[Book Review] Militarizing Marriage: West African Soldiers' Conjugal Traditions in Modern French Empire by Sarah J. Zimmerman

Published In

Journal of West African History

Document Type

Book Review

Publication Date

Fall 2022


Africa -- French-speaking -- West History -- 1884-1960, Military spouses -- Africa, Women -- Social conditions


In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content from the book review:

Reviewed by: Bright Alozie

Militarizing Marriage: West African Soldiers' Conjugal Traditions in Modern French EmpireSarah J. Zimmerman Athens: Ohio University Press, 2020; pp. 301, $64.00 paper.

Contemporary historical and feminist literature has long contended that violence, militarism, and colonial rule are profoundly gendered. Sarah Zimmermann's Militarizing Marriage provides excellent empirical evidence on the topic and makes a compelling case for the instrumentality of African women to global French imperial ideology, conquest, and expansionism. Her study joins "a small field of works that address forced conjugal association, sexual violence, and female subjugation in colonial and postcolonial military histories of Africa" (5). With penetrating verve, Militarizing Marriage takes readers on a transnational, interracial tour of the sprawling process of gendered "militarization" in French colonial West Africa. Using soldiers' conjugal traditions as analytical lenses, Zimmermann explores intersubjective relationships between gender, war, militarism, violence, and colonialism.

Her raw material is truly impressive: texts from twenty archival institutions located in six countries, sixty interviews with veterans, widows, and their adult children in Senegalese cities, Conakry, and Paris, and life histories in unpublished masters' theses at the École Normale Supérieure (ENS) in Dakar. Zimmermann thus fills a gap in African military and colonial histories by bringing alive voices and intimate experiences of West African soldiers, known as tirailleurs sénégalais, [End Page 133] and their conjugal partners, known as mesdames tirailleurs (a term coined by the author), in French West Africa.

At the heart of her study are two fundamental arguments. First, by examining women's conjugal relationships with tirailleurs sénégalais, Zimmermann argues that "sexuality, gender, [and exploitation of] women were fundamental to the violent colonial expansion and the everyday operation of colonial rule in West Africa and French Empire" (4). These conjugal behaviors became military marital traditions that normalized the intimate manifestation of colonial power in social reproduction across the empire. In fact, colonized women's sexual bodies were basic to French violent colonial statecraft and imperial militarism. Second, she argues that militarization is never gender-neutral whereas "gender or perceptions of sexualized and embodied difference, has a dynamic relationship with militarism" (4). African soldiers' sexuality and conjugality, at home and abroad, illustrate how they and the colonial military contributed to "new iterations of gendered relations in West Africa and French Empire" (5). The author, therefore, offers scholars a means to probe the intertwined, ambiguous, and paradoxical manifestation of gendered colonial power.

Militarizing Marriage begins with an introduction presenting the book's thrust including major arguments, themes, historiographical interventions, methods, and sources. Chapter 1 discusses the tirailleurs sénégalais and the relationship between military service, slavery/slave emancipation, and marriage. It demonstrates that slave emancipation was a key process in recruiting tirailleurs sénégalais, as well as in soldiers' acquisition of women for conjugal purposes (39). Chapters 2 and 3 focus on the experiences of these soldiers during France's conquest of Congo and Madagascar (1880–1905) and later of Morocco (1908–18). Both chapters demonstrate how the colonial military's toleration of West African soldiers' exploitation of women in foreign colonial territories was integral to a gendered and racialized French colonial order. In discussing the activities of mesdames tirailleurs, Zimmermann also justifies her categorization of female subjects as "militarized women" because they were often present at theaters of war. In chapter 4, the author examines how the "Great War heralded the French state's intensified interest in, and regulation of, soldiers' wives' marital legitimacy" (116). New legislation forced French officials to investigate the legalistic and political inconsistencies among customary, Muslim, and French marriage to challenge mesdames tirailleurs' legitimacy and discriminate against them, thereby making them "expendable liabilities" (117). Chapter 5 analyzes the French colonial military's intensified efforts to control and regulate interracial and cross-colonial relations between tirailleurs sénégalais' and women in Madagascar, North Africa, Syria, Lebanon, and France from 1918 to 1946. Chapter 6 discusses soldiers' deployment to French Indochina and their ability to legitimize and maintain the integrity of their Afro-Vietnamese [End Page 134] households in both Southeast Asia and West Africa. Zimmermann concludes...


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