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  • Perspectives, Interpretations, and Challenges
  • Iris Berger

A few weeks ago while I was thinking about these papers, I was also reading John Le Carré's most recent novel, The Constant Gardener, about corrupt pharmaceutical companies in East Africa. Although the plot focuses on Kenya, near the book's end the main character ventures into the Sudan in search of his wife's murderers. There the chief suspect, now in humanitarian guise, expresses his opinion about the Sudan, and indeed about the continent of Africa. "The women make the homes," he said. "The men make the wars. The whole of Africa—that's one big gender fight, man. Only the women do God's work around here."1 While this is obviously a fictional account, it continued to resonate in my mind as I read these papers. Particularly for those on the contemporary period, the shadow of war is critical.

Let me begin by drawing out some similarities and differences among the papers, after which I will address each one individually. Although all the papers concern the Sudan and have overlapping interests and methodologies, they are very different. They are writing about a vast country. Jay Spaulding is primarily interested in the north, Stephanie Beswick and Julia and Wal Duany in the rural south, and Sondra Hale in their interactions. Beswick, Spaulding, and the Duanys are concerned with marriage, although (her title notwithstanding) Beswick treats marriage as one part of a wide-ranging discussion. Three of the papers, in very different ways, address heterogeneous layers of tradition in terms [End Page 5] of ethnicity, identity, and religion. All but Spaulding are interested primarily in the recent past and rely heavily on oral data. Hale's work is predominantly among articulate, politically conscious, educated women, whereas the other two focus on poor, rural women more concerned with survival than with political debates.

Despite these differences, all three papers on the recent past document a high level of women's awareness, whether in the form of organizing and mobilization (Hale), questioning the relevance of older marriage patterns (Beswick), or discontent about women's lack of control over critical economic resources (Duanys). Despite different theoretical frameworks, these authors would agree that wartime conditions, by freeing women from "tradition" and convention, often transform gender relationships in fundamental ways. This emphasis on social and cultural innovation is critical to understanding a country intermittently torn by civil war for most of the past half century.

Spaulding's paper is theoretically informed by an anthropological analysis of differences in societies with equal and competitive bridewealth, money or goods paid by the groom to the bride's family. It is presented consciously as a microstudy that examines changes in marriage among elite groups on a single island through statistical analysis of a few carefully defined and documented legal practices. The impetus for the changes he examines came from nineteenth-century Turkish colonialism. This was an external force, but not from among "the usual suspects" of colonial rule in Africa. The strength of Spaulding's paper lies in the remarkable set of legal documents that allowed him to track a large group of marriages in some detail. These sources amply document his argument that new marriage patterns reflect greater marriage competition and a striving for social mobility among the elite.

While the paper's narrow focus is one of its strengths, it also leaves many questions unanswered; let me raise a few of them. First, how are the specific matters discussed in this paper connected to larger issues of women's position in society? Some aspects of this question include the general effects of Turkish colonialism on women, the implications for northern Sudan of colonialism by another Islamic country, and the implications for women of the declining frequency of marriage settlements. Second, how did changes in elite marriage patterns affect women [End Page 6] of other classes, the class structure in general, and political organization? How clearly circumscribed were the elite groups? What was the resonance for other groups of changes in elite marriage? Third, what were the advantages for elite men of marrying non-elite women? Fourth, while the statistical data has the virtue of precision, is there any...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1535-6574
Print ISSN
0740-9133
Pages
pp. 5-11
Launched on MUSE
2005-11-01
Open Access
No
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