation agriculture, issues of water scarcity and climate change, and gender dynamics in agricultural livelihoods. This exposed me to the Gender and Development paradigm, which was already widely internationalised.
By engaging extensively with FAO, the World Bank and other organisations on African development, it struck me that the way these issues were discussed and presented was quite monolithic, always based on a sociological theory that was western, and almost never contextualised in local socio-cultural institutions, normative systems and local communities’ understandings of their own realities. I ultimately developed a research project to address this gap. I was fortunate to receive a Thomas Watson fellowship, a very prestigious fellowship aimed at cultivating leaders with a cosmopolitan spirit and critical thinking. About 40 fellowships were awarded in my year to graduates across the United States. The fellows can only go to places they have not been to before. This unique award enabled me to travel to four African countries with diverse agricultural realities – Ghana, Ethiopia Rwanda and Tanzania – in the year after my graduation to interview both female and male farmers about their agricultural livelihoods.
I was particularly interested in how women felt about their role in food security, which was not generally captured in the Northern literature I described earlier. Moving across regions, towns and villages, I found that the lives of the people I met were so different from the monolithic narrative I would typically see in international development literature. Gender dynamics were considerably more nuanced and hard to ‘read’ since one needed to understand wider belief and knowledge systems, as well as individual thoughts and behaviours. Local belief systems, especially religious traditions or non-secular worldviews as I understand them, were entirely neglected in a deeply secularised international development sector. Obviously, people's religio-cultural beliefs influenced their thinking and actions, informing also gender relations – a parameter that any development-oriented research or project should take into account. By the end of the year, I had become entirely disillusioned with knowledge-production within the North-dominated international development sector, and I decided not to return to education.
I spent the entire following year at home, living in solitude, and reading philosophical, historical and theological books, trying to understand what I could do from my limited positionality to address the epistemological injustice whereby Northern theories and frameworks continued to describe African (and other non-western) realities ethnocentrically.
I eventually developed a proposal for a community-centred approach that would combine ethnographic and participatory methods under a Socratic dialogical model. This was awarded a SYLFF Leadership Initiatives by the Tokyo Foundation. In the same year I was awarded a scholarship to study for an MA in Gender in Development at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) at the University of Sussex, and combined the funding to pilot the new approach in a Muslim Sufi village community in the Futa Toro in Senegal. As an MA student, I encountered an academic culture riven with the same epistemological problems that I outlined earlier. Despite the fact that the classroom was very diverse and included many African and Asian classmates, the teaching itself remained very much grounded in a post-Enlightenment based northern epistemology. The Gender in Development course reproduced various types of western feminist thinking around gender relations and the concept of equality and empowerment, and did not engage substantively with the distinct realities and experiences of women around the world, through their own discourses and not through the lens that the theorist/instructor favoured each time.
As I handed in my MA thesis, which attempted to delineate a cosmology-sensitive approach to gender-sensitive research and development working in Senegal, I jumped straight into pursuing a PhD at SOAS to produce a systematic critique of the Gender and Development paradigm and to demonstrate a different approach to gender-sensitive research and interventions that is more reflective of local realities and belief systems, especially religious worldviews, enabling communities to be part of the research as cultural analysts and to describe “their worlds in their own words.” This reflects my conviction that a researcher should always be connected to real life, real communities and real people to be able to do ‘good’ research.
I proceeded to conduct a participatory ethnographic study of conjugal abuse in Northern Ethiopia. Through a combination of historiographical, theological and ethnographic analysis the study attempts to contextualise the problem and attitudes around it in local religio-cultural systems, connecting worldviews with human thinking and with individual behaviour with full awareness of the subjectivity of the researchers in the research process.
How do you position yourself within the academy?
I do not consider myself an academic. I would say that I am a researcher and a practitioner at once. I value rigorous research because only rigorous research can help us understand very complex phenomena, such as domestic violence. This is what led me to the academic sector. In order to help deepen our understanding, I believe in using different methodologies and disciplinary approaches and to always build new knowledge and skills.
However, I do not believe in research without practice since ‘good’ research is experience-based. Moreover, research never eschews the limits of subjectivity, which requires reflexivity about the role of the researcher in the research process.
Why is having a decolonial approach important?
Asymmetries and epistemological inequalities are considered by many inevitable in academic culture. I believe that we have arrived at a level of awareness that makes it necessary to change things substantively – ‘business as usual’ clearly does not work anymore. This was becoming evident prior to the outbreak of Covid-19, but the pandemic and the rise of anti-racist waves triggered by the incident of police brutality in North America forced a new realisation upon the world about the extent of problematic human relations and the need for a new model of co-existence.
We know that so much needs to change, from the way in which people relate to each other to the structures around the way research is funded. We also need change to address biases in publishing, where UK or Western researchers are favoured by existing Anglophone standards. We all have a responsibility to subvert these asymmetries as we can.
I start with the understanding that as a researcher I am not living the realities of the communities I am conducting research with. They are the only ‘experts’ of their own realities. If I am committed to the idea of contributing knowledge that can address real problems, such as domestic violence, then I must collaborate with local researchers. I must engage with communities respectfully and humbly and I must be constantly aware of the numerous inequalities and biases that underpin the researcher-research participants’ relationships, but especially given the existing western epistemological dominance in knowledge production and research.
Research interlocutors honour us with their time, energy and thoughts for us to be able to conduct research. This is not appreciated enough.
How do you address the fact that many of the communities you are researching will have been colonised, and therefore be the product of a colonial or neo-colonial education system that is imbued with notions of racial superiority that you, as a white person or Westerner, would occupy?
At a practical level, when I visit a local community I only stay in very modest places. This was certainly achievable and practical during my student years because I never had financial security. This meant that I was connecting with people heart to heart, sharing the same spaces and similar lifestyles. In all the countries I have worked in, I had wonderful hosts who appreciated my inquisitory spirit and thirst for learning.
As I went through different countries and communities in the Watson year, I was exposed to at least six or seven languages and I always made it a priority to learn greetings in local languages by listening to and imitating my interlocutors. In Ethiopia, I trained in three languages, two of which I learned well enough to be able to conduct over 200 very sensitive, confidential interviews. While initially I had some help from local students to talk to people about non-private matters, I needed to do the interviews myself because felt this was important to achieve that intimacy with my interlocutors for them to divulge personal thoughts on the topics investigated. Fluency was especially important for interviews with men, because men were very active out of the home and less eager to sit and have long talks. One has to value people’s precious time.
Learning the local language creates new bridges and new connections and people start confiding in you. I analysed this in my book under the rubric of ‘cosmological and linguistic translation’, which deals also with the communication between the researcher and the research participants, regardless of whether one is a foreigner or a local. The process of communicating is a complex process that should be part of the research analysis, but unfortunately it is often neglected. Researchers tend to take for granted the ‘data’ without considering how subjective the concept of data truly is. The discussion with a participant is so implicated in relational and psychological factors that one has to actually analyse the communication strategy itself in order to be able to achieve a nuanced understanding of the underlying dynamics and meanings.
It is also important to take the time to communicate the research objectives and the methodological approach to communities and local stakeholders appropriately, not only to so-called ‘gatekeepers.’ In this vein, when I went to Northern Ethiopia as a PhD student, I introduced myself to the local police unit, the local social court, the local women's association and the clergy. I introduced myself to these stakeholders to make sure that I had their permission to be in the community and I asked for their advice on how best to proceed given that this was sensitive domestic violence research. In the first village I worked, I initially decided to take a discreet approach not to cause unnecessary anxiety to potential perpetrators or victims, as advised in domestic violence research guidance. I started by holding a workshop with some members of the local women’s association.
I incorporated the coffee ceremony ritual and brought corn to pop as is customary. I must say I had the best time of my life, the women brought their small children and through the three or so hours we were together we developed a rapport which made it possible for us to start talking about issues around gender relations and marriage more openly. However, other members of the association who weren't involved in the workshop thought that I was a development agent who and had helped with monies some women selectively. So they reported this to the local police unit. Of course I had not supported anyone financially and the police officer who had been informed about my research clarified and explained. I also subsequently gave a speech to the community to introduce the project using appropriate neutralised language. The experience goes to show that no matter how methodologically sound an approach might be (given the sensitive topic of domestic violence), when research takes place in small village communities all community members need to be informed in full to avoid misinterpretation. One must also consider the kind of preconceptions local people might have of foreigners, accounting for colonial histories, geopolitics and personal positionalities.
Why did you choose Ethiopia?
The choice of Ethiopia was not informed by academic interests. Too often one sees Northern academics selecting an African country to become ‘experts’ on and to build a competitive academic career. My research in Ethiopia is due to life contingencies, but also the religious and historical similarities between my host and home countries and Ethiopia. You know, Greece and Ethiopia were both invaded by Italy under Mussolini’s fascist agenda. Both Greece and the precursor of Moldova experienced Ottoman occupation, while Ethiopia experienced what are called the invasions of Muslim leader Ahmed Gragn in the 16th century that are still salient in the minds of indigenous Christians in Northern Ethiopia.
These histories are important to understand as they affect societies’ collective consciousness and discourses, but they can also help us to build connections. Undoubtedly, my close engagement with Ethiopian Orthodox communities stems from my personal identity and specialisations, including my knowledge of Orthodox theology, which I have sought to apply resourcefully to addressing an issue of international urgency. However, my research has not been limited to these communities, having engaged with different worldviews and contexts, where my positionality had different implications and strengths and limitations.
I would say that when I am in Ethiopia, I feel most at home and I can put to use the knowledge and the life experiences to the utmost.