JFK AND BEYOND
When War Affects Decisions
WHEN ROGAIA MUSTAFA ABUSHARAF left northern Sudan
in the early 1980s for graduate school, her country was not yet
in the grips of another bloody civil war that would eventually leave
2 million dead and 4 million, mostly from the south, uprooted from
Today, she is far away from the violence. Living in
the United States, she splits her time between Brown University,
where she teaches, and the Kennedy School, where she is a visiting
fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights.
But Sudan is always on this anthropologists
mind. Especially its women.
Its why shes at Harvard continuing a project
on Sudanese migration that she started three years ago. Now shes
trying to figure out how migration has affected the cultural practices
of displaced women those who are uprooted but
dont leave the country.
In many ways, Abusharaf is cutting a new path in her
field. Although migration has been studied extensively, a focus
on Sudanese women as a separate entity has received little
attention. This doesnt make sense, she says: its women
and their children who fill the northern camps and shantytowns that
temporarily shelter southern migrants.
The majority of who gets affected by war are
women and children, she says from her bare office at the Carr
Center, symbolic of her own nomadic existence.
They arrive in Khartoum, Sudans capital city,
after fleeing their homes in the south having lost virtually everything:
their possessions, relatives, and culture. Husbands, brothers, and
sons are off fighting or have crossed into other countries alone.
A good number have been killed. For many women now in charge of
their destiny for the first time, this dramatic switch from follower
to leader is a mixed bag. On the one hand, theres a new sense
of independence. As she talks to women in the camps, its obvious
they want to make something of their new lives, she says. They dont
want to depend entirely on limited humanitarian aid. But it isnt
easy, especially in the isolated shantytowns, which are less regulated
than the camps and located outside the city. Food is in short supply.
Social services and electricity are nonexistent. Even water is sparse
in the desert space.
You see lots of children looking for anything
in garbage cans, Abusharaf says. Houses are built with adobe-like
material known as zibala, composed mostly of animal dung,
or straw. Little work is available, especially for women. Out of
desperation, some turn to prostitution something they would
never have considered before. Protection is minimal, exposing women
to rape, harassment, and looting. There have been allegations of
slavery and human trafficking.
Theres also the problem of identity.
Northern Sudan is mostly Arab speaking, Muslim,
and urban. The south, where the women come from, where the war is
taking place, is more rural. They are mostly followers of indigenous
religions, she says. The rhetoric is that you cant
be displaced in your own country, but thats not
Belonging becomes an issue, she says. In the
south they had a rich cultural life. But in the camps and shantytowns,
they become alienated and traumatized. Who, they wonder, are they
In response, some women try to assimilate, taking
on northern cultural practices. They switch religions and intermarry,
adopting their northerner husbands beliefs. Native language
is used less often. Even harmful practices like female circumcision
more common in the north than the south are adopted
in an effort to fit in.
War affects decisions, Abusharaf says.
In May, she plans to go back to the camps to talk
with more women. Theres still lots of fieldwork to be
done, she says. Eventually shell pull her findings together
as a policy report, then a book. (Her newest book, Wanderings,
came out last year. One on female circumcision is due this year.)
Im trying to figure out how to get international
attention to let people know there are entire communities struggling,
she says. Struggling just to eat. LH