In Search of A Transformative Feminist
Paradigm to Guide the Sudanese Women’s Movement
By Zeineb Eyega with Laura Beny
I am a southern Sudanese woman working at the margins of a society dominated in the Sudan by “Arab” men and women and in the United States by white men and women. My defining identity is more complex than the restrictive gender categories imposed upon me by a world that is inherently racist and patriarchal. It is an identity shaped not only by my gender (female) but also by my race, class and life experiences, and by what my parents, relatives, and neighbors taught me as a child. It is an identity shaped by a specific socio-political milieu: my identity has been influenced by my early encounters with blatant forms of racism and racial exclusion, by my daily confrontations with less obvious forms of institutionalized and culturally ingrained forms of racism, and finally by my participation in the liberation struggle of southern Sudan.
It is from this vantage point that I perceive and critically evaluate the mainstream Sudanese “women’s movement.” While all women in the Sudan are victims of patriarchal oppression, this fact forges an insufficient common bond among Sudanese women. Much evidence substantiates that the reality of differentials in racial and class identity, quality of life, and socioeconomic status take precedence over the common experience (i.e., patriarchal domination) that Sudanese women share. Sudanese women have rarely transcended these differences, at the informal social level and in women’s formal organizing. The Sudanese “women’s movement” has given insignificant attention to the concerns of Sudanese women who are (or have been) victimized by racist and classist oppression, women who have been mentally, physically and spiritually beaten down on race, class, gender and religious grounds. In fact, these are the majority of Sudanese women. In the popular and academic discourse on the Sudanese “women’s movement”, these women do not seem to exist. The conditions that middle class “Arab” women discuss, write about or describe as “general” conditions of Sudanese women refer almost exclusively to their peculiar plight.[i] Their concerns are radically different from those of poor, black women from the marginalized regions of the Sudan, homeless women, women whose daily lives have been affected drastically by the two civil wars, widows, unmarried and childless women.
The predominant articulated concerns of the mainstream “women’s movement” include eradication of female circumcision, improved educational and career opportunities relative to Sudanese men, increased political participation and public decision-making, notably within the existing socio-political structure.[ii] Unfortunately, until now, the “women’s movement” has not addressed the following weighty questions at the level of public discourse: who takes care of the elite “Arab” women’s children and maintains their homes while they pursue educational and career opportunities? Do female domestic workers (who are often black and non-Arab) simply constitute an abstract “labor pool” whose raison d’etre is to facilitate “Arab” women’s achievement of their socioeconomic aspirations?
“Arab” women who dominate the formal “women’s movement” have rarely openly questioned whether or not their perspectives on Sudanese women’s reality is true to the lived experience of all Sudanese women. Nor do they appear particularly conscious of the extent to which their perspectives reflect race and class biases. Their seeming obliviousness to these issues prompts the questions: do they care, are they even interested? In fact, the phenomenon often seems to be one of ignorance by choice[iii]; that is, they might be very much aware of these problems, but nevertheless semi-consciously choose not to grapple with them. Such semi-conscious disregard could be attributed to the fact that they are, like Sudanese men, partial beneficiaries of the structural system of domination. In fact, vis-à-vis non-Arab women, “Arab” women might become “symbolic” men in the context of interclass and interracial interaction. In this sense, whether knowingly or unknowingly, they breathe sustaining life into the contested social structure to their own and other women’s ultimate detriment.
The treatment of violence is a poignant, and disturbing, example of the deficiency of the mainstream paradigm. Violence plagues the lives of many Sudanese women. Yet even violence is differentially experienced among them. For “Arab” women, violence is largely gender- and class-based. By contrast, the violence that non-Arab women experience is gender-, race-, class-, and religion-based.[iv] Often, the violence faced by non-Arab women is merely the most immediate manifestation of their racial subordination. Non-Arab women are viewed by many as “inferior” not only because they are women, but also because they are black (often non-Muslim) women and therefore deemed to be objects of labor and abuse. Sudanese society concedes “Arab” men a limited compromise: while they are not free to abuse “Arab” women with impunity, they are given largely free reign to vent anger and cruelty upon non-Arab women as well as men.
The patriarchal system imposed on middle class “Arab” women is a mixed bag. While oppressing them and curbing their worldly aspirations, the system ensures that they will be “taken care of”. In contrast, the same system deems non-Arab women as unworthy of such care; their gender does not protect them from abuse, because their race (and often their religion) implies that they may be abused with social and moral impunity. This creates a paradoxical situation: while “Arab” women may not like being prohibited from working, black women have been forced to work under devastatingly oppressive conditions. Ironically, this work often takes the form of domestic labor in “Arab” women’s households, thereby freeing the latter to ruminate on their gendered oppression, which prevents them from working in the careers of their choosing and/or from having equal access to education and economic resources relative to Sudanese men. Indeed, one might well conclude that achieving the elite “Arab” woman’s career and educational goals is synonymous with the Sudanese “women’s movement”.
In fact, access to educational opportunities and therefore economic resources is an additional sphere in which there is considerable inequality among Sudanese women. Non-Arab women fair even worse than “Arab” women, relative to Sudanese men, in this respect. Being non-Arab (male or female, but particularly female) correlates strongly with lack of access to education, skills and economic resources. Disparate access to education and jobs is a means by which gender/race discrimination is reproduced across generations. Race and gender are two primary sites for the particular distribution of social resources that has resulted in an observable class difference and the invisibility of black women in the formal Sudanese “women’s movement”.
In short, women from the South and other marginalized regions of the country have been disproportionately affected by the double burdens of informal gender and class oppression compounded by the racial inequities of the formal structural system of the Sudan. Focusing primarily on an abstract discourse of patriarchal domination masks this complexity and it becomes a means by which “Arab” women deflect attention from the real conditions and circumstances of our lives. In doing so, they cooperate in suppressing and promoting false consciousness, inhibiting women’s capacity to assume responsibility for transforming the society and ourselves.
Sudanese (and “Arab” women in particular), if they have any semblance of sincerity for collective Sudanese concerns and the intent to improve the fundamental problems facing women, must tackle the multiple layers of race, class and gender – even if that confrontation requires that they challenge and change their own complicity and aggression in sustaining domination, as well as their identities as “Arab” middle class women. One way to deconstruct and challenge the simplistic notion that man is enemy, woman is victim, and the notion that men have always been oppressors and women always victims, is by examining the paradigms of domination and bringing attention to women’s own capacity to dominate. This will enable us to examine our roles as non-Arab and “Arab” women in the perpetuation and maintenance of systems of domination.
Working collectively to confront difference, to expand our awareness of race and class as systems of domination, of the ways we reinforce and perpetuate these structures, is the context in which we learn the true meaning of solidarity. It is this work that must be the foundation for a new Sudanese women’s movement, in the true sense of the phrase.[v] Without it, we cannot effectively resist patriarchal domination. Without it, we remain estranged and alienated from one another. As bell hooks says, “Coming to critical consciousness is a difficult and trying process, one that demands that we give up sets of ways of thinking and being, that we shift our paradigms, that we open ourselves to the unknown, the unfamiliar.”
Zeineb Eyega, New York, NY
with Laura Beny, Brookline, MA
[i] These elite “Arab” women, for the most part, control and set the formal women’s agenda in the Sudan, albeit, ironically, often constrained by the dominant agendas of their affiliate male-dominated parties. To a lesser extent, but no less perniciously, western (North American and European) scholars of the Sudanese “women’s movement” have also contributed to the marginalization of non-Arab Sudanese women by their failure to include non-Arab voices in their research on Sudanese women.
[ii] See the writings of Sondra Hale and Nada Mustafa Ali for an elaboration of these points.
[iii] Zeineb Eyega coined the term ignorance by choice in a public letter to Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim, long-time leader of the Sudan Women’s Union (SWU), in reference to Ibrahim’s publicly degrading statements about southern Sudanese women. The statements were degrading because they failed to appreciate the socio/political/economic structures contributing to the so-called “backwardness” of southern women and, as such, they seemed to be blaming the victim with an air of superiority.
[iv] For examples of some of the forms of violence experienced by non-Arab women in southwestern Sudan, see Laura N. Beny, “Legal and Economic Implications of Slavery in the Sudan: Failure to Address Victims’ Testimony,” a paper presented at the annual meeting of the African Studies Association (ASA), November 1999.
[v] The Sudan Women’s Alliance (SWA) seems to be taking important steps in this direction.