A Single Mother
Whenever I ponder my life story, I think of potential wasted on oppressive standards in a collective society. In a social, political and legal framework which subdues women, and even more so single mothers, the decision to live by my own terms and values was never going to be easy. I wonder what my life would be like had I been born in a more progressive country with a stable justice system. I think I could have served my country productively, rather than spending years fending off attacks and working around obstacles. Mine could be the story of any woman and single mother in Sudan: an untold story of oppression and social exclusion.
I grew up in my extended family’s paternal home with my grandparents, aunts and uncles. My father, a medical assistant, travelled a lot for work. He married a second wife, and my mom left him - and his extended family, who she felt had orchestrated the second marriage. My grandfather was not well-educated but was progressive in his thinking, and so was my grandmother. They valued education for all and invested in their girls and boys equally. They passed onto us the importance of knowledge, learning and good work ethics.
My grandmother, beyond that, instilled in me the value of equality, a sense of freedom, and the economic independence of women. Married to a wealthy leather merchant, she was provided for but lived by the Sudanese proverb, “Let not your brother take control of your provision. He may give you and he may refuse”. She was breeding poultry and had a small business selling tobes, the delicate Sudanese women’s wrap-around, for which she travelled to Khartoum and negotiated with Indian traders.
After I graduated from university in the former Czech Republic in 1988, I got married back home in Sudan. A librarian, I would never further pursue the field I studied. I was blessed with three beautiful daughters. They were between two and six years old when my husband and I, after eight years of continuous fighting and disagreements, terminated our marriage.
I discussed my plans for the girls with my father. My culture expects divorced or widowed women to return to their family of origin with their children. A woman living on her own is unheard of. Society does not trust women to be able to raise their children by themselves. It is ironic, though, that most Sudanese come from families where men’s presence is minimal because of polygamy or work.
The same culture also discourages men’s direct involvement with children, because care giving is considered the natural role of women. Social expectations and misinterpretation of religious provisions create a dilemma. Divorced women, more than others, are treated like minors and placed under the guardianship of either their fathers or brothers. Although it is legitimate to divorce in Islam, the social order in place in Muslim communities like mine often silently punishes women for abandoning the institution of marriage. As if she were a time bomb which could hurt the family’s honour any time, an unwritten code of conduct is strictly imposed on her to control her life and movement in public and prevent any assumed humiliation.
Despite these realities, I knew how I wanted to raise my daughters: as strong, independent women. I also wanted to keep a sense of normality after divorce which included not moving from our home and allowing the girls to continue going to the same school.
My father listened to me carefully. He told me he supported me in my choice of how to raise my family. In theory, he said, my plans were great, well thought out and workable. He also said that I would face hostilities. Yet, he thought that it was my life to do with it as I pleased and that I had a chance to raise my daughters in the way I wanted. He encouraged me to be strong and be a great role model for women facing similar ordeals, adding that if I failed I would give society justification to continue controlling women.
He was right about what I was up against. Shortly after I filed for divorce my ex-husband approached my father to hand over to him custody of my daughters. He instructed that I move back to my parents’ home in Kassala, for the girls to grow up under male guardianship and protection. My father told him that he had “no right to decide” how I live my life. The only right he had was to pursue custody for his children if he so wanted. A first battle had been won.
I was working in an American organization headed by a Sudanese man. News of my marital status broke fast at my workplace – a personal detail that changed things for good. My colleagues and friends’ perception of me changed dramatically. I was subject to daily harassment, in particular by my director. I felt reduced from a respectable human being and mother to an object, easily available for hungry predators to consume. He assumed the right to stalk me and threatened to get me fired if I exposed him. It would be my word against his. Who would believe me against a powerful man, the director of an international agency? I needed the job. I rejected his advances and it cost me my job to keep my integrity.
I went to universities, government organisations and companies to find a job. I had to wear hijab just to be allowed to enter their buildings, but the story was always the same: I could only get the job if I compromised my values and accepted sexual advances made by powerful men. My condition of being divorced became an obstacle to successful employment.
I faced similar challenges with organisations headed by women. Just as the men did, they judged or criticised what I wore. They belittled me for being divorced or excluded me from company events and further training available to staff and outsiders. Often I was denied employee incentives and benefits and was paid very little money.
Things got worse, school fees needed to be paid, and my heart broke each time I returned home empty handed and jobless, where three hungry mouths waited for me. I was running out of motherly miracles to feed them. There were days when I had to walk my daughter to the kindergarten although she was sick. She was little and I could neither leave her at home alone nor take her to work with me. We walked over a long distance under the scorching sun because I had no money for transportation, and I could not carry her all the way - I thought our misery would never end.
Just when I thought things could not get worse, my ex-husband’s friend paid me an unannounced visit one evening. Initially, I thought my ex-husband had sent him to mediate between us. This is a common practice among Sudanese people and a way of looking out for each other’s interests. Yet he did not mention anything about my husband. He seemed overly relaxed and made no move to leave even after he had been there for a long while.
When I asked him to leave as I needed to help my daughters with their school work and with getting ready for bed, he bluntly told me he was planning on spending the night with me. When I again asked him firmly to leave my apartment, he asked me who I thought I was. Being what I am, he said insultingly, today it would be him, and tomorrow a different man. When I demanded he leave or I would call the police, he threatened to accuse me of prostituting myself. Once again I was put in a position where I could not defend my integrity.
He was right. The police would not have been helpful, considering that the authorities defend a patriarchal system. They would have blamed me for being in a room with a man I am not married to. I ran from the apartment with the girls and locked him inside. My neighbour, an elderly widow who lives next door with her four daughters, had to watch as I unlocked the door and the intruder left without a word. My neighbour offered to help me beat him if he showed up again at my flat.
I no longer interact with male friends; several tried to take advantage of my situation. Female friends did not want to associate themselves with a divorcee and became protective of their spouses. To them, I became a potential seducer. My world became smaller and smaller. I ran out of options. I had no source of income and no support system to lean on.
With no job in sight, I considered self-employment. I decided to establish a small company for training, consultancy and developing libraries. Friends bought the idea and I used all my savings as capital to start. I prepared the paper work, sought legal advice and tried to meet all the requirements to establish the business. I was determined to make it work and the business did well in the beginning. It had potential. Things changed when one of my co-partners expressed a desire to have a relationship. I was not interested and focused on my family. Out of this rejection he began sabotaging the company and compromising shareholders and business partners.
He discredited me at the registry office and the legal office, and wrote letters claiming that I was an agitator against the governing system, a liar - and a divorced woman. Not long after that, our computers, fax and telephone were stolen from the office. A week later my apartment was burgled. I lost everything that was valuable to me.
More than that, I found myself interrogated by men from the national security who began to bother me constantly. Some threatened my daughters. I was afraid for our lives. A friend convinced her husband to rent us a small room in their attic. It contained two beds, a small electric stove and a suitcase for our clothes.
I resolved to work harder and to never leave my daughters alone. I made sure I took them to school and picked them up on time so no one would harm them. I tried to be both mother and father to them.
It was a very rough journey. It was a life in insecurity providing for and protecting my girls. My daughters today reward my efforts with great discipline and intelligence, and with their appreciation for me as an individual and my efforts in raising them despite the struggles.
Looking back, I am so proud of myself and my girls. Despite the arduous trek on a thorny path, we made it. They are all grown up. My oldest daughter graduated from the Faculty of Arts at a good university in Khartoum. My second daughter is about to graduate from the Faculty of Law at the same respected university, and my youngest is studying Rural Development and Sociology at the famous Ahfad University for Women in Sudan.
I have done my best to give them a decent life with what I had. More than that, I taught them the importance of independence, empathy and respect. I taught them about love, freedom and dignity. I tried to provide a democratic home where people share and discuss issues with respect. My daughters are open-minded young women who participate in life fully - and with free will. I want them to reach their full potential.
There is an unseen war waged against women and particularly divorced women. The social condemnation of women coupled with the culture of shaming them and their silent punishment concerns everyone in society and needs to be addressed at religious, legal, police, familial and workplace levels. We need to review attitudes and regulations regarding the harassment of women.
In fact, Islam respects the right of women and men both to marry and divorce if things do not work out. It promotes living in dignity. But our society is affected by distorted images about religion and confusing values about women which we have held for far too long. The result is a dysfunction in our society reflected in our current laws, interactions, and all other aspects of our lives.
People like me, who oppose obsolete traditions, segregation and social injustice, are condemned by society. But it is a sacrifice I am willing to make to pursue human emancipation, and women’s rights for my daughters and fellow women in Sudan. In this, telling our stories and sharing experiences is a form of resistance.
First published in Women in Islam, Issue 2 (2015)