Saving Darfur, Gender and Victimhood
Amal Hassan Fadlalla is a Sudanese anthropologist living in America, and it is revealing that she chose to publish her analysis of the U.S. movement for Darfur, “The Neoliberalization of Compassion: Darfur and the Mediation of American Faith, Fear and Terror,” in a volume with the theme of “neoliberalism and the erosion of democracy in America.” If it is correct that the “Save Darfur” movement is as much about America as about Sudan, then this is the right choice.
Amal addresses two main issues in her article. One is how American ideologies have shaped the Darfur campaign, and more widely what this tells us about the organization of global compassion. A second is how the images and narratives of the Darfur conflict, at different levels, are gendered. Depending on who is telling the story, explanations of Darfur clash and contradict one another, but all of them relegate women to the status of victims and victims only.
Part of the paper is a description of the April 30, 2006 Save Darfur Rally in the Washington Mall. This is a fascinating description. She is full of admiration for the compassion and energy of the young Americans she sees, but also wonders how much they know about Sudan, and whether they understand what they are calling for. She writes, “The rally, held on the day of a final deadline for the warring parties to sign a peace agreement, was a distinct cry for intervention in Darfur.” (p. 220). She took a photograph of a young woman holding a placard, “Out of Iraq, Into Darfur” .
Amal does not doubt that protesters turned up with the best of intentions. But she also describes the puzzlement of many Sudanese, and how they were quick to speculate about possible hidden motives for the rally, including how it was organized and the demands it made. She writes:
“Darfurians, who have active community organizations in the east coast area and beyond, were not much represented among the rally’s speakers or participants. Their absence compelled some of the Sudanese with whom I spoke after the rally to believe that it was not only a push for intervention but also a political strategy that staged the “˜southern Sudanese’ as a model “˜black Christian minority’ in order to rule or divide the country.”
The rally shows how extremely diverse American communities were coming together on the issue of Darfur. To be more precise, Jewish and Christian organizations, liberals, and neoconservatives all found reasons to agree with the way in which the Save Darfur Coalition described the crisis and called for the response. Amal locates the epicenter of this in the way that diverse political camps””at odds with one another in domestic U.S. politics””agree that American compassion should be the force that liberates the oppressed. This worldview, she says, negates
“[the] liberating potential of activism on the part of the dispossessed….The “˜naturalization of injustice’ renders efforts to end disparities a matter of choice that only the privileged, the conscientiously compassionate, and the religiously faithful can afford.” (p. 227)
Within the Save Darfur Coalition, views about the rally diverged. The organizers had originally scheduled a list of speakers that included “eight Western Christians, seven Jews, four politicians and assorted celebrities””but no Muslims and no one from Darfur.” After Sudanese objected, two Darfurians were hastily added to the list. But the very fact that the Darfurians were last-minute additions””and so had no power to determine the participants and the messages of the rally””is revealing about the reflexes of the organizers.
Amal sees similar reflexes at work in the U.S. “war on terror” and how it has been presented to the American public. These include the way that both the “war on terror” and the Darfur rally tended to demonize Arabs and denigrate Muslims. But the conception of “justice” is particular.
“To warn Bin Laden and the Janjawid, President Bush used the case of a Darfurian woman named Zahra. Her village was burned by the Janjawid, who also murdered her husband. Zahra relayed their message that there was no mercy for her and “˜No God but them.’ In response, Bush emphasized, “˜A just God will prevail.'” (p. 224)
The same call for “justice” resonates in President Bush’s rhetoric at the launch of the “war on terror” and in the response to the Darfur atrocities. Amal notes “the porosity of humanitarian ideology, its openness to both neoliberal and neoconservative logics… [and] the binaries between competing religious ideologies; a “˜just’ religious order will defeat an “˜intolerant’ one, not only in Darfur but in other Islamic territories” (p. 225).
Sudanese in America were ambivalent about the rally. It was a chance for them to be visible and to assert their identities (and was a breakthrough for the River Nile band). It was a wonderful opportunity for them to voice their opposition to the government and its human rights record. But there was also unease about the lack of Sudanese ownership over the event, and worry about what political agendas might be promoted. Did the rally show that a Sudanese cause had in fact been occupied by Americans? There is a fine line between intervention and invasion.
Amal goes on to develop a uniquely insightful analysis of the different portrayals of the Darfur crisis. She uses the lens of gender to show that while the Sudan Government disagrees fundamentally with the activists of the American movement for Darfur, their depictions actually share a common thread””they reduce Darfurian women to the status of victims only.
The significance of rape””as an individual act, as an event with social meaning, and as a signifier for national political pride””is contested. Amal suggests that the western understanding of rape is as an individual and private crime, whereas the understanding of many Sudanese is that rape is “a political violation that signals the dehumanization of entire kin groups and populations.” (p. 218) But the reporting of rape in Darfur by western media and advocacy groups, takes on a political dimension. Rapes by Arab militiamen are described differently from rapes by (former) rebel fighters and African Union peacekeepers. The first are seen as rapes committed by “aggressors” who are assumed guilty until proven innocent, the second are merely “accusations of rape against “˜liberator-protectors.”
These descriptions, Amal argues, ignore the gendered inequality of power in Darfur and the hyper-masculinity of militarism. Implicitly, for many Darfurian women, the reality of the conflict is not a contest between two warring parties but rather violence inflicted by armed men in general on vulnerable women. This resonates with an emerging theme of analysis of wars, exemplified by the writings of David Keen, that wars can be a collusive effort by belligerents to victimize civilians.
A gender analysis of how the Darfur conflict is portrayed throws up one more fascinating insight. “Patriarchal hegemony” captures the way in which intensely-gendered language and ideology define both crisis and response:
“What is unequivocal in many anti-interventionist statements [by Sudanese]… is a strong masculinist discourse about nationalism that envisions international troops as invaders of both ard and “˜ard“”the country and its female honor””which should be protected by “˜national men,’ including the president (Alray Alaam, June 21, 2006).” (p. 226)
“Save Darfur” interventionism may be in sharp conflict with the nationalism of the Sudan Government. But, Amal argues, the two share the same patriarchal hierarchy:
“The hierarchical binaries of invader/masculine–invaded/feminine infuse nationalist and internationalist discourses as “˜patriarchal hegemonies’ converse through metaphors of nationhood, universal humanitarianism, and a familial globality that thrives on images of subordinate motherhood, childhood, and sisterhood.” (p. 226)
Returning the participant-observer account of the Save Darfur rally, however, Amal also describes how the singing of the Berkeley College of Music enthused Sudanese women with a sense of sisterhood that overcame their feelings of shame at their dependence on the compassion of others. Can this romantic solidarity, born out of “neoliberal compassion”, overcome the gendered subjugation that Darfurian women suffer, both in the war and the interventionist campaign? And, for the women of Darfur facing daily hardship and insecurity, does this analysis promise any real change in their situation?
Amal Hassan Fadlalla, “The Neoliberalization of Compassion: Darfur and the Mediation of American Faith, Fear and Terror,” in Jane Collins, Micaela di Leonardo, and Brett Williams, eds., New Landscapes of Inequality: Neoliberalism and the Erosion of Democracy in America. SAR press, 2008.
Anthropologist Amal Hassan Fadlalla is Associate Professor of Women’s Studies and African Studies at the University of Michigan. She is the author of “Embodying Honor: Fertility, Foreignness a Regeneration in Eastern Sudan.”