The introduction presents the two overlapping arguments of the book. First, the experience of the Anglo-Egyptian rule was intimately expressed on and through Sudanese bodies. Second, the body and its adornments are markers of socio-political place. Amidst the social and political disruptions of empire, Sudanese women used their bodies to calibrate their positions within multiple systems of protected domesticity, empire, nationalism, and modernization. The introduction places the book in conversation with current scholarship on gender and the body in Africa, the Middle East, and world history. It is particularly informed by the growing interdisciplinary field of analysis of "the global and the intimate," which contends that attention to intimate domains gives new perspective to familiar, grand narratives.
This context-building chapter begins with the Anglo-Egyptian conquest of Sudan in 1898, the peculiarities of dual control, and Britons' first impressions of Sudanese women–most notably their fears and concerns over "backwards" traditions such as the harem and female genital cutting. It introduces the tobe, an imported cotton garment and the common form of everyday dress for married women in northern Sudan. Tobes possessed a unique social worth; they circulated at the hands of men and were given as gifts from husbands to wives on the event of their marriage or the birth of a child. Thus the tobe marked critical milestones in a woman's reproductive life and served as tangible evidence of her domestic responsibilities and relationships.
In 1921, upon learning of the common practice of female genital cutting, the government founded a Midwifery Training School in hopes of eradicating the procedure. The School aimed to replace traditional birth practitioners with formally trained midwives educated in biomedical knowledge and practices. Despite the private nature of their practice, the success of the MTS and its pupils was highly visible. This new class of midwives distinguished themselves from their untrained counterparts by donning a uniform of a crisp white tobe. Relying on an unusual collection of photographs of trained and untrained midwives, this chapter marks the first shift in the tobe's symbolism away from purely domestic messages. When used as a uniform, the tobe signaled new forms of knowledge and professionalism. No longer simply a marker of familial ties, a woman's tobe could now also affirm a relationship with the imperial state.
This chapter centers on the expansion of girls' education in the 1930s and 1940s and highlights contrasting themes of discipline and mobility. Out of the harem and in the classroom, Sudanese girls were subject to new forms of control. Imperial logic held that civilized minds could only come from disciplined bodies. Young girls were the primary targets of bodily reforms. Teachers and students both understood that outward appearances, such as uniforms and western dress, and the hidden intimate marks of female genital cutting were powerful measures of modernity, belonging, and difference. Yet even as schoolgirls negotiated claims to authority over their private parts, they eagerly experimented with new behaviors in new civic spaces. In very real ways, participation in educational programs reshaped bodies and behaviors.
This chapter follows the rise of women's activism in the late 1940s and explores the connection between political voices and public presence. Activists simultaneously claimed an intellectual space in the emerging women's press and a physical space in public meetings. Women's civic engagement was a bodily process that altered urban landscapes, prompting insults and even violence. Overcoming such dangers relied on a doubled program of domestication: both the taming of public space and the introduction of controlled women's bodies into the city. This chapter builds upon current theories of dress-as-political praxis and argues that activist women capitalized on the modesty and cultural authenticity of the tobe in order to create space for modern, and sometimes radical, rhetoric and behaviors.
At the end of empire, Sudanese women negotiated new behaviors of consumption and beauty in an attempt to define themselves in a rapidly changing world. Faced with images of Hollywood starlets and imperial standards of civilized bodies, activists rejected the scars, and tattoos that had adorned previous generations of Sudanese women. The tobe, however, remained an important symbol of authentic beauty in the modern world. As tobe fashions expanded, their value as a vehicle for political expression increased. Throughout the 1950s, the names of tobe styles become increasing editorial as women and merchants named new tobe fashions after public figures and current events. A highly accessible political platform, the tobe allowed even non-activist women to offer savvy commentary on the world around them. Joining the threads of politics and fashion, this chapter brings into focus the intimate connection between Sudanese women's daily dress and their socio-political consciousness.
This brief conclusion reiterates the call for scholars to look beyond text-based historical evidence and seek out alternate sites in which women and other marginal groups made meanings of their lives. It proposes that we consider the collectivity of tobes, and specifically the way in which they are remembered in relation to one another, as an archive in which Sudanese women wove sophisticated, yet accessible, narratives of their imperial experience. It ends with a look at the continued political importance of tobe names in twenty-first century Sudan.