Why do we connect through difference rather than sameness? – 5in10 with Dina Mansour-Ille
Dina Mansour-Ille, currently a reserach fellow with the Orient-Institute Beirut (OIB), holds a PhD in “Politics, Human Rights and Sustainability” with a specialization in political economy and human rights from the Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies in Pisa, Italy. Before joining the OIB, she worked as a Post-doctoral Research Assistant at the European University Institute in Florence and was teaching in both Germany and Italy. She also holds an M.A. in International Human Rights Law from the American University in Cairo and regularly teaches courses on human rights, gender and identity politics, and migration and refugee studies.
What was intriguing to you when you were a child? What is it that you always wanted to know about the world?
As a child, I was intrigued with cultural differences, nationalities, identities, and difference. The ‘us versus them’ perception has upset me as a child, especially as someone who went to a German school in Cairo where we learned to be critical of society. My best friend at school came from a different religion and soon enough I realized that we are different, or better said, we were forced to be different. We attended separate classes for teaching faith and religion. I never saw the point of segregating us, yet questioning this commonly accepted fact made me realize how much of a taboo religion is in a society like Egypt. Up to this day, I object to institutionalized and normalized segregation within the same society. I refuse to see my best friend as any different from me in any way. This led me to the study of human rights as an adult. I guess I can say what I wanted to know about the world was why are we born the same, yet society drifts us apart? Why, as children, are gender, class, ethnicity, wealth, religion and sect, irrelevant, yet society forces us to see them as relevant as we grow older? Why do we connect through difference rather than sameness? I believe these remain to be the questions that motivate me to work on making a difference with my research and as a person.
How would you explain your current research to a stranger in an elevator („elevator pitch“)?
My research deals with the Arab Spring, where I focus on a particular social group of people that exists on social media networks, namely Egyptian secularists. My work aims to shed light on a group of people that defy societal and political norms both offline and online.
Which stations of your academic journey were extremely formative to you?
My MA studies in the Human Rights Programme of the Law Department at the American University in Cairo (AUC)! I think I have never been as inspired in my life as I was during my MA studies. I was fortunate enough to work with professors of the likes of Enid Hill, Tanya Monforte and Alejandro Lorite, whose role model I will always remember and who will forever guide me in my career. I have to admit that equally formative, has been my PhD studies in Italy, which added to me both as a person and academic. My supervisor, Stefan Collignon, has been behind my fascination with the interdisciplinary link between political economy and human rights. Up to this day, I cannot forget how he inspired me both as a person and an academic.
How is it to do research in Lebanon?
Difficult, if I am being completely honest. As a researcher, Lebanon has been an attractive case-study as being a ‘sectarian society’. Yet, sectarianism represents everything that I have forever objected to in Egypt and the Arab world… Segregation on the basis of an inherited identity and difference! Before coming to Lebanon, I thought I can keep myself clear of sectarian Lebanon while working on my research, but after two years in the country I realized that though I tried to shield myself from sectarianism, as an Arab woman, sectarianism didn’t shield itself from me. As a human rights activist and academic, I published and advocated against discrimination, yet in Lebanon I experienced discrimination first hand both at work and as a person within an inherently divided society – truly ‘a house of many mansions’…
If you had one wish what would you wish for the further development of your subject?
Freedom of expression and religion…I wish for this region to allow for more freedom of expression and religion, and allow us to be true to ourselves and our beliefs (or convictions). An end to the politics of fear will allow us to better understand societies and cultures across the region with their differences and commonalities.