- Embodying Honor: Fertility, Foreignness, and Regeneration in Eastern Sudan
This book is based on fieldwork among settled Hadendowa women in a shantytown of Sinkat, an urban center in Eastern Sudan. It focuses on how the women of this study view and develop strategies for their reproductive health and fertility, as well as the challenges of child-rearing. The author is especially interested in how these women conceptualize dangers to their bodies, reproductive health, and offspring and what they do to avert such dangers or reverse their harmful impact. To these Hadendowa women, she argues, what is external and foreign represents potential harm and illness, while the proximate and familiar protects and heals. More specifically, physical mobility away from the domestic and familiar, contact with strangers, and consumption of foreign commodities can bring on the evil eye, immoral spirits, and mysterious diseases that jeopardize fertility and child-survival. However, when a "foreign" influence causes harm—for example, if a child dies as a result of a "foreign" influence—women can take recourse to a ritual of reversal called halafa, through which the active ritual embrace of the foreign (giving a newborn a foreign name, for example) may offer protection. Thus a central theme of this study is women's health-seeking behavior—in the form of averting, containing, or curing spirit possession and affliction by the evil eye, as well as, to a lesser extent, herbal remedies.
While this theme is well developed, it is problematic that this book hardly discusses anything else and that all the chapters, including the introduction and the conclusion, return to, develop somewhat, and further illustrate this theme alone, without moving the overall argument forward in significant ways. Given the attention paid to the range of halafa practices and the brief references to women who bet on college education and "foreign," formal, urban medicine to maximize their reproductive and over-all well-being, the presentation is not simply a static or monolithic view of the health-seeking strategies of the women studied. However, those women who really differ in their approaches never receive sustained attention, so that there is no analysis of anything but the "traditional" strategies.
Moreover, apart from some information on the construction of Port Sudan in the colonial period, and a historical survey of famines that struck eastern Sudan, there is no historical depth to this study. To be sure, scholarship [End Page 204] on the pastoral peoples of the eastern Sudan is limited and, especially when it comes to women, the author had very little on which to build. However, she misses opportunities to explore comparisons (with the Nile Valley Sudan, and perhaps even Somalia or low-land Eritrea and Ethiopia), and her theoretical engagement with the relevant studies of Lila Abu-Lughod on settled, formerly pastoral women in Egypt (Veiled Sentiments, University of California Press, 1986), Janice Boddy on conceptualizations of gender and fertility in the northern Nile Valley Sudan (Wombs and Alien Spirits, University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), and Caroline Bledsoe's Contingent Cures: Fertility, Time and Aging in West Africa (University of Chicago Press, 2002), while not entirely absent, remains brief and does not produce theoretical sparks or significant insights. Would this study not have benefited from a more sustained analysis of women's discourses, as for example in Karin Willemse's One Foot in Heaven: Narratives on Gender and Islam in Darfur, West-Sudan (Brill, 2007), or of the ambiguities of modernity such as in Heather Sharkey's Living with Colonialism (University of California Press, 2003)?
Finally, the author's references to the interviews she held during her extensive periods of fieldwork (1989–91 and November 1997–December 1998) are inadequate. Even if one needs to preserve informants' anonymity, providing the date and place of the interview(s) and some indication of context are, to this reviewer's mind, indispensable. Such a list of interviews would also show how often the author interviewed a certain woman and how well...