S.J. Zimmerman: Militarizing Marriage

Militarizing Marriage. West African Soldiers’ Conjugal Traditions in Modern French Empire

Zimmerman, Sarah J.
War and Militarism in African History
Anzahl Seiten
318 S.
$ 80.00; € 76,90
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Lennart Bolliger, Institut für Asien- und Afrikawissenschaften, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

Sarah Zimmerman’s Militarizing Marriage is a groundbreaking work of scholarship and the first book-length study to specifically focus on women’s association with African colonial militaries.[1] Covering a period from 1857 until 1962, the book traces the history of the tirailleurs sénégalais, West African soldiers serving in the French colonial army, and their changing and multifaceted relationships with women, both at home and abroad.[2] Zimmerman forcefully argues that “sexuality, gender, and women were fundamental to violent colonial expansion and the everyday operation of colonial rule in West Africa and French Empire” (p. 4). In building her argument, Zimmerman draws on an impressive range of material: archival sources from 20 archives in six countries; 60 life history interviews with veterans, widows, and their adult children in Senegal, Conakry and Paris; and, perhaps most interesting and helpful to other scholars, additional life histories from unpublished master’s theses at the École Normale Supérieure in Dakar.

As the dense introduction makes clear, Militarizing Marriage contributes to a wide range of literatures. These include feminist scholarship on gender and militarism in Africa, the extensive historiography on African colonial militaries, and the historical literature of women’s roles in Western European armies. The book’s analytical lens, across more than a century and various colonial contexts, remains “marriage”. Zimmerman understands the term broadly as “a key site of contestation” over resources and obligations, in this case, between spouses, their families and dependents, traditional authorities, and the French colonial army and state (p. 10).

Following the introduction, the book’s narrative unfolds chronologically across six chapters and an epilogue that brings the story up to the present moment. The first chapter examines the relationship between military service, slavery and slave emancipation, and marriage in West Africa in the late 19th century. In addition, it illuminates the central role of women, often referred to as mesdames tirailleurs, in the first military campaigns in the region. The next two chapters follow the deployment of the tirailleurs sénégalais and their military households beyond West Africa and explores their experiences during the colonial conquests first of Congo and Madagascar between 1880 and 1905 and then of Morocco between 1908 and 1918.

The fourth chapter looks at how the French colonial military began to increasingly formalize its relationship with African military households during World War I when over 170,000 soldiers were conscripted from all over French West Africa. The fifth chapter examines the French colonial military’s increasing efforts to control and regulate cross-colonial partnerships between West African soldiers and women across the French Empire – namely in Morocco, Syria, Lebanon and France – after World War I. The sixth first follows French African soldiers’ deployment to French Indochina starting in the 1930s and then the trans-imperial migration of Afro-Vietnamese households from colonial Vietnam to West Africa during and after the French Indochina War (1946–1954). The epilogue reflects on West African soldiers’ experiences and the legacies of decolonization and the end of the French Empire.

One of Militarizing Marriage’s key strengths is its intersectional approach, underscoring the role of both gender and race in the establishment and continuation of French colonial order. In the third chapter, for instance, Zimmerman demonstrates how French military officials used a 17th-century military institution of dark-skinned Moroccan households called abid al-Bukhari “as a template and a foil” for a 20th-century military strategy that fused West African origins and blackness with martial qualities and enslavement (p. 90). Such racist beliefs had devastating consequences. French military officials provided the tirailleurs sénégalais, believed to be “innately” invincible, with insufficient rations and equipment and isolated their wives and children in so-called “Black Villages” (p. 97). As a result, both in Morocco and other colonial contexts, West African soldiers and their conjugal partners were repeatedly used to reinforce racial differences between “black” West Africans and “Arab” or “white” people.

Another key strength of Militarizing Marriage is that it powerfully highlights the extent to which French colonial militarism, as an ideology and a process, shaped civilian norms and practices, rendering futile any attempt to delineate a clear boundary between “military” and “civilian” spheres. One example of many is how French officials actively undermined legislation passed in 1944 that recognized Afro-French military marriages as legal. Across the French Empire, interracial couples were subject to “parallel regulatory systems within civilian and military domains, as well as coexisting legal systems in mainland and imperial France” (p. 165). However, they were often not aware of the various legal and regulatory difficulties that impacted their ability to legitimize their marriage, maintain their citizenship status, and claim military benefits, such as spousal assistance, child support and widow’s pensions.

Zimmerman’s careful excavation of women and children’s experiences of military campaigns and colonial rule from her archival material is remarkable, especially given “the biases, misunderstandings, misconstructions, and ignorance of male colonial and military officials” that she has previously pointed out.[3] Her relatively limited use of the more than 60 life histories in the later chapters therefore is incomprehensible and unfortunate. These histories, perhaps relayed through some direct quotations, would have enlivened the narrative. They would not have provided “authentic voices” but given the reader a better sense of people’s own understandings, thoughts and feelings of the past, particularly after the earlier chapters’ necessary reliance on archival sources from the late 19th and early 20th century.

In sum, Militarizing Marriage is not only a significant and sophisticated contribution to the historical literature on the tirailleurs sénégalais and other African colonial armies but also to the growing literature on gender and militarism in Africa.[4] Due to its temporal, geographic and thematic scope, it will be of interest to scholars of African, global, and military history. Finally, reflecting on the trajectories of the tirailleurs sénégalais and their conjugal partners, one cannot help but ask: what exactly are militaries?

[1] For related work in other contexts, see, for example, Timothy H. Parsons, The African Rank-and-File. Social Implications of Colonial Military Service in the King’s African Rifles, 1902–1964, Portsmouth 1999; Michelle Moyd, Violent Intermediaries. African Soldiers, Conquest, and Everyday Colonialism in German East Africa, Athens 2014.
[2] For previous work on the tirailleurs sénégalais, see, for example, Gregory Mann, Native Sons. West African Veterans and France in the Twentieth Century, Durham 2006; Ruth Ginio, The French Army and Its African Soldiers. The Years of Decolonization, Lincoln 2017.
[3] Sarah J. Zimmerman, Mesdames Tirailleurs and Indirect Clients. West African Women and the French Colonial Army, 1908–1918, in: The International Journal of African Historical Studies 44 (2011), p 303.
[4] On the latter, see, in particular, Alicia C. Decker, In Idi Amin’s Shadow. Women, Gender, and Militarism in Uganda, Athens 2014.

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