Small-Town Darfur in an Age of Government-Sponsored “Civilization”

A review of Karin Willemse, One Foot in Heaven: Narratives on Gender and Islam in Darfur, West-Sudan (Leiden: Brill, 2007).

“Women started making tea seven or eight years ago. The first woman making tea was Hauwa Al-Fadl from the Birgid tribe. Then women from all the tribes started to make tea: Arab, Zaghawa, and Fur. Most of them are now Arab and Zaghawa. They were making tea, because they did not have money and they needed it badly, because of the drought. The first woman who made tea did so after her husband died. … [T]hen other women followed her example. Zamzam, my co-wife’s daughter, and her sister were not making tea at that time: their mother sold onions, dried okra, and tomatoes. Only later did she make tea. After the government stopped the women making tea, they went and complained to the leaders in the government: ‘There is no family, money, people looking after us, what can we do,’ they said. But the men said, ‘No, no, in Islam we have no room for this. You have to stop, so you stop.’”

– Hajja Ishak to Karin Willemse, Kebkabiya, Darfur, c. 1991 (page 199).

“Tea is the mother of crime” (p. 210). So claimed the Sudanese government in 1991, when, as part of its Islamist “Civilization Project” (mashru’ hadari), it declared a ban on women selling tea in market squares. As an anthropologist pursuing doctoral research, Karin Willemse was present in Kebkabiya, a small town in northern Darfur, just before and after the ban was imposed. She heard from other market women about how authorities came to seize the tea women’s utensils, threatening them with fines, beatings, or jailtime, and accusing them of using their trade to engage in improper conduct with men. Willemse was also there when members of “popular committees” (lajnat shu’ubiyya) arrived to declare the government’s Islamist credo, delivering public speeches that urged locals to shun foreign customs and people, to dress properly (in the case of women, by more thoroughly covering their bodies), and to behave as good Muslim families, ideally with women obeying husbands while functioning as mothers installed in the home.

One Foot in Heaven represents Willemse’s effort to assess the social and discursive impact of this moral campaigning, which occurred in the early 1990s as the regime of General Omer Beshir was trying to hammer out its Islamist agenda. Willemse concentrates on Kebkabiya women who were striving to maintain and proclaim their Muslim propriety while nevertheless working outside the home. Totaling more than five hundred pages, One Foot in Heaven is a dense but brilliant book that makes valuable contributions to the study of modern Sudanese history and culture. The author remains steadily aware, throughout the book, of her own place as a female foreign visitor in Kebkabiya. Perhaps as a result, she manages to write a scholarly work that is imbued with a spirit of friendship and empathy.

The book’s title contains a reference to two hadiths (sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad) that Kebkabiya women frequently cited. The first hadith, which emphasizes women’s enduring value for Muslim society, recounts that “Heaven is under the feet of the mothers.” The second, which appears to assign women to proper locations, is “There are three places for a woman: in her father’s house, in her husband’s house, or in her grave.” Willemse suggests that together these two hadiths as recited in Kebkabiya in 1991 illustrated “the ambiguity in dominant moral discourses [about] the ‘good Muslim woman’” (p. 34).

The married Kebkabiya women who befriended Willemse spoke often about how their roles as daughters and wives had affected the course of their lives. In the not-too-distant past, fathers, husbands, and brothers had certainly decided their futures. Yet by the time Willemse arrived in the early 1990s, the influence of men appeared diminished in households. Many fathers, husbands, or brothers were either dead or absent. Frequently, absence was the result of migration (to work in places like El Fasher or Khartoum, or further afield in Saudi Arabia or Iraq), but sometimes it was the result of divorce. If uncles, male cousins, and other members of the extended patrilineage were around, they, too, were exerting a shadowy influence. Willemse connects this last trend to the dwindling influence of extended families and to the growing importance of “neolocal nuclear families”, a process that, among the educated elite in particular, accompanied the rise in migration through job transfers (p. 345). Extended family structures persisted, but did not claim the same force that they once did – perhaps because birthrates per woman, as well as (polygamous) marriages per man, were also diminishing.

Willemse suggests that the Numayri period (1969-85), as experienced in Kebkabiya, witnessed some far-reaching social changes. During the 1970s and ‘80s, “recurrent droughts forced men to migrate” (p. 386), prompting women of humble or reduced means to seek work in what had been, in effect, a man’s world – the world of the market square. Lacking sufficient funds to cover day-to-day expenses, women in Kebkabiya began selling okra, tomatoes, millet, and other food items in order to earn money to feed and clothe their children, and to pay for the incidental expenses (such as pencils, books, and uniforms) that would enable their daughters and sons to be schooled. Meanwhile, a lucky fraction of the girls who attended schools were themselves able to secure jobs as government teachers. President Numayri’s support for mass education facilitated this last trend. That is, as many more government primary (and to a lesser extent intermediate) schools began to open in small towns like Kebkabiya, families were able to educate their children without having to send them to school far away.

Willemse learned such details by recording biographical narratives. Two women, in particular, offered narrations of their life stories, and these stand at the heart of the book. The two women were Hajja, a widow, mother, and trained midwife who sold onions in the market to get by; and Umm Khalthoum, a mother on the brink of divorce who taught in the government school while depending, to an important degree, on the child care and logistical support provided by her relatives, including her own older children. Hajja and Umm Khalthoum represent two different groups of professional women — market sellers and schoolteachers – who were separated by education and social status but who were both, in their own way, struggling to affirm their social legitimacy as good Muslims and working women.

Hajja remained functionally illiterate whereas Umm Khalthoum was a schoolteacher, and yet in striking ways their lives in Kebkabiya ran parallel. Both women, in their youth, enjoyed opportunities that were exceptional for females of their day. Hajja, who was born around 1920, was fortuitously chosen — and then forced by her father — to attend the midwifery training school that the British authorities established in Omdurman during the Anglo-Egyptian period. In 1936, when she was still training in Omdurman, Hajja became one of three midwives chosen to preside over the birth of Sadiq al-Mahdi (the political and religious leader who is a great-grandson of the Mahdi). Hajja consistently described this occasion as one of the greatest achievements of her life. She was also proud of the fact that with her own earnings from midwifery, she eventually paid for her pilgrimage to Mecca (as her honorific nickname, al-Hajja, attested). Born more than a generation later, around 1950, Umm Khalthoum had the rare privilege of attending a government intermediate girls school – which was, at that time, a boarding school far from her home. This was in the early 1960s, before Numayri expanded the number, and arguably reduced the quality, of government schools. The school as she described it to Willemse was lush and luxuriant: the girls enjoyed clean patterned bedsheets, delicious food and varied diets, and devoted, doting teachers, all provided at government expense. However, both Hajja and Umm Khalthoum saw their youths – and in some sense their career aspirations — abruptly end when their fathers married them off. Both women came from prosperous families that enjoyed connections to Darfur elites, and yet both, as they progressed through adulthood, saw the family wealth wither and dissipate. In both cases, part of their loss of affluence may have derived from their fathers’ and husbands’ tendency toward multiple marriages, which increased heirs and shrank inheritances. But broader trends in regional and national wealth also came into play. The economic opportunities that greeted their fathers in a decolonizing Sudan were not nearly as bright as the ones that their husbands encountered.

Notwithstanding the hadith connecting heaven to mothers, Hajja and Umm Khalthoum had little to say about their own mothers as forces in their lives. Willemse speculates that their mothers were unable to serve as role models for the kind of women that Hajja and Umm Khalthoum were trying to be – educated (in their different ways), well-behaved professional women in an age of government-sponsored Islamization. Willemse’s narrative suggest that other Kebkabiya women may have been lacking in role models, too: notably, female schoolteachers who were remaining single, with few marital prospects on the horizon. Representing this trend was Sa’adiya, a teacher in town and one of Willemse’s research assistants, who having “escaped early marriage now dread having to make a step ‘back’.” Willemse explains, “These female employees are the first generation of women who have what I have called a ‘prolonged adolescence’. …Single female teachers want single educated men who are broadminded enough to let them have the life they attained by hard work and a bit of luck” (p. 440). Such men in Kebkabiya and elsewhere were not so easy to find. Therefore, lacking pressure or orders from fathers and male kin, some women were postponing marriage indefinitely.

It was certainly hard to be a “good” Muslim woman in 1991, when the Sudanese government was pressing its “civilizing” agenda. Sudanese womanhood was arguably in crisis. But other identity crises were lurking in this story as well. Looming in the background was a crisis of masculinity, which Willemse explains as follows: In the circles of the educated, the pay and perquisites of government service were diminishing for young men, who were finding themselves unable “to live up to the ideal-type notion of Muslim masculinity that the Islamist government…had created” (p. 492). Government employment in 1991 was not as lucrative as it had been thirty years earlier. Many successful men had left Sudan entirely, migrating to oil-rich Arab states or further afield, occasioning a sense of inadequacy, doubt, and frustration among educated men left behind. Meanwhile, by 1991, women in places like Kebkabiya had entered the marketplace. Having succeeded through hard work and increasingly, ambition, these women showed no signs of retreating, despite government discourses that enjoined women to stay at home. At the same time, women were becoming stronger about choosing – or not choosing – husbands. Male authority was not what it had been.

These changes in social and family life made the government’s Islamization or “civilization” campaign, as it played out in Kebkabiya in the early 1990s, look like a nostalgic and tradionalist attempt to recapture an era that had already lapsed. “Do you think it’s shameful to make tea?” Willemse asked her friend Hajja. Hajja’s answer revealed the influence of the government’s moral discourse while challenging its aims: “Yes, in the past it was, but now everyone can sit in the market. Only the rich families would not go. Nowadays all people work: women work and men work in the offices, in the market, all the people are working together, mixed” (p. 199).

What the government’s moral discourses did show, Willemse convincingly argues, is a sense of deep identity crisis rooted in the malaise of the Sudanese nation-state. The “civilizing” project in Darfur, she contends, reflected the anxieties of Sudanese riverain elites who sensed the loss of their cultural hegemony. Numayri’s educational policies during the 1970s (which led to the proliferation of regional schools), together with worsening economic conditions, led to a process of decentralization that amounted to pariochialization and perhaps, too de-Sudanization, in a peripheral region like Darfur. (Darfur’s “Sudanization” had in any case been quite recent. Recall that British colonial authorities incorporated the region into Sudanese territory not during the colonial conquest of 1898, but only in 1917, when they overthrew its sultan, Ali Dinar.) Willemse argues that government officials – who after the 1989 coup were at once Islamists and Sudanese nationalists – regarded Darfurians as “insufficiently detribalized”, that is, inadequately assimilated to riverain ways, and possessing a degree of autonomy that challenged Sudanese cultural and political coherence. Officials expressed these sentiments by presenting Darfurians as derelict Muslims, with the men lazy and the women (like the tea sellers) promiscuous. In this way, the Beshir regime’s moralizing discourses barely covered the Islamist-nationalist riverain elite’s contempt for Darfur provincials.

One Foot in Heaven does not aim to explain the war that broke out in Darfur in 2003. Still, in retrospect, it is possible to detect in the book two features of the Darfurian social landscape, circa 1991, that foreshadowed this conflict. First, the Sudanese government was promoting a “civilizing project” (mashru’ hadari) that was not far removed from a civilizing mission. The discursive parallels with colonial rhetoric are striking here, insofar as the government emphasized the alienation of Darfurians — their veritable “other-ness” as bad Muslims — as a pretext for dominating them and changing their ways. The government’s words and deeds underlined the very features that have made Sudan’s nation-statehood so fragile: the uneven distribution of power and resources, in a vast and culturally diverse territory. Second, a crisis of masculinity was producing a generation of frustrated men who had too much time on their hands. “In these deteriorating conditions of deprivation and despair among nomadic and sedentary young men ‘without a future’,” Willemse suggests, “weapons form an easy and immediate satisfaction in the quest for respect, self-identity, and a sense of control. Due to the high presence of disenfranchised men on both sides of the conflict, it has taken on an especially troubling gender dimension”. With its rapes, mutilations, and slaughter, Willemse concludes, the post-2003 war in Darfur had distinct “gendercidal” dimensions (pp. 486-87).

Conflict was already stirring near Kebkabiya when Willemse reached the town in 1990. She had not wanted to stay there, she explains in her opening pages; she had hoped to work in a village instead. But Sudanese officials forbade her from venturing beyond the protective bounds of the town, citing security threats from roaming Chadian guerrillas and highway robbers. As is so often the case for serious researchers who face constraints in sources and circumstances, Willemse decided to improvise. Thus she set out to answer a small question that troubled her: why did the Kebkabiya tea women disappear from the market during a short period when she was absent from town? The result of her investigation is this outstanding book, which illuminates one piece of Darfurian and Sudanese culture and history – and shows its tremendous complexities — while raising much bigger global issues about constructions of gender and family in the midst of social flux.

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2 thoughts on “Small-Town Darfur in an Age of Government-Sponsored “Civilization”

  1. I am sometimes astonished as how Western Scholars who conduct research in places like Kebkabiya, in Dar Fur , Sudan,or other places of Africa, tend to write as history started with their time of research. Any one who knows Kebkabiya and those parts of the Sudan, would have told about the role of women and what work they do, in the city or the rural area, making tea in the market place or selling food and indeed other merchandise is not a new phenomenon, it is indeed common place, in Dar Fur, Kordofan, Eastern Sudan,etc…
    The second point here that caught my attention is the citation of (the two hadiths), to which Heather Sharkey refers, and which seem to the basis for all the analysis we are treated to.
    If a little effort was made, she would have discovered that there are no such Hadith, attibuted to the Prophet Of Islam. Clearly the author, has little knowledge of the religion of the people she wants to help and defend.
    “Heavens is under the feet of the mother”, is an old age aphorism, emphasizing the place of the mother vis-a-vis her children, and urging us all,to honour and respect our mothers.
    The second (Hadith) ,(“there are three places for the woman, her father’s house, her husband’s house or her grave”), is even more outrageous and it is sad that our eminent scholar fell into this.
    Again,had she cross-checked the information she collected from her conversations,with her two heroines,she would have avoided and saved us this trouble.
    One would expect,scholars to be objective and more scruopolus,with their data,before committing it to paper,they should at least have the minimum knowledge of thee history,culture and why not creeds of the communities they would wish to study. Fabricating words and ascribing them to the Prophet of Islam,is totally unscholarly,and is beyond comprehesion,unless of course all is justified as long as it serves the purposes of those scholars who have motives beyond the academic.
    I know of some scholars who went through the trouble of reading the Qura’an to understand the socities they deal with,and verify the stories they hear thorughtheir interviews.
    WE have also read Ian Cunnison,Evans Pritchard,and many others who wrote about Sudanese communities.
    In the Sudan, Priests, in Churches of all denominations , moralize, and so do Imams in Mosques, are we to conclude here, that the Priests who moralize, preach morality, honesty, decency and moderations whould be condemned and banished from the face of Earth?Or she would campaign against mother’s day, because it is belittles women?If any thing ,the comments on this book,tell me that we are entering a new phase in the Sudan-the campaign for the secession or as some would say,the Independence of Dar Fur,Heather reminds us that the British Colonial authorities annexed Dar Fur to Sudan,in 1917.Dar Fur then may qualify,to what somewhere else in this blog Alex called(internal colonialism).

  2. A point worth clarifying is that the Kebkabiya people who conversed with Karin Willemse believed that these two sayings were authentic hadiths, so that they shaped local moral discourses. Karin Willemse’s interest as an anthropologist is in considering these assumptions and discourses, not their relationship to “real” Islam.

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