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Women in Sudan: Strong Presence in Public Life Amid Growing Restrictions

Sudan- Sudanese women
Photo AFP

Women in Sudan have a strong presence in public life. They represent a large proportion of civil servants and students in educational institutions. They also have a prominent role in social, political and cultural activities. However, they face many constraints because of local values and norms and state laws that have become increasingly incompatible with women’s aspirations for equality and freedom since Islamists seized power in 1989.

Women had powerful positions going back to the Nubian kingdoms before Islam and Christianity. Some of the queens of that time were Amanji Renas, Shankid Khito and Amani Shakhito.

The first school for girls was opened in 1907 in the city of Rafaa, south of the capital Khartoum. The women’s movement began to form in the first half of the 20th century, leading to the formation of the Sudanese Women’s Union in 1952, which demanded women’s political and social rights. According to government statistics, in 2008 there were more than 700 women’s organizations in Sudan. The ‘No to Women’s Oppression’ initiative is the most active women’s organization in Sudan today.

First Female Parliamentarian Elected in Africa

Sudanese women have been pioneering in many fields in Africa and the Arab world. The first women’s newspaper was published in 1955. Since the first parliamentary elections in 1953, women have had the right to vote, and there have been female doctors, media activists and political leaders. One of them was Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim, who in 1965 was elected the first deputy parliamentarian in Africa and the Middle East. By the late 1960s, Sudanese women had the right to participate in all areas of employment and earned equal opportunities for rehabilitation, training and promotion. They also had the right to equal pay for equal work and were included in the pension system.

In 1971, Nafisa Ahmed el-Amin became the first female Sudanese minister. Currently, there are seven female members of the 48-member Federal Council of Ministers. The proportion of female teachers is 69 percent, female lawyers 41 percent, female police officers 10 percent and female students 51 percent. There are 78 female members of parliament out of 354. Sudanese election law provides for the allocation of a quota of 30 percent of seats in the Central Legislative Council and the Council of States through separate electoral lists for female candidates.

Writer Dawaja al-Awni said, “The prominent role played by Sudanese women in a traditional conservative society is paradoxical for everyone who has visited Sudan.” She believed that “the liberal character of women in Sudan has not been created by chance, but the result of a social advantage that has been characteristic of Sudanese men and women because of the African influences that made them more spontaneous, both physically and behaviourally.” She also attributed this to the prominent Sufi culture in Sudan, characterized by a popular, simple, tolerant strain of Islam that treats both genders equally.

Female Genital Mutilation

Despite these tolerant values, women have faced many difficulties and forms of discrimination, oppression and violence, most notably female genital mutilation (FGM), which has been practiced for hundreds of years.

Sudanese legislation criminalized female genital mutilation in 1947, but the previous Penal Code of 1983 and the 1991 Penal Code currently in force made no reference to the criminalization of this practice. Despite public and official efforts to combat FGM, it is still prevalent, especially in the countryside. Government statistics in 2016 indicated that FGM had decreased to 31.5 percent among girls under 14 years of age. An official statement by the director of the National Project to Combat Female Genital Mutilation in Sudan said that the rate of women circumcision at the national level is 65.5 percent. Circumcised women are exposed to many problems, including extreme pain and complications – some of them fatal – during childbirth.

New Restrictions

When the Islamists seized power in 1989, official and community restrictions were imposed on women under the pretext of ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ and the implementation of the ‘civilizational project’ to reshape Sudanese life.

Local wars under the so-called ‘salvation government’, particularly the Darfur war, saw a series of mass rapes of women. Most of these crimes were committed by government-backed Janjaweed militias, some of whom were regular soldiers.

In urban areas, women faced arrest, imprisonment, whipping and fines on several charges related to personal conduct or clothing, and sometimes because they were seen in public with men who were not legally related to them.

The campaigns were later legalized as public order laws, which include provisions stipulated in the 1991 Penal Code, and a law called the Khartoum Public Order Act of 1996. The laws criminalized a wide range of personal behaviours and include what are described as ‘obscene acts or materials’, ‘indecent clothing’, ‘seduction’, ‘debauchery’, ‘obscene acts in public’ and ‘immoral songs’. Because of the loose definitions of these behaviours, their interpretation was left to individual police officers. Women were the most affected and targeted group, and they were taken to police departments and courts in large numbers, whether as individuals or groups. Some policemen saw in these laws an opportunity for financial and sexual blackmail and, in some cases, sexual favours in return for the women’s release.

According to statements by the Ummah Party leader Mariam al-Mahdi, published in late 2010, 40,000 women were whipped in one year under the provisions issued in accordance with the public order laws.

One of the most recent cases involving the public order laws was the arrest of human rights activist Wini Omer on 30 December 2017 on charges of being indecently dressed while wearing a skirt, blouse and scarf and walking in an indecent manner. Although the court acquitted her, she was monitored by public order officers and was the target of a security crackdown in February 2018. A group of officers broke into a house where she was meeting some friends, all of whom were accused of prostitution, drinking alcohol and drug abuse. Subsequent examination of the defendants proved that they had not used any alcohol or drugs.

Women also face other forms of discrimination concerning their rights and duties under the Personal Status Law, which is derived from Sharia law. The law stipulates that a guardian is the one who marries off a girl, and the law entitles the guardian to annul the marriage contract if an adult and rational woman is married without his consent. It also stipulates that a woman shall be denied the right to maintenance on divorce if she disobeys her husband, and that the testimony of two women shall be equal to that of one man. The law also gives a husband the exclusive right to divorce. Moreover, it makes it a condition for a wife to give compensation if she agrees with her husband on khul (divorce initiated by the wife ). This law is also flawed because it does not specify a minimum age for marriage, and it gives guardians the right to marry off girls who are over ten years of age, with a judge’s permission.

Marital Rape

In May 2018, a Sudanese court sentenced a 19-year-old girl to death for murdering her husband after he tried to rape her. According to Noura Hussein, her father forced her to marry her cousin at the age of 16, and she refused to consummate the marriage on the wedding night. She said the next day, her husband got three of his male relatives to hold her down while he raped her. When her husband tried to rape her again the day after that, she resisted and stabbed him with a knife. After a large national and international solidarity campaign, the Court of Appeal in June reduced the death sentence to five years’ imprisonment.

Challenging Clerics

In September 2018, an episode of the television programme Youth Talk presented by the German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle, entitled ‘What Do Sudanese Women Want Today?’, caused an uproar in Sudan because of the intense dialogue between Sheikh Mohammed Osman Saleh, head of the Association of Sudanese Scholars, and women who advocated women’s rights and their personal and public freedoms. A comment by a 28-year-old woman called Wiam Shawqi was one of the most controversial. She attacked Sheikh Saleh for saying that “illegal” dress worn by women encourages harassment and for his support for the marriage of underage girls. Shawqi called for women’s personal freedoms, equality in family rights and a wife’s right to unilateral divorce.

Mosque imams and a large number of young people on social media sites criticized the German channel and the program and accused them of spreading corruption, infidelity, atheism and secularism in Sudan.  They also denounced Wiam Shawqi for her lack of manners and undermining the constants of religion. Some hardliners threatened to attack the channel Sudania 24, which linked up with Deutsche Welle to record the episode in Khartoum.

It is worth mentioning that the Sudanese government has refused to sign the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) since its inception in 1979. Sudan currently ranks 165th out of 188 countries on the Gender Inequality Index.

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