Feminism and Politics in Sudan
The State of the Feminist Movement in Sudan
1940s – Emerging Ideas of Women’s Liberation
The end of the colonial era and the budding of the modern Sudanese State coincided with the emerging global idea of women’s liberation. In Sudan, the Young Women’s League was the first women’s organisation to be established out of a strong grassroots initiative in 1947. The league was particularly active in literacy and combating harmful traditional habits.
Feminist activist Zainab Badr El Din says that in a country deeply rooted in tradition, those were times of change. She remembers,
“Once, when the Young Women’s League staged a big arts and crafts exhibition to support literacy classes in the forties, the leaders of the Communist Party, headed by Abdul Khaliq Mahjoub, visited the exhibition. That resulted in a large number of parents taking their daughters out of the league, because men visited the exhibition. My mother was one of these young women. But when another women’s group later initiated the Nasr Girls School in Omdurman, women sold their jewellery, which is a strong traditional gesture of support, to raise money for this project. I remember my mother telling me she had donated her golden bracelet."
1950s – Politicisation of the Movement
In 1952, the Women’s Union sprouted from the Young Women’s League. It was a genuine women’s initiative with non-political roots established by female graduates and teachers, including the co-founders Khaleda Zaher, who became the first female doctor in Sudan after attending the Kitchener’s School of Medicine, and Fatima Taleb, who was a teacher.
Drawing its inspiration from the nationalist movement, the Women’s Union was politically active and vigorously fought against colonialism. The Union promoted literacy and education as the most effective way to improve women’s life.
As Amal Abbas, a feminist and journalist, recalls, “Fatma Ahmed Ibrahim, the first female Member of Parliament in Sudan and the Middle East, and the chair of the Women’s Union for many years, used to warn us not to alienate society by challenging social norms. She used to say, ‘Pay condolences like other women do, go sit where the dishes are washed and coffee is made. We need to come down to the level of the people and lift it up, not to act in any way superior to it.’”
Women from diverse political movements joined the Union, including the Muslim Brotherhood. “Those from the Islamist party eventually left the Union when its detailed agenda was published, because they disagreed with the principle that women should be granted political rights. They formed their own Islamic Women Front,” says Abbas.
Following the establishment of the Union, the Sudanese feminist and political movement gained momentum in 1953 when women activists won the right for women to vote. However, this reform brought limited benefits to women since only female high school graduates were initially granted the right to vote. As highlighted by Samira Mahdi, a member of the Unionist Party:
“You could count them on the fingers of both hands because girls’ schools were so few. Later, when the number of schools increased, parties started to actively attract female members, seeing in them potential voters. So a women would join some party because her husband, father or uncle or whoever was a member in that party.”
“There was no place for women in the parties and no programmes included them. Men occupied the leadership roles. Women’s role was representational and their presence was to attract votes of other women,” she adds.
1960s – The October Revolution
Everything changed with the Sudanese revolution of 1964, which brought down the military regime to be replaced by a transitional government composed of a broad coalition of civilian groups.
“Prior to it [revolution], we were traditionalists. We did not mix with our male colleagues. After the revolution, there was a new breed of women. They wore skirts and coiffured hair styles. They were much more liberal than us, and we didn’t approve of them, calling them the ‘Octoberists.’ A bunch of them joined the Communist Party,” recalls Abbas. In Sudan, communism was considered a secular and enlightened movement which stood for freedom and openness, and was seen as an alternative to traditional parties.
By 1964, a decade after they won the right to vote, women had also won the right to run for political office. The Women’s Union published the first women’s magazine in Sudan calling for women’s rights, such as equal pay for equal work, and was instrumental in mobilising women for the nomination of Fatma Ahmed Ibrahim as the first female parliamentarian in Sudan. “In 1964, the parties suddenly awoke to the fact that women were a force to be reckoned with, and that they were more in number than the men, well over 50%,” Mahdi points out. However, the political participation of women became a commodity in elections. “Allowing women into the political parties was not out of interest in women’s issues but because all elections, those in 1968, and up to now had established that much more women were voting and registering than men. However, once these women voted, men forget all about them.”
Despite significant progress, the decade ended on a less optimistic note, when following the 1969 coup, the new President Jafaar Nimeiri dissolved the Women’s Union and formed the Sudanese Women’s Union, which some pioneers of the feminist movement joined.
Several political parties, including the traditional sectarians Unionist and Umma Parties, also formed their own women’s organisations and bodies, polarising the feminist movement. This division of the Sudanese feminist movement along political affiliation lines has continued to the present day, and firmly put the women’s agenda under the control of patriarchal political organisations.
1970s to Present Day – Domination of Political Islam and Waning of Feminism
Under the totalitarian regimes from 1969-85, and from 1989 until today, the space for the feminist movement diminished, according to Intisar Al Aqali, an activist and leader in the Socialist Nasserist Party. Al Aqali states that the Sudanese Women’s Union became an instrument of the ruling government. Even the Communist Party – the first political organisation that allowed female members and had women on its Central Committee – failed to advance the rights of women in Sudan. “The internal space within a party in which diverging views generate debate during democracy, becomes subdued under a dictatorship,” said Zainab Badr El Din.
“Besides, women put all their efforts into solving general national problems and subsumed their own interests under general ones, not because of subordination – they were aware of the cause – but because their supreme goal is to achieve democracy for the common good. Under a democratic system that embraces social justice, women’s issues are catered for while under a dictatorship they decline.”
Badr El Din cites as an example the Public Order Act, which reversed the feminist victory over the beyt al taha, a provision which authorises husbands to impose house arrest on their wives. “It was abolished in the 1960s due to advocacy by the Women’s Union, but was reinstalled in the Sudan Family Law of 1998. In fact, women’s rights have been on a downward trend since Nimeiri’s attempt to impose Sharia laws in 1983,” she said.
Al Aqali also laments the deterioration of women’s rights under the current Islamic Government of Sudan. “The space for women in cultural and voluntary work is shrinking further, not to mention the negative impact that armed conflict and wars in various parts of the country have caused on women’s political and socio- economic participation.”
From Women in Islam Issue 3 (2017)