Sudan: An Eminent Movement

For centuries, Sudan has been the cultural and geographical link between the countries on the Mediterranean and Red Seas and the southern countries in Africa. When Britain began its rule over Sudan with Egypt, the more southern part of Sudan was severely neglected. Not only did this affect the production of crop and goods from southern Sudan, but it also affected the way the culture treated their own people, causing a cultural civil war of sorts. Once Sudan gained its independence from Anglo-Egyptian rule in 1956, a great feminist movement began to take precedence it its quest to unify all the peoples of Sudan to one common idea in the equality of men and women. This quest for equality continues today as organizations and people all over the world battle centuries of oppressive tradition in Sudan.

Four years before Sudan declared its independence from Anglo-Egyptian rule on 1 January 1956, a large feminist organization called the Sudanese Women Union (SWU) officially started the feminist movement. Some say that the feminist movement of Sudan actually began in 1907 when a man named Sheikh Babkir started the first school in his hometown of Rufia to teach his female relatives and friends. Though we do not believe this to be the actual beginning of the movement, we do believe Rufia was an important precursor for its official start.

As the SWU became strong enough, one of its first projects was to build schools to educate the women of Sudan. Soon after independence in 1956, the SWU built fifteen night schools, two middle schools, and three elementary schools solely for women to attend. Though education is not the main concern in causing change in the social status of the role of the woman, it is "critical for allowing women the mobility to act and to conceptualize their status as a subordinate sex, and also to understand their position as citizens" (Page 157, Narrating Feminism). So though these twenty schools may not seem like they could have a grand impact on all of Sudan, it surely was the beginning of some great things to come.

Sudanese school of childrenSince its beginning in 1952, the SWU has had a tremendous influence through social change in Sudan. During the time of Britain's rule, the southern-most part of Sudan was severely neglected, causing an exceeding amount of resentful feelings that were eventually expressed through civil war. During this time, women "fell to isolation and silence" (page 158, NF). This meant isolation from politics, communal gatherings, social activities, etc. Women were severely oppressed, losing their sense of identity. When it came to marriage, the women had no say in choosing their husbands. Once married, women were under an Obedience Law—a law in which Sudanese men could divorce any of their wives at any time (as polygamy was practiced even in the Christian areas of Sudan), but the women would always have to go back to their husbands if the man were to ever change his mind. The woman's worth in the marriage was left to the whim of the male. The women were the expected to feed their husbands the main dish during meals and wait until he was done so that she could eat table scraps. Interestingly enough, the number of wives killing their husbands was rising greatly up until 1956 when Britain lost rule.

After that time, Sudanese women began to find representation and hope in the SWU. Women's Voice Magazine was begun in 1955 by the SWU as an attempt to explain the actual issues, political and social inhibitions, which were driving this female oppression. Too many times, women want to be liberated and gain some power so badly that they lose sight of what demonstrations will really be effective, such as in Egypt in 1923, when a feminist protest was led in which the women took off their veils and burned them in the streets to show their freedom from male authority. Also, during the time of the Vietnam War, women across the country were burning their bras in the streets as a sign of protest against the war and clamoring for women's liberation. In the end of both cases, no political or social inhibitions were changed for the benefit of the community, but rather, the women were left without veils and underwear.

Sudanese woman with childOn a more serious note, Sudanese tradition has been, and continues to be, an incredibly stubborn battle for the SWU and other feminist organizations around the globe. In many ways, the Sudanese women add to their own oppression because of these traditional expectations. For centuries, much of Africa has participated in female circumcision. Still today, over 26 countries in Africa practice this mutilation of the female genitalia on their female children and adolescents. Because of the lack of sanitary tools and environments, many of these young girls die of pain or infection, while the others are infected with the HIV virus. Daniel Gordon, who has become well known for his views against female circumcision, described the practice as, "painful, physically disfiguring, medically treacherous, and oppressive to women" (Page 25, Confronting Patriarchy). Yet, the Sudanese culture frowns upon feminists and doctors that oppose this tradition. It is thought that this circumcision purifies the body and keeps female clean; it is also the main form of birth control. If circumcisions ceased in Sudan, many scholars believe that the women would gain more opportunities through education politically and economically, causing child bearing to be less of a staple and a powerful role in women's lives. But women in Sudan are defined by their place in the home as they had had nothing else for centuries. In a sense, the Sudanese women may lose their feeling of importance; thus, they do not invite the ideas of these scholars and shun the people that do.

In conclusion, Rogaia Mustafa Abusharaf, a prominent feminist activist in Sudan, stated,

To understand the Women Question in the Sudan in the present day, we have to come to with the intricacies of the past as inscribed in the sociopolitical and historical problems of the country as a whole.

Sudan has had heavy influence from its surrounding countries and the Christian faith. In the Christian faith, men and women have very separate but equally important roles in society. Yet, as feminist movements work toward equality of men and women in a society, most often times, the movement turns into a male bashing movement, or rather, a movement for women to take the more "dominant" roles that males have inherited for centuries. We must be cautious that this does not happen.

Sudanese womanAs Ezra Taft Benson, former president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, once stated, "Equality should not be confused with equivalence." The recognition that there are particular roles of gender that cannot be altered is vital to maintaining healthy perspective during a feminist movement. So, as we strive to diminish the oppression of women in Sudan, we must understand how bearing the cultural influences are upon the willingness of the Sudanese people to change. Still, as the SWU continues to educate men and women in this African nation, it is our hope there will slowly be a change in the political and social standing of women, thus giving a brighter hope for Sudan in their present-day crisis.


Abusharaf, Rogaia Mustafa. (2004). Narrating Feminism: The woman question in the thinking of an african radical. A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies, 15, 2, 152.153.

Benson, Ezra Taft. (1980). Women (p. 71). Deseret Book.

Sargent, Carolyn. (2003). Confronting Patriarchy: The Potential for Advocacy in Medical Anthropology. Retrieved 16 April 2006.<http://wf21a7.webfeat.org/WNGVF1743/url =http://www.jstor.org/view/07455194/ap02003>.

Photos Retrieved 14 April 2006. <http://www.anasudani.net/sudan_photos%201%20-%2016.htm>.