- Civilizing Women: British Crusades in Colonial Sudan
Janice Boddy's Civilizing Women is a provocative and timely addition to the literature on gender and the body in colonial contexts and in particular to the discussion of the problematic history of the Sudan. Through her meticulous research and in-depth historical ethnography, Boddy sets a high standard for the contemporary analysis of the colonial endeavor as it became imagined and embodied within British and Sudanese women. Her work suggests that both sides of the encounter had much to do with the gendered policies that emerged from royal and missionary ambitions and the subsequent contest to civilize bodies. The text is an excellent contribution to the current discourse on conflict and history in the contemporary African continent.
Attempts to control, colonize and cleanse the female and/or African body are not new, nor are they without a variety of perspectives, contexts and colonial histories. For example, British colonial beliefs about gender and health and the necessity for productive albeit contained, and constrained [End Page 865] and bounded bodies, played a substantial and crucial role in the development of the historic and contemporary Sudanese cultural landscape. Boddy's text is grounded in studies of how British colonials attempted to battle the 'barbarous custom' of pharonic circumcision in Sudan and the intricate connections between national, gendered and religious ideology that wove their way throughout the colonial and missionary endeavours during the Gordon and Madhi time period. Her emphasis is on the importance of cultural context and too, the importance of a true understanding of the role of women in the colonial process. The great irony to the book's title is of course at its very core—as readers we come to understand how British colonial women literally embodied the idea of colonial power as they were engaged in both the practice of and described as civilizing women. The crux of the ironies and tensions emerge in Boddy's text when she describes representations of women's bodies.
Sudanese Arab women were enjoined to apply scientific mothercraft for the good of the colonial state. Yet in an ironic contradiction, the relative impermeability of their infibulated bodies, to them a defense of social and procreative purity was thought by colonials British to impede their progress and the states success. Thus Sudanese women's bodies were tainted and unproductive, while local anxieties over social and physical boundaries were not sagacious but perverse(p. 31)
Throughout the book the careful boundaries that occupied much of the minds of Victorian colonizers are evident as important members of the conversation. In Part I of the book, Boddy traces the "Imperial Ethos" and we hear voiced the competing cultural understandings of the social and spiritual world from British colonial and Sudanese alike. Boddy refers to her vast knowledge and previous work on women and the zar cult in the Sudan to contextualize just how powerful these competing narratives were in the history of colonialism. In Part II of the book, "Contexts," we learn more of the particular and specific aims of the colonial project with respect to fertility as linked to productivity and civility. Here, Boddy identifies the capitalist and Christian objectives in the Sudan and highlights just how integral these objectives were to the idea of a civilized population and the varied construction of circumcision as cultural or civilized practice. In Part III, "The Crusades" we learn of the clash of culture, the zeal of "the Wolves" (Gertrude and Mabel Wolff who had much to do with the rise of and debate [End Page 866] over midwifery in the Sudan), the role of women's movements, the Midwives Training School (MTS), the Sudan Medical Service (SMS) and historical conflict over the necessity for circumcision and (re)productivity in a variety of forms. It is in this section that the current debates for anthropology and feminism remain salient. Women's bodies were simultaneously indigenous and "cultural" and yet in need of modification and civility in colonial and Sudanese mindsets. In ways eerily reminiscent of today, women's bodies became...