- States of Marriage: gender, justice, and rights in colonial Mali by Emily S. Burrill
Emily Burrill’s States of Marriage is an innovative study of law, gender and colonialism in the colony of the French Sudan (present-day Mali). Employing the concept of the ‘marriage legibility project’, it demonstrates the centrality of marriage to colonial state making. Drawing from James C. Scott’s notion of ‘legibility’, Burrill argues that the colonial administration sought to ‘draw African marriages under the purview of the colonial state and render them “legible” and recognizable, in order to create a codified definition of African marriage’ (p. 4).
An introduction and six chapters trace the evolution of the marriage legibility project over the course of the twentieth century, moving between a local context (the town and surrounding region of Sikasso), a larger colonial context (French [End Page 194] Sudan and the greater French West African federation), and transnational influences. As the colonial administration increasingly intervened in African marriage practices, the gap between the administration’s definitions of marriage and the ‘contours of marriage that were actually forged by African women and men’ (p. 5) grew.
Chapter 1 establishes the local context of Sikasso and describes how French officials turned to elder men to help them identify discrete ethnic groupings. The binary ethnographic template that emerged from colonial accounts, contrasting ‘native’ Senufo populations with ‘newcomer’ Jula, overlooked histories of intermarriage that had driven precolonial political and economic processes. A colonial ‘ethnic legibility project’ – blind to the importance of marriage and women to political power – paved the way for the marriage legibility project. Chapter 2, covering 1898 to 1914, places the emergence of this project within the context of the end of slavery, French conquest, and the establishment of colonial ‘native courts’ in 1903. Focusing on marriage, divorce and child custody cases in the provincial-level court in Sikasso, Burrill argues that the court functioned as a potentially ‘emancipatory’ space for women and former slaves renegotiating their bonds with men. Chapter 3, however, reveals that, between 1912 and 1930, the court took a more conservative turn, typically favouring patriarchs in marriage and divorce cases. Burrill connects the shift to an emerging colonial ideology of the patriarch as the basis of the ‘stable African family’, which was in turn the foundation of a stable colony (p. 80). It is not coincidental that this ideology emerged during World War I, when the French in West Africa leaned heavily on patriarchal figures of authority to mobilize army recruits and labour.
Chapter 4 explores the increased monetization of bridewealth payments and a resurgence in human pawning during the Great Depression, which Catholic missionaries and local administrators interpreted as evidence of ‘slave-like’ practices. The Mandel Decree of 1939 was meant to eradicate these practices by establishing consent as the foundation of legal marriage – a major shift to a more interventionist approach to African marriage. Burrill contends that these ‘slave-like practices’ were in fact local adaptations to the new socio-economic pressures and increased labour obligations of the 1930s, when ‘wealth in men’ shifted to ‘wealth in women’. In Chapter 5, we ‘hear’ women’s voices through court testimonies from domestic violence cases that allow Burrill to push Kandiyoti’s concept of the ‘patriarchal bargain’ further, demonstrating how women could form ‘an informal system of observation of male behavior which held men to their part of the bargain’ (p. 137).
Chapter 6 examines the late colonial stage of the marriage legibility project (the 1940s to the 1950s), when an increasingly interventionist state influenced by a rights-driven international community passed the Jacquinot Decree of 1951, which established limits on bridewealth payments; permitted women to choose their own spouses; and authorized registration of civil marriages. Sikasso court records reveal the uneven outcomes on the ground from such top-down legislation. The book concludes with a stimulating discussion of the significance of the notion of ‘consent’ for female colonial subjects.