Embodying Transition: FGC, Displacement, and Gender-Making for Sudanese in Cairo


Fábos, Anita Häusermann. 2001. "Embodying Transition: FGC, Displacement, and Gender-Making for Sudanese in Cairo." Feminist Review 69: 90-110.

Author: Anita Häusermann Fábos


In this article I analyze both generalized propriety as a boundary marker of Sudanese identity in Cairo, and gendered attitudes toward morality and female genital cutting (FGC) as a fundamental aspect of that boundary. Sudanese have been profoundly affected by the ongoing political crisis in their home country, by the displacement triggered by political and economic collapse, and by their deteriorating legal and social status in Egypt. The dramatic changes in the circumstances of Sudanese residence in Cairo have challenged the cultural norm of gender complementarity as men 'stay at home' for want of work while women seek and find new opportunities for themselves. This unstable situation has led Sudanese to place more emphasis on 'proper' ways of behaving and being, an assertion that helps define the ethnic boundaries of the Sudanese community in Cairo. I demonstrate the inconsistencies between discourse and reality through ethnographic data while analyzing how Sudanese have found new ways of asserting their identity and resisting the practice of FGC.

Keywords: displacement, gender making, gendered identity, female genital cutting


In her article, Fabos seeks to answer the question of which FGC (female genital cutting) practices have persisted among the Muslim population in Sudan despite social and political change in the region. She analyzes the situation of Sudanese women who have migrated to Cairo (mainly due to the civil war in Sudan), exploring the implications of changing gender norms brought about by their displacement and using FGCs as a boundary marker for the Sudanese ethnic identity in Cairo. She argues that Sudanese attitudes toward FGC have shifted in recent years, as Sudanese migrants to Cairo have used the practice to distinguish themselves from Egyptian natives. The experience of displacement had altered both gender relations and propriety norms, leading to new conflicts between men and women involving sexuality and morality.

Because of the increased levels of migration among Sudanese to Cairo due to the ongoing crisis in Sudan, Sudanese social ideals and traditions are being challenged in a new way. The mass migration of Sudanese to Cairo is leading to deteriorating household structures and financial situations, which necessitates a shift in gender roles and relations. For example, the concept of gender “complementarity,” which is based upon the notion that the husband should earn the household income while the mother rears the children, is not conducive to the situation of the Sudanese populations in Cairo, where the traditional family structure is often dismantled.

Fabos also addresses the way in which conceptions of modesty among the Sudanese population have changed as a result of migration to Cairo. In an attempt to preserve their values, the displaced Sudanese in Cairo often characterize Egyptians as immodest, including the failure to practice FGC into this definition of immodesty. These gender ideals that link modesty with sexual propriety and other traditional Arab values informs the social interactions of Sudanese men and women in Cairo.

Because morality and sexual propriety are considered endemic to a Sudanese woman’s gendered identity, FGC represents the embodiment of these cultural ideals. FGC is therefore seen as a rite of passage for Sudanese women; however, it is rejected by many Sudanese women who deny a correlation between their morality and their sexual behavior. While it may be expected that instances of FGC would increase among the Sudanese populations in Cairo in an effort to assert their conservative identity, it has been prevented by dissent among displaced Sudanese women who refuse to subject their daughters to the torture of the practice.

Fabos concludes by reiterating the fact the gendered attitudes toward FGC are an intrinsic part of the conception of propriety that marks Sudanese identity in Cairo. As Sudanese communities are resisting the practice of FGC today, they are finding new ways of asserting their identity in foreign cities such as Cairo.

Topics: Displacement & Migration, Migration, Ethnicity, Gender, Women, Girls, Gender Roles, Gender-Based Violence, Gendered Power Relations, Gender Hierarchies, Households, Post-Conflict, Post-Conflict Reconstruction, Sexuality Regions: Africa, MENA, East Africa, Asia, Middle East Countries: Egypt, Sudan

Year: 2001

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