Civilizing Women: British Crusades in Colonial Sudan
Shankar, Shobana, The International Journal of African Historical Studies
Civilizing Women: British Crusades in Colonial Sudan. By Janice Boddy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007. Pp. xxvii, 320; 10 illustrations. $24.95 paper.
Janice Boddy's Civilizing Women is an ambitious project. Her primary concern is to locate the vigorous crusade against female genital cutting within a history of British colonial campaigns focused on bodily practices, including slavery, hygiene, and medicalized birth. In so doing, her study examines how the Sudanese and British understood themselves through their interaction. As Boddy traces different practices of "trying-on ... other selves that in the process invariably affirmed the value of one's own" (p. 81), her work challenges us to consider methods-historical and anthropological-of giving voice to different actors, especially women.
In the first of three parts, Boddy intersperses the history of Gordon's campaign against the Mahdi's army and Britain's eventual "quiet conquest" with ethnographic interludes on zayran, "spirit analogues" of historical actors. Part 2 focuses on discourses and practices related to reproduction that drew indigenous women into the colonial economy. This section identifies the first movement against genital cutting in the aftermath of the 1924 rebellion against British efforts to divest Egyptian power in Sudan and transfer it to themselves. With "pacification" occurring through expanding native administration, regulation of cotton production, and "localization" of regional and ethnic hierarchies as an antidote to nationalism, the stage was set for efforts to manage reproduction.
Part 3 turns to medical efforts that escalated around 1930 with the Wolff sisters' direction of the Midwives Training Service. Boddy deftly shows how the Wolffs were "keen ethnographers" (p. 214) in recognizing the impossibility of completely abolishing genital cutting and thus used a relativistic approach. They targeted pharaonic circumcision while tolerating excision and other habits that made midwives "missionaries in the homes of people" (p. 212). Boddy traces the circuitous routes of these projects and concludes that criminalizing cutting only divided crusaders themselves and promoted "illicit" economies among Sudanese.
Parts 1 and 3 are the most successful for their effective illustration of the cultural politics that made the bodies of Muslim Arab women the field for activists. They show convincingly the Christian and colonial roots of cunent struggles over circumcision, as well as the changing moralities of international and cross-cultural activism. This perspective will rankle some, but it is important and documented with rigor. Boddy clearly shows-using evidence such as Pears soap advertisements featuring wild-looking dervishes and debates over female education-how civilizing projects moved from men to women and from comparisons between Europeans and Africans to particularizing Sudanese ethnicities. …