The position and role of women within Islam has been the subject of considerable interest within Western societies. This interest has often not been well-informed, and has not always recognised the diversity which exists with regard to women in Islamic countries.(1) In Britain, for example, ‘The Times’ newspaper has stated that there is a general perception that women’s rights in Sudan are “in their infancy”. The reality is very different. Sudan had one of the first and most active women’s movements in the African and Arab world. Even sources hostile to the Sudanese government admit that womens’ rights are entrenched in Sudan: “In comparison with women in many other African and Middle Eastern countries…Sudanese women have become relatively well- represented in public life.”(2)
Professor Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban is an acknowledged authority on Sudan, especially with regard to women:
“When I began working in the Sudan in 1970 I was struck by the sharp contrast between the passive and controlled Muslim woman I had expected from my readings about Arab and Islamic society, and the reality which I encountered in my relationships with Sudanese women. These women presented a strong exterior with a certain toughness of mind and spirit combined, like most Sudanese, with dignity and generosity…In the public arena the movement and activity of women in the urban areas is much less circumscribed than in the past or in more conservative Muslim societies. In the rural areas the confinement of women has rarely been the norm…Veiling and confinement are features of urban bourgeois life in the Arab world and the former is not a cultural tradition in Sudan.”(3)
Professor Fluehr-Lobban has also charted the economic emancipation of Sudanese women: “Women are moving into many areas of society from which they were by tradition excluded – in factory work, government bureaucracy, the professional fields – and this slow transformation has met little resistance.”(4)
Women constitute approximately 15,600,000 out of a total Sudanese population of 31,600,000. Women play a key role in the economic field, with females constituting 26.5 percent of the total labour force. This is up from seven percent of the work force in the 1960s. Sudan’s 1998 Constitution clearly states that all Sudanese are equal before the law without discrimination as to sex or race. This is entrenched in Article 21 of the constitution. All labour legislation is based on complete equality between men and women. The 1998 Constitution reiterated and reinforced earlier equal employment opportunities clauses in the 1973 Constitution. These provisions were reinforced in the 1997 Public Service Act, which provided for equal wages for equal employment; open competition based on competence, qualifications and experience; equal pension rights and equality regarding leave and holidays with due consideration for women being allowed extra special leaves. In November 2000, the President decreed that women would received two years paid maternity leave. While most women work within the agricultural sector, a large percentage also work as professionals, serving as ambassadors, university professors, doctors, lawyers, engineers, senior army officers, journalists and teachers.(5) There are, for example, women major-generals in the police. The British government has noted that “[w]omen are numerous in the administration and the army” (6). In 1996, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa published a book entitled ‘Africa’s Roll of Distinguished Daughters’. Of the fifty distinguished African women listed, ten were Sudanese. These included academics, lawyers, journalists and psychologists.(7)
Politically, women are well-represented. Sudanese women became involved in nationalist politics from the mid-1940s onwards. Women secured the right to vote in 1953. In Sudan women have an unfettered right to elect and be elected in presidential, federal, state and local elections. To offset innate conservatism and to ensure female participation in political life, there is a quota system guaranteeing female seats and participation in federal and state legislatures. A quarter of all federal parliamentary seats are reserved for women. Women are also ensured a minimum of ten percent of seats in all other state legislatures, and other elected local bodies. Women have chaired select committees within the federal National Assembly. There have been women ministers in Sudanese governments since the early 1970s. There have been several women ministers in the present government, holding portfolios such as health, social welfare, public service and manpower and cabinet affairs. Ihsan Abdallah al-Ghabshawi was appointed Minister of Health in 1996. Another prominent woman minister was Agnes Lukudi, who served as the minister of public service and manpower. A southern Sudanese Catholic, she had also served as Governor of Bahr al-Jabal State from 1994-98. In 2000, the Sudanese President appointed a cabinet-level Advisor on Women’s Affairs. There is also an Advisor for Women’s Affairs within the Southern States Coordinating Council. There have been, and are presently, women ministers within various of the state governments. There is a women’s policy unit within the ministry of social planning, drawing up national policies and plans for women’s development. There are related women’s development units in many ministries, corporations, institutions and institutes of higher education. The Sudanese Women’s General Union is an officially recognised women’s organisation.(8)
Sudan’s health system, focused in a primary health care approach, has paid special attention to the health of women and children since they make up 75 percent of the population. Women’s health has always been a focus in Sudan. The first school for midwives in Africa was opened in the Sudan in 1921. Maternal and child health and reproductive health programmes have been priority areas for the government. Vaccination centres and programmes provide services for mothers, pregnant women and others. The average age of mothers increased from 17.1 years in 1989 to 25.3 by 1993.(9) The Sudanese government states that its programmes reach more than 80 percent of all Sudanese women. Despite the civil war, government health coverage programmes are also reaching more women in southern Sudan, up from 2% in 1989 to 25% in 1999. The government has initiated campaigns against harmful traditional practices such as female circumcision.
Professor Fluehr-Lobban has also noted the unique position Sudanese women have attained in the legal field – once again in contrast to many other Islamic and Arab countries:
“In 1970 the Sudan…took a bold step when the Grand Qadi (similar to a Chief Justice) of the Islamic courts, Sheikh Mohammed el-Gizouli, appointed the first woman justice in a Shari’a legal system. Since that time three other women justices have been appointed by the Honorable Sheikh el-Gizouli, the only ones, to my knowledge, in the contemporary Islamic world. The Sudan, like most Muslim areas, is undergoing change and is evolving its own set of values that are indigenous and Muslim, and that represent a modernist approach to the improvement of the status of women.”(10)
The only Arab countries that have followed Sudan’s lead are Lebanon, Jordan, Morocco, Syria and Tunisia.
Farida Ibrahim was appointed a judge in 1972: “I was nominated to the criminal court north of Khartoum where I examined and delivered verdicts, a first in the Arab world. Arab women must be allowed to prove their competence in this area and dispel the illusions in Arab society that both a woman’s indulgent nature and the sharia (Islamic law) prevent her becoming a judge…In general, women are well-considered in Sudan, which may be one reason why no defendant or accused has ever demanded my removal throughout my entire career, either in the city or in the rural zones.” She has also stated that the coming to power of the present government “in no way affected the position of women judges”. There were more women judges than ever before.(11) Farida Ibrahim was later appointed to the post of Chief Justice of Khartoum State, the most influential state in the federal Sudan.
Sudanese Supreme Court judge Sania Hamza is a prominent, senior, member of the Sudanese judiciary: “Our first woman judge was appointed in 1963. We have a lot of women judges – 67 out of 800 – compared with other Arab countries or even European ones and at the very top, the Supreme Court, we have five.”(12) Judge Hamza also notes: “Women have equal rights, both de facto and de jure. We drive our cars, we have equal chances and now most white-collar work is done by women.”(13) Judge Hamza has admitted that there is still some conservatism in Sudan with regard to women in senior positions: “But I can say that the reluctance to accept a woman as a judge is not limited to Sudan or even to Islamic or developing countries of the world. The Sudan is in fact very advanced in this respect.”(14)
Educationally, the present Sudanese government has clearly sought to enhance equality and access. There are now more women than men at university. They presently make up 62 percent of students in higher education, compared with 47.2 percent in 1995. This drive has also been reflected in secondary education. Between 1993-98, the enrolment of girls in secondary schools increased by 75 percent. Formal women’s education in Sudan dates back to the early 20th century. In 1907, Sheik Babiker established Sudan’s first private school, a school for girls. The Babiker family’s involvement in women’s education resulted in the establishment of Ahfad University for women, all the while working to provide quality education for women and seeking equality for women in all facets of Sudanese society.(15) Ahfad University has over 4,600 students. Tens of thousands of Sudanese women study at many of Sudan’s other universities. More women enrolled in Sudanese universities in the first five years of the 1990s than the total number of women who had entered universities since independence in 1956.
It is very clear that there claims by newspapers such as ‘The Times’ that women’s rights are in their “infancy” simply do not reflect the reality of the position, status and activities of women in Sudan. The fact is that within the Arab and Islamic world Sudan has led the way with regard to women’s social, political and economic rights.
1 Southern rebels have even tried to portray Sudan as the “Taliban of Africa” (see, “Sudan Rebel Leader Questions Deal With ‘Taliban of Africa’ Government”, News Article by Agence France Presse, 13 March 2002; “Government of Sudan is ‘Taliban of Africa’, Says John Garang, Leader of Opposition Forces”, News Article by Africa Newscast, 16 March 2002), perhaps unaware that in addition to a very restrictive position on women (see, for example, “Kabul Women Under Virtual House Arrest”, ‘The Washington Post’, 7 October 1996), the Taliban also did not tolerate a single church in Afghanistan. Contrast this with a 5 April 1998 ‘New York Times’ article by James McKinley which noted: “Khartoum’s churches on Sunday are filled to overflowing with Christians, worshipping freely, and those congregations are growing.”
2 “Women in Sudan”, Sudan Update, available at www.sudanupdate.org. See, also, for an examination of the earlier years, Carolyn Fleurh-Lobban, “Women and Social Liberation. The Sudan Experience”, Arab-American University Graduates Information Papers No. 12, March 1974 and Carolyn Fleurh-Lobban, “Women in the Political Arena in the Sudan.” Paper presented at the 7th Annual Middle East Studies Association Meeting, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 8-10 November 1973,
3 Carolyn Fleurh-Lobban, “Challenging Some Myths: Women in Shari’a Law in the Sudan”, ‘Expedition’, Spring 1983, pp. 33-34.
4 Carolyn Fleurh-Lobban, “Challenging Some Myths: Women in Shari’a Law in the Sudan”, ‘Expedition’, Spring 1983, p. 34.
5 In April 1999, President al-Bashir appointed Zeinab Muhammad Mahmoud Abd al-Karim as Sudan’s first woman ambassador.
6 “Section: Women and Children: C.19”, ‘Sudan Assessment’ (Version 4), Country Information and Policy Unit, Immigration and Nationality Directorate, Home Office, London, September 1999.
7 “Ten Sudanese Daughters Honoured”, ‘Sudanow’, Khartoum, August 1996.
8 “Human Rights: Sudan Women Take Their Place in Driver’s Seat”, News Article by Inter-Press Service, 24 November 1997.
9 ‘Sudanese Woman: Views and Facts’, The Advisory Council for Human Rights, Khartoum, 1997.
10 Carolyn Fleurh-Lobban, “Challenging Some Myths: Women in Shari’a Law in the Sudan”, ‘Expedition’, Spring 1983, pp.32-33.
11 “Sudanese Women Fight Arab Taboos Against Female Judges”, News Article by Agence France Presse, 29 May 1998.
12 “In Sudan, ‘Women Have Equal Rights'”, ‘The Times’ (London), 27 February 2002.
13 “In Sudan, ‘Women Have Equal Rights'”, ‘The Times’ (London), 27 February 2002.
14 “Sudanese Women in Leading Posts”, ‘Sudanow’, Khartoum, April 1992.
15 See, for example, Lilian Sanderson, “University Education for Sudanese Women in African Perspectives”, Sudan Society, No. 3, (1975), pp. 21-30; ‘Girls Education in the Sudan’, Educational Planning Unit Documentary Series No. 7, Ministry of Education, Khartoum, 1970.
The European-Sudanese Public Affairs Council sent this media contribution to Media Monitors Network (MMN)