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ACTIVATING THE GENDER LOCAL Transnational Ideologies and "Women's Culture" in Northern Sudan Sondra Hale f3 INTRODUCTION In an era of privileging the transnational at the expense of local practices, what can be said about the state of Middle East and North African (MENA) gender and women's studies? Some of the tensions of this paper reflect the ambivalence of MENA women's studies toward modernist and postmodernist /postcolonial stances and methods, especially the attempt to link local ethnographies and transnational practices. In previous research I have been arguing for recognition of the political transformative potential of localized practices and the need for a grounding of the transnational and international in the local and the personal. I am especially interested in linking the sexual and intimate with the transnational. My study of gender and sexuality in Muslim northern Sudan underscores the coexistence of two transnational institutions: the Sudanese Communist Party (SCP) and its affiliated Sudanese Women's Union (SWU); and the Islamist state as represented by the National Islamic Front (NIF) and its past and current incarnations (the Muslim Brotherhood [Ikhwan] and the Popular National Congress, respectively). These two sociopolitical institutions, the SCP and the NIF, are seemingly poles apart on the Sudanese political spectrum and in their relationships with women. The SCP is commonly characterized as progressive, secular, gender egalitarian, and modernist; the NIF as conservative, religious, oppressive to women, and traditionalist. In fact, both are modernist movements; neither is secular; neither is gender egalitarian. In JOURNAL OF MIDDLE EAST WOMEN'S STUDIES Vol. 1, Na 1 (Winter 2005). C 2005 30 Ot JOURNAL OF MIDDLE EAST WOMEN'S STUDIES these respects, they are closer than conventional wisdom would dictate. Most significant for the purposes of this paper is that they are both representative of internationalist or transnational movements, i.e., international socialism and the global Islamic movement or Pan-Islamic movement (and their various incarnations). My focus on the SCP and NIF stems not only from their vision beyond the national, but also from their successes and failures, as visible counterhegemonic movements that have forwarded gender-interested agendas. In other words, I did not isolate these movements as exemplars of binary oppositions in some secular versus Islamist model. My investigations of them have given me the opportunity elsewhere to demonstrate that the cultural positioning of women by men to serve the aims of their movement(s) is not confined to either end of the Sudanese political spectrum (Hale 1996). Here I show the limits of their internationalism and transnationalism. While it is true that both communism and Islamism espouse an ideology that extends beyond national boundaries, in reality, while both try to build from a local base, they often operate at the expense of localized practices, in this case, "women's culture." Actions by both the communists/women's unionists and the Islamists—including the women activists in their ranks—to stamp out localized practices indicate a privileging of the transnational over the local. I argue for a commitment to developing the theoretical significance of women organizing at a local level, especially with regard to building on to and transforming indigenous institutions and aspects of "women's culture." Understanding these processes requires analyses of the relationship of gender and sexuality to the state and of the potential for transformative activities within the frame of everyday life where women are both actors and potentially acted upon; victims and resisters; pawns and leaders; and complicit actors in the interstices of these over-theorized dichotomies. I claim, for example , that some local culture practitioners can be placed on the same critical plane as activists in Sudan's formal political organizations. What this requires is that we look for potential transformation in some spaces hitherto viewed as unlikely places, i.e., in the local, in the sexual and intimate, and in liminal institutions.1 Yet, SCP and Islamist state theoreticians have ignored women as a subaltern group and aspects of women's culture that may act as vehicles to generate strategies for transformative change. A number of scholars point out that women are designated to serve movements as biological reproducers, as symbols of national and ethnic difference , as producers of cultural narratives...


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