Academic journal article Ahfad Journal

Barbaric Custom and Colonial Science

Academic journal article Ahfad Journal

Barbaric Custom and Colonial Science

Article excerpt

This chapter explores the process of reforming 'refractory' female bodies in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. It discusses the goals of the Midwives Training School in Omdurman and the methods of the British women who established it during the 1920s and 1930s in light of ethnographic data from the rural north. I suggest that while midwifery training had contradictory outcomes and failed to undermine the logic that underpinned the practice of pharaonic (female) Circumcision, some aspects of it became woven into the fabric of Sudanese daily life in unexpected ways. Parties to the colonizing venture looked, inescapably, in two directions at once: to the immediate situation in which they were mutually engaged, and to the respective cultural contexts of health from whence they came and in which they remained grounded.

Key words: Colonialism, gender, midwifery training, female circumcision



How the Arab women [in Sudan] ever produced any children is difficult for a European to imagine. The universal and barbaric practice of genital mutilation ... would make intercourse painful. There could be no birth without preliminary slashing and subsequent cobbling together by, in the majority of cases, untrained locals using septic tools ... The constant teaching and preaching of the Midwives' Training School, did nothing to alter public opinion ... The apparent determination of Arab women, enduring this primitive treatment, to continue to inflict it on the next generation is shocking. (Kenrick 1987:110)

What is health? What is a normal, healthy female body? These are rhetorical questions, perhaps, readily disposed of by banal replies. But for the anthropologist, self-evident statements are seldom transparent; they are instead clues to Social Analysis, Volume 47, Issue 2, Summer 2003 the presence of naturalized cultural assumptions that demand to be explored.

What constitutes 'soundness of body and mind' (to use an Oxford English Dictionary definition) resists unitary description across cultural, political, and historical divides. Health is an illusive ideal we strive toward in keeping entropy at bay; it is the largely unanalyzed ground of illness and, in the passage above, of aberrance. In other words, health is what illness, aberrance, and infirmity are not. Its parameters depend--reciprocally--on those of its counter-conditions, and these are culturally informed. When others with whom one interacts follow a different regime of health, the contrast can reveal the taken-for-grantedness of one's assumptions and perhaps, in an ironic movement, denaturalize them.

But not always. In colonial situations in which a dominant group seeks to replace an indigenous regime with its own, the subordinates' contemplative agency is constrained. So, too, is that of the colonizers, whose vision prevails as truth and their subjects' as its foil: 'superstition', 'backwardness', ' barbarity'.

Despite this, for reasons of humanity, expediency, and cost, colonizers often used native practices and terms as vehicles for implanting novel ideas; they also translated local expressions as literally mirroring their own. This is what happened in the case of midwifery training in early-twentieth-century Sudan. For British and Arab Sudanese women, engaging with each others' body images and ideals in the power-laden colonial context left ample space for ironic miscommunication. If neither group recognized it at the time, the Sophoclean upshot of their encounter surely tells the tale.

Battling 'Superstition'

Beginning in the 1920s, British officials in colonial Sudan sought to abolish the pharaonic form of female circumcision, or infibulation, among self-identified 'Arabs' in the northern two-thirds of the country, where the practice was (and is) entrenched, and to prevent its spread to adjacent non-Arab groups where it was not. Efforts to end infibulation--but not all forms of female circumcision--continued in fits and starts into the latter days of Anglo-Egyptian rule, yet were concentrated between 1920 and 1946. …

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