Gender-Based Violence and the Politics of Memory in Sudan's Conflict Zones

By Sondra Hale
Submitted to Session P4819 (Gender-Based Violence, Solidarity, and Advocacy, 2017 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
The ways in which Sudanese, either unconsciously or through indoctrination, remember their pasts and interpret their present are often performances of some type of violence—physical or psychological--against women. Using personal narratives, participant observation, and archives, I have been researching Sudan’s many conflicts—political, military, ethnic, regional or a civil war, genocidal onslaughts, or dissident parties vying to survive—in order to observe the ways people see/remember themselves: e.g., as “heroically” dealing with these conflicts; as bystanders; as supporters of the heroic ones; as victims. No matter the kind of conflict, all of the performances are highly gendered. Public (e.g., in spectacles), semi-public (e.g., within a political party), and private, performances of the “heroic life” (using Srile Roy’s term) are most often by men; whereas women’s performances are most often as direct victims of violence, “innocent” bystander/victims, or nurturers to the martyrs living underground or in prisons. These are competing memories of the past and renditions of the present. In the contemporary armed conflicts in Darfur (western Sudan) and the Nuba Mountains (southwestern Sudan), women and men, as well as various ethnic groups and people with differing modes of economy, remember their conflictual pasts differently. Much of the “homeland’s” past is not only gendered, but embodied. In fact, in most instances of gender-based violence, memory is linked to women’s bodies and the “homeland.” In Darfur and the Nuba Mountains women have been subjected to forms of sexual violence and other atrocities. These violations are remembered differently by perpetrator and victim, but the relationship of the perpetrator and victim may be one of ambivalence, unsettling notions of who did what to whom, where, and under what circumstances. Furthermore, these relationships are fluid among various actors from among guerilla groups, state military and para-militaries, refugees, non-governmental organizations (NGO’s), and citizens with varied subsistence activities, not to mention international media and NGO’s. These gendered conflicts generate gendered memories, e.g., men try to colonize women’s renditions of the past, and women often resist that colonization. Men and state actors’ strategies are aimed at forced amnesia, indoctrinated memories, and at valorizing one group’s past and present over another’s. Whether the “heroic life” of dissident activists or the militarized life of regional struggles, the politics of memory is played out on women’s bodies, and women themselves can often be complicit in the process.