WoNJAR Introducing

WoNJAR Introducing: Helen Lee

Hello! I’m Helen, the third co-founder of WoNJAR. Due to my relatively quiet presence on Twitter compared to Joanna and Bex, it is high time I say a little something about myself, and how I reached this point, hoping for an academic career in religious studies.

As a child, I attended church on a weekly basis from the age of four, and it became a huge part of my life. I loved absolutely everything to do with church, except from the lack of a Sunday lie in! Fast-forwarding a few years, I was a very religious teenager. I had been confirmed as a full member of the Church of England, was a ‘worship prefect’ at my Church of England school, and at some points had seriously considered ordination as a career path. I had done really well in GCSE Religious Education (thanks to my teacher), and had been heavily encouraged to do ‘religious studies’ at A Level (whatever that was). I thought that this ‘religious studies’ would be some kind of extension of my GCSE course, and that the Philosophy of Religion component would both deepen my faith, and help me as a church youth group leader. It didn’t do that. It made me an atheist.

So, what did teenage atheist do? Teenage atheist carried on going to church for a while anyway, wondering how people continued to believe, and how this belief could translate into evangelical activity. Every Sunday lunch time consisted of me ranting to my poor mum about church and the (to my teenage mind) increasingly tenuous arguments from that morning’s sermon. I found this ‘insider-but-really-outsider’ state of being incredibly confusing, but I was still hooked. It seemed I loved learning about religion and religious communities, even as a non-believer. I used this as my rationale for applying to do Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Leeds, did my A Levels, and got in.

My undergraduate studies at Leeds were a departure from what had gone before. Out went Philosophy of Religion, and in came the elementary study of various religious traditions, religious environmentalisms, and religious feminisms. In my first year I did fieldwork at a Quaker meeting house in Leeds, and loved it. I remember thinking quite naively, “I’d love to do this as a job”. My personal tutor and dissertation supervisor Dr Rachel Muers, was always excited about and supportive of my research ideas, and was extremely helpful during my planning and writing my dissertation (on Quaker ecospirituality and environmentalism). I did an ERASMUS exchange year at Charles University in Prague, and learned a lot there. I wholeheartedly loved my degree, and wished it could go on forever.

Throughout, though, I remained decidedly not confident, and not proud of many, if any, of my academic achievements. I graduated with a 2:1 and was so disappointed, I saw no point in attending my graduation ceremony. I spent a couple of months post-graduation on unemployment benefits, and eventually found a call centre job with the Government sorting out benefit overpayments. During this time I tried to convince myself I was not good enough for an academic career (both academically and inherently as a person), and tried to squeeze myself into looking for a career in finance or accounting, because I thought at least I would earn a load of money. For some perspective on how twisted this was, I failed my GCSE Maths first time around. However, I missed Leeds and academic life terribly. The things I missed most were my lecturers and the libraries- I missed having academic discussions. It took a lot of courage, but I emailed my former supervisor Rachel for some help. I then applied for the MA course in Theology and Religious Studies and was accepted, with a fees scholarship to boot. I was amazed, both at my luck, and how much I felt ‘wanted’ by my department.

Therefore, that sense of ‘imposter syndrome’ is something I can relate to very well. I am now halfway through my MA as a part time student, and my research interests centre on Islamophobia in the UK, and how this has tied into politics. Recently, I’ve written about the Conservative-majority Coalition of 2010-2015, and looked at the discourse of both David Cameron and Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, and their avoidance of the term ‘Islamophobia’ through this time. I’m really interested in Islamophobia because, like most of my generation, I grew up surrounded by media and culture hostile to Muslims and their place in British society. Through my postgraduate studies, I have learned that racist ideas are both rendered invisible by their normativity, and that people therefore try to avoid discussions on racism, and how Islamophobia fits into that discussion. However, I’m a firm believer that what is avoided, and what is not said, should be looked at in great detail, and I especially enjoy grappling with issues that people would rather not look at!

I’ll end, for now, by saying how excited I am to be a part of WoNJAR. My main hope for WoNJAR is that we can help to eradicate the phenomenon of low confidence in female academics, especially those from families like mine, with no prior academic background. I’m really looking forward to working with more people, and watching our network grow.

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