Sudan has a long history of women in leading positions in the political as well as social arena. Ancient history speaks of queens reigning over kingdoms past, such as Nubia and Kush. Modern history celebrates the likes of Alazza Mohamed Abdallah, the first woman to lead a political rally in its modern sense in the year 1924, and Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim, the first woman to enter Parliament. It celebrates the brave wives and mothers who stood up and fought for women’s rights such as Aziza Mekki Osman, Nafisa Ahmed Elamin, Nafisa Dafaallah, and those who called for and established women’s education such as Nafeesa Awad Elkariem, Nafeesa Almiliek, Suad Abdelrahman and Fatima Talib Ismail, so that women like Drs Khalda Zahir Alsadaty and Zarwi Sarkisian, the nation’s first female doctors, could enter and graduate from the University of Khartoum in 1946. Women against FGM, women for child protection, women for social and food security and women for a better life for the people. Sudan came a long way in an era when no one was going anywhere; and it couldn’t have done this without women.
But things have changed. Women in Sudan are no longer to be envied. Somewhere along the way, they fell back into the old rut of being judged by society, targeted by the government and harassed by anyone and everyone who finds them at a disadvantage. Somewhere along the way, education became no longer a priority: today, 46% of women are illiterate (Sudan Household Health Survey, 2010). Somewhere along the way, women forgot how hard the Sudanese Women’s Movement and others had fought for their rights, so that today almost 50% meekly agree that it is justified to be subjected to domestic violence for any number of stupid reasons such as burning lunch. Every day headlines are dominated by news about women beaten, imprisoned and charged under any number of pretexts. If you Google the term ‘women in Sudan’, the first suggestion to come up is the Wikipedia page about ‘Gender inequality in Sudan’, then news about women protesters detained for demanding the release of female politicians, then page after page of news about Mariam Ibrahim, the Christian woman accused of apostasy and who gave birth to her daughter while shackled in prison awaiting her death sentence – from which she was conveniently rescued by the US and Italy. Other women who have been targeted and harassed by the government, namely by the Public Order Police, or the ‘Fashion Police’ as I call them, were Lubna Ahmed Elhussein and Amira Osman Hamid. Both women were arrested and charged for ‘indecent clothing’ and sentenced to lashing and fines, and both challenged and continue to challenge the dubious Article 152 under which they were arrested. Both women made enough noise to make the headlines, while hundreds of other women have been arrested, charged and beaten over the years in silence.
So why is it that Sudanese women, after rising so high and achieving so much, have fallen so low in the last couple of decades? The popular answer to that and any other question addressing the decline of the country is that it’s all the government’s fault. The ruling party came into power after a military coup in 1989 with the promise of change, at a time when change was needed most. Indeed, it did bring change: the discovery of oil in its era brought in enough money to boost the country from a low income country to a low-middle income country, and for a while it seemed things were going quite well. But of course, they weren’t; 26 years later we are half the country we used to be having lost the South, at war with almost everyone, mired in $36 billion in external debt, with civil unrest in all regions of the country and the biggest brain-drain the world has seen in centuries. But the problem is multi-faceted: yes, the government directly targets women through laws such as Article 152, but that’s not the only problem. The POP and its set of articles came into existence along with the current Islamic ruling regime, as a special branch of the police force intended to control and curb the masses’ sinful activities such as indecent clothing, drinking, inappropriate mixing, adultery and other such bad things, but the claim that they are merely a tool of the government to implement Islamic regulations is one to be debated, as are the majority of rulings in this and similar regard. In the matter of indecent conduct between men and women, Islam’s teachings are simple and straight-forward: avert the gaze and dress modestly. It does not order that women be rounded up and arrested, or that they should have the daylights beaten out of them. And, more importantly, Islam teaches that BOTH genders avert their gaze from the opposite, and BOTH to dress appropriately when mingling; not just for women to cover up. Islam also teaches the importance of education of both women and men; contrary to what radical psychotics like Boko Haram and others would like you to believe. The Prophet Mohamed never raised his hand or voice against a woman, child or servant in his life, nor did he teach so. Therefore, the seemingly selective violence against women the government preaches and practices in Sudan is not to be confused with Islamic teaching. Let me say that again: violence against women is not to be confused with Islamic teaching.
The other problem related to the disadvantage of women in Sudanese society today is rather indirectly influenced by the government. Sudan was not always a supporter of women’s rights to work and education, even though in many parts of the country, especially the west, women are the main supporters of the (immediate and extended) family and play an important role in food security. They farm and sow the family plots and sometimes work in others’ to earn more money. They store different seeds and products to assure the continuity of food supply throughout the year. They build the houses and herd the animals, and in nomadic societies they carry their homes and belongings on their heads and backs when moving from one place to another. All this while bearing and raising children, cooking, cleaning, sewing and taking care of elderly relatives. And yet, they are excluded from important decision making such as peace building efforts, are subjected to human rights violations such as FGM, and denied their basic right to education. Different cultures have different excuses: either because boys are preferred over girls in education, or the practice of early marriage, or because the outside world isn’t safe, or because the family simply cannot afford it. The role of the government in worsening this condition in two-fold: through deliberately ignoring and sometimes perpetuating the injustice towards girls and women, and through deepening poverty, racial segregation and feeding ignorance with ignorance, which in turn has led the society back to its comfortable starting point in history. The cycle of poverty-poor education-lack of human capital-deepening poverty of which women are the biggest victim is one that has led us to where we stand today: where women are objectified and regarded as an irritating Jezebel to be tied down, silenced and put back in her place. Despite so much being accomplished, just as much has managed to unfold. So yes, the government plays a major role in the situation of women today; but so does the society itself.
However, history and common sense tell us that change does not happen overnight, nor over-century. It would be pessimistic and ungrateful to consider the victories of women in Sudan over the years as non-existent and futile. Because of their struggles against the odds, we are able to be what we are today: doctors, poets, teachers, novelists, engineers, fashion designers, politicians and activists. The list of Sudanese women leaders is endless, and for each name that is known and recognized, there are thousands of others who are leaders in their homes and their societies. But as far as we have come, we cannot forget or ignore those who have been left behind: the 46% who cannot even read or write, those who have no voice and who cannot defend themselves against the injustice of the system and the society. Women in Sudan have come a long way. But the way ahead is still as long as can be.