The Islamist government in Sudan recently celebrated the third anniversary of the military coup that brought it to power by building a huge public park south of the Khartoum airport, featuring hundreds of hurriedly transplanted trees, bushes and flowers. The impressive determination and efficiency the project commanded seemed calculated to prove to Khartoum’s masses that this is a can-do government.

Economic conditions have improved somewhat in the third year since the June 1989 coup brought the National Islamic Front (NIF) to power. Now urban shops are well-stocked, the favored white bread is available all day, and any government employee can get a sack of sorghum as insurance against future bread shortages. But the full shops and bright flowers mask a deep and painful erosion in the quality of life in Sudan. The Islamization of the state and culture entails political repression and economic mismanagement that has hurt almost everyone except those in power. Cultural shifts are having a particularly pronounced effect on women.

One need not look far to see the stress of living in Khartoum. Power cuts were scheduled for eight hours every work day in the 100-degree heat of May. Rampant inflation has meant tremendous suffering for the middle class and the poor. Trade unions, which would have fought to keep wages apace, have been outlawed. Many middle-class people have cut back on protein and are even skipping meals. Working two jobs, or undertaking petty trade on the side, is common. For civil war refugees and the urban poor, the situation is far worse.

Under these conditions, employed women are desperate to keep their jobs. But government and state-sponsored Islamic organizations increasingly pressure women to stay at home and follow “Islamic” roles. The Islamists criticize even the traditional dress of northern Sudanese women, the tobe, as too revealing. This head-to-foot wraparound veil, which does not conceal the face, is usually of a light fabric and worn over other clothes. According to Islamists, such clothes do not adequately cover the hair, forearms and neck, and lead to public disorder. Influential Islamic scholars allied with the NIF agree that this traditional garb should be replaced by “proper Islamic dress,” the hijab.

The vast majority of women — urban or rural — have not yet adopted “Islamic” dress, but many are worried. It is difficult to know when one might be criticized, taunted or even apprehended. People in Khartoum still discuss the case in October 1991 in which a woman was arrested on the street and taken to a “public order” court for violation of the unwritten dress code. Although she was dressed in a modestly long skirt, loose mid-length sleeved shirt, and the light scarf that many women allow to fall to the shoulders, she was found guilty of creating public disorder and sentenced to receive lashes and a fine. The woman had no way to defend herself since she had violated no specific statute. Her father paid the fine and successfully begged the judge to suspend the lashing.

In response to public anger over this case, the government slowed the pace of enforcement of “Islamic” dress, but its determination remains. Articles in the press offer fashion advice for Muslims: Women are to avoid looking “like a man” or wearing tight or clearly European clothing. In the past, women objected to Islamist pressure to wear the hijab, claiming that they had no money to purchase such clothes. So several months ago loans equivalent to about $30 were paid to women government employees — to be repaid through payroll deductions — and employed women and students were told to wear “Islamic dress” on the job by July 1 or risk being fired or arrested. Some Sudanese view this as an attempt to displace women from skilled and professional public employment. Many women were furious, but most felt they must conform. Their jobs are vital to family survival. Among university women, a significant minority wear the strictest type of clothing, but a variety of styles is still common on campuses.

Among the poor and working classes, the Islamist movement has had less evident impact. Women still sit on street corners selling tea or crafts, and they travel, dress and work according to their former patterns. But here and there women wear more concealing clothing, and one hears of some having to conform to greater restrictions of their movements. A former neighbor, who three years ago managed her household of younger brothers and sisters, has since married a day laborer who is a strict Islamist. Her husband rarely allows her to leave the house, and has ordered her to wear a black face veil, abaya and gloves when she does.

The government’s desire to implement shari‘a and an Islamic constitution does not seem to represent a public consensus. The fact that it has been as successful as it has can be attributed to the skillful political use of real social change occurring in the region. A backlash against the colonial past and a response to dramatic destabilization of contemporary global relations has allowed Islamists to instigate a struggle over Sudan’s authentic identity and culture.

The situation of non-Muslim women in Sudan is potentially explosive, despite NIF claims that non-Muslims will not be coerced. The government has declared its civil war with the factionalized Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (which advocates a secular government) a sacred struggle, a jihad. Many interpret this to mean that land, cattle and women in conquered areas can be claimed by the conquerors. One influential woman leader in the Islamist movement suggested that a solution to the “southern problem” was for Muslim men to take non-Muslim Dinka women as second wives or concubines, assuming their children would be raised as Muslims. Ironically, pro-government propaganda has urged support for the war in order to protect Muslim women from southerners portrayed as wanting to invade the Sudanese heartland.

Rural Influence

Although some have said that this regime holds power only in Khartoum, the Islamist impact on the two rural areas where I have done long-term research — one in the Gezira Irrigated Scheme and one east of the Blue Nile — is stronger than I had expected. Some of this seems to come from a genuinely religious inspiration. Many people in the villages feel that what they or their children have learned about Islam while working in Saudi Arabia, for example, is a more correct and complete practice than their own. As one highly educated woman said in reference to her conservative Islamist views, “Before, people assumed I just said those things because I went to the university, so they ignored me, but now they are starting to listen.” Some mentioned Islamist missionaries as influencing their thinking.

One of the villages in the Gezira has for decades had close ties with urban areas through schools, migration for employment, and trade. Since it has had electricity for years, and many of its educated young people got jobs in the Gulf countries and Libya and sent home expensive goods, this village has been saturated with televisions. Nightly during my visit in April 1992 large groups gathered to watch government reports of bumper wheat harvests, Egyptian soap operas, religious programs and war scenes glorifying the government’s role in the civil war. Improvements in mass communications — rumored to be a special beneficiary of Iranian aid — appear to have given the state an increasingly effective tool with which to influence public opinion.

The tenor of political discussions had definitely changed since my visit in 1989. Although people still complained about the economy and expressed fear of government repression, there was far more discussion of topics such as the proper attire for women, the civil war as a jihad (some said the SPLA was trying “to take Sudan away from the Sudanese,” meaning Arab Muslim Sudanese), and the rights of non-Muslims versus the desirability of converting them to Islam.

In the other area where I worked, east of the Blue Nile, there were no televisions. There, experience with formal education was so recent that urban culture has had far less influence, but there, too, the Islamists had made some inroads into women’s cultural traditions. In neither area were men tolerating the spirit-possession rituals of the zar. Some claimed it was merely dying out and was not forbidden, but some women said their husbands would not let them participate. In the Gezira, there was strong pressure to end pharaonic circumcision (clitoridectomy) for both health and religious reasons. East of the Blue Nile this was not yet an issue. “It hasn’t reached us yet,” women said, showing their awareness of the drift of social changes toward their area. They also were not yet concerned about “Islamic” dress.

Group Weddings

Government-sponsored group weddings are an innovation of the Islamist government which has met with much praise — and some criticism — in both rural areas. Growing out of a sometimes practiced tradition whereby two or more families hold weddings for their children on the same day to save on expenses, the government has sponsored numerous Islamic group weddings on a massive scale. Offering incentives such as plots of building land and cash grants (about $100) for newlyweds, couples are encouraged to register at the Rural Council prior to presidential visits. The couples are brought in by bus and married en masse in the presence of President-General Omar al-Bashir. When Iran’s President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani visited last year, he and al-Bashir attended a group wedding in Hasaheisa where several hundred couples reportedly tied the knot.

For the poorly paid and struggling young people of the countryside, this took the sting out of the inflation rate by allowing them to avoid the usual high costs of marriage, or the risk (for women) of becoming “too old” for marriage. Those more concerned about demographic issues and the costs of schools are less enthusiastic. Although group weddings have now decreased (there has been criticism from the Muslim Brothers about the immodesty of bringing all these unmarried women and men together), the government has bought a great deal of political good will from many couples and their families.

Obstacles to Resistance

Individual acts and expressions of resistance are not uncommon. One Khartoum woman I know cut her hair short — waiting defiantly for anyone to tell her she looks like a man — and wears short-sleeved shirts with her long skirts. But organized resistance has been difficult. Pressure comes from individual choices made by ordinary Muslims out of a sense of duty and a desire to live in a way they believe is more correct. Here the ideological use of mass media and missionary work is difficult to distinguish from a social process based in people’s real experiences with migration and religious revitalization, and the resulting cultural debates.

When the banner of Islam is claimed by the state, it is often difficult to counter. Even the long-accepted democratic argument that people should be free in their practice of religion — allowing tolerance of Christians as well as variations in Islamic observances — is difficult to make to those convinced they know what God wants. Those who argue for democratic freedoms and human rights have been branded as Westernized elite intellectuals. But there is recognition that arguments against pluralism, tolerance and traditions unrelated to Islam can also be read as arguments against Sudanese, not European, cultural themes, offering a basis for nationalist opposition to some Islamist extremes.

For example, some women who had previously given up the tobe for Western clothes are wearing the tobe again instead of the hijab. But even such national ethnic pride is ultimately vulnerable to the ideological hegemony of the Islamists, who imply that Sudanese customs — particularly northern and central Sudanese women’s customs such as wailing at funerals, zar spirit possession, pharaonic circumcision and dancing unveiled in mixed company at weddings — are backward holdovers from their pre-Islamic past.

More organized protest has been prevented by strong repression, including the effective suppression of trade unions and women’s organizations not sanctioned by the regime. Organized opposition is considered extremely dangerous; both in Khartoum and in the rural areas people worried about spies and arrests. Muhammad, a professional in his mid-thirties, was arrested and held without charge for two months with other prisoners on a rooftop, unable to contact his family. Security police investigated him for collecting money to aid families of arrested labor leaders and political activists. Although he is now free and still has his job, he believes it is too risky to continue that activity. “We are waiting for a new generation of leaders to emerge,” he says sadly.

Many university faculty members have been purged from the University of Gezira, and several from the University of Khartoum in March, including political and trade union leaders. In May, Amira, a teaching assistant in her twenties who seldom covers her hair but wears a transparent scarf around her shoulders or well back on her head, told me she was worried that she might be arrested for the way she dressed. By the end of the month she had been fired.

An exodus of Sudanese intellectuals has been going on for a while because of Sudan’s poverty and political problems, but now there are more women lining up at the airport. Yet many stay, struggling to keep food on the table while attempting to improve the situation of women. Some work to increase the role for women in development projects; others to improve women’s health, end clitoridectomy and expand educational opportunities for women and girls in institutions like Ahfad College or the newer private Sudan University College for Girls. Many of the students come from families who left to work in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries, and therefore have more money than those who stayed in Sudan. Women’s studies has an important place in the curriculum of both of these institutions. By encouraging inquiry, comparative studies of other Third World countries and discussions of human rights and family welfare issues, critics hope that the educational system will keep critical thinking alive, despite the impact of well-financed ideological work by Islamist organizations.

How to cite this article:

Ellen Gruenbaum "The Islamist State and Sudanese Women," Middle East Report 179 (November/December 1992).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This