Perhaps the two most important narratives that recount the circumstances of Sudanese women in different historical periods are the books “Shouq Al-Daraweesh” by Hamor Ziada and “Al-Seuss” by Sarah Al-Jack, each of which is a reference to what Sudanese women suffered from in terms of injustice, inequality, discrimination and patriarchy. Men dominate a woman’s existence in many forms, including: circumcision, underage or child marriage, ignorance and domestic hard labor. As for polygamy, the difference is due either to the zeal of a religious man, racism, or to a woman's ignorance of her own rights. And even if she asks for her rights, there is a societal conceptual confusion between rights, duties, customs, traditions and laws. I believe that the Sudanese society is like many societies in the Middle East and Africa that prefer customs over the law.
Women’s rights in Sudanese society are the subject of much controversy even after the enactment of laws which lacked objectivity. Moreover, the prevalence of political Islam in Sudan has led to a holistic view of women as a challenge to men and their ideas, rather than describing a woman as half of the community – as men like to commonly parrot. Therefore, violence against women and discrimination in its various forms have spread, in addition to a woman being completely alienated by society or work before she attempts to climb the social ladder. Despite the establishment of constitutional laws and women obtaining a proportion of authoritarian seats, these laws fail to be implemented in practice on ground-zero. For example, displaced women do not attain criminal justice, and are thought of as a threat which jeopardizes society due to their subjection to hostile environments and violence, and the lack of psychological rehabilitation centers as well as the high rate of female unemployment. We must halt the deteriorating conditions facing Sudanese women longstanding from the reign of the ousted president, which were rooted in the rule of political Islam. At the time, it formed a doctrinal jihadist party with principles that did not view the concept of rights as a societal imperative to uphold the name of Sudan and achieve the values of equality, justice and freedom without discrimination. Even the concept of discrimination is mistaken for an “Islamic thought”, which causes various challenges and impedes the signing of international agreements.1
Constant Harassment & Pressure
I felt afraid and had sleepless nights pondering how I could fully capture the agony of Sudanese women? Overthinking and conflicted, I could not read or write about the subject for a week attempting to escape reality at any cost. What encouraged me to research and inspired me are the relentless Sudanese women who I see suffering, toiling for transportation to earn a living or move about. I see that many prefer silence for fear of stigma. Most importantly, the lack of legal justice leads to their severe physical and psychological depletion and continued abuse, isolation, and inclusion in the cycle of poverty and ignorance- rather than empowering them to focus on their personal lives, education, and effective participation in society. The United Nations, civil society organizations and leaders cannot be excluded from the blame.2
The issue of Sudanese women’s dressing in society is considered as one of the most important problems that lie between the perspective of society and the law as it reflects the development of Sudanese fashion through historical stages of an intellectual, societal and political transformation. Repressed voices were raised by canceling the law of “Public Order” introduced by the rule of political Islam to preserve the public’s appearance without considering its moral values. The law imposed control and domination of women, which led to a popular trend of wearing trousers, although it was frowned upon by society. There are also economic reasons and functional factors that led to wearing pants although I believe that they are more modest than some other clothes; however, the Islamists see that it is more fitting for men. There have been repeated incidents of Sudanese female activists being convicted for wearing pants and prevention of women entering government departments if they wear them. These were followed by calls for the abolition of the law of “Public Order” that violates the freedom and privacy of Sudanese women - bearing in mind that Sudanese society is conservative in nature and has its own unique culture, customs and traditions. Unfortunately, the abolition of the Public Order Law failed to prove its usefulness, so I do not think it has affected the public’s opinion on the matter.3,4,5
When I think about the conditions of women in Sudan, my hair falls out of frustration. The first thing that I thought about after the fall of the former regime led by the deposed Omar al-Bashir is a Sudanese girl who worked to serve the demonstrators, both sick and wounded. She would raise a sign every morning with optimism but with sullen sad eyes. The reason is that there are some families who asked the female participants in the Sudanese revolution at the sit-in of the General Command of the Armed Forced not to return to their homes again. This is seen as an attempt to disown them because of the ideological and organizational affiliation associated with the revolution. Other families practiced serious inhumane violations that deprived the supporters of the Sudanese revolution of water or gave them harmful pills. Some were put under continuous crushing pressure and stress which led to their addiction and heavy smoking which is harmful to their health.
There were families who prevented some female protesters from going out to buy their own necessities or interacting with people, in addition to preventing them from eating in a different way or not eating healthy food. Unfortunately, most who did this were women instigated by men. In general, some felt an outrage at the widespread female participation that varied from encouragement, different actions, and vigils, and some gave their lives as a price for the Sudanese revolution. The activists were subjected to continuous harassment, monitoring and follow-up from some agencies - sometimes to protect them and other times because of the increase of negative incidents such as sexual harassment and abuse of cannabis and alcohol. There are families whose daughters had been strictly prohibited from participating in the Sudanese revolution by preventing them from leaving their home. Hence, Sudanese women deserve to be the icons of the Sudanese revolution after facing all these pressures. I believe that male dominance re-emerged after that because of the low participation of Sudanese women in the preparation and arrangement of the transitional period. Nonetheless, I also believe that there were women who were working behind-the-scenes anonymously so that their lives would not be endangered, because there were attempts to kill female activists and direct targeting of Sudanese women during the period of the sit-in by different groups.6,7,8
Image: Umit Bektas via Reuters
Can we be Optimistic?
The education of women in Sudan is considered a platform for awareness, enlightenment, and effective participation in society, but Islamic political thinking believes that there is no necessity for women’s education and it is preferable to educate them in Qur’anic schools. Education for women is considered a stumbling block obstructing them from performing their household duties. It is also preferred that a woman becomes a servant at home to yield to her family's every demand at a whim - an unrealistic ideal. Simultaneously, a man holds a woman fully responsible and distracts himself from carrying out his duties due to society’s view of “manhood”. With the persistence and perseverance of Sudanese women, the percentage of female education has increased to more than 52%, but the educational curricula is devoted to the same concept of political Islam. As a result, most women do not benefit from their education in their private or public lives, and return home to raise children, which does not conflict in essence with education. Therefore, education in Sudan needs fundamental reform, which is an urgent necessity for progress and a conceptual qualitative shift.9
The work of women is important and contributes to economic security and is a measure of their independence. It is noticeable that the level of female participation in the Sudanese market decreased, as their participation rate reached 25% in the age group between 15-64 years old. The immigration of fathers has resulted in an increase in the percentage of women working in the civil service by 50% and participating in difficult jobs that affect their health and performance. Political Islam drains the sources of its opponents, especially women, and focuses on the activists to change their views or organize them politically. Moreover, Sudanese women in the market domain are exposed to various types of exploitation because of prejudice. Unfortunately, female unemployment has increased recently to reach 0.8% in spite of having distinguished qualifications and capabilities, but merely because of ideological gender-biased reasons. As for those who were not affiliated with political or sectarian organizations, they were excluded instead of being benefited from as real human resources that can be optimized.10,11
The health of Sudanese women is important, but there are those who cross the red line and try to change the demographical map and manipulate the hormones of women. This affects their capabilities, and it is something that must be stopped; those involved must be held accountable because it is unforgivable. It is noticeable that the fertility of Sudanese women is low. In addition to hormonal health problems, the required treatment is not available, and doctors and pharmacists collude because of society’s accepted view that women should bear children at any cost. The fertility rate for Sudanese women in 2018 was estimated at 4.85 births per woman, and the average life expectancy in the same year was estimated at 65.8 years (63.7 years for males and 68.1 years for females).12
Some discuss the issue of changing the skin-color of Sudanese women as though it is a change in the Sudanese identity, but the matter is much deeper than that. It goes beyond targeting the woman's skin; impacted by her affiliation with white-Arabs and urge to get rid of the dark brown color. The use of such creams not only distorts the skin of Sudanese women, but also leads to serious internal psychological damage, which coincides with the desire for ideological affiliation with political Islam. The concept of a feminine woman differs from that of the female human, but it does not detract from it, as it is one of the characteristics of a woman to be distinguished from men by her feminine features. However, this does not affect the performance of a woman in various functions and does not diminish her right to play sports and enter any profession if she so desires, provided that it does not negatively affect her health. The annual report of the Statistics Center of the Khartoum Dermatology Hospital, in the same year, revealed that the hospital received 80,739 cases that year, including 20,852 cases of deformities resulting from the use of "skin whitening creams". This is equivalent to 25.8% of the total number of cases received by the hospital after popular Sudanese markets were flooded in recent years by cosmetics from unknown sources. Medical reports confirm that the shops that sell skin-whitening creams usually resort to selling unconventional products that do not conform to medical specifications nor quality standards, and without obtaining medical approval, which has led to an increase in skin diseases among young girls.13
Image by AFP via arabnews.com
There is confusion between a woman’s freedom and her personal privacy, and between society’s freedom and what it deems appropriate according to religious, sectarian or tribal authority. The central question of it all is: what is freedom? Some believe that freedom is a form of moral liberation. Perhaps this concept stems from the fact that a family is viewed as a collective whole without looking at the privacy of a woman and her personal freedom. She is hereby treated as a representative who carries the name and honor of the entire family. The truth is that Sudanese women are able to preserve themselves with their morals and dignity. Yet the patriarchal view differs of women who march-on with all their strength into the society, whether at work or at home, and they are subjected to harassment or negligence. I think that the reason for this harassment is the tendency of unloved men to circulate rumors about Sudanese women in male communities, which are mostly incorrect or shamefully not true. This leads to the spread of false news and preconceptions about women so that society rejects them, isolates them, and does not allow them to effectively participate or perform their roles to the fullest without violation of their privacy or personal security. This sometimes reaches a form of societal or collective punishment. I believe that a man tries to draw in the Sudanese woman and then subdues her morally through guilt to change her voluntarily or mandatorily through psychological pressure with or without her knowledge14. Stigmatizing women as only a body without respecting their mentality and their ability to think is harmonious with eastern societies that view a woman's place as only the bed in a bedroom. This is what leads to reducing women's ambitions, their leadership of society, and their ascension to leadership positions- whether political, educational, or occupational- which ultimately limits the skills and capabilities of women.
This phenomenon continues as a result of an economic crisis that increases the suffering of Sudanese women with limited opportunities and insufficient transportation that helps them achieve financial independence and respect for their privacy. Therefore, I believe that the first victim of the economic crisis is the woman, which forces her to pursue marginal jobs and professions that do not develop her skills nor her ability to obtain a stable income. This also limits her ability to contribute to societal issues that can improve her life, such as engaging the personal status law that needs to be amended, or signing treaties for women’s rights. Given these conditions, the rate of female unemployment rises dramatically, which puts them under a great deal of pressure to the point where they cannot obtain the simplest personal necessities – leading to psychological and health disorders. In recent times, suicide attempts of Sudanese women have been heard of, and we are hearing stories of missing women, and others who have thrown themselves into the Nile river.
In light of all this, can we be optimistic?