Printer Friendly

A history of Sudanese women organizations and the strive for liberation and empowerment.

Only short before the dawn of independence in 1956 that the Sudanese women movement gradually started to gain momentum. This was, however previously closely linked with the escalating national movement against colonialism. However, most of women's achievements were realised during the interrupted periods of democracy after independence in 1956. Historically, the embryo of women's movement started to grow after the establishment of the political parties in 1948. The first organised women's movement started with the establishment of the Union of Sudanese Women Teachers in 1949. Emergence of the Union of Sudanese Women in 1952 was the turning point with the general objective of enhancing the status of Sudanese women.

It was during the short cycles of democracy since independence, that Sudanese women made great strides in realising great achievements connected with their social and economic rights. However, during the frequent cycles of military regimes since independence, women's rights have always been curbed. Nonetheless, since 1989 when die National Islamic Front (NIF) came to power through a military coup d'etat Sudanese women's rights, particularly their human rights have deteriorated to an extent that has not been witnessed throughout the history of Sudan.



The birth of World Women Movement was in the West during the French revolution of 1789. That was the first time for women to raise the slogans of liberty, fraternity, and social equality (1). In more recent history, the first women organization was established in the United States of America in 1948. The American women waded a pioneer struggle for the realization of their rights with regard to education, work, marriage and voting. Women organizations also flourished in Europe and made many achievements in connection with women's rights. Women organizations in East European Socialist Countries established WIDF(Women International Democratic Federation) in East Berlin. However, women organisations in the Third World were not subordinated to those organizations in the North (2). Nonetheless, the first women movement in Third World Countries started in China in the eighteenth century, then extended to reach India in the nineteenth Century (2). At present some of the most distinguished women organizations in the T hird World are the General Union of Arab Women in Cairo and the General Congress of all African Women in Algiers. Those came into existence and flourished through contacts with the women movement in Europe. In Sudan, British colonization together with indigenous traditions created a milestone that blocked women movement from surfacing for a long time. It was only short before the dawn of independence in 1956 that the Sudanese women movement came to surface and gradually gained momentum that was closely linked with the escalating national movement against colonialism. However, most of women's achievements were realized during the periods of democracy after independence in 1956.

The birth of the women movement in Sudan

The embryo of Sudanese women movement started to develop with modest contributions as early as the start of national resistance, concomitantly with the establishment of the Sudanese Union Association in 1921, followed by the White Flag Society in 1924. In the two movements women did not take part because of the strict social traditions and the colonial government that prohibited women from participating in public activities. Women, however played an important secret role by securing the secrecy of meetings and circulation of revolutionary literature. During this period, one woman was able to distinguish herself. This was Al Azza, the wife of Ali Abd Alatif who was the master mind of the 1924 revolution. Later, Al Azza was exposed to great harassment and torture by the British rulers but she never yielded. Although her heroic stand was a solitary incident, she became a symbol of struggle for the following pioneers of the women's movement.

Abortion of 1924 revolution was followed by a period of political stagnation until the formation of the Graduates Congress in 1938. Again, women were not allowed membership of the Congress because of indigenous traditions and misconceptions arising from selfish religious teachings that prohibited women's participation in public activities. Inspite of these obstacles women were able to play a relatively more active role than the one played in 1924. 1n1938, the Congress was supported by groups of educated working women, namely teachers, nurses, and midwives. In addition to this, few housewives also participated in women's activities.

Women's movement after the establishment of political parties in 1948

In the late fourties and after the establishment of the political parties, some of the educated women were affected by the heat of the national upheaval and women liberation movement worldwide, with particular emphasis in the Arab world. Hence, the Cultural Association of Girls was the first women organization to be formed in Sudan. The initiative came from Fatima Talib, who was preparing herself to join Gordon Memorial College at the time, and Khalida Zahir, already a student in the School of Medicine. The fathers of both young women were members of the army officers organization that lead to the 1924 revolution. Those pioneer women were joined by nine girls, most of them had their education in foreign schools (missionary schools). To get the consent of the British authorities for registration of the Association, the advertised purpose of the latter was social and cultural, such as literacy work amongst women and teaching them some aspects related to home economics e.g. needle work, dress-making, etc. Howeve r, the membership of the Association was restricted to educated women only (3). The Association commenced its activities by opening literacy and home economics classes: It organized debates and gave lectures to women groups. It held charity fairs for the financing of its activities. It also established a kindergarten which later on developed into a primary school in 1970. Nonetheless, the zeal of the Association gradually dwindled and its activities came to an end after two years from establishment. The reasons for this, in our opinion, were a) Restriction of membership of the Association to the few educated and thus the movement could not spread among the majority of the Sudanese women, b) after the emergence of the political parties the differences that arose between the leaderships had negative impact on the activities of the Association and c) the British administration and some conservative Sudanese elements put some obstacles that curbed the activities of the Association. Concurrently, after the establi shment of the Association, a counter movement (English Speaking Women Union) was initiated by the British women and included some Sudanese secondary school girls. This Union did not have any significant impact because at that time there were only few English speaking Sudanese women and thus the Union could not reach the grassroots of the society.

Emergence of the Union of Sudanese Women Teachers

This Union was formed in 1949 as a socio-cultural organization, on the face of it but a trade union in reality. The initiators of this Union were Nafisa Ahmed Al Mileik and Suad Abdel Rahman. The Union succeeded in bringing under its umbrella all Sudanese women teachers in all stages of general education. In 1951, it changed into a Trade Union for Sudanese Women Teachers and submitted a memorandum demanding increased numbers of girls schools and improvement of the conditions of service for women teachers. This Union was later amalgamated with the Men's Teachers Trade Union to form the unified Trade Union of Teachers.

Emergence of Women's Promotion Society in Omdurman

This society was formed in 1949 as a socio-cultural movement within the Mahdi's family. It came to be through an initiative of (*) Sayda/Rahma Ali Jadalla, the wife of Sayed/Sidig Al Mahdi. The objectives of this society were not different from it's predecessors. It commenced its activities in the same manner pursued by the other societies, but in a much limited scope as it was mainly concerned with the family and Ansar sect. Therefore, the Society could not gain access to Sudanese women grassroots. The Society was supported and backed by the British administration due to the close relationship between Umma Party ( mainly Ansar sect) and the British rulers. Inspite of this support the Society gradually lost momentum and soon its activities came to an end.

Following a temporary and short lived stagnation in women's movement, the latter was vitalized when women nurses joined the union of men nurses to form The Union of Nurses in 1950. Participation of women nurses in the demonstration against colonialism for improvement of terms of service rekindled a new era in the Sudanese women movement.

Emergence of the Philanthropic Women Association of Al Obeid

Sudanese women's social and political consciousness began to spread beyond the capital. Nafisa Kamil and Hawa Ali Al Baseer established this Society in Al Obeid in 1951. Women's organizations had now stretched their tentacles to reach Western Sudan. Their activities were mainly in the philanthropic fields, and the Society was attracted to a group of women who enhanced social and cultural activities outside the capital.

Emergence of the Sudanese Women's Union

The establishment of the Union of Sudanese Women in 1952 was a political turning point in women's movement, and it had close linkage with the World's Women's Movement, regionally and internationally. Establishment of the Union of Sudanese Women laid the foundation for current women movement. The period that immediately preceded the formation of the union was distinguished by some important features and factors that were conducive for the establishment of the Union. The ones of most significance were:

1. The escalation of national consciousness and struggle against colonialism among women working in educational and health fields.

2. Literary and cultural activities were enhanced in the various stages of girls education, namely the intermediate, secondary and Teachers Training College for Girls after the introduction of some men teachers to the staff of these schools. Those men teachers were well qualified and had extensive experience in teaching. This helped in the promotion of girls talents and their awareness of their rights and social problems.

3. On the 26th of August 1951, the women nurses demonstrated with their men colleagues against colonial policies. That was the first time in which a group of women joined a political demonstration.

4. This period witnessed the appearance of some brave women who wrote articles in Sudanese press, raising some women's problems and urging their fellow women to unite and participate in public activities. Some of these writers assumed pen names in conformity with customs and traditions. The first author of this article used to write under the pen name of Bint Alnour (Daughter of light).

5. In those days the platform of the University College of Khartoum was a stage for the national movement. Khalda Zahir, a pioneer of the women movement was the first to appear on this platform. She played an active role in Khartoum University College Student's Union. She was once arrested for being a member of the prohibited Peace Corp Committee and was brought before a court that acquitted her. It is here pertinent to note that Khalda Zahir was the first woman to participate in the underground activities of the Sudanese Communist Party and became one of the founders of The Union of Sudanese Women.

6. The national upheaval was at its zenith and the public fury against colonialists exploded and was increasing day by day (4)

7. Availability of the National Intermediate Girl's School in Omdurman to serve as a meeting centre for intellectual debates and propagation of information to reach others.

This school was the first intermediate school for girls and was better known as Al Mileik Girls School after the name of the founder. Amongst the staff of this school, three of them were politically conscious women who later on, together with others, established the Union of Sudanese Women.

8. Those who formed the Union were closely connected through their family links, schooling and work.

The Union came to be when Azziza Melki Osman invited her colleagues, who previously discussed the issue, for a meeting at her parents home in Omdurman on the 17th of January 1952. The meeting included the ten provisional founders of the Union. Those were: Fatima Talib Ismaeil, Khalda Zahir Sarour Al Sadat, Hajja Kashif Bedri, Azziza Meki Osman Azrag, Nafisa Abu Bakr Al Mileik, Mahasin Geilani Al Sayed, Thuraya Umbabi, Umsalama Sayed Abd Al Latif, Al Naeim Adam and the first author of this article, Nafisa Ahmed Al Amin.

In this meeting it was decided to call for a general meeting on the 31st of January, 1952 at Al Mileik Girls School to explain the idea and elect a provisional committee to steer the work and prepare for the general conference. The ten founding women exerted great efforts to make a success of the conference. On the 18th of January 1952 Al Rai Al-am, a daily independent newspaper, announced the emergence of the Union. It also published the date of the conference meeting that was held on the 31st of January 1952. That day proved to be a historical one, since about five-hundred women attended the meeting; this was in addition to a number of young girl students who were not of the required age of membership who attended the meeting as observers.

The conference thoroughly discussed the idea behind the establishment of the Union. It also reviewed, discussed and took into consideration all previous negative aspects that led to the discontinuity of previous women's organization. Finally, the conference elected a provisional committee which included the ten founding members in addition to representatives of working women and some leading figures amongst women who did not attend the 17th of January meetings. Amongst these figures were Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim and Suad Al Fatih Al Badawi. The committee was entrusted with the following tasks: a) organization of membership and subscriptions, b) development of the constitution and internal regulations of the union, and e) calling for the second general conference.

Al Mileik School was selected as a temporary residence of the Union following full support of the founder, Sheikh/ Abu Bakr Al Mileik. The provisional committee of the Union elected Fatima Talib as president and Thuraya Umbabi as secretary. The response of the Sudanese society to the Union was overwhelming. The establishment of the Union was one of the historical events in the struggle of the Sudanese people against colonialism; henceforth was supported by all sectors of the national movement including progressive intellectual groups, students, left-wing workers and farmers and in particular the Communist Party. On top of this, independent news papers expressed their full support to the newly emerging movement. On the other hand, the Union was not accepted by the traditional political forces as it was considered a sway from Sudanese traditions and values. Moreover, the Muslim Brothers and the (*) Sunna religious sect opposed the Union under the pretext of religious misconceptions. Nonetheless, the voice and b acking of supporters was dominant.

A few months after election, the provisional committee of the Union finished with the entrusted tasks and held the second general conference on the 24th of April, 1952. The basic organizational documents were approved by the conference and an executive committee of fifteen members was elected. This included Fatima Talib as president, Nafisa Ahmed Al Amin as secretary and all of; Khalda Zahir, Thuryia Al Dirdeiri, Nafisa Al Mileik, Suad Al Fatih Al Badawi, Batoul Adham, Thuryia Umbabi, Suad Abdel Rahman, Hajja Kashif Azziza Meki, Khadmalla Osman, Fatima Abdel Rahman, Suad Abdel Aal, Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim and Khadija Mohamed Mustafa as members.

Objectives of the Sudanese Women Union

From the start; the Sudanese Women Union aimed at creating a strong and effective movement to serve the family, working women, school girls, and in particular emphasis was on rural women. The main demands of the Union were focused on their social, economic and civil rights. The main objectives stipulated in the first constitution were:

1. Struggle for the achievement of social, economic and civil rights.

2. Enhancement of the status of Sudanese women.

3. Enhancement of the national consciousness amongst women.

4. Participation in all philanthropic activities. (5)

Activation of the Union

The Union began its activities with some vital fields, namely education since illiteracy and ignorance were the chief enemies of women. Therefore, literacy campaigns were started, together with a program for adult education. The second venture included cultural activities, where serious efforts were made to improve the status of women and children in these aspects. These included entertainment programs, that aimed at the enhancement of the creativity of women in all aspects of life. The Union also made great efforts to fight harmful traditional practices and customs by organizing health and religious campaigns to enlighten women in these fields. The third aspect that was taken into consideration was concerned with women's rights. When all these activities were put to test, the practical implementation was found unfeasible under the prevailing organizational setup of the Union. To rectify the situation, the Union formed specialized offices and committees to facilitate the progress of its activities. One of the significant achievements was a weekly programme on women that was broadcasted from Omdurman Radio Station. This was under the title: "The Corner of the Sudanese Women". The programme was organizes by Azziza Meki and Nafisa Ahmed Al Amin. It is here worth mentioning that all these activities were carried out within the few years that preceded independence (1952-1955). At that time any criticism of the British administration was considered a provocative act against the colonial government. Those who would commit such a provocative act were subject to punishment in compliance with article 105 of the Criminal Law, Sudan Penal Code: 1923 (6) Inspite of this the Union was able to impose its existence and vitality through its domestic organization and world wide contact with women movement without exposing its members to legal penalties. This was due to the pertinent tactics that were followed by the Union in the implementation of its activities in compliance with the psychological structure of the Sudanese society but without retreating from the main objectives of the Union. The latter aroused women to move and unite, henceforth injected a new life into the old women organizations that had become decadent and ceased to function. The Sudanese Society for Promoting Women was revived in Omdurman. One of its members, Nimat Al Zein, had already established a sister society in Khartoum. Women Awakening Society. The new society was not a result of conflict, in as much as it was the fruit of wholesome competition which aimed at spreading the cause of Sudanese women as much as possible. Concomitantly, membership of the Union multiplied in an astonishing manner from its first year because of its balanced policy in participating in philanthropic societies as well as nationalistic activities. Another reason for success was that the leadership of the movement came from well known families. They acted in the most responsible manner without antagonizing the conservative elements of the society. All the leadership of the Union were f rom middle class families and they proved to be a good example for Sudanese women in appearance, conduct and action as well.

Independence and the Women Movement

Following the establishment of the first National Democratic Sudanese Government (after independence in 1956), the Communist Party established the Union of Communist Women which included a number of influential women from the Sudanese Women's Union. Because the Communist Party had always supported the cause of women without any reservations, their initiative was blessed by the great majority of the Sudanese Women's Union with the exception of the Muslim Sisters.

In connection with the Sudanese Women's Union, it would not have been possible to move freely and make its successive achievements without the prevalence of democracy after independence. During this period the Women's Movement flourished where the number of successful societies increased with the expected intensification of activities. Branches of these societies were formed in all major towns e.g. Wad Madani, Al Obeid, Juba, Port Sudan, etc. Relations of the Union with similar organizations in sister countries, especially Egypt were crystallized and-enhanced. The Union became registered in the Union of Arab Women and in the African Women's Congress and immediately exercised its activities in both of them. Delegates from the Union started to travel abroad and participate in the various conferences and seminars. The Union also established relations with the democratic organizations in the socialist countries and with the International Democratic Union of Women (IDUW) following the efforts made by Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim. The foundation for this move was made earlier when Fatima traveled secretly to East Berlin and met with the leadership of JDUW.

One of the most conspicuous activities of the Union during this period was the annually held Sudanese Women's Week that usually commenced on the 1st of January. During this week various activities were allocated to maternity, childhood, philanthropic fairs, sports and cultural events. A day was always assigned to cooperation with the world's women's movement. The week usually ended with conducting the Union's Annual General Congress. The Women's week had always been a symbol of solidarity for Sudanese women nationally and internationally. Moreover, a great achievement was the representation of women in the Constitutional Committee. Thuriya Al Dirdeiri represented the Union in that committee. On the 7th of January 1957, the Union sent a memorandum to the Constitutional Committee demanding women's full right, to elect and be elected, the right to work, the right to equal pay and family protection. This was followed by a big political rally, that was held on 17th of January 1957, in which that memorandum was mad e public. Since the demand for political rights was met with strong opposition, the Union held another political rally on the 7th of February 1958. Representatives from all political parties were invited to comment on the memorandum. The result was that all the political parties supported the contents of the memorandum with the exception of the right wing parties, the Muslim Brothers and the Umma Party representatives.

The Women Movement during Aboud's Regime ( November 1959 coup d'etat)

This regime dissolved all democratic organizations including the Sudanese Women's Union under the pretext of internal feuds within the Union. Accordingly, the first task of the Union during this first military regime was to agitate women against dictatorship after failing to persuade the regime to revert it's decision of dissolving the Union. A great effort was made by working women, girl students and housewives in supporting the trade union movement to resist the regime. To vitalize its activities and in the meantime avoid legal penalties, the Union changed its tactics and concentrated on social work only. This way the Union came into contact with its membership without violating the law. Housewives cooperative societies and women in general formed traditional collective funds as platforms for seminars and debates. The Women's . Voice magazine had a leading sensitizing political role amongst both sexes. Fortunately the magazine was not banned when the Sudanese Women's Union was dissolved, because the license was originally issued under the name of Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim in person. The magazine issued some moving articles against the regime and relied mainly on caricature expressions that criticized the government. The owner of the magazine, Fatima, was warned several times by the authorities for what usually appeared in the magazine. Several times the magazine was stopped from issuance. However, it kept links with women worldwide alive. This was in addition to some secret envoys from other Union's leadership that used to make contacts with the international women movements. On the other hand a few women societies supported the military regime. Amongst those was the Women's Awakening Society which was run by the Mahdi's family.

In 1963 the minister of information and social affairs of the military regime thought of forming a new woman organization under the name of "The Organization of Sudanese Women". His intentions were to transform the women movement into philanthropic societies concerned only with social activities. The minister tried to make a success of his endeavor by inviting the leaders of the Union through those who cooperated with him to elect an executive committee for his intended organization. Leaders of the Union attended the meeting but insisted that the executive committee be elected democratically. This was adhered to and eventually eight of the ten seats of the committee were occupied by Union members. This was a great shock to the authorities and registration of the new organization was suspended. These occurrences were prior to the termination of the first military regime.

Women's contribution to, and their achievements under 21st October 1964 revolution.

Women, together with other sectors of the society, went out of their homes under the leadership of the Sudanese Women Union in a manner that had not been witnessed before. They were exposed like their fellow men to different sorts of harassment and dangers including gunfire from live ammunition. A great number of them were wounded including the leader of the Union, Mahasin Abdal Aal, who was seriously injured and Bakheita Al Hafian who was shot dead. This increased the vigour of the popular revolution. Accordingly, the Union branches took part in the demonstrations particularly in Wad Madani, the capital of Gezira province. Therefore, the distinguished role played by women in bringing about the downfall of the first military rule, pushed women's issues to the forefront of the agenda of the Revolutionary Government. Under this government, women gained full political rights and took part; for the first time in Sudanese history; in the general elections.

The most important features and achievements of the women movement after the 21st October Popular Revolution were:

1. The access of the leader of the Sudanese Women's Union to a seat in the parliament caused a vigorous commotion in the Union's branches.

2. No sooner had women gained their political rights, the various political parties started recruiting as many supporters as possible for future elections. However, the traditional political parties excluded women's rights from their political agenda.

3. The Sudanese Women's Union succeeded in convincing women to vote for candidates who supported women's rights.

4. The traditional parties formed affiliated women organizations. None of the latter had a convincing program to maintain continuity. Their activities were only restricted to rallying women to vote for their parties in the forthcoming elections.

5. Women's societies became more active and new ones were formed. Of these, the most distinguished was the National Women's Front which was affiliated to the Islamic Convention Front.

Women movement and achievements under the second democracy (1965)

In June 1965 the leader of the Union was, Fatima Ahmad Ibrahim, who was nominated to compete for a parliamentary seat in the graduates constituencies as an independent candidate inspite of her distinguished position in the leadership of the Communist Party. Thuriya Umbabi was nominated by the National Women's Front which was affiliated to the organization of Muslim Brotherhood. The former candidate was supported by the Communist Party, trade unions of professionals, workers, farmers, students in addition to all progressive and liberal forces of the Sudanese society. The latter was supported by the League of Islamic Convention, the Umma Party and. National Unionist Party.

Fatima gained a seat from the' ten allocated seats for graduates. She secured 5918 votes and ranked third. Thuriya Umbabi secured 2944 votes but failed to gain a seat (7). Fatima was the first woman to gain access to a seat in parliamentary elections. Fatima paved the way for other women to follow suit and made it opportune for women's rights to appear in the agenda at the parliamentary level. Through her courage determination and behavior Fatima commanded the respect of all members of parliament However, during the second democracy, the most important features and achievements of women's movement could be summarized in the following points:

1. Representation of women at the highest level of authority in the country, the Legislative Assembly.

2. Women contributions flourished in the various social, cultural, and economic levels.

3. Their participation in the trade union movement expanded at the membership and leadership levels.

4. Inspite of the strong grip of tribal affiliation and sectarian adherence of rural women, the Union activities became well infiltrated in rural areas. Voices demanding maternal and child care, education and social welfare were heard. In the agricultural sector women's achievements made a breakthrough as they became land owners for the first time.

5. Under the leadership of the Union, whenever their rights were involved, their voice became prominent at the local, regional and international levels.

6. The number of working women increased in the public and private sectors. Job opportunities proliferated from health, education and clerical fields to reach the legal profession and the diplomatic corps.

7. In 1968, The Sudanese Women's Union submitted a memorandum to the Constitutional Committee for the Legislative Assembly demanding equal pay for equal work and pensionable service for women. In the same year a teachers strike that lasted for one month resulted in the approval of equal pay for teachers.

The majority of the second democracy government failed to realize the ambitions of the Sudanese people in following the pathway of democracy for the general welfare of the society. The adopted irrational policies and decisions culminated in the slaughtering of democracy when the government parliamentary majority made a motion that dismissed representatives of the Communist Party from Parliament This act was one of the major turning points for the birth of the second military regime.

The women movement and their achievements during the second military regime (May 1964 Coup d'etat)

The Sudanese women progressive movement, led by the Sudanese Women's Union, gave full support to the new regime following the declaration of Socialism and equality for all. Immediately after the take over, the Union submitted a memorandum to president Nimeiri demanding the following:

a. Full equality in salaries and wages.

b. The tight for pensionable service for all.

c. Improvement of terms of service for women.

d. Amendment of the law governing financial allotments to the divorcee to be raised to half the income of the spouse instead of one quarter and sometimes less.

Niemeiri on his part supported all these demands and promised to implement them. From that moment the Union gave unreserved support to the regime with full cooperation. The Union called upon its members and supporters in the capital as well as in the provinces to back the regime.

Membership of the Union branches multiplied in the provinces and rural areas. In the big cities and towns the leaders of the Union became members of the board of directors for the confiscated and naturalised establishments. They were given seats and became members in the executive councils of the provinces. This was done within the framework of the policy of contribution of the new forces to the local peoples rule. Again, the Union leaders were given partnership in the committee which was formed by the regime to set up the national convention project. They were appointed in several other committees of various functions.

This honeymoon did not last for long since the differences between Neimeri's regime and the Communist Party surfaced. This reflected negatively on the relations of the Union with the regime as the former was greatly influenced by Communist Party elements. Reacting to the prevailing circumstances president Nimeiri committed a strategical mistake that made the Union more aloof. This is when in a public speech accosting the Union on one of the latest demands regarding women's personal affairs in Sharia', the president bluntly commented on the demand as being part of an unacceptable imported feminist philosophy. The demand concerning limitation of divorces and custody of children was by no means contradictory to the Sharia' law. Nimeiri's statement was met with violent retaliation of the Union leaders and membership. The situation became more aggravated following the declared opposition of the Communist Party to the regime. However, some members of the central committee defected from the party and decided to supp ort the regime.

Consequently, the Union's committee was affected by the split in the Communist party. The split resulted in a two wing fission in the Union's leadership and membership in the capital and main cities in Sudan. The influential wing was led by the president of the Union, Fatima who was a member of the central committee of the Communist Party. From this point the Union started a new journey and the more influential wing of the Union declared an open opposition to the regime. In May 1971 Nimeiri issued a republican decree that dissolved the Union. All efforts made by the leadership of the less effective wing of the Union at that time failed to convince Nimeiri to reconsider his decision. The desolution of the Union was a great blow and set back to the women's movement

The Birth of the Sudan Union of Women

On the 1st of June 1971, fifty three women from the various women leaderships responded to an invitation by president Nimeiri. The majority of those invited were from the dissolved Sudanese Women's Union. A long discussion took place regarding the formation of an alternative women's organization. Several names were suggested for the new organization. Finally the meeting agreed on the name of "The Sudan Union of Women". Nimeiri added the word socialist to become "Sudan Socialist Union of Women." Soon, the word socialist was omitted to avoid confusion with the political party of the regime, The Sudanese Socialist Union. However, the meeting elected a provisional committee of 15 members, with Nafisa Kamil as president and Mahasin Abdal Aal as secretary. The provisional committee was entrusted with the drafting of the new Union's convention e.g. constitution of internal regulations program, in addition to the preparation for the founding general conference to elect the executive offices. This new birth was the on ly organization affiliated to the regime. All other existing women organizations were merely voluntary societies that were registered under the Ministry of Social Welfare. The laws by then stipulated that such organizations were prohibited from participation in politics.

The new union ,Sudan Union of Women (SUW), was not different in its objectives from the old one, the Sudanese Women's Union (SWU) except for its commitment to the regime and the slogans of May 1964 revolutionary Coup d'etat. The objectives of the Sudan Union of Women were as follows:

1. To support the May Socialist Revolution and participate positively for the realization of its aims and defend the established achievements.

2. To enhance the socialist consciousness of Sudanese women culturally and politically.

3. To raise the standard of the Sudanese family.

4. To care for children and bring them up according to the proper educational principles that are internationally agreed upon.

5. To spread national consciousness among women and disseminate the concept of socialism.

6. To protect previous gains of Sudanese women and defend their social, economic, and civil demands.

7. To cooperate with world liberal and progressive women movements particularly the Arab and African organizations and raise the slogans of women liberation and progress.

8. To support liberation movements, work for peace and combat imperialism and neocolonialism.

Sudan Women Union's structure was similar to that of the dissolved Sudan Women's Union. At the top of this structure was the central committee and the executive office. The highest authority was the general conference. The committees were elected by direct vote with the exception of the highest levels of province committees and those up to the top of the pyramid of the organization were 100 percent appointed by the President. The executive office of the Union was composed of several specialized offices for various women sectors. The Union was organized in a way so as not to suffer from the shortcomings of the dissolved Union.

Activities of the Union were, however, withheld following the aborted Communist Coup d'etat in July 1971 which reflected negatively on the progressive movement at large including the women's movement. Activities of the Union were temporarily withheld and the provisional committee found itself in a precarious situation. However, when Nimeiri's fury was over, the provisional committee resumed its activities. The conference of Sudan Women's, Union was held on the 23rd of November 1971. Representatives from all provinces attended and elected Nafisa Abmed Al Amin as secretary general, in addition to the members of the central committee. The latter elected the executive committee, inspite of the difficult circumstances under which the organizational set up of the Union was established, it started to function with style and tactics similar to those intended and agreed upon by the Sudanese Women's Union during the first military regime.

Features and achievements of the Union

1. The Sudan women's Union was founded on the shoulder of the leaders of the dissolved Union.

2. The leadership of the dissolved Union and those who supported continued with underground activities opposing the regime. The Sudan Women's Union did not believe in underground activities because such a policy would handicap the Union from protecting previous achievements and carrying out the expected functions which necessitate public contact with the membership. The Union's plans included projects and programs to change women's status for the better. It was, therefore, necessary to adopt a style of work similar to the one followed during the early days of the first military regime. This was to create daily contacts with women so that the Union would be able to rally them around their rights. The movement was fully aware of this fact from their experience with the first military regime. (7)

3. The full support of Neimeiri and his regime made it easy for Sudan Women's Union to stretch its tentacles to reach and have influence on rural women.

4. After the declaration of self rule in the South on 9th June 1969, according to Addis Ababa Peace Accord, the Union extended its activities to reach the South. The firm unity of southern women made it easy for the Union to establish branches in all southern provinces. Women from the south occupied various offices at all levels of the hierarchy of the Union.

5. The affiliation of the Union to the political organization was a great advantage, especially after establishing a specialized secretariat for women in the socialist union under the chairpersonship of the president of the Union, who was as well a member of the central committee of the party. This situation brought the secretary general of the Union in direct contact with the decision making machinery of the party.

6. The Sudanese Women's Union replaced the dissolved one in the General Conference of all African Women's Union and the Union of Arab Women. On the other hand, a request for joining the Democratic Women's Union was turned down and later on Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim, president of the desolved Union, was elected president for it. Nonetheless, cooperation and participation at certain levels concerning general women's issues was allowed for the Sudan Women Union.

7. The Sudan Women Union started to get involved in active participation in various regional and international women's activities. The president, Nafisa Ahmed Al Amin, was elected assistant general secretary for the General Union of Arab Women.

8. The Union's president was also appointed as the first president for Sudan's National Committee for Population that was formed in 1974. This enabled the Union to participate and make use of the resources of the United Nations funds. Nafisa Ahmed Al Amin continued to be the president of the committee until the second popular uprise against Niemeri in April 1985.

9. Some members of the Union participated in international activities of some U.N establishments concerned with women's issues:

a. The meetings of the Economic Committee for North Africa.

b. Meetings of women's committees in Vienna.

c. Membership by election to one of the Unions leading figures, Souad Ibrahim Essa, as Sudan's representative in INSTRAW (the United Nations Institute for Studies and Research for the Development of Women) in the Dominican Republic.

10. The Union participated in the activities of the International Women's Year and the First Women's Conference in Mexico, as well as in the Second Conference in Copenhagen.

11. The Union issued a magazine under the title "Sudan Women" in March 1983 replacing a previous one, "The New Woman".

Additional gains for women:

Through the continued struggle, the Union was able to consolidate the gains that were achieved before:

1- Full equality in wages as it was only proportionate in 1968. This change was effected after issuing the labour law of 1973.

2- Securing of inheritable pension for disabled working women. This was granted by the pension law of 1975. Also, all women who had been in the service and left it for acceptable reasons where granted exceptional pension by a republican decree.

3- Full benefits as stipulated by the Social Security Law in case of age, death or work injury.

4- Improvement of employment terms of service for women by granting longer birth leaves. This became two months instead of four weeks. Working mothers were allowed one hour for lactation. Working women were also given the right for leave of absence for the maximum of four years.

Other political and professional gains

1- participation in decision making positions at the levels of central and state ministers. Women were also appointed as chairpersons of specialised councils in posts equivalent to those of state ministers.

2- Allotment of a seat for women in the political bureau, the climax of the Socialist Union Party hierarchy. Some seats were also allocated for women in the central committee of the Socialist' Union.

3- Allocation of 25% of the seats of the Local Peoples Rule Committees for women by appointment. This was in besides giving them the opportunity to compete for the other seats through election. This was in accordance to the Law of Peoples Local Rule of 1971.

4- Allocation of seats for women in the parliament apart from giving them the opportunity to compete through election for seats specified for the new forces and geographical constituencies at the national and provincial levels.

5- Women were given new opportunities of employment in leading civil service positions such as managers of factories and managers of public sector companies. Women for the first time were given opportunities to hold posts as officers in the armed forces, police, security and prisons. Also women's chances to join the diplomatic corps and judicairy were enhanced.

The positive aspects:

1. The mere existence of a Union that conducted its activities under a legal status could achieve a relative unity of women and consolidate their efforts especially rural women. This also enabled women to participate in regional and international occasions. It also enabled women to benefit from the various U.N organizations.

2. The legal existence of a women's Union made it easy for the leadership to mobilize for active participation to overcome hardships and disasters.

3. Women became partners in decision making by occupying leading positions in civil service and political establishments.

4. Women's activities were no longer only focused on literacy campaigns, adult education and home economics, but moved to a new horizon of initiation of productive projects concerned with income generating activities to increase family income and promote women's skills. Women also participated in integrated service projects in the fields of functional literacy, women's libraries, women's documentary centers and hospital obstetric wards for poor women etc.

The negative aspects:

1- The horizontal expansion during the establishment of the organization was not biased by a specific programme for training women leaders. This was to emphasise that totalitarian regimes would only care for "how much" but not "how it is done".

2- Inspite of the Union's popularity, a great number of organizations and influential intellectuals refrained from participating as they were politically opposed to the regime.

3- The president of the Socialist Union had the right to appoint 10% of the members at the top of the leadership of the Union. Such appointments were unfortunately not based on qualification and experience. This situation had its negative impacts on the promotion of activities as well as achievements.

4- Although the Sudan Women Union was independent within the limits of its constitution and internal regulations, its affiliation to the political organization sometimes limited its freedom in taking some resolutions and in putting into effect some others. So often the Union found itself supporting situations which did not tally with women's cause.

Women's gains under March/February 1985 popular uprise:

Following the victory of the second popular revolution, the various organizations which had been dissolved during the second military regime including the Sudanese Women Union were revived. The leadership of SWU came back with all bitterness. It was unfortunate that the Union did not take into consideration the big changes that occurred in the web of the Sudanese society in urban as well as rural areas. The Union, therefore, could not penetrate in-depth into women's grassroots. Only some of the professionals such as women doctors were able to move effectively. The Islamic Women Front organization which had the chance to flourish during the last years of Neimeri's regime dominated the arena being well equipped with solid organization and financial support. This was another setback for the progressive women movement. Nonetheless, the International Democratic Women's Union elected Fatima Abmed Ibrahim, leader of SWU, as president, however, under the short lived (one year) transitional government the women moveme nt, particularly the progressive one, was mainly involved in reorganization activities.

Features of women's movement during the third democracy

After the transitional rule following the second popular revolution of March/April 1985 popular revolution, Sudan witnessed a third democracy. In the general election two women candidates from the Islamic Front gained two seats in the graduates constituencies. For the first time in the democratic history of Sudan a woman was appointed as minister of social welfare, This was Rashida Ibrahim who had never had any role in public activities inspite of her high academic qualifications. Her only activity was her participation in opposing the second military regime with undoubted affiliation to the National Islamic Front (NIF). However, under the third democratic period women's voluntary organizations and societies increased from three to sixteen.

Due to the war in the South and draught in the West in 1983 great numbers of women and children were displaced and sought refuge in big cities and towns in the north, especially the capital Khartoum. Women's non-governmental voluntary overseas organizations intensified their activities and cooperated with voluntary overseas organizations in distributing food and other aid as well as starting some development projects to assist the displaced communities.

Generally, women's gains during this period may be summarized in the following points:

1. Women enjoyed the liberty of organizing themselves.

2. The number of voluntary societies increased and their role became more conspicuous.

3. Babiker Bedri Scientific Society distinguished itself in the area of women in development. This Association for Women's Studies had never been dissolved since establishment in 1979 because its activities ever since have been purely scientific.

4. Several women's societies have been established. One of the distinguished ones was the Awakening Society under the leadership of Sarra Al Fadil, the wife of the Premier Al Sadig Al Mahdi.

5. Al Imam Al Mahdi Philanthropic Society was formed and started to function under the leadership of Haffiya Mamoun, Premier Sadig Al Mahdi's first wife.

6. The political parties formed specialised secretariats of women's issues. Some women became members of the political bureaus of parties e.g. Sarra Al Fadil of the Umma Party.

7. The magazine of the Sudanese Women Union, " The Woman's Voice", started to publish issues once again.

8. Al imam Al Mahdi Philanthropic Society issued a Magazine called Mihaira.

9. A number of organizations and unions participated in many international events.

10. Due to the effective role played by the Sudanese Women Union, the United Nations awarded the Human Rights Medal to Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim, leader of the Sudanese Women Union.

Women's movement after the National Islamic Front (NIF) Military Coup d'etat (National Salvation Revolution)

Following the decline of the third democratic period, NIF came to power on 30th June 1989 through a military coup d'etat under the slogan of the Salvation Revolution. The regime started with negative achievements of dissolving all organizations including women organizations with the exception of the Islamic ones. Once again at square one, all progressive women organizations started underground activities that mainly concentrated on opposing the regime. Within the framework of conferences organized by the regime under the umbrella of the so called national dialogue, the regime issued resolution number 29 for 1989 for convening a conference to discuss and recommend on the role of women within the philosophy of the Salvation Revolution. The resolutions made by this conference included:

1- Full Mobilization of the women sector.

2- Enhancement of women's participation in popular work.

3- Debate in women's issues related to problems affecting their life.

4- Structure of a proposed women organization.

5- Appointment of a steering committee directly responsible to the revolution council. This committee was headed by Fatema Taleb Ismail who was the founder of the first women organization in 1947. The committee membership included different categories of women who were either directly affiliated to NIF or else were fellow travelers.

After a period of intensive preparation, the Conference of Women's Role in the National Salvation was convened during the period 2-31st of January 1990. The conference, whose membership was appointed, had an enormous publicity coverage. According to the final statement of the conference, 1800 members attended. Despite the on going war and instability in the South,. representatives of three southern regions came from women already residing in the North.

Working papers were discussed in the conference covering women's social, political, cultural, economic and legal issues. A summary of the main resolutions appear in the following:

1- The formation of a new organization under the name "General Union of Sudanese Women"

2- The formation of the committee to write the history of Sudanese women.

3- Introduction of the suitable technology related to environment and natural resources to help women overcome the difficulties of life whether at home or work.

4- The formation of unit for women studies in universities and other institutes of higher education.

5- The formation of national council for women development.

6- Recommendation for the government to patronise open education on condition that it is not affiliated to foreign organizations.

7- Reviewing employment terms of service to remedy all negative aspects that affect women.

Objectives of the General Union of Sudanese Women:

The Sudanese Women's Union was established in January 1990 with the following declared objectives:

1. Dealing with women's issues in a scientific way.

2. Maintaining family structure.

3. Bringing up children on the basis of religious and national values.

4. Making marriages easy in order to keep the family structure and maternity and child welfare.

5. Mobilizing women for freeing themselves from superstitions, intolerance and prepare them for combating all social and cultural failures.

6. Combating corruption, misbehaviour, drinking alcoholic beverages and all other evils that threaten the society, particularly women.

7. Fighting illiteracy among women.

8. Arousing women's interest in international women issues.

9. Showing interest in issues concerning working women, realising justice for them and stability whether psychological or professional.

According to the politically oriented Islamic regime, members of the National Islamic Front dominated the union leadership at all levels.

Membership was restricted to members of NIF and fellow travelers.

The political activities of the General Union of Sudanese Women were restricted to supporting the government in some conrovertial international issues as:

1. The union took a powerful stand with the government side during the gulf war and sided with Iraq and the Iraqi women. It succeeded in organizing demonstrations in support of Iraq. It sent some food aid to Iraqi women in a ship that started from Libya.

2. It organized demonstrations in support of Bosnia women during Yugoslavia's civil war.

3. Participated in a procession condemning the massacre of the Ahrion mosque in Palestine.

However, women's concerns pertaining to their civil ,social and political rights were completely neglected, particularly all matters connected with their human rights.

Participation at Beijing women's international forum:

The General Union of Sudanese Women utilized governmental, international agencies and NGO's resources and succeeded to send to Beijing a big delegation of women officially representing the regime. However, amongst this delegation the majority were women without previous experience in women activities and issues. Most members of the delegation either did not attend the session or at the best the few who attended did not participate by any means in the activities of the conference. On the other hand, a national sizeable delegation of progressive and liberal women was sponsored by international agencies and NGO's this in addition to others who sponsored themselves. All members of the progressive national delegation participated at the conference with papers on different women's issues and actively contributed to the deliberations of most sessions of the conference. Some Sudanese women residing abroad also joined the national delegation. Those included Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim, leader of the dissolved Sudanese Women Union, who reflected to the conference the bitter experience of deterioration of the Sudanese women's human rights under the Islamic military regime. In many sessions she came in with open conflict with the official delegation of the regime.

Working Women's League:

This league was established in November 1991. It aimed at serving working women and enhancing their development. It's aims were as follows:

1. Consolidating their work values through enhancement of national affinity.

2. Solving the problems of working women.

3. Reviewing the labour laws in a way to suit women's welfare and safeguard their rights.

4. Raising the social, cultural and professional standards of women.

5. Eliminating illiteracy among women.

6. Supporting women's issues in underdeveloped countries and worldwide.

7. Exerting every effort possible in order to qualify women to play pioneer roles in development and help the economy to flourish

The league reviewed the labour law in connection with women but so far nothing has materialized to add to their gains in previous regimes. Despite the formation of the mentioned women organizations since 1989 and up to date and despite their objectives, the status of Sudanese women human rights during the present regime has deteriorated to an appalling extent that has not been witnessed throughout the past history of Sudan.

(*.) Sayda; honorary designation for a woman who commands a certain status in sectarian hierarchy. It could also be used to mean Mrs. as in English. Sayed: honorary designation for a man who commands a certain status in a sectarian hierarchy. It could also be used to mean Mr. as in English

(*.) Sunna religious sect include specialists who are strict followers of prophet Mohamed Islamic Sunna.


(1.)-Korry Slot (1990)History of Women's Movement and International Solidarity: A manual for Women Studies. Ahfad University for Women, Omdurman

(2.)-A.Diab (1984)History of Women's Movement in the Sudan. Baghdad: UNESCO.

(3.)-Nafisa A. El-Amin, (1990) Sudanese Women and Political Participation in the Different Political Systems (Unpublished work in Arabic).

(4.)-Nafisa A. EL Amin Memoirs (unpublished).

(5.)-Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim, Our Harvest in Twenty Years (a book in Arabic)

(6.)-Sudan Penal Code, 1923.

(7.)-Parliament Archives of Sudan, 1965.
COPYRIGHT 2001 Ahfad University for Women
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Al Amin, Nafisa Ahmed; Magied, Ahmed Abdel
Publication:Ahfad Journal
Geographic Code:6SUDA
Date:Jun 1, 2001
Previous Article:Editor's note.
Next Article:Educating African women for change.

Related Articles
IGAD peace process (Africa's Inter-governmental Authority on Development coordinates efforts to end the war in Sudan).
State violence against women: a current prespective from the Sudan.
Editor's note.
Khadiga Elsayed Saeed (1999) the impact of male out-migration on women's role and status in Sudan. M.Sc. in gender and development. Ahfad University...
Canadian Forces international operations as of 17 September 2003.
Hanan Amin Elfadil Amu, Amelia Anselmo Anthony (2003). The role of Sudanese Women in Peace Development.
Church identifies with the poorest in Sudan: Catholic Worker Peace Team visits the war-torn Darfur region.
Letter to Sudan President on female genital cutting.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters