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illusion and reality of women’s emancipation in the Sudan


 The full realisation of all  human rights  and  fundamental  freedoms  of all women is essential for the empowerment of women

Fourth Conference on Women 1995: Beijing Declaration (Paragraph 9)



It is a well known fact nowadays that the participation of women in the economic, social and political affairs of any country is a prerequisite for the sustainable development of that country. The word development here is used in the widest sense of the word that definitely does not mean just ‘growth’ as measured in the past, even by UN agencies, and now abandoned because of its numerous proven limitations. The inadequacy stems from the fact that, as an indicator, the rate of growth concept does not incorporate important aspects like health, literacy, life expectation, among others which are generally called social and human resource development. It is, therefore, expected that issues related to women are incorporated within this wider concept. Women, after all, constitute at least half of the human resources of any country and the degree of their education, health, participation rate in the labour force, legal rights, ..etc. are important indicators of the level of social development a country has achieved.

Today, discrimination against women and their oppression, or even harassment, are no longer tolerated in any form by the international community. The question of women’s participation in education, the economic and political life of any country has become a central issue and sometimes a prerequisite for some kinds of international aid. The international concern for the rights of women, which has become integrated within the wider concern for human rights generally, led to a greater willingness to organise and finance varied activities related to women’s issues. The proliferation of publications, documentation and study centres, consulting groups, seminars, conferences, for instance, are some of the results which reflect that concern and  generosity. Another result is the attempt to target women specifically in rural development projects or consider their participation a prerequisite for aid to the developing countries including Sudan.

In this discussion the political participation of women is considered within the context of the briefly described status of women in the Sudan at present. The questions asked include those which often arise, when the issue of the liberation of women is discussed, and that is the extent to which this favourable international climate helped this country in furthering women’s cause generally and their political participation in particular; or what are the effects of the political system and the degree of independence of civil organisations from the state on the role of women and their participation in politics in Sudan, ..etc. The question of women and political participation acquires additional significance at this time because:

Firstly, the declared ‘Islamisation’ of the Sudan under the present regime and their propaganda barrage in schools and all the media which profess loudly the claim that women under their Islam enjoy rights that no other country or society can boast of. This exploitation of religion for political ends always complicates opposition in a traditional society.

Secondly, the de-facto limitations on all women’s rights gained through their past struggles with regulations defining women’s dress codes, restrictions on their travel and employment opportunities, and the changes in the school curriculum to reinforce male supremacy. This is coupled with the enforced total monopoly of all social and political organisations which deprived the civil society in the Sudan from organising freely or independently from the state. This negative gender bias, together with lack of freedom of association, deprives women of the favourable climate and the instruments necessary for struggle to attain equality or even justice.

It is factors such as these that determine the degree to which women succeed in making their emancipation and full equality a true reality. It is factors such as these that determine whether full participation in the social, political and economic life of the country is feasible for the majority of women or not. It is factors such as these that determine the setting of priorities in the women’s activities to enable all women to realise their full potential within which their political participation can take place fruitfully. In short, it is success in the creation of a new democratic environment which helps to empower every woman and enables each one of them to choose freely her own destiny that makes political participation truly possible.

Look Back In ‘Some’ Anger

As an African country that achieved political independence over 40 years ago, (January1956), and which had a varied women’s movement even before that, the Sudan should be in the front lines of the struggle for the emancipation of  women. The reality of the Sudanese woman at present, however, is very different as will be elaborated briefly below.

Before going any further, let it be stated at the outset that by “women’s movement” is meant  literate, urbanised women in the North mainly. Sadly, the historical fact is that the Sudanese women's organisations did not effectively penetrate either Southern Sudan or the rural areas in any sustainable way. Thus, strictly speaking, the organised women’s movement in Sudan was not - organisationally - a truly national movement because it did not cover the whole country or even most of it. This, inevitably, made it more vulnerable to political oppression and limited its otherwise notable successes. Moreover, the early start of women’s organisations forced it to deal with the reality of:

a) The high illiteracy rate among women of 99% which is now reduced to a glorious 84%. This made communication difficult and limited in scope which hampered organisational spread.

b) The social constraints in the forties and early fifties on girls’ freedom of movement and travel outside the home in urban areas, the main theatre of operation of women’s organisations.

c) The general disinterest of the major political parties in organising women and addressing their issues until after the success of the struggle in gaining full political rights in 1964. The notable exception is the positive role of  what later became the Communist Party of Sudan which itself is mainly literate/urban/northern despite its influence on the organised labour and peasant movements throughout the country.

The first organisations for women were really trade unions for teachers and nurses whose meagre pay and conditions were inferior to that of men. Their demands for equal pay and better conditions cannot be easily described as ‘political participation’ despite the fact that the all-male Graduates Congress had, by then, already demanded self determination for the country in its famous memorandum of April 1942. Nevertheless, the mere fact that these women were organised at all was a great leap forward for women at the time. In fact, it constituted a sign of awareness which continued to develop into other organisations for women formed only after those first two pioneering trade union groups.

The issue of the liberation of women in the Sudan and their role in society was raised in an organised way in the mid 1940s. Before that the calls were for the schooling of girls pioneered by Babiker Badri in 1908, who insisted on opening his school in Rufaa despite being told by British that he was ‘mad’. That  was followed by a memorandum from an all-male group of ‘notables’ whose request was also for a government girls’ school in the capital as the only school for girls at the time was the Christian Mission School. The 1928 report of Wadi Halfa District Commissioner complained that the request to open a girls school, which was repeatedly presented each consecutive year by the Nubians, was being ignored by the Department of Education. He indicated that he agreed with them that education was their only viable investment in a poverty stricken region characterised by limited agricultural land.

Education of girls did eventually progress but at a very slow pace. There was the midwifery school in Omdurman at first which boasted of their ability to train midwives efficiently and teach them to recognise drugs visually and by smell without attempting to liberate them from illiteracy! The training of nurses was also done within hospitals in the same manner. The only exception where girls in training were required to be literate was, obviously, teacher training which began soon after that in 1926. Thus, by the time some pioneering women thought of banding together as women in the forties, there was only a single intermediate school (grades5-8 opened in1945) and another two-year single post-primary teacher training ‘college’ for girls opened earlier for the whole of the Sudan. These two institutions together with the single secondary school which was opened later in 1949 were, predictably, all located in Omdurman within the capital and their product was to have a lasting and significant effect on the whole of the women’s movement in the Sudan.

Thus, the origin of the women’s movement became the literate urbanites of Omdurman including the Sudanese Women’s Union, the largest and most influential of the women’s organisations. Even for this conscious progressive group, the one million square miles of the Sudan became a theoretical consideration rather than a practical organisational reality. The fact that teachers were liable to transfers was a blessing in a way and a curse in another. On the one hand, they were asked to form branches wherever they went, which they did, but on the other hand, these literate urbanised teachers were often unable to leave a sustainable institution behind. So their expended efforts and the branches they created withered away sooner or later after their departure from the various regional localities. No wonder, since these branches did not really succeed in empowering those women to enable them, through active and conscious collective participation, to hold real organisational power by becoming the subjects rather than objects of social change.

Looking back in anger without considering the mitigating circumstances would be unfair because sustainable participatory methods of organisation and institution building are not easy even today. Although some individuals are naturally talented in initiating and obtaining  the sustained effort of others, the majority of people are not so naturally endowed. This means that some training was required for those would-be animators and agents of awareness and change but at that time there no UN agencies willing to operate through or with NGOs or any democratic organisations as they do nowadays.

However, it is fair to state firstly, that the leadership of the Union in Omdurman were the first to open the membership to illiterate women after heated discussions in the early months of its life(1952) before women got the right to vote. This fact alone had a profound effect in the subsequent development of the Union and helped to make it truly the largest and most representative among the women’s organisations of the time. Secondly, this Union was the first women’s organisation to spell out and demand all women’s social. economic and full political rights on behalf of women in the whole of the Sudan. In fact, they risked a significant split in the Union by the (Muslim Sisters) because they could not agree on all those demands and this opened the door to the false accusation that the Union was a communist front organisation. These historical facts alone show that the Union leadership was conscious of their limitations but had little means on hand, material or otherwise, to rectify them. Perhaps it is fair to say that these two facts alone might absolve them from any contemporary  total damnation.

Politics? The No, God Forbid..

Women’s organisations, including the Sudanese Women’s Union, keep repeating that they are social non-political organisations whose aim is the liberation and progress of women generally. That social issues are never neutral or value-free has always been, and will continue to be, an objective reality. The very choice of activities that each one of them tried to implement, reflected that non-neutrality. Why then this (No, God forbid) response to any overtly political issue? For some this peculiar attitude is truly confusing and even not acceptable especially from the Union. They knew that the Union and its magazine stood up and participated in the popular struggle facing the tanks in front of the Judiciary centre until democracy was restored in 1964. What is the  mysterious reason behind their persistent verbal denials that they are politically oriented when they have had specific historic stands?

The explanation of that seems complex, but basically it is that the political development of the Sudan was repeatedly interrupted by dictatorial regimes which confiscated democratic rights three times after independence. Of the 489 months of independence we enjoyed democracy for 138 months only and suffered 351 months of dictatorship so far. No democratic government during most of the independence years lasted to complete its term and give the electorate a chance to return it to office or change it. This lack of a recurrent democratic electoral process deprives people of the political education it generates and delays the maturation of awareness among people generally and women in particular. 

Thus, everybody becomes forcibly exposed to the effects of the propaganda machine of dictatorial regimes especially Nimairi’s regime. This regime sought to gain legitimacy by deliberately defaming political affiliation and propagating erroneous concepts about political parties. The perpetual use of epithets like dirty, ugly, disloyal, atheist, sectarian,  gained enormous stature during this period. That said, the most vulnerable to the propaganda barrage were evidently the literate, urbanised elite. The illiterate marginalised people, whom every dictator claimed that the usurpation of power by force was for their sake, were the least affected. Understandably, the fact that untold numbers of this elite became the new ministers and the managers of the economy and the civil service helped a lot.

The effect of a political climate that is inimical to political affiliation generally and radical tendencies specifically, always outlasted the dictatorial regimes. The literate urbanites, who still lead the democratic movement including women’s organisations, became the unconscious victims of that climate; hence the repeated denials of their political stand. The de-facto participation in selective political activity, to great positive effects on women who showed their true independence in the 1965 elections, turned into ‘No..God forbid’ after the 16 years of propaganda and mud slinging at politics and politicians to distance organised effective people from real political participation.

..and the De-facto Yes

Let us first be clear about what is meant by political participation. The indicators found in the literature generally seem to concentrate on the following:

a)  The equal political rights for women  i.e. the right to elect and be elected.

b)  The proportion of women in parliaments both local and national.

c) The proportion of women in other political institutions and regional or national ministerial councils and similar politically filled decision-making posts.

d) The proportion of women in the leadership of political parties (where they are permitted and allowed to operate legally).

The first objectionable aspect about these indicators and their application is that they do not differentiate explicitly between democratic and non-democratic countries. In the case of this country, for example, the reports glibly write about the proportion of women in an appointed parliament or number of female ministers in the central or state governments as if this in itself is a positive development (which should be welcomed perhaps?). The fact that the world is now committed to human rights and many have linked it to their foreign policy and  aid programmes, does not absolve gender studies from considering all democratic rights a prerequisite in the wholesome political participation for women. The women’s struggle for democracy should be the prime target of all their activities rather than running after pseudo parliamentary seats and sham ministerial posts that benefit only their holders.

When the dark sea of war and total oppression engulf a country, in which women generally suffer the lion’s share, gender conscious studies and activities ought to be clearly directed towards the goal of restoring all human rights first. Asking how many women are ministers or members of parliaments in any dictatorship is asking the right question at the wrong time and place. Writing about such aspects as ‘progress for women’ inevitably plays into the hands of the oppressors when they happily quote such statements in their state monopolised or state controlled mass media.

The women’s movement (The Sudanese Women’s Union particularly) was always aware of that link. They actively participated in the struggle for democratic rights since they joined in the memorandum in 1954/55 and the subsequent demonstrations mainly with the trade unions and students to demand the repeal of the article 105 and the Law of Subversive Activities. In Arabic orقانون النشاط الهدام

The Union’s monthly magazine (Sawt al-Maraa or women’s voice) did not restrict itself purely to the traditional (female) subjects, but was also concerned with national and international political concerns. This was especially pronounced during the first military regime (1958-64) when the contents of the magazine addressed varied political issues and helped in mobilising women (and men) against the dictatorial regime. All the editorial board of the magazine was made up of women although some men did contribute articles to it. What was officially  a women’s magazine turned into one of the most effective weapons in the struggle for democracy in addition to the advocacy of women’s rights. In fact, the campaign for marriage rights (choosing the husband, children’s guardianship, return of wives against their will etc.) succeeded in 1960 under the dictatorial regime.

When all women’s organisations, including the Union, were liquidated by that same regime and were expected to join their new single organisation for women, the Union leadership refused to join because they believed in the importance of independence from the state. They, correctly and courageously, advocated their belief that any government-led organisation can never be truly democratic and so tried to continue their activities clandestinely despite formidable difficulties. Many of the difficulties encountered then were further complicated later under the brutal and more sophisticated second military regime of Nimeri (May1969-April1985).

It was during this second dictatorship that some leading Union members were lured by the regime through senior political posts including (for the first time) ministerial positions. This may be considered progress by some, but whether it really was so must be open to question. After all, he  who ‘gives’ can also ‘take’ and when the giver is the dictatorial state, then guarantees of continuity become non-existent. Even if the state is democratic with credible popular mandate, the independence of all democratic institutions of the civil society ought to be jealously guarded as the only guarantee for serving the aims of their organisations and the interests of their members. The Sudanese Women’s Union must be commended not only for advocating among women the importance of defending democratic rights in the country, but also for standing consistently with the independence of the Union which is a basic political principle for all time. This concept must have become abundantly clear now that the National Islamic Front (NIF) has destroyed the civil society in the Sudan and monopolised everything under the present dictatorship.


Women Behind The Veil

The plight of the Sudanese women at the end the century bears little resemblance to what it was like when the dawn of organised women’s activities began to break in its middle. That the  academic criteria set for the political participation of women would probably not reflect most of that deterioration is a sad fact. Where would the fact that the mass media used to address its audience: Ladies and Gentlemen orسيداتي آنساتي سادتي   at that time and now they merely say: Brothers or أيها الإخوة be categorised? Under those mechanical criteria, where would we categorise the fact that, despite the women ministers and numerous members of parliament, women professionals need the approval of men (father, brother or husband) to travel abroad to present a paper? Worst of all, where would you categorise the internalisation of oppression by young women that is happening every minute under the guise of religion whereas it is a defence mechanism against the brutality of the regime that has appointed more of their female supporters in various activities than any other?

Sudanese women would certainly opt for the dignity of freedom of association, of dress and of travel, to  participation in sham legislatures, and dictatorial and basically powerless councils of ministers. This is, or would have been, a truly participatory political choice - if they were asked first.


Suad Ibrahim Ahmed

Khartoum, October 1996