Karin Willemse’s analysis of the quotidian lives of a small group of adult women in Kebkabiya during the early 1990s raises many questions. Since others have already given summaries of the book, I want to concentrate on two questions: Does the book convince the reader that the regime’s efforts during the 1990s to change the moral discourses of gender caused or strongly influenced events of significance in the shared lives of the women examined in the book? In particular, what should we make of our temptation to “read” the book as offering insights into the 2003 war, ethnic cleansing counter-insurgency campaign, and subsequent inability to negotiate for a return from displacement of more than two million persons?
Before going into these questions, let me agree with the other reviewers that the massive (almost 500 pages of dense text) book deserves to be read carefully by scholars embarking on explorations of the zeitgeist of peripheral western Sudan during the troubling and turbulent 1990s, as a new regime sought to consolidate its power in Khartoum. Willemse carefully parses texts in a way that is rare for social scientists; it is more like the close reading by a literary critic. She also inserts self-reflective musings into the analysis in a way that never seems overly forced and is usually pertinent, asking herself what text it is that she, as author, is constructing. This technique could descend into self-indulgent autobiography or even aggrandizement (“look at ME!”) and Willemse handles it well. Despite its length, the book makes for vivid reading, and is full of opportunities for reflection and debate regarding the ordinary subjects of everyday conversation, whether on the concept of earning religious merit, wifely obligations to an unfaithful husband, sales strategies of market women, or choices of government officials torn between central directives and local realities.
Willemse makes much of the concept of the silences of the narratives she analyzes, what is not written or spoken. As I reflected on the book, I found myself wondering about the lengthy discussion of the newly introduced moral discourses, nicely portrayed by Willemse in a recapitulation of an evening of open-air speeches in the town. A series of speakers exhorts the people of the town to greet each other with the more proper salaam aleikum and not the usual sabah al-kher. They urge women to abandon the standard toob and instead adopt a more Iranian-style head covering. They reflect on the importance of the new regime of 1989 for society. A central theme of the book, as Willemse puts it (p.4) is that, “The new moral discourse had a profound influence on local power relationships [and] on the narratives of those people I engaged in my research…” And very clearly the new moral discourses shaped the discourses of individuals that Willemse engages with, the market women and female teachers of the town.
But remarkably absent from the book is any sense of how the discourses shaped any important events of consequence in the town. The focus of the book is intimate and personal. If by local power Willemse means the relationship between two neighboring market women, or between six teachers sharing a dormitory, then she is absolutely correct. But most people understand power to be about a larger scale, an “emergent property” of these small relations among people. Did a local demagogue rise to power in the town? Was a popular imam publicly ridiculed and incarcerated or displaced? Did the market get razed and a concrete statue celebrating the virtuous mother rise in its place, at great public expense? Apparently, the only thing that happened was there was increased uncertainty over behavior of market women and female teachers which led them to be more cautious in their activities. So I found myself dissatisfied at the “aggregating up” part of the book; and here of course I might confess that my own work with Leslie Gray, which touched on a very similar theme of the Turabi-inspired new moral discourse in a small village in western Kordofan, probably suffers from the same problem, though in that work we explicitly linked the new discourses to several dramatic events in the village. Although power is sometimes a silent drama performed in anonymity, I submit that usually it is loud and very annoying.
The points raised in the preceding paragraph are directly relevant to the other question of how to understand Willemse’s and the reader’s inability to restrain from “reading” the text in light of the war that broke out in 2003. There is much mention of banditry and insecure roads in the early 1990s in the fieldwork setting, but interestingly neither Willemse nor any of the women she speaks to have any apparent notion of the scale of the forces involved. Neither, I submit, did hardly anyone, and this lacunae of evidence about the scale and organization of the sporadic violence during the 1990s should prompt caution, rather than as obvious evidence that war was the right way to characterize the region in the 1990s and 2003 was simply a continuation of a decade-long war. Certainly then there was no conscious, deliberate linking of the new gender-focused moral discourse of the regime, and the local counter-discourses that may have risen in reaction, to the discourses of the small and apparently all-male core supporters of armed rebellion in Darfur who coalesced in the late-1990s into the two camps of the SLA and JEM. So the linkages between the discourses and the events of the early 2000s remain very obscure. Plainly much larger sociological forces and political decisions were at work besides the gender-based discourses. (Elsewhere, Leslie Gray and I have examined and rejected the simplistic climate-change explanation of the outbreak of large-scale conflict.)
What mechanism does Willemse actually propose to link the discourses with the violence? None, actually. Instead, Willemse suggests that the government might have shifted discourses of othering that were previously applied to southerners to Darfur, as part of a broader legitimation strategy. The government sought the (p. 494) “means to mark the boundaries of an exclusionary form of citizenship.” But the new othering that happened in the early 2000s, according to Willemse, was primarily made up of code-words referring to ethnicity (i.e. those who “performed” themselves as non-Arab). There is little explicit evidence linking this new othering to the gendered discourses of the 1990s. For example, one of the rare discussions of town politics on pp. 428-32 is quite provocative in suggesting a local resurgence of tribal identity among males, but offers little commentary on how this process was perceived by or affected women, and does not break down the vote of 1986 according to gender. It may have been there, but there is no evidence offered and no explicit linkages drawn. I would have preferred Willemse to have been explicit: we cannot link these moral gender-based discourses of the 1990s to the eruption of the 2003 war. Indeed, to the extent that the war was a male action (as other reviewers have noted), and to the extent that the book fails to examine male narratives (and the absence within the female narratives of discussion of male narratives other than the personal), there is no reason to expect a link to be traced. That is, at least, my intertextual reading of the final chapter. Willemse leaves the reader in the unfortunate position of reading too much into the text!
So let me conclude this brief reflection by reiterating that the book offers a fantastic opportunity to deepen research on local discourses, both in terms of setting out an important reference point and in terms of the many techniques on display, while at the same time cautioning against reading too much into the text. While “heaven is under the feet of mothers,” as one of the public speakers quotes the hadith (p. 59 and see also p. 354), the feet of mothers are not necessarily what carry a society away from heaven and toward awful brutality and war.
Michael Kevane and Leslie Gray, “Local Politics in the Time of Turabi’s Revolution: Gender, Class and Ethnicity in Western Sudan” Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, Vol. 65, No. 2 (1995), pp. 271-296 (a gated version is available at jstor.org)
Michael Kevane and Leslie Gray, “Darfur: rainfall and conflict” Environmental Research Letters, 3(3) 2008 (http://stacks.iop.org/1748-9326/3/i=3/a=034006)