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The mediated modernities of Tuareg smith women

January 19, 2016


Tuareg group dancing takamba, seated (Eyre 2016). Photo credit:

Occasionally I will be posting on this blog some notes under the broad theme of media and change in preparation for the volume Postill, J., E. Ardevol and S. Tenhunen (eds.) forthcoming, Theorising Media and Change. The notes below are the first of a series taken from a wealth of media anthropological research into this question that has remained to this date well hidden from mainstream media and communication studies. This research deserves, in my view, to be read more widely if we are going to finally expand this interdisciplinary area of scholarship beyond its obstinate fixation with the global North.

Notes prepared by Fran Barone (my emphases)
Used with permission

Susan Rasmussen (2003) “Gendered discourses and mediated modernities: urban and rural performances of Tuareg smith women” Journal of anthropological research 59(4): 487-509.

Fieldwork conducted “among the Tuareg in Niger and, more recently, also in Mali and France on the following topics: female spirit possession (1982-1983), aging and the life course (1991), herbalist and divining healing specialists (1995), rural and urban smiths/artisans (1998), and changing gender constructs (2001 and 2002)” (p. 507)

“In urban, multiethnic settings, smith women’s messages and roles are changing, particularly in new technologies, such as radio, deployed by elite feminist organizations to advance their own agendas for gender and socioeconomic change” (p. 487). This article contrasts two examples of female verbal art performance: a radio show and a rural wedding.

“Both male and female smiths serve as oral historians, musicians, go-betweens, and ambassadors for nobles and chiefs. … In Niger and Mali, many journalists in the modem media are of griot and smith origins” (p. 488).

Through radio narrative, on one level gender discourses are diversifying, but, on another, they are being homogenized despite contradictions and tensions (p. 489). The radio personality extends the traditional verbal art into her media art (p. 490)

In the countryside, “rural smith women alternately preserve and challenge official noble male prestige and social stratum endogamy” (p. 491). Through these performances, “women control men’s reputations through poetry and song” (p. 491).

Hawa, the radio personality, comments on health, education and women’s issues, thereby acting as a “kind of liaison or mediator figure, but one caught between new elites and the older local Tuareg social order” (p. 492). “By foregrounding status differences (of smiths from nobles), performers gain license to publicly enact sexualized gender relations, and through such engendering, they thereby challenge social norms” (p. 492)

Hawa emphasizes a combination of traditional Tuarag traits of womanhood and leftovers from the colonial period. Despite the fact that many Tuareg women choose nomadic herding, Hawa follows the official government and NGO line of encourage them to sedentarize and become farmers (p. 493-4). Women admit to having troubles adjusting to this new sedentary lifestyle with increased domestic work and unfamiliar crops. Hawa herself, despite her urban living, markets and broadcasting support for gardening on the radio, does not know how to prepare potatoes and remains close to her nomadic roots (p. 495).

“Wedding praises not only envision, but actually create, at least ideally, communitas among all women”, but also evoke tension between the social strata (p. 500). “The women performers do not really view themselves as attempting to radically change the conventional order of gender relations. Nonetheless, they comment powerfully on hierarchies in the social order” (p. 503).

“Rural smith women, occupying an ambiguous and mediating position in the local symbolic system, tried to negotiate the new meanings of gender, class, and status by highlighting inconsistencies and pointing out contradictions. On the other hand, the Tuareg urban radio host … has tried to appeal to universalist categories of gender and religion (Islam) to “paper over” these differences and strains” (p. 503).



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