Making her mark: women, clothing and the academy

Matthew Reisz describes talking to Jordanian molecular biologist Rana Dajani about body image, the West’s view of the East and breaking into science’s big league

February 7, 2019
Women sign

I spend very little time thinking about how people in the academy dress.

Over my whole 11-year career, I can’t have written more than half a dozen pieces on the topic. But by a strange coincidence, I've covered three clothing-connected stories in one week.

In a feature published on 7 February, I profile the remarkable Jordanian molecular biologist Rana Dajani who is an associate professor at the Hashemite University. An exceptionally energetic and inspiring figure, she has created both an NGO to encourage adults to read aloud to children and an online mentoring programme for female Arab scientists. She has also made a notable mark in her scientific field. Of all the papers published in Nature over the past five years, 53 authors have affiliations in Arab countries. She is the only one attached to a Jordanian institution.

This makes her well-placed to offer insights into the challenges that researchers outside the leading scientific nations face as they endeavour to make their mark on the international stage. When I met her recently, she had much to say about how she herself has managed it. Crucial, she said, was embracing multidisciplinarity, finding a scientific topic in which Jordan had a comparative advantage (but which was also of general interest) and forging a research collaboration that is driven by the non-Western partner. There are important lessons here for researchers in countries well beyond Jordan.

I also got a chance to speak to Dajani about some of the themes of her new book, which has the long and somewhat mystifying title Five Scarves: Doing the Impossible: If We Can Reverse Cell Fate, Why Can’t We Redefine Success? Among other topics, we discussed critical thinking, attitudes towards evolution, misconceptions about the Arab Middle East and what the West can learn from “the East” in “transform[ing] the male-dominated, business-driven culture of our world”.

Perhaps most contentious, Dajani made the case for the hijab arguing that it is “empowering” because it sends a message that women are to be treated as human beings “with a mind and a personality" rather than as sex objects.

Confirming some of those worries, I have also just published an article about some sobering research, led by Fabio Fasoli at the University of Surrey, indicating that young women wearing “sexy” outfits when defending their theses at Italian graduation ceremonies are perceived as less competent and dedicated, and even given fewer marks. Althoughmost thought that they were just dressing glamorously and comfortably for a formal event in front of family and friends, they were unaware that they would pay a real penalty in terms of their grades.

It is safe to assume that the vast majority of Western academics will be unconvinced by Dajani’s position on the hijab. Particularly unlikely to agree is another woman I profiled this week: Victoria Bateman, fellow in economics at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. Committed to the cause of “my body, my choice” and concerned about the male dominance in the field of economics, she has organised a series of naked protests. The latest was an attempt to stop Brexit using both nudity and solid economic arguments about the preconditions for prosperous societies. Unfortunately, at least for the overwhelming majority of British academics who share her opposition to Brexit, she has so far failed to influence government policy.

It might be a coincidence that I’ve written three stories in one week on an unusual, for me, topic. But it can’t be by chance that the study on Italian graduates’ outfits and Bateman and Dajani’s respective stances on clothing (or no clothing) all focus on how women dress. These collective experiences, although distinct, reflect society’s penchant to put women at the centre of attire-related discussions. 

Matthew Reisz is reporter and books editor for Times Higher Education.

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