Pnina Werbner obituary

Other Lives: Social anthropolgist who, as an immigrant herself, was attuned to themes of citizenship and multiculturalism

My mother, Pnina Werbner, who has died suddenly of a pulmonary embolism aged 78, was an emerita professor of social anthropology at Keele University. She was renowned for her work with Muslim South Asians in Britain and Pakistan and, more recently, the women’s movement and the Manual Workers Union in Botswana.

Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, she was the daughter of Ethel “Bobsie” (nee Cohen) and Philip “Figgy” Gillon. Bobsie, a fantastic cook, held a PhD in botany. Philip, a lawyer and writer, became a prominent leftwing journalist after the family moved to Israel in 1950.

Pnina grew up in Ashkelon and Jerusalem, where she attended Leyada high school. As an undergraduate, she studied English literature and philosophy at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and sociology and social anthropology at Tel Aviv University. She emigrated in 1970 to do her master’s degree and doctorate in social anthropology at the University of Manchester.

Pnina Werbner as a young woman stands with her arms folded in front of a window
Pnina Werbner studied at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv University before moving to Manchester to study social anthropology Photograph: family photo

Once there, she fell madly in love with the American anthropologist Professor Dick Werbner, marrying him in 1971 and immediately going with him to live and do fieldwork in a tiny village in Botswana.

She joined Keele University in 1997 as a senior lecturer and became professor of social anthropology in 2001, when a small minority of professors were female. As an immigrant herself, first to Israel and then to England, she was highly attuned to the situation of cosmopolitan and transnational people and this became a major theme in her work, along with citizenship and multiculturalism.

In her publications, British Pakistani women are viewed not as members of enclosed immigrant communities, but as creative, influential leaders of complex and transformative lives in a diaspora. She was a pioneer in research on multicultural Manchester. More recently, she highlighted the dignity of manual labourers in Africa.

She refused to “retire”, continuing to travel, study and publish until the day she died, on holiday in Barbados. In lockdown, she co-wrote a book with my father, African Customary Justice.

She was an avid reader and loved art, Shakespeare, dogs, the Royal Exchange theatre in Manchester, musicals, cartoons, sunbathing, walking in the countryside and swimming in the sea. She was a rule-breaker and an original thinker who baked the most delicious chocolate cakes, drank Scotch like her father, spoke her mind (often impatiently), doted on her granddaughter and dreamed of peace in the Middle East.

She is survived by Dick, and their children, Ben and me, and granddaughter, Flora, and by her sister, the artist Hava Gillon.


Donna Ferguson

The GuardianTramp

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