Cultural Change and Women's Work
The sedentarization of the Rashiidy Bedouin in the Sudan
Economic changes in a given society are often accompanied by changes in that society's culture. This paper describes some of the changes taking place among the Rashaayda, Arabic-speaking nomadic pastoralists living in northeastern Sudan. Generally speaking, the Rashaayda engaged in new economic activities have become sedentary and now reside in villages rather than in their traditional nomadic camps. The economic innovations which they have initiated include abandoning livestock raising and shifting away from subsistence activities toward wage labor and commodity production. Changes in the patterns of work and residence have been accompanied by a number of cultural changes which have altered the relations between the sexes. This paper focuses on Rashiidy women and contrasts their roles as workers, wives, and heirs of Rashiidy culture in the traditional nomadic context with their current roles in sedentary villages.
In order to discuss changes in women's roles, we must first describe the sexual division of labor as it was during the nomadic period. Previously, households moved with their herds of camels, sheep, and goats for about six months out of the year. They would look for areas where pastures were abundant and where rainfall was heavy enough to permit subsistence agriculture. Men were responsible for most of the herding, for planting and harvesting their small plots of grain, and for defending their households against thieves and other enemies. Women were charged with constructing and repairing the tents in which the Rashaayda lived, with providing cooked food, and with storing drinking water and other household necessities. Women's work was thus complementary to men's work. Both types of labor were necessary for maintaining a nomadic existence. It was this division of labor, moreover, that defined a woman's role as a wife and as a transmitter of Rashiidy culture. Women not only performed the tasks assigned to them by tradition but also passed on their expertise to their daughters.
The close connection between adult work and married status is evidenced by the ways in which a Rashaayda was prepared for marriage. As soon as she was engaged, the girl would begin weaving her own tent. Constructing a separate shelter for herself and her husband was necessary for establishing an independent conjugal household. Her future husband would bring her camel and goat hair clipped from livestock. She would spin this into yarn and then weave the yarn into a heavy, water-tight cloth, using a simple horizontal loom. Once she had woven many sections of tent cloth, she would stitch them together and build her tent. The cloth would be hung from a framework of wooden poles, ropes and stakes, all of which would be provided by her husband. The lent itself, with its "masculine" components (hair, poles, and ropes) and "feminine" materials (yarn and cloth) was an expression of complementarity. Both husband and wife depended on each other's labor.
This same interdependency was manifest in other types of women's work. Gathering firewood, for example, was usually a woman's job. But when a household was camped in the open desert far from the known sources of fuel, the husband would ride out to the nearest stand of trees to collect firewood.
Husband and wife also shared in the task of obtaining and storing water during nomadic migrations. Water was kept in leather containers called girab. If the household was camped close to a well or river, the wife would fill her girab there and carry the water to her tent. But if the source of water was distant, her husband would transport it by camel.
The articles manufactured by the Rashaayda were themselves products of masculine and feminine labor. Whenever the husband butchered a goat or a sheep, he would give the skin to his wife. She would tan it, cut it to size, and sew it into a water container. Food production was also based on complementarity. Men would plant sorghum, for example, harvest it, thresh it, and bring the grain back to their homes. Their wives would grind it into flour and use it for baking bread. In both cases, the transformation of an organic raw material into a product was done in stages; men began the process and women completed it.
Economic changes and sedentarization have put an end to this division of labor by making most feminine tasks obsolete. A settled household cannot support itself by means of animal breeding and subsistence agriculture. In a village, households obtain the things they need by purchasing them, not by producing them. Shelter, for example, is now a commodity. Settled Rashaayda do not live in tents but pay Sudanese construction workers to build adobe houses. Grain, too, is now purchased in town markets, where the buyer can also have it ground into flour by motor-powered mills. The fuel for cooking cannot be gathered by sedentary women; it is purchased from charcoal salesmen. Since these Rashaayda no longer keep large numbers of goats, leather for their traditional water containers is not available, and plastic or metal vessels must be bought from town merchants. Even the drinking water used by sedentary households must be purchased; village vendors bring it from the nearest well on donkey carts and sell it to the villagers. In short, many of the services and products that women used to provide are no longer in demand. Sedentary women have less work to do than they did previously.
While many nomadic tasks traditionally assigned to men have also become superfluous, men have not been deprived of useful activity as much as women. Settled households are largely dependent on a cash income. Men have entered many cash-earning occupations while women have not had the training or the opportunity to earn money. Some background about the economy and social climate of eastern Sudan helps to explain this situation.
Rashiidy men have acquired the training needed to enter new occupations. Rashiidy men have been able to learn the skills which jobs as tailors, truck drivers, and livestock merchants require by becoming informal apprentices of Sudanese men. Men can easily establish contact with potential instructors, because most tailors, truck drivers, and merchants ply their trades in the streets and shops of Sudanese towns. These areas are culturally defined by all Arab Sudanese as masculine; it is appropriate for men to pass their time there.
Girls and married women, on the other hand, are expected to spend most of the day in other areas (such as in their homes, schools, and offices) where a spatial separation of the sexes can be conveniently maintained. Although it is permissible for women to pass through masculine areas while shopping, it is unthinkable that they would work there. To do so would expose them to indiscriminate contacts with men not their relatives and would make it necessary for them to develop long-term working relationships with strangers. This would bring dishonor to them and their families and so cannot be permitted. This means that instruction in the services which are sold in market streets is not available to women.
This has led to a paradox: the dresses now worn by all Rashiidy women are sewn by Rashiidy men. Although Rashiidy women are expert seamstresses with needle and thread, almost none of them have learned to use a sewing machine. Their husbands, on the other hand, have been forced to learn new professions as a result of sedentarization, and many of them have become tailors. They have acquired women's traditional knowledge of cloth and decoration and have combined it with their new knowledge of machine sewing. Sedentary Rashiidy women, whose families provide them with cash for their needs, can buy machine-made dresses in the market shops but have not learned how to make them.
Second, even where there are no cultural barriers which would make it difficult for a woman to learn a new trade, their actual opportunities to earn money are few. Although Rashiidy women cannot work on town streets or in other masculine areas, they can sell household objects in public as long as their contacts with strangers are impersonal and are limited to business dealings. In fact, since a woman's right to own and dispose of her property is safeguarded by Islamic law it is possible for any Muslim businesswoman to legitimize her presence in a market place by referring to Islam. In accordance with this principle, Rashiidy women do sometimes sell their worn-out jewelry and other belongings in market streets. This activity does not, of course, bring in any regular income. Many Sudanese women do, in fact, make money by selling pastry, green vegetables, and eggs in town markets. Yet no Rashiidy women deal in these items. This is partly because they are not familiar with them; these foods are not part of Rashiidy cuisine. Furthermore, it is not worth the effort of producing such perishable goods if they are not also being consumed by the woman's household. The other Sudanese women who sell vegetables, for instance, devote most of their gardens to production for their families and only sell what they do not eat. If Rashiidy women were already growing vegetables it would make sense to sell the surplus. But these vegetables are not part of Rashiidy diet and vegetable prices are not high enough that production exclusively for the market would be worthwhile. There are other types of wage work in eastern Sudan which are performed indoors and so are open to women. Most such positions, however, require literacy, and almost no Rashiidy women can read.
In sum, Rashiidy men have acquired the knowledge necessary for earning money, while their wives still lack the training which they would need to make a cash contribution to their households. Although settled Rashiidy women are far from idle, since the tasks of caring for small children and cooking are still their responsibilities, they can no longer actively work to improve their material conditions. They must depend on their husbands' cash earnings for most of the necessities of life. Unless valuable new women's occupations can be fostered among the Rashaayda, whether by means of literacy campaigns or through a restructuring of the household economy, the independence, self-esteem, and ultimately the cultural contributions of women will be reduced.
Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.