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The world praised the appointment in early September 2019 of Asma Mohamed Abdallah as the first female foreign minister in Sudan and the second in any Arab country. Yet despite this apparent advance in gender equality, the appointment triggered a debate in Sudan about the role and quality of women’s representation in the government of Abdalla Hamdok, a veteran economist who was sworn in as prime minister of the country’s transitional cabinet on 6 September.
A firm supporter of women’s rights, Hamdok said in several statements that he was looking forward to greater participation of women in government, comparable to their role in the revolution that saw former dictator Omar al-Bashir ousted from power on 11 April.
The new government was formed according to the constitutional document signed between the army generals and the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC) alliance, which stated that women should fill 40 per cent of the positions at all levels of government, which is made up of the Sovereignty Council and the executive and legislative bodies.
Despite this agreement, only four members of the 20-seat cabinet are women, while only two women are included in the Sovereign Council, an 11-seat body that will operate like a collective presidency until late 2022 when free elections are planned. This is roughly the same or lower than the number of women in al-Bashir’s government.
According to Hala al-Khair, a Sudanese activist and regional director for the Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa, “Poor gender diversity made the negotiating team [that hammered out the power-sharing agreement with the military] narrow-minded.”
She added, “Most of the political parties negotiating on behalf of the Sudanese people did not address the challenges faced by women. We are aiming for 50 per cent [female representation].”
Tahani Abbas, a lawyer for a local organization called No to women’s oppression, agreed. “We want fair and equal participation based on competence. Although women were present everywhere in the protests, the meetings of the junta and protest leaders are often attended by men only and made public by men and do not address women’s demands explicitly.”
Early criticisms of women ministers
Asma Mohamed Abdallah, 73, has arguably the most high-profile post of the six women appointees. Born in the capital Khartoum, she studied political sciences at the University of Khartoum and was one of the first two women to join the diplomatic service in 1971. After 20 years in the service, she was appointed minister plenipotentiary and served in Morocco, Norway, Sweden and the United Nations and later as the deputy director of the Americas Department in the Foreign Ministry. She also worked briefly for the Islamic Education, Culture and Science Organization.
She was among the victims of the cull instigated after al-Bashir seized power in 1989, losing her job along with a large number of diplomats in 1991, under the so-called Dismissal for the Public Good Act, a cover used by the Islamists to purge their political opponents from public service.
Her recent appointment as foreign minister is thus widely seen not only as a win for gender equality but also as symbolic restitution for tens of thousands of civil servants removed from their jobs in the name of the public good.
Despite her long diplomatic career, she was little known to the majority of Sudanese and never openly engaged in politics. Her appointment came as a surprise to many who had expected Omar Qamaruddin, a long-time and vociferous critic of al-Bashir, to fill the post.
In the weeks since, her performance in press conferences and television interviews as well as her age and suitability to represent the young women who demonstrated for months in Khartoum have been widely discussed on social media.
Among the other women in the new cabinet is Lina al-Sheikh, 33, minister of labour and social development. She graduated from Ahfad University with a bachelor’s degree in business administration and received her master’s degree in development studies from the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom.
She previously worked for CARE International, a humanitarian agency, on monitoring and evaluation of activities in conflict areas such as Kordofan and Darfur. She then joined the European Commission in Sudan and worked as a consultant to the UN Global Compact Office in New York. She is one of the founders of Impact Hub Khartoum, a social innovation lab and shared workspace that helps young entrepreneurs, thinkers and creators to implement their ideas and build their professional careers.
She has been actively involved in the revolution since protests broke out in December 2018 and is considered a representative of her generation.
Walaa al-Boushi, also 33, was named minister of youth and sports. She first became known to the Sudanese public when she was photographed whispering in the ear of former American President Barack Obama during a visit to Washington in 2015, demanding he lift US sanctions on Sudan. More recently, she participated in the sit-in outside the military headquarters in Khartoum from April to June 2019.
Al-Boushi studied mechanical engineering at Khartoum University, then received a British government scholarship for young leaders to study for her master’s degree. She was elected chair of the East and Central Africa Advisory Council for the Fellowship of Young African Leaders, and in 2018 was selected to join the African Union Youth Program.
She is the daughter of a well-known university professor and a leader of Sudan’s Republican Party, which takes a liberal lead on women’s equality issues.
In a press statement Al-Boushi said “The road is not easy, but together we can make and do the impossible as we did in the past months,” she added, “The first democratically elected government after the transition period will consist of a majority of young people.”
Intisar Saghiroun, 61, will serve as minister of higher education and scientific research. She has a PhD in archaeology from the University of Khartoum, where she subsequently held several roles, including professor and assistant field director in the Archaeology Department and head of the Department of Scientific Research.
Her father was an irrigation minister in the 1980s and her maternal grandfather was the first minister of education under the British administration in 1948.
She has been criticized on social media by activists who consider her a pan-Arabist who downplays Sudan’s Nubian history, an allegation she refutes.
Aisha Musa al-Saeed, 79, is one of two women on the Sovereign Council. A Sudanese academic and human rights activist, she is notably also a Coptic Christian, a minority religious group in Sudan.
She graduated from the Teachers Institute in Khartoum and later received her master’s in education from the University of Manchester.
Like Asma Mohamed Abdallah, al-Saeed has been targeted on social media for her age, particularly the walking stick she relies on to get around. In a press interview al-Saeed responded to the criticisms by saying, “I hold my stick because I am an old woman. However, I am proud to be an example of this kind of success. Thanks to the struggle of young women and men and their impressive and distinctive great revolution.”
The sixth woman to be appointed is Raja Nicola Abdel-Messih, 62, also a Coptic Christian and a former legal advisor to the Ministry of Justice, where she worked for more than three decades. Not known for any political activism, she was approved for the position after the first candidate, Nasri Markos Yagoub, faced strong opposition online for alleged repeated sexual harassment.