“Undesirable harlots”: women in the South Sudan national archives

Quote from a file on Murle-Dinka relations, South Sudan National Archives

A file on Murle-Dinka relations, South Sudan National Archives

There’s lots of detail in the South Sudan National Archives: I’ve mentioned this before.  What I didn’t mention is how many women there are.  Obviously any archive, when read properly, contains women’s history; despite the erasure and irrelevance of women to the vastly male writers of historical documents (until, hopefully, recently), it’s hard to completely get rid of an entire pesky gender.  What I am enjoying though in the South Sudan National Archives, as they take shape, is looking at how a determined researcher – with a significant amount of time on their hands – could write a very interesting, if a bit scattergun, history of women in South Sudan from these records.

The main body of the collection sits in the 1920s to late 1970s, and is dogged by the sex-centric, patriarchal mode of governments with respect to their female citizenry.  There are files and files of adultery cases, domestic violence disputes – including whole files on chiefs’ violence against their wives and resulting punishments – runaway women and girls, and prostitution; illustrated nicely by the page above, in a letter from a local Sudanese official deciding not to pursue abductors of “genuine incest children or undesirable harlots”  – clearly these are unwanted and unpleasant things.

However, there are also women in politics: local chapters of the Liberal and Federal Parties and the Southern Front include women members, at least until the government banned their participation; their role in chiefly disputes and tribal affairs includes spying, informing on disputes and suspects, protecting and harboring criminals and suspects, and encouraging clashes – and that’s just the stuff I’ve had time to read.  Women are also everywhere in files on missions and education, healthcare and midwifery, and insanity (particularly with post-natal depression diagnosed as lunacy).  There are several extensive reports on local conversions of young women and the social and political fall-out of this; one report also details a very political prophesy of a young woman in great detail.  On the flip side, there are some fun files on local belief systems, witchcraft and ‘cults’ that feature some particularly interesting gender dynamics.

The begging letters, pay demands, transport chitties and medical notes of women workers are also well documented in the extensive personnel records of successive governments.  Similarly, the problems and decisions of women refugees and returnees in the 1960s and 1970s are compiled in files and files of handwritten or badly-typed letters asking for transport, work, food, dispute resolution and plots of land, including details of their finances and their support for their families.

When I explain to local journalists and our staff members that our collection is basically government records for 100 years, they are underwhelmed.  When I think, however, of the opportunities for study in these boring, masculine, government records, among all the files on finance and receipts for typewriters, I am extremely happy.


Filed under Academia, Archives, Women

2 responses to ““Undesirable harlots”: women in the South Sudan national archives

  1. Pingback: Africa Blog Roundup: Media Piracy in Nigeria, Ghana’s 2012 Elections, Malian Politics, and More | Sahel Blog

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