“You’re an Indian Muslim Woman, Why Study History?”

Being a South Asian, Muslim, female, I have had to contend with remarks from fellows within my own community, on the choice of my study and research. Most will be familiar with the not so inaccurate stereotype of South Asians pursuing careers as doctors, lawyers, and engineers. This often creates a challenge to those within this cultural group who wish to pursue a career or extend their knowledge in a subject beyond these areas of study. While education for most people is a means to a better earning potential, many seem to lose sight of the fact that there are those who wish to pursue knowledge for reasons other than monetary gain. This has resulted in a cultural ignorance of other fields of study, and their further disregard as neither ‘academic’ nor ‘useful knowledge’.

After completing my Master’s and securing a PhD position, my family was proud of me and supportive of my choices. Yet at the same time I was also faced with such negative remarks from others like, ‘why study history?’, ‘what is the use of studying history?’, ‘So, you’re going to be a doctor? But not a real doctor!’. While I attempted to explain my reasons, I found it considerably difficult to make such people, who had already formed their opinions, see sense in my ambitions.

Along the way I found that such views were significantly wide spread. This was particularly evident in the lack of British ethnic minorities pursuing studies in subjects from the social sciences to the arts and humanities. Within my own department, I myself am the only female, South Asian PhD candidate, not to mention the only Muslim.

In understanding the importance of history, I am continually drawn to the quote by George Orwell, ‘The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history’. History is a way for people to better understand their contemporary contexts and is more importantly utilised as a means to consolidate a particular identity. In this case cultural, or even religious, identity is something that loses its strength without an understanding of the historical circumstances that causes an individual to adopt or claim that very identity.

Similarly, in the past, history was used by rulers and those of position to give legitimacy to their claims of authority. To understand where one came from, and to disseminate this knowledge amongst the people, gave authority to claims of kingship and nobility.[1] In more recent times, there is an increasing trend toward family history through the use of local archives, as well as the more commercially successful ancestry online databases and DNA tests. The need to know where one comes from, the circumstances of their ancestors, geographical, or even racial origins, all contribute to an understanding of the self, and gives the individual a sense of belonging to a larger process of human progression. This has been particularly so in an era of globalisation as peoples, and their cultures along with them, move across geographical boundaries at an increasing rate, and decolonisation, wars, and conflict have displaced peoples and their sense of national or cultural identity along with it.

Identity is something that binds a group of people together, whether that be a surname, or even race, religion, or nationality. It does not exist in isolation from the wider social, political or cultural circumstances which shape it. Thus, an understanding of our own histories, the histories of our people, origins, culture, religion, etc., are all central to an understanding of our selves.

While there are many other reasons to study history, if not only to challenge the grand narratives of the historical western monopoly and authority on historical ‘knowledge’, the diverse array of subjects in the social sciences and humanities require scholarly inputs from people from diverse backgrounds. Only then can minority representation be increased, and misconceptions and stereotypes challenged and even broken down.

[1] An example of this can be seen in the histories constructed by Mughal rulers in India. Ruby Lal, Domesticity and Power in the Early Mughal World,  (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

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