Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
June 23, 2024

Humans of Hopkins: Naveeda Khan

By CATHY WANG | February 8, 2024



Khan shares how her background and experiences have shaped her research interests as an anthropologist.

Naveeda Khan is an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology at Hopkins. Khan is an anthropologist, author and activist — and photographer in her free time. In an interview with The News-Letter, Khan discussed her journey at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Building Resources Across Communities (BRAC) as well as her experience at the COP28 (Conference of the Parties) United Nations Climate Change Conference.

The News-Letter: You have a wide variety of research interests, including religion and the nation-state. Could you share how your personal experience has shaped your interests?

Naveeda Khan: When I was in graduate school, I was interested in Muslim lives and Muslim society. My initial impulse was to study Muslims in India. Unfortunately, the year that I was going to do fieldwork was also the year of a very violent event in India — the destruction of a very important mosque that was the birthplace of a Hindu deity. So all I remember thinking at that time was that I don't want to study Muslims in India right now. And that was the instinct that then drew me to Pakistan. I thought it'd be interesting to go to some place created as a homeland for Muslims.

It was a strange choice because I was coming from Bangladesh. Bangladesh separated from Pakistan in 1971, and it was a very brutal separation, almost a genocide in Bangladesh by the Pakistan army. It is an interesting thing for an anthropologist who was born and brought up in Bangladesh to want to study Pakistan. For me, as my mother grew up in Pakistan — she is half Pakistani and half Bengali — I'd heard Urdu growing up. And even though I was brought up in Bangladesh to have a deep suspicion of Pakistan, I also had a little familiarity with it. So I thought, I don't want to just study my country. I'm an anthropologist, I should be able to go somewhere else. 

N-L: How did your interest in religion and the nation-state shift to an interest in nature?

NK: I went with my father to visit his village and relatives. When we were driving out of the city, we came to a river that I had crossed many times when I was young. That river, when I was young, was huge. We would go over on a ferry, which was quite scary, because we'd be buffeted by water and all the cars would be on the ferry. When I went this time, there was no river. It was just this tiny trickle, and there was just land everywhere. My father explained that sand from the country was regularly deposited into rivers and that the river was producing land all the time. I became quite fascinated by what it means to live on an island. What are these islands that come and go in the middle of the river? So it was, as you can tell, circumstances of what was happening in the moment, or my own life that led me to the topic, but the enduring connection was always landscape.

N-L: You’ve previously worked with many organizations, like the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Dhaka and Cox's Bazar as well as the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC). Could you share your experience working at these places? 

NK: I graduated from Vassar back in the day, and I went home to Bangladesh to work. Right at that time was the first major exodus of Rohingyas from what was then Burma, but now Myanmar, into Bangladesh. The UNHCR had just set up their office, so I got hired, and because I spoke English and came from an American-educated background, they put me in communications. I was a little annoyed because I would have preferred to be at the field site, which was really where all the very interesting setting up of camps and negotiating the relations happened.

Because the U.N. [United Nations] has a lot of constraints on what you can say and what you can do, I found it — global diplomatic protocol — kind of boring, eventually, just being the talking head for the UNHCR and the local office. So I moved to a Bangladeshi organization, BRAC, which was just coming up as an NGO. Pretty soon, it, along with the Grameen Foundation, was running the country, because the government was just ineffective, wracked with corruption and military takeovers all the time. So, between Grameen Bank giving microcredit and BRAC doing these empowerment projects, that's what made the country run. They were kind of like the de facto state. I wanted to work for them because it was exciting with all these programs happening.

N-L: I read that you're also a photographer. Could you share a bit about that?

NK: I got into photography, in part to make myself useful in a field context. When I was working in the riverine landscape, people were constantly needing photographs for IDs or applications, and I had my phone. They were like, why don't you take photographs of us? So I just became a photographer for everyone. Over time, I realized that I quite enjoyed it, but I didn't necessarily enjoy taking just photographs of the scenery, I enjoyed taking pictures of people as they wanted to be presented. As opposed to just documenting for fieldwork or evidence, I took a lot of spontaneous pictures of the landscape and people. The photographs I really love are the ones where people very deliberately posed for me for the purpose of showing something about themselves.

N-L: What was your experience at COP28 like?

NK: After I finished the work on Bangladesh and the river riverine society, I met someone there in that context. They said to me that if you're really interested in how people in this context are facing environmental change, you should also be interested in how this policy is being deliberated at the highest level. I followed Saleemul Huq, a very famous environmental activist who recently passed away, to the U.N. 

At first, I had no idea what I had seen, because it's so complicated — [there are] thousands of people just running this way and that way, and you're like, what is this? How is it that any meaningful policy comes out of it? So I just kept going to all the COPs on the side of all my other research every year, and that's how I ended up at COP28 as well. 

COP28 was interesting, because it was one where oil-producing countries were part of finally uttering the words that fossil fuel is to blame for the condition that we are in now. That was such a major win because Saudi Arabia has been a blocker of those conversations in climate negotiations. To have an Emirati COP in Dubai, and to have the Emirati leadership try to bring the OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) countries on this platform was huge, very belated but huge.

N-L: Do you have any advice, academic or otherwise you think students could benefit from?

NK: People live such different realities now. When I was doing any of this research, [anyone] could just go out and study something interesting in the world. I felt that I could really extend my imagination to capture somebody else's reality. Now the world has become so much more of a tense place, where you can't just assume you can show up somewhere and ask people questions. It's intrusive, and there's politics involved, but also there's the fact that there may be profound differences now in a way that I didn't feel. 

The world is so intense and asks so much intensity of you. People burn out much quicker. People feel like they either have to work so hard or they have to feel so hard, but if there's some way that you can give yourself some areas of peace and quietness, where all those things just sort of fade away, I think that's very needed. So I cook or exercise, like it's nothing that profound. We just all need to recapture that feeling of calmness or being in the moment.

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