Scholars in Context: Douaa Sheet
Jadaliyya's Scholars in Context series consists of Q&As in which scholars of the Middle East describe their research and the paths they took to arrive at it. The series provides a platform for these scholars to highlight the significance of their work, identify the audiences they seek to reach, and outline their future research trajectories, giving readers an in-depth look at the latest research in a given field.
Jadaliyya (J): What is the main focus of your current research, and how does it connect to or depart from your previous work?
Douaa Sheet (DS): I work on transitions: political, geographic, temporal.
My dissertation, and first book-length project, is a study of the Tunisian transitional justice process that was launched in the aftermath of the 2011 uprising. Through the lens of the Truth and Dignity Commission—a human rights mechanism where a locally nominated body investigates gross violations of the fallen regime and recommends reparations for its victims—the project takes seriously the 2011 demonstrators’ demand for a “life with dignity,” elaborates this demand through the experiences of three key political victim groups of the former regime, and argues that this aspiration articulates a utopian framework of justice that challenges the universality of the moral discourse of human rights and offers a different reading of our moral-political present.
Whereas my first project was about the Tunisian transition in the aftermath of the Arab spring, my next project moves on to another transition that followed the “Arab Spring.” In ongoing comparative discussions of the aftermaths of the Arab Spring, I grew curious about how some were described as successful “aftermaths,” while others were described as “incomplete transitions.” I was struck by the idea of an “incomplete” transition and am currently putting together a proposal to explore this phenomenon further in my second book-length study.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does it address?
DS: My research is at the intersection of human rights studies; post-conflict theories of justice, reconciliation, and reparation; notions of time and temporality in political utopias; religion; gender; and the politics of new social media.
Much of the literature on Tunisia’s political transition in the aftermath of the 2011 uprising has focused on political Islam as “the problem”—it is either attacked or defended. I wanted to document Tunisia’s transitional justice experience in its full complexity, meaning with the many other variables that played an important role in the process but that tend to be studied in isolation from one another. My first book project thus comprises an intersection of topics ranging from the role of the afterlife in Islamists’ participation in mechanisms of human rights, to an argument for the importance of “silence” in national reconciliation mechanisms, to new social media’s refiguration of notions of truth, knowledge, and publics in the work of truth commissions.
J: What brought you to this work? What was the source of inspiration?
DS: As someone from a country that emerged from a civil war without any kind of accountability and blanket amnesty for its warlords, the Tunisian uprising and the transitional justice efforts that followed were a major source of fascination and hope for me. I wanted to be as close as possible to the process.
Also intellectually, truth commissions are relatively new to the region. While most existing studies examine truth commissions in other parts of the world—Eastern Europe, Latin America, and so on—I wanted to explore what new stakes this human right model will involve in the Middle East and North Africa.
J: What audiences would you like to reach, and what kind of impact would you like your research and writing to have?
DS: I am an anthropologist who works on topics of interest to scholars of human rights, philosophers, political scientists, and practitioners. While my work is informed by an anthropological mode of inquiry, I would like my work to reach all the above audiences.
In terms of impact, I hope this research brings new conceptual points of entry into our study of mechanisms of political transition in the region, beyond worn-out tropes such as the East-versus-West paradigm which continues to inform much of the scholarship on human rights mechanisms in the region.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
DS: I just submitted revisions to two articles that emerged from my fieldwork in Tunisia. The first, “On Conceptions of Time in Human Rights Studies: The Afterlife, Islam, and Reparative Justice in Post-Uprising Tunisia” is forthcoming in the Journal of Human Rights. And the other, which examines the role of new social media in the Tunisian transition, is under review in Cultural Anthropology.
I am also working on two other articles that draw on my fieldwork in Tunisia. One is on the Tunisian Truth and Dignity Commission’s reparations proposal that recognized a region as a victim category—a relatively new approach in reparations programs—which I analyze through the literatures on development, economic and social rights, and theories of distributive and reparative justice. The other article is a reflection on my positionality as a Middle Eastern anthropologist conducting fieldwork in Tunisia. I am hoping to wrap up these projects on the Tunisian transition by the end of my year here as a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Michigan.