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  • Marriage, Sudanese-Style:Transnational Practices of Citizenship and Gender-Making for Sudanese Nationals in Egypt
  • Anita Fábos


This paper explores the contradictions between national identity and gendered practices of statecraft and metanarratives such as Arab Unity and Islam as they pertain to gender and identity for northern Sudanese transmigrants in Cairo. Like most states of the Arab Middle East, Egypt grants citizenship by way of a patrilineal conceptualization of identity that draws upon Arab and Islamic cultural practices. Northern Sudanese, regarded as fellow Arab Muslims, have been included in Egyptian policies that transcend statecraft (such as preferential residential and educational policies based on the "brotherhood" of the two peoples of the Nile Valley), yet they are excluded from citizenship except through the practice of Sudanese women marrying Egyptian men.

Despite the possibility of real benefits of citizenship acquired through marriage of Egyptian nationals, Sudanese women living in Egypt do not seem to be pursuing this strategy. Recent negative changes in their legal status have focused attention on women as guardians not only of tradition but also of Sudanese citizenship. In this paper, I analyze Sudanese marriage practices in light of changes in Egyptian citizenship laws and residency regulations pertaining to Sudanese. This paper uses ethnographic data from fieldwork conducted between 1994 and 1997 among Sudanese living in Cairo, current research on Egyptian nationalism and citizenship [End Page 47] practices, as well as archival data from research on the Egyptian regulatory environment for non-Egyptian immigrants and refugees.1

Gender-Making, Statecraft, and Transnationalism

The theoretical framework for this paper is drawn from work on the gendered nature of statecraft and citizenship2 and the positioning of women in transnational projects.3 Yet transnational individuals are subject to both the gender-specific regulations of states towards residents and citizens, and the differential experiences of migration and forced migration by women and men. In Egypt, this triangular relationship among gender-making, statecraft, and transnationalism is complicated further by metanarratives that seek to downplay differences among citizens through a unifying discourse of membership in Arab and Islamic nations. Marriage strategies, representing the intersection of citizenship, cultural and religious norms, and gender relations, speak to the different memberships of women and men in households, states, and society at large. Marriage practices, in addition to being gendered, also highlight the differences and tensions between various socioeconomic classes and generations of migrants.

R. W. Connell, while recognizing the patriarchal nature of state systems, characterizes the complex set of interacting institutions of the state as a "gender regime" rather than a male state.4 The division of labor of states is gendered through a bureaucratic hierarchy, personal male networks, and, at least in states with free elections, an "electoral patriarchy" where substantially female electorates elect men.5 The role of states in regulating employment, education, housing, health, and so forth is both constitutive of the way its citizens carry out the basic activities of society, and constituted by members of the citizenry who carry out the work of the state using its own gendered mechanisms. The patriarchal character of the state's regulatory capacity is directly implicated in personal status laws such as Islamic marriage, where gender norms become codified through the complex interaction of state policies, social conditions, and religious jurisprudence.

Gender ideals for both Egyptian and Sudanese Muslims draw heavily on Islamic concepts and norms linking modesty with sexual propriety [End Page 48] and Arab cultural beliefs associating honor with marriageability, particularly for women.6 Anthropologists of northern Sudanese communities have identified gender ideologies that relate Sudanese behavior, especially that of women, to specific cultural codes of modesty, chastity, hospitality, and dignity.7 Janice Boddy in particular links gender norms and the enactment of propriety with her informants' "firmly moral sense of identity."8 Her analysis of the symbolic underpinnings of reproduction and human fertility as the framework of this identity is based on her understanding that her informants see men and women as wholly complementary, and that the social structure binds men and women together on the basis of kinship. The main expressions of this cultural logic, according to Boddy, are combined in marriage as a central framework for the production and...


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