Women, Men and the Zar Cult in Northern Sudan.

By Janice Boddy.

Reviewed by Tanya Luhrman.

A woman in the Islamic northern Sudan lives what appears to be a beleaguered life. Before she is 10, a midwife circumcises her, snipping off her clitoris and stitching together the outer labia. In her late teens, she beautifies herself for marriage by removing all her body hair and scraping off the outer layer of her skin. Reliably virginal at marriage, she is soon abandoned by her husband for most of the year – he works in the city, she remains in the village with the children. Her marriage, in these circumstances, is fragile. Men divorce easily for other women, or take other wives, particularly if the first is barren. Throughout life a woman is legally under the control of her father, her brothers and her husband, and her behavior is tightly regulated.

But there are spirits who possess at least some of the women and force them into rude, wanton behavior. Such spirits attack fertility and cause illness. To cure herself, a possessed woman must appease the spirit through ceremonies in which the spirit descends into her and states its demands: new sandals, new clothes, a husband’s acquiescence in a wife’s desires. These women are then members of the Zar cult.

In ”Wombs and Alien Spirits: Women, Men and the Zar Cult in Northern Sudan,” Janice Boddy – a professor of anthropology at the University of Toronto – has written a traditional ethnography, complete with kinship diagrams, Arabic terms, and many, many facts. By the end of the book you feel that you know her community of women well. The primary impact of post-modernism in anthropology – apart from some silliness – has been to sharpen and sensitize the ethnographer’s eye. Ms. Boddy’s language and authorial self-description betray the strong influence of post-modern theory. That influence leads her not to repudiate the business of writing ethnography, but to be highly aware of the multiple purposes and meanings that these women give to their activities. Such alertness lets her provide a better analytic explanation of spirit possession than most.

Many anthropologists would interpret a cult such as the Zar as the means through which subordinate individuals express their needs in public. Ms. Boddy argues that the cult does more, that it is the major form of symbolic play for these adults. The spirits that possess them are prostitutes, doctors, military men, gypsies, cannibalistic sorcerers and women of holiness and purity – a range of northern Sudanese cultural characters. This vividly imagined other world, Ms. Boddy argues, is in itself esthetically and creatively rewarding. And through the variety of these self-representations, the cult enables its women to reflect upon their actual world, so that the spirit possession becomes almost a satiric commentary upon their experience of the feminine. Through imaginatively playing at being other, the author suggests, these women become more adept at imagining themselves.

”Wombs and Alien Spirits” is long and at times repetitive and overwritten. Yet much of it is fluent and vivid, and it left me intrigued.