When Local Women Activists ‘Act Tough’. Gender and Political Violence at the Turn of Independence in French Sudan

By Ophélie Rillon

Although the decolonisation of Francophone West Africa is regarded as a ‘peaceful’ process, compared with the national liberation wars, it generated many conflicts with the colonial administration, as well as between the various partisan organisations created in the colonies just after the Second World War. Based on the example of French Sudan (present-day Mali), this article analyses the street action of women from working class backgrounds (farmers, ‘housewives’, shopkeepers and traditional midwives or ‘matrones’) and their participation in the political violence of the decade. Investigated from a gender perspective, these women’s participation in violent urban conflicts went against gender stereotypes. Thus, an analysis of how women used the streets enables us to consider in a different light the dichotomies between public/private spaces ; political/domestic activities, as these prove to be not very useful for understanding the ways that women became engaged and their progression to collective action. Completely opposite to the maternal and peaceful femininity promoted by the organisations of educated women and by nationalist leaders, the working class women discussed in this article took on roles that were regarded as manly because they were violent and provocative. But should these women’s participation in street violence be interpreted as a transgression, or even a muddling of gender roles ? How could the relationship with violence and the representations attached to women’s violence vary according to social class ? The political division of activist work was also derived from gender, age and class categories. By giving working class women the tasks of mobilising, recruiting, propagandising and controlling crucial parts of their districts, the political organisations propelled them to the forefront of confrontation. A gendered interpretation of the phenomena of violence in collective action, interconnected with an analysis of the embedding of partisan confrontation in these women’s daily lives, enables us to reconstruct the complexity of the decolonisation process in French Sudan.

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