Women's Empowerment and Leadership Development for Democratisation

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Women of Sudan: Living with Militarism and Shari’a Law

By Suzan El Wakeel

Suzan El Wakeel is Fundraising Officer at the Aid Center for Advocacy and Legal Consultation (ACAL) in Sudan.  She is also Project Coordinator at Al Alag Centre for Press Services.  Representing ACAL, she attended WELDD’s regional workshop entitled “Culturally-Justified Violence Against Women: Resistance and Sustaining Our Activism” in Dakar, Senegal in September 2014.  Here, Suzan reflects on the effect on women and girls of militarism and 'Shari’a' laws in Sudan. 

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Sudan is a very large country; before South Sudan’s independence in 2011 it was the largest in Africa.  Sudan can be described as Afro-Arab-Muslim. Arabic is the official language and most of the people from northern Sudan are Muslims.  In other areas of the country, African languages are spoken, and Christianity, along with other African traditional spiritual beliefs, is practiced.

In the 1960s, Sudanese women made great achievements. During this time, women fought for their rights; education, political participation, and social justice. They participated in successful campaigns, took part in elections, and played a key role in two massive revolutions that led to democratic periods in Sudan, in October 1964 and April 1985. Women became part of the Sudanese parliament.  Women made decisions, qualified, capable, and ready to rule the Sudanese nation, with its great and beautiful diversity.

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Fatima Ahmad Ibrahim, one of the leaders of Sudan's 1964 Revolution and the first woman elected to Sudanese Parliament.

Sudan has been ruled by military governments for more than 40 years since its independence in 1956. Gaafari Nimeiry came to power in Sudan in 1969 following a military coup. In 1983 Nimeiry – who had initially implemented socialist and pan-Arabist policies before a turn towards Islamism – implemented Shari’a law across Sudan. This move set in motion mechanisms to develop an Islamic state, with important implications for the position and role of women in society. 

Following the introduction of Shari’a law, a conflict between different political movements ensued.  The secular faction was aware that non-Muslims and women would most likely be negatively affected by the implementation of Shari’a law, which would ignore the religious and cultural diversity of the Sudanese population.  Others saw the Islamic state as a positive alternative ideology to Western principles.  In the end, the latter saw victory; in September 1983, Sudan was declared an Islamic Republic.

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Sudanese children display the diversity of their country.

In 1989 Omar Al- Bashir came to power after leading a group of officers in a military coup that ousted the previous government. Bashir’s regime began to Islamize the Sudanese state politically, economically, socially, and culturally. The social and cultural changes that were introduced immediately affected women. Women’s dress became a critical political issue; it came to symbolise the preservation of order, which in turn led women to be exposed to various acts of violence by ‘moral guardians’. During the early 1990s Khartoum state council developed an order called Al Natham Al Aa’m (The Public Order Ordinance)

In Sudanese discourse the term Bet Alnas refers to the concept of a ‘good and polite girl’; a girl who obeys and follows social rules. This term has penetrated Sudanese people’s consciousness and mentality, and has become synonymous with girls being polite, ‘well bred’, and good Muslims - things which are supposedly shown by dressing modestly and covering one’s hair.  Religious issues have therefore severely affected the cultural and social sphere in Sudan. Women can be asked by anyone in the streets to cover their hair, because this is what the ‘good Muslim girl’ or Bet Alnas should do.

At the same time as the Islamization of Sudan in the 1990s, there was ongoing war between the south and north of Sudan.  The civil war led to the deaths of huge numbers of people from both sides of the country, and a mass wave of displacement.  In many displaced families, women became the head of the household. These women became part of the informal sectors, earning very low incomes by running small businesses such as selling tea in the streets of Khartoum. In September 2000, Khartoum state governors decided that women would not be permitted to work in hotels, restaurants, and petrol stations. The governor’s justification was based on a need to protect women from harassment. Sudanese activists voiced their fears, announcing that such a decision would exclude women from other fields of public work. 

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A displaced tea seller in Khartoum. (Credit: Shannon Egan/IRIN)

Sudan is a country where respect for human rights and freedoms are constantly ignored, and a culture of violence is deeply rooted in society. People are struggling with a lack of freedom; university students, journalists, human rights defenders, activists and politicians can be arrested anywhere at any time because of their views and ideologies. During September 2013 over 170 people, including several children, were killed by the national security forces on the streets because they protested against their poor living conditions. In September 2014, many activists were arrested and numerous NGOs have been closed because their mandates were: enhancing human rights, fighting for social justice, promoting democracy, or supporting women’s rights and advocating for legal reform against gender-based discrimination. The Sudanese government does not want NGOs to monitor human rights violations nor does it want people to be aware of their rights, because they will then be more inclined to claim them.

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2013 protests in Khartoum.

We must keep in mind that Sudan is still dealing with civil war and conflict in certain regions. The government of Sudan has a lot of serious issues they should be putting at the top of the priority list, rather than chasing the tea sellers in the streets and looking at young girl’s dresses. Some activists see the focus on these things as a tactic for deflecting attention (and therefore avoiding criticism) from Sudan’s real problems. 

As we have seen, many problems are facing Sudanese women as they live with both militarism and politicized religion.   However, huge efforts have been made and both activists and politicians have worked hard to bring about positive social and political change.  For this reason, I remain hopeful; I do believe that one day the women of Sudan will gain space to lobby for political and social improvement and will succeed in achieving their fundamental rights.  

This is the 10th entry in our #16Days 2014 blogging series.  We are bringing you an entry from one of our inspiring activists on each day during the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence.

Peace and Security
Political and Public Participation
Culturally Justified Violence Against Women