Women in Sudan - Reversing into the 1990s?

By Shahin, Miriam | The Middle East, January 1993 | Go to article overview

Women in Sudan - Reversing into the 1990s?


Shahin, Miriam, The Middle East


As Sudan approaches its fourth decade of independence from colonialism, women in the country are faced with what appears to be a new era of repression. Blacklisted by most of the West and largely forgotten by its Arab and African neighbours, the Sudan of 1992 is controlled by a rigid military government. Influenced by the only political organisation which is legal in Sudan, the National Islamic Front (NIF), the government professes to be trying to create an Islamic state. However, the teachings of the Holy Koran have little to do with the rigorous disciplines currently being imposed on the streets.

Fighting a war against non-Muslims in the south and trying to bring the rest of the population to heel, the government of Sudan has introduced stringent new social measures. A war economy and the erosion of individual rights are but two of the side-effects created by the government in its attempts to establish an ideal Islamic state in the Sudan. It is the role and public freedom of women in particular that has been targeted as a priority by the regime of General Omar Hassan Ahmad al Beshir.

Anti-government activists argue that the erosion of women's rights is just the first step in a series of measures aimed at the disintegration of the Sudan as a progressive society.

While many of the rules and regulations that the current government is trying to impose on women exist in other Arab and Muslim countries, Sudanese political activists argue that application of Islamic law is particularly grave in the Sudan.

Unlike in other parts of the Arab world and Africa, Sudanese women have had access to education and civil service jobs since the early 1960s. Women held top portfolios in government ministries and local governments as well as in parliament. The first female diplomat to the Arab league was a Sudanese woman.

The overall condition of Sudanese women was by no means ideal, even before the take-over of the current government in June 1989.

The literacy rate of women remains at less than 15% and the mutilation of women in the country, through female circumcision, is still a widespread practice. Women argue that many of their problems stem from the political instability the country has faced since independence. "Always a new government, new rules, progress cannot take place in conditions of instability," said one woman in Khartoum.

The problem with the current government, as far as women are concerned, is that it has taken active steps to block their progress and even withdrawn some of the accomplishments they were able to achieve during the last 20 years.

Since the take-over of General al Beshir in June 1989 the regime has banned all political parties and even non-political organisations, such as women's groups who were not affiliated to the National Islamic Front (NIF).

Women's organisations had taken a leading role in the drive to eliminate the age-old custom of female circumcision in the Sudan. As a result of government action making these women's organisations illegal, all efforts to curb circumcision have been aborted.

A purge of public and private institutions in the aftermath of the change of government left some 20,000 people out of work, among them many women.

Sudanese women are frequently the primary wage-earners. A high percentage of men have been drafted into the army and are now in the south fighting a decade-old war. Women who work in the informal sector of the economy have been most directly affected by the new government regulations. Most of those working in Khartoum in the informal sector are illiterate, frequently supporting a number of children without any other income. They are often, although by no means only, displaced women who sought northern refuge from the war in the south. These are the street vendors or "tea ladies".

Many of these displaced women who lived in Khartoum have been "re-located" to desert camps where there is no chance to make a living of any kind. …

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