Beauty and rightness: Dress, mobility, and women's activism in northern Sudan, 1900--1964

Marie Brown, University of Pennsylvania


This dissertation examines the ways in which Sudanese women employed their everyday dress as a public platform for constructing new national and gendered identities during the nationalist and independence periods of the early twentieth century. Though formally excluded from the political system and socially restrained from speaking publicly, Sudanese women engaged in politics through the creation and negotiation of bodily practices. This work focuses on the tobe, a simple outer wrapper of cotton cloth, popular in northern Sudan. Wrapped around a woman whenever she exited her home, the tobe literally and figuratively allowed Sudanese women to enter public spaces and debates. Framed in this modest garment, a growing number of Sudanese activists boldly established a public presence for themselves. This dissertation joins scholarship on gender, post-colonialism, and dress to present new avenues through which women assert a political voice. Faced with a limited source base authored by Sudanese women, this research draws upon memoirs of British civil servants, photographs, political cartoons, novels, and vivid anecdotes to illustrate the ways in which Sudanese women manipulated the tobe to convey their understandings of place, nation, and self. Dress as an analytic lens disrupts the assumption of a male-dominated public sphere and instead rightly recognizes the potential of women’s adorned bodies to convey political messages. Thus this work moves beyond discussions of abstract private/public space to actual terrain. It posits that mobility – the physical movement of women’s bodies (as students, midwives, activists, and respectable ladies) is a critical site of identity formation and historical inquiry. In weaving the seemingly disparate threads of imperial education, the rise of Sudanese women’s activism, visualizations of public order, and new behaviors of movement, this dissertation recreates the dynamic spaces in which northern Sudanese women confronted and negotiated their gendered and national identities. In the hands of Sudanese women, the deceptively simple tobe conveyed powerful socio-political messages of discipline, respectability, beauty, and a woman's place in an increasingly global world. ^

Subject Area

History, African|History, Middle Eastern|Women's Studies|Gender Studies

Recommended Citation

Brown, Marie, "Beauty and rightness: Dress, mobility, and women's activism in northern Sudan, 1900--1964" (2012). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3508977.