The Sudanese government’s “Othering” of Darfur in its Quest for Hegemony: “Women Without Men, Boys Without a Future”

This ethnography is based on extensive anthropological research for a period of about 16 months all together in the provincial town of Kebkabiya in North-Darfur (1990-1995). The title of the book, ‘One foot in heaven’ conflates two main perspectives on women that were propagated by the Islamist Sudanese government that had come to power in 1989 by a military coup led by Omar al-Bashir. The Islamist discourse on gender as propagated by this government was based on the viewpoints of the NIF of al-Turabi. It basically constructed women as proper Muslims only in their roles as mothers and wives, predominantly within the walls of their compounds.

The book centres on the biographic narratives of Hajja and Umm Khalthoum, who belong respectively to the class of market women and of female teachers. Market women were considered to be disrespectful because of their economic activities in the public sphere, while female teachers had a high status because of their education, despite the fact that they also entered the public domain in order to perform their job. The book attempts to show, rather than tell, how, in daily life, women actively constructed identities while negotiating the Islamist discourse on the proper Muslim woman.

So why would anyone who wants to understand the current violence in Darfur be interested in the book? It is particularly in the absences and silences that become apparent when comparing the period before and after the onset of the war, that has allowed me to hold an alternative perspective on the dynamics of the current war in Darfur.

A lot has been written already about the fluidity and permeability of the boundaries between these ethnic groups. However, by taking ethnic identity as a starting point of analysis, one will always end up with considering ethnicity of central importance. To understand the current scale and extent of the violence well one should take a different perspective. The obvious absence of young adolescent men from communities in both Jebel Marra in the 1980s and from Kebkabiya in the 1990s, led me to analyse the conflict in relation to masculinity and generation.

In the period of my research, women and their daughters were the main cultivators in most farming communities in Darfur, while married men would move out of the village to trade or otherwise earn money to provide their families with those items that cost money, including taxes and school fees. Single young men often did not have clear tasks or responsibilities and thus from the perspective of society they were redundant. In particular during times of shortage they would be ‘just another mouth to feed’. Among the Fur, for example, young boys from the age of 8 till about 18 would wander from one Qur’an school to the next, and engage in odd jobs along the way for survival.

Single nomadic young men, on the other had, were most important for herding camels. In times of drought only young men would tend to the smaller herds temporarily leaving behind women, children and elderly in small settlements near sedentary peoples. These parallel processes of settling by female nomads coupled with male out-migration among sedentary farmers has created over the last decades communities that consist of predominantly female-headed households, of both sedentary and nomadic backgrounds. Sometimes, as was the case in Kebkabiya, they live in the same town or even in the same quarter. More recently, also the formerly temporary settlements of nomads have become permanent, and are hosting an increasing number of young men, which is in fact a sign that the nomadic lifestyle is becoming extinct.

In other words, young males of both groups were engaged in a process of change, in which the old ways were becoming extinct, or simply ‘old-fashioned’, and in which the elderly did not constitute a role model anymore. As the way of life of their fathers came under threat, so were the self-identities and capacities of young men which were based on that life-style. With the loss of their livelihood, their pasts, they have become men without a ‘future’. At least they have little socio-cultural capital to acquire a ‘modern’ lifestyle, while at the same time in many locations tribal leaders and elderly men in general have lost their authority. Without casting young men collectively as victims, many of them seemed to suffer from what I call a ‘masculinity-in-crisis’.

For example, during my research in Kebkabiya in the early 1990s, conflicts over scarce resources concerned predominantly the Fur and the Zaghawa. In the Darfur war these groups have become allies, while in Kebkabiya District they have been engaged in clashes with each other since colonial times. During my research there were several reconciliation conferences held inside the town of Kebkabiya. After one such conference the leader of a Zaghawa sub-group was ambushed when returning home. It turned out he was killed, not by the ‘enemy’ Fur, but by youngsters of his own constituency as they felt their rights were thwarted and their needs neglected by the agreement he had signed.

So, ethnicity is indeed important. However, the deteriorating conditions of deprivation and despair among a growing number of disenfranchised young men on both sides of the conflict, may account for the scale and extent of the war. Weapons apparently form an easy and immediate satisfaction in the quest for respect, self-identity, and a sense of control.

At the same time, to cast the war in Darfur as just ethnic or racial is also problematic since the labels of ‘Janjawid’ and ‘African Blacks’ were not used in Kebkabiya before the war. Currently, the term Janjawid has acquired the meaning of an Arab militia, who are considered as the perpetrators of violence. However, the Fur would use the term Solong or Arab for Arab camel nomads, while Baggara was used for Arab cattle nomads. The term ‘Janjawid’ was not used. Alternatively, in localities where the term was used prior to the recent conflict, it referred more generally to ‘rabble’ or ‘outlaws’, in particular in cases of banditry and camel theft — committed predominantly by young men.

In addition, there are quite some indications that the Janjawid militia that engaged in violent attacks in the context of the war, were ethnically not as homogeneous as the label seemed to suggest. Some of the groups even included young men from sedentary farming populations. In the course of the conflict the illusionary ethnic homogeneity of the Janjawid has become part of a regional political-ideological discourse of ethnic and religious superiority of those who claim themselves to be ‘Arabs’.

Although the Sudanese Arab government from Central Sudan has been affiliated with the Arab nomads in the current war in Darfur, the meaning of ‘Arab’ to denote each of these groups carries different connotations of class and culture. The notion of ‘Arab’ that is used for the nomadic peoples in Darfur is used in the sense of Bedouin and indicated backwardness and marginality to most Central Sudanese. Alternatively, the educated ruling Arab elite residing in the Nile Valley constructed themselves as ‘Awlad Arab’ and ‘Awlad al-balad’, or children (sons) of Arabs and inheritors of the land. A label they used in founding political Arab nationalism, which allowed them to claim the Sudanese nation-state as theirs. It is precisely the issue of the construction of an exclusive national identity, which is at the core of the war between the Central Sudan and one of its marginal areas.

The strategy of turning Arab nomads into a militia as happened in Darfur was not novel. In the civil war with Southern Sudan consecutive regimes armed Arab nomads from Kordofan and Darfur and turned them into so-called murahilin. Apart from these fighting techniques and the application of a ‘scorched-earth’ policy, the racial rhetoric used to justify the violence in each location are also similar. The shift of casting the war in terms of ‘Black African farmers’ attacked by ‘Arab nomads’ took place in the same period that the peace agreement with the South was formulated. This not only meant that opposition groups learned that armed resistance pays off. It also marked a shift in the significance of the Darfur conflict, in the sense that a regional problem from that moment on gained significance in the government’s project of constructing a Sudanese national identity. It is the perspectives of men as represented in the book, that substantiate this notion of a discursive shift.

Although ‘One foot in heaven’ centres on women, men are not absent in the book, on the contrary: they are present as fathers, brothers, sons and (prospective) husbands as well as government officials, tribal leaders, project officers. In the first chapter of the book, speeches delivered by male members of a popular committee are analyzed. Even though these speeches articulated the viewpoint of the government that the Darfur population were lesser because ‘improper’ Muslims, they were still considered ‘fellow’ Muslims. They could be redeemed and their souls saved, if they would just mend their religious ways under guidance of the government. Only since the onset of war, has the Darfur population been cast as black African farmers whereby ‘black’ does not refer to skin colour per se. It refers to inferiority and, in combination with ‘African’, suggests the status of a slave, which means automatically that of a non-Muslim. Although the term black (azrag, blue) is in itself not novel to the area, where also ruling Fur and Masalit were cast as zuruq before the onset of the current conflict, it has now a connotation added, namely that of inferior non-Muslims and thus enemies of the Sudanese state.

In the final chapter offers an explanation of why the Sudanese government would need a ‘black other’ against whom to wage a war. This chapter centres on the new generation of young professional men working in the government service. The author argues that the public gaze directed at female behavior took away – purposely or not — the attention from the problematic construction of masculinity among this new generation of young educated men. This masculinity-in-crisis in the centre of the nation-state was related to an economic, social and political crisis, which brought these young middle class men in a precarious position. These young men were themselves not able to perform the life-style, which they were propagating on behalf of the government. A life-style, moreover, which formed the core of the identity of the educated elite class. It is this connection between crises in masculinity at different locations and among different classes of young men, both in the marginal areas and in the center of power, which constituted an important reason for the continuation of the animosity between the central government and so-called ‘tribal areas’. Masculinity, in relation to other identifications, has to be taken seriously in processes of power and dominance, if we want to come up with better solutions for violent conflicts, such as the war in Darfur.

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3 thoughts on “The Sudanese government’s “Othering” of Darfur in its Quest for Hegemony: “Women Without Men, Boys Without a Future”

  1. Dear Ms. Willemse,

    Congratulations on completing such valuable work. I’ve enjoyed reading all the reviews and can’t wait to get my hands on a copy. I’m especially curious about the issues of masculinity in the “centre”. You write,

    “This masculinity-in-crisis in the centre of the nation-state was related to an economic, social and political crisis, which brought these young middle class men in a precarious position. These young men were themselves not able to perform the life-style, which they were propagating on behalf of the government.”

    I assume here that, when you say centre, you are referring to a parallel crisis occurring within the riverain Arab community, whereby middle class men cannot establish themselves in their households and communities in the way they wish the men of Darfur to do? Or are you writing about educated riverain Arabs who moved to Darfur to rule administratively? If it is the former, then what do you mean when you say that these young men cannot perform the lifestyle they propagate? Is this because, like the sedentary and nomadic men of Darfur, they lose control of their households, after they also are forced to search for work in other places because of the poor economic environment? Or because they are perceived to be “redundant” like their Darfuri counterparts? They can easily follow the religious creed they espouse, I think, but perhaps they fail to maintain the more patriarchal administrative structure they wish to eventually grow? but is this because they became more transient, like the men in Darfur? If so, where do they go? Obviously not outward into the periphery? In short, I still don’t understand the crisis of masculinity in the “centre” after reading the reviews, but think further comments on this would shed light on the divide that grew in the 1990’s between the centre and the periphery, ultimately leading to the War in Darfur.

  2. Regarding Ahmed Sadiq’s comments and questions about the “crisis of masculinity” and what it entails…. Perhaps Karin Willemse can respond to those but here’s just another thought: There seems to be a growing interest in this issue across cultures. One sees articles in the New York Times about crises of masculinity among men in New York City, in light of women’s growing economic power, higher educational attainments, and choosiness about marriage partners. I recently read an article about the crisis of Tunisian masculinity reflected in postcolonial Tunisian cinema. This seems to be a hot topic….

  3. Masculinity in crisis is a problem worldwide as traditional ways of life change. Femininity in crisis happens as well, but women have a function that cannot be taken away, namely bearing children. No matter how it’s broken, twisted or used against women, their basic function and task cannot be taken away from them. These young men, however, find themselves unable to do anything defined as “masculine”. Their situation is similar to that of Skolt Lapps in northern Finland who started using snowmobiles to herd their reindeer without understanding how noisy machines would stress those reindeer. The reindeer herds got smaller and went to more remote areas, thus removing the ability for the men to be reindeer herders, which was an important part of their identity as men.

    Donald from What Causes Baldness

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