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A History of Women’s Urban Popular Labour in Colonial Sudan (1900-1956)

Call for a PhD scholarship.


A three-year PhD scholarship is offered to a candidate willing to develop the following theme : the social history of female popular professions in urban contexts during the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium in Sudan through the lenses of vernacular, oral and photographic sources.

In the historiography of contemporary northern Sudan, women’s history is conspicuous for its scarcity, and all the more the history of “ordinary women”, including one fundamental aspect of women’s lives, that is labour.
The absence of women in the historiography of northern Sudan (the actual Republic of Sudan), and especially during the colonial period, is often seen as the result of two intertwined factors : the absence of sources and the absence of women in the public space as a result of female seclusion. This goes hand in hand with another common assumption : that during colonization, most women who worked for a remuneration were either slaves and former slaves or came from regions that had been slave reservoirs during the 19th Century. Because of their status, they could engage in behaviours that were frowned upon by free women, such as publicly mixing with men in the workplace.
British official documents, located in the national archives in Khartoum and London, are indeed poor in information about Sudanese women, regardless of their status or social group. However, this is not the case for all archives and all types of sources. Indeed, a type of source that is rich in information about “ordinary women” are the photographs kept at the Sudan Archive in Durham University (UK), which hosts the largest collection of documents left by former colonial officers. The archive includes over 57,000 photographs, among which there are hundreds and probably thousands of images depicting women, most of them dating from the period between 1920 and 1950, and located in urban areas. Already at a first glance, this archive is fascinating and surprising, and seems to contradict the historiographic doxa. First, women occupied public –yet gendered– spaces : they had their own areas at the market and roamed the streets for attending their jobs. Second, the photographs demonstrate the existence and even the large diffusion of remunerated female labour.
However, photographs represent only a starting point for locating a web of other sources. First, oral sources : in some pictures of the collection, reference is made to the name of the women represented and the place in which they were located. In some cases, and probably for some professions more than others, it may be possible to trace the descendants or younger colleagues of the women photographed. Thus, the second crucial source for this project will be represented by oral accounts by female urban professionals and their families. Finally, oral sources and photographs will be cross-referenced with another type of largely underexploited source, i.e. the women’s vernacular press in Arabic, which developed from the 1940s onwards. The intersection of these three types of materials will allow rich and complex perspectives on the history of women’s work, even if probably fragmentary. Finally, far from elminating the issue of slavery and marginalisation, this project will seek to investigate the boundaries between free and slave status, question these categories, and better understand the connection between female labour and social hierarchies in colonial Sudan.

Application process :

In order to apply, please send no later than July 21st 2021 :
-  your CV in English or French.
-  your Master thesis (if written in French, Spanish, Italian, English, Arabic, or any Nordic language) ; or otherwise, if written in another language, a 10-page summary in English.
-  your master diploma and any diploma who may support your application (language training etc.).
-  a 1 or 2-page cover letter in which you explain your motivation to research the proposed theme, in English or in French.
-  A reference letter

These documents must be sent to the following address :