Women and Khartoum

Mayencourt

It’s my last week in Aweil, doing research – mostly through chatting – on the history of South Sudanese community politics in Khartoum. I’ve only really been posting photos for the last five months here, mostly because I’m too busy and electricity-free, but also because I’m aware that, as a researcher in Mile 14, I’m lucky to have the research freedoms I do.

I’ve met some wonderful people who have been very understanding and enthusiastic about my project. Ranging from semi-official community leaders and elders to young women with extremely chunky babies, people have been quite happy to discuss Khartoum life, and amused by my enthusiasm for stories of Dinka language schools, learning how to thatch, and boogie nights at the Comboni.

One thing I’ve realised that I’m not asking about, and don’t want to ask about, is sexual violence in Khartoum. I realised I was avoiding this area, particularly during my tea and coffee sessions with a large group of women in a local ‘returnee’ village.

I was slightly surprised at myself – particularly considering I’d spent two years with the Refugee Legal Centre specialising in rape and trafficking cases, and I’m not rubbish – I hope – at discussing experiences. But I don’t think it’s just an aversion to conflict and upset with the people I’ve become fond of and (more realistically) have a good working relationship with.

A large amount of the small existing literature on women, and even the South Sudanese as a whole, in Khartoum is on women’s bodies and what has happened to them. This is a largely feminist literature, focusing on cultural change as well as physical violence. However, I think my basic reasoning is – if there’s work done that I can use or build on, and I can avoid causing offense or distress, why should I need to ask these invasive questions?

Anyway, people are telling me about these things, incidentally and as part of longer stories. It’s funny, as a researcher and a feminist, not to be focusing on these issues. But a major theme in all of my interviews – even with men – is actually the rebalancing of the violence against women’s bodies and minds in Khartoum: the happy memories of Khartoum for many women, the economic, social and intellectual opportunities that somewhat opened up for women in Khartoum, and the cultural options available particularly to young women in the heterogeneous communities there. As one old man commented in irritation: in Khartoum, “[women] don’t even ask where the man is.”

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