Boddy, Janice. Civilizing Women: British Crusades in Colonial Sudan.

Author:Dinero, Steven C.
Position:Book review

Boddy, Janice. Civilizing Women. British Crusades in Colonial Sudan. Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2007.402 pp.

As the title suggests, this volume is about women, about Colonialism, and above all, about how gender is used as a proxy for the contestation of space between two primary actors--the British colonizers and the indigenous Sudanese people--in 19th century Sudan. But it is so much more than this as well. Jammed into these 400 pages is an unparalleled analysis of female circumcision which serves as the central reference, framing and contextualizing the social, political and economic dynamics of the colonial enterprise in a manner which is compelling, cogent and simply fascinating to read.

Like the British "crusades" to combat its existence, so too is female circumcision situated throughout the text within the discourses of "hygiene," "civilization," and "progress" (p. 4). Moreover, Boddy introduces her argument by emphasizing that British logic and efforts to put an end to female circumcision were, in their very essence, imperialist in nature (pp. 2, 4).

The rest of the text follows in this vein. This is as much a study of Colonialism, writ large, as it is the specifics of the Sudanese case, and it is brilliantly executed. For example, Boddy provides a rationale both for British interests in cotton production in the Sudan, and their connection to the control of local female fertility. In turn, she correlates the connections between these controls, the "spread of civilization" and "progress" and the spread of "a commodity culture" (p. 36). She writes: "Pharaonic circumcision did offend European sensibilities, but it would be rash to think that ideals alone drove British attempts to abolish it ... [Rather] officials had political reasons to block its movement south ... the main point is this: infibulation--not clitoridectomy, not male circumcision--was widely thought to impede procreation [and] the colonial government's desire [was] to foster population growth in the riverain north with the aim of creating a sufficient and tractable workforce to support the production of cotton" (p. 152; emphasis added).

Thus, Boddy connects the social and economic dots which underpin the rationale for how and why female circumcision, an issue of supposed ethical...

To continue reading