For social science research in Darfur, the 1990s were a black hole. After Darfur’s descent into violence at the end of the 1980s, and the National Salvation coup, few researchers ventured into the field there. Karin Willemse is one of those few. She lived in Kebkabiya at the height of the Islamist revolution, when Turabi’s cadres were intent on transforming Sudan into an Islamic state. That enterprise focused not only on national institutions, but also that necessary precursor of the Islamic state—the Islamic society. Their project demanded a new public morality, and the conduct and appearance of women were in its sights.
Willemse’s account is One Foot in Heaven: Narratives on Gender and Islam in Darfur, West-Sudan (Brill 2007). It is a thick ethnographic description of the lives of women in Kebkabiya, and the life and reflections of their ethnographer. Her two principals, a market woman and a teacher, navigate challenges of economic survival and social standing at a time of hardship and upheaval. Among other things, it is a vivid account of life at that moment in time, when the Islamists appeared on the brink of achieving the social hegemony to which they aspired. This was also when the Islamist government, virtually bankrupt and without the basic means to administer far-flung areas such as Darfur, pursued a project known as “return to the roots.” Culturally an attempt to legitimize the government by emphasizing the indigenous (especially Arab-Islamic elements) of Sudanese culture, this was also a re-tribalization of local political authority, including the reinforcement of the Native Administration system, and in some places, its militarization. In turn, cementing tribal authorities within the official local government system served to entrench patriarchy.
The political dynamics of the rise and fall of the “civilization project” and the “return to the roots” are not, however, Willemse’s main focus: she is interested far more in the lives of her subjects, and how they are narrated. This provides a challenging perspective on the events of the time, which political scientists and analysts tend to frame in terms of high-level policy decisions.
Many readers will be drawn to this book because of the calamities that unfolded in Darfur a decade after Willemse’s research. The impending conflict does not loom in her account, however, until a short postscript. This picks up some of the themes of the bulk of the book, namely how the spread of education combined with economic austerity created a crisis of gender identities for young men. The sheer numbers of educated men, and the inability of the dominant “Sudanized” class to absorb and sustain them economically, created a crisis of identity at the center. To affirm elite Sudanese identity, policy shifted to defining gender and race boundaries, a process that led to the systemic exclusion of Darfur.
It is an interesting argument. Let me suggest that it would be enriched by another, as yet unwritten ethnography, that of Kebkabiya’s “missing men.”
Reading Willemse’s account, I was reminded of my time in the vicinity of Kebkabiya in the 1980s—and the striking fact that in some villages, there were almost no men. Among the farming communities around Kebkabiya, as many as half the men in the age brackets 15-35 had migrated, to find education or work. Many had gone as far as Gedaref in eastern Sudan. In those days, with poor communications, these men had in effect vanished, and their families lived in the hope of receiving some cash remitted through a relative, or their ultimate return after some years of profitable work. Married women were unsure if they should still consider themselves married; unmarried women dreamed of finding a rich(er) returnee. The socio-economic crisis in Darfur of the time was gendered. Willemse focuses on the women who stayed, and one of the recurring themes is that while women stay, men come and go. An ethnographic gap that remains is the men themselves, as they migrated to Dar Sabah in search of education and employment. It is these men who later led the rebellion. I would contend that we cannot obtain a rounder picture of the government’s policies on gender, race and exclusion, without a deeper understanding of the socio-economic realities of Darfur’s migrants, and how those were reflected in their political consciousness.
This blog will be running reviews of Willemse’s book, hoping also to generate a wide discussion on the issues it raises, over the coming weeks.