Civilizing Women: British Crusades in Colonial Sudan

Janice Boddy

Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007

Reviewed by Rebecca Henriksen

Janice Boddy’s Civilizing Women: British Crusades in Colonial Sudan critically examines how British colonial health and education projects altered modes of embodiment and bodily practices among Sudanese women and men. Boddy draws on myriad archival sources alongside novels, advertisements, and scholarly and popular histories from the period between 1920 to 1946, interspersed alongside her own ethnographic accounts of Sudanese women in the 1970s to 1980s to examine changing notions of agency, subjectivity, Islamic piety, and gender identity.

Boddy focuses specifically on reproduction and does not eschew examining the controversial practice of female genital cutting, situating this practice and the response that it provokes among Euro-American observers within a broader historical context. In doing so, she maintains a critical awareness of her own cultural perspective while arguing that polemic accounts of female genital cutting that she deems ‘too numerous to list’ are based on scant contextual evidence and a particular Euro-American understanding of gendered bodies, choice, and subjectivity. She places her book in dialogue with works that move beyond a framework of judgment to one of mutual respect (i.e. Gruenbaum 2000; Shell-Duncan and Hernlund 2001, 2007; James and Robertson 2005; Nnaemeka 2005).

Boddy begins by outlining imperial culture in Sudan more generally and delineating how British civilization practices were thought to be synonymous with teaching Christianity even under an officially Muslim state. In colonial arguments against female circumcision, women’s bodies were viewed for what they could potentially offer the colonial empire and were framed as needing a particular kind of Christian regulation. Boddy also examines the ways in which colonial officials—who she describes as ‘unconscious anthropologists’—studied and extracted modes of knowledge from the Sudanese in order to mold them to their liking. One of Boddy’s strengths is her focus on zayran—which she develops through her ethnographic work and which she glosses as “ethereal analogues of historical humans who materialize within women’s bodies during spirit possession rites”—that allow glimpses of women’s histories that are absent from colonial archival resources (5).

Boddy then shifts from historical sources to her ethnographic material among Arab Sudanese women in Hofriyat conducted in the 1970s and 1980s. Moving beyond her earlier analysis of their cultural ideas of reproduction (Boddy 1989), Boddy here situates Hofriyati women’s reproductive choices within the context of post-coloniality nationalism, and capitalism, and demonstrates how women’s own notions of bodily discipline exemplify what she calls “colonial surveillance into domestic space” (176).

Finally, Boddy returns to the archive to examine the work of British midwives and teachers who sought to change mindsets of the Sudanese with regard to their circumcision and reproductive practices—to civilize both minds and civilize bodies.  Colonists framed Sudanese female bodies as sites of symbolic nationalism, and Islamic teachings were employed to sway public opinion away from practicing pharaonic circumcision. Boddy concludes her book with a brilliant delineation of how particular practices and specific body parts have been used with radically shifting connotations as fodder for varying arguments: once “blamed for population decline and a consequent dearth of free labor, now female genital cutting is blamed for impeding cultivation of the individual body as a site of gratification and desire” (311). Boddy ends with a reflection on themes woven throughout her work: threads of conflict between Christianity and Islam, claims of ‘civilization’ and ‘barbarism,’ and individualism and communal values that remain today in international—not only Sudanese—discourses and debates as remnants and reiterations of past violence (9).

The thoroughness of Boddy’s ethnographic and historical research makes this book ideal for fellow scholars as well as graduate students—in terms of content as well as an example of weaving together subtle analysis, rich historical and archival material, and ethnographic work.  Her interdisciplinary and inter-methodological approaches make this book suitable for courses in anthropology, religious studies, Middle East Studies, Women’s and Gender Studies, history, and performance studies.


Rebecca Henriksen is a third year Ph.D. Student in the Department of Theatre Arts and Performance Studies at Brown University.  She is interested in the intersections of performance studies, gender & sexuality studies, and religious studies. Her research focuses on embodiment, ritual, gender, and sexuality in Rwanda and the United States particularly in the context of evangelical religious ritual and the lived experience of religious life.


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