Middle East studies in the News
Professor Uses Sudanese Fashion Trends to Explore Women's History [on Marie Brown]
by Brittanie Smith
If you asked most people where Sudan is, they might struggle to give a correct answer.
Marie Brown, an assistant professor of modern Middle East history, wrote a book called "Khartoum at Night," which tells the experiences of Sudanese women while the country was under British rule.
This book gives a unique take on history, Brown said, because in many of the texts that historians use to search for evidence, women's voices are nowhere to be found.
The few instances Brown did find women mentioned in these texts, fashion was a common topic, which is why she decided to tell a story about their history using women's bodies and their clothing.
"Fashion is something that we all use to identify ourselves — to determine how we want to present ourselves to other people, our values," Brown said. "Getting dressed is something we do unconsciously, yet in the act of buying clothing or acquiring clothing and putting [outfits] together, those are all choices about who we are."
Her main focus is a piece of clothing called the "tobe" — a large rectangular cloth usually draped over the head and body. In the first half of the 20th century, tobes were mainly white cotton, although some had patterns or textures such as polka dots, stripes or embroidery done on them.
"In order to keep each of these patterns straight, the merchants who sold these tobes, and the women who wore them, would give each style a name," Brown said. "The names were often referencing contemporary events."
These tobes are used as historical markers for events such as Sudanese police cars getting flashing red and blue lights, to larger events like women being allowed to go to school or the launch of Sputnik. As a historian, Brown used these clothing trends to determine what was important to Sudanese women, which weren't typically documented.
"The longevity of the importance of fashion in Sudan is because Sudanese women are still struggling for full political representation and to have their voices [heard] in other mediums," Brown said. "Fashion has remained a consistent way for them to comment and respond to the world around them."
Ann Schofield is a professor in the department of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and a senior researcher at the University. Her area of research is women's history in the United States, which has clear overlap with Brown's work. She said that Brown has been a great resource for the University.
"She teaches courses on the Middle East and that's a topic of enormous importance, especially today," Schofield said.
Schofield also said that Middle Eastern studies are important since that region is often in the news due to political and social conflict. Brown said having courses that address the Middle East helps give students a firmer sense of just how complicated these topics are.
"Nobody had bothered to tell them about anything other than Europe and the United States," Brown said. "I realized just how little I knew about [the Middle East] and also how important it was to tell other people about this place — I never looked back from there."Note: Articles listed under "Middle East studies in the News" provide information on current developments concerning Middle East studies on North American campuses. These reports do not necessarily reflect the views of Campus Watch and do not necessarily correspond to Campus Watch's critique.
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