Lynn Thomas, University of California Press, 2003
Reviewed by Parin Dossa, Association Professor of Anthropology at
Simon Fraser University
In Politics of the Womb, author Lynn M. Thomas shows how struggles over reproduction were crucial to colonial rule and nation building in early post colonial Kenya. She paints a detailed picture of the complex array of political struggles and positions to show that reproduction, including the practice of female excision, also referred to as genital mutilation, cannot be reduced to the stark dichotomy of colonial oppression versus anti-colonial resistance. Thomas’s meticulous archival and interview-based research and the way in which she relates her study to the recent debates on gendered bodies and national identity makes Politics of the Womb significant not only to African studies but post colonial debates on gender and reproduction.
Through an analysis of critical events, Thomas skillfully illustrates the way in which the politics of the womb became linked to the construction of a moral and political order as defined by the ruling elite, both colonial and indigenous. Her discussion of the Meru case (1920’s and 1930’s) when British colonial officers sought to enforce female excision at an early stage illustrates how adult women were “crafted“ to ensure their fertility while disciplining their sexuality. An additional motive was to avert a decline in population. The officers enlisted the support of local men and dismissed the opposition voiced by Methodist missionaries and black Christians. The entanglement of the imperial with the indigenous is brought into relief in the unsuccessful attempt on the part of the colonial government and local leaders to eliminate female excision in the 1950’s – a move fueled by feminist activism abroad. Ironically, the contradictory initiatives of for and against excision, refute the idea that matters of the womb are devoid of politics.
Through the example of the introduction of hospital maternity services in Central Kenya, Thomas enables us to see how African women and their reproductive capacities continued to remain at the center of political struggles over governance, gender roles, and generational relations. For black Kenyans, maternity wards and state-trained midwives raised questions about proper procreation. Initiation/female excision situated a girl-turned woman within the female hierarchy of her natal home; childbirth placed a woman within the female hierarchy of her marriage home. Hospital trained mid-wives then threatened the authority of older women (and men) who would no longer be able to oversee and therefore have exclusive control over birthing.
To complicate matters, British colonial administration had its own agenda. The administration first wanted to demonstrate that its maternal and infant health initiatives, introduced from the 1920s through 1950s, were part of moral obligations of colonial rule. The maternity wards’ goal of lowering maternal and infant mortality rates showed that the colonial administration was advancing the “rights” of indigenous women. The hidden script at work proved otherwise: that the maternity wards with its trained Kenyan midwives was a means through which pregnancy, birth and babies were made into objects of colonial governance. Thomas’s skillful analysis demonstrates that the political order indeed depended on attending to matters of the womb.
Through an analysis of critical events, Thomas advances the point that the womb is a contested site for both colonial and post colonial states. As such, this point serves to critique resistance historiography that “reifies dualities, obscuring the tangled layers of political relations which animate social protest.” (81). A simplistic view misses the gender and generational relations and reduces reproduction disputes to anti-colonial struggles. Thomas demonstrates that imperialism and resistance are intertwined, as seen in the outright defiance of the 1956 ban on excision by adolescent girls in the district of Meru. Introduced at the time of the 1952-1960 state of emergency instituted in response to the Mau Mau “rebellion” (the right term would be liberation movement), the mass defiance was an expression of the girls faith in the ability of excision to transform them into women and ensure proper reproduction that would validate their new status as women. Hence, liberation was not the exclusive agenda of the girls.
Interestingly, what Thomas refers to as “the girls who circumcised themselves” differed markedly from the conventional practice. The self-cutting of the novices was less severe and it took place in the dark away from the prying eyes of the officials. For Thomas the crucial point is that the defiance of the ban cannot be reduced to anti-colonial resistance. Initiation was an integral part of gender and generational relationship that preceded and exceeded colonial measures.
Critical incidents are of value as they encapsulate political and social issues that otherwise remain hidden. Thomas makes good use of these data. Her discussion on the customary law of illegal pregnancy is telling. Rather than being a monolithic practice, reflecting the interests of colonial officers and African male leaders, Thomas argues that it was an entangled affair. During much of the colonial period, women and young men engaged the courts and the law to their own benefit. Thomas uses this example to show that the official’s interest in bolstering the authority of senior men could coexist with women’s active involvement with legal proceedings. “In a context in which generational and kinship relations matter as much as gender, men and women could just as easily be courtroom allies as adversaries” (105). It is within this contested terrain that one can see how premarital pregnancy cases were indeed disputes between junior and senior men – another example of the womb as being more than a space of reproduction. While women played a crucial role in bringing cases to the court and determining their outcomes, they risked exposure. Such are the ironies revealed in unequal but tangled relations of power, colonial and that of the indigenous elite. Yet we may note that pre-marital sex was not an issue as it did not problematize the issue of “who should conceive, bear, and rear children” (9).
Lynn’s depiction of how politics of the womb continued to generate heated debates in early postcolonial Kenya brings into relief gender, generational and reproduction relations. Of particular interest is the active role that women with school education played as plaintiffs so as to make men pay ongoing child-support for children born outside of marriage. Premarital pregnancy cases became the subject of national debate and were interpreted differently depending on the social locations of different groups. Some people considered the Affiliation Act, child support law, as undermining the institution of marriage and along with it the relative power of men over women. Other people saw the act as a foreign imposition “that made men the slaves of women and encouraged promiscuity” (137). Thomas makes it abundantly clear that the political issue here is the contestation over control of female sexuality where women and younger men, the colonial and indigenous elite may just as well be strange bedfellows. African women and their reproductive capacities are indeed at the center of political struggles.
The author, however does not include voices of women along with the interview data that she collected. This makes it difficult for the reader to understand the extent to which reproduction debates were exclusively entangled within indigenous and imperial relations. Thomas’s example of the defiance of the excision ban by girls does not state whether the girls considered their act of self-cutting as an act of resistance to a foreign power. Similarly the author’s discussion of unmarried women’s usage of the affiliation law to secure support for their children makes no reference to women’s own reasons for self-exposure that compromised their social status. Giving some space to the interview data, as opposed to heavy emphasis on historical archives, would have pushed Thomas’s study in the direction of critical historiography from the bottom up. The analytical framework of the indigenous imperial entanglement, though refreshing, is firmly in the hands of the author.
The book is rich in documentation of critical events, well analyzed and lucid. What Thomas tells us about reproduction (female initiation into womanhood, sexuality, pregnancy, child birth) is always in relation to political agendas of the colonial administration and that of the Kenyan state. The reader thereby acquires a good and well grounded understanding of how women’s bodies are linked to a wide range of power relations. Continuing struggles over reproduction that Thomas discusses at the end of the book leaves the reader with no doubts that procreation is a matter of material as well as moral significance.
This book is an excellent choice for any history and women’s studies course on gender, colonialism and post colonialism, reproduction or any combination of these. If the reader would like to know more about how women’s bodies have become sites for contending political agendas and visions of society, I recommend Lila Abu Lughod’s Remaking Women: Feminism and Modernity in the Middle East (1998), a good complement to The Politics of the Womb.
Parin Dossa is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Simon Fraser University. She is the author of Politics and Poetics of Migration Narratives from the Iranian Diaspora (in print) and has published in the area of gender, migration and health.