MIGRATION WITH A FEMININE FACE: BREAKING THE CULTURAL MOLD.
Travel, migration and movement invariably bring us up against the limits of our inheritance. We may choose to withdraw from this impact and only select a confirmation of our initial views. In this case whatever lies on the other side remains in the shadows, in obscurity. We could, however, opt to slacken control, to let ourselves go, and respond to the challenge of a world that is more extensive than the one we have been accustomed to inhabiting.
Iain Chambers, "Migrancy," Culture, Identity 1994:115
THE MIGRATION OF SUDANESE WOMEN has received scant attention in most studies of population movements. Even when they receive such attention, women are generally relegated to a subsidiary position as dependent variables, who only move as part of family units. Appalling, as this neglect may seem, it is to be expected. As a result of a prevalent ideology in Sudanese society, the notion of women traveling by themselves is not only close to unimaginable, it is seen as an alarming threat to the well being of the family and community. In her book Bint Arab: Arab and Arab American Women in the United States, Evelyn Shakir states "in a society where male protection and patronage were essential guarantors of a woman's respectability, to go alone among strangers--especially for young, unmarried women--was a daring if not a brazen act" (1997:27).
Sudanese attitudes toward the migration of single women should be understood in this light. An elderly woman whom I met in Khartoum expressed nostalgia for the good old days, when women were not allowed such mobility. She remarked: "Sudanese women are becoming increasingly free, they crossed these distances to go to distant countries all by themselves, I swear to Allah all of them are mataliq." The term mataliq, meaning free or unrestrained, has pejorative connotations as Sudanese people employ it to refer to uncontrolled or reckless behavior. The predicament of Sudanese women today is certainly influenced by "burdens and riddles" that have defined the position of women across the African continent. Ghanaian writer Ama Ata Aidoo describes the major factors constraining the advancement of African women today as societal patterns, western penetration and the "apparent lack of vision or courage, in the leadership of the postcolonial period"(1998:42). This factor explains much of the hapless condition in which S udanese women find themselves.
Fifty-six years ago when the Sudanese merchant marines arrived as single men and founded a seed community in North America, no one could have envisioned a stream of women migrating to far away lands without the company of their men-folk. Until recently the migration of Sudanese women by themselves was rare. The only exception was the migration of female schoolteachers to the Gulf countries, especially to the U.A.E., Yemen and the Sultanate of Oman. These "women of exceptional merit" secured contracts ranging from 3-5 years, arranged by the Sudanese Ministry of Education.
However, one of the most recent trends I encountered in the course of researching the Sudanese in the North America is the migration of women by themselves. Over the last eight years, circumstances at home and abroad have intersected to transform widely held traditions, resulting in the feminization of international migration. A clarification should be made at the outset. In this ethnography, there is no assumption of the existence of an undifferentiated, monolithic or homogenous category "Women" irrespective of their personal histories and individual experiences. The reasons that prompted Sudanese to come to the North America are many, and in order to comprehend the experiences of these women, both their pre-migratory experiences and their own personal biographies should be explored.
Just exactly, who are these women whose migration is the most talked about back home and here, in their new societies? The backgrounds of migrant women are very relevant to an understanding of their position in the host society. Undoubtedly, social and material conditions affect their roles and their daily lives. Many are restrictive to women: constraints on political participation, unemployment, discrimination, cultural conventions which enforce "keeping a low profile," economic victimization and circumscribed personal mobility. I observed the following groups that disrupt earlier patterns of Sudanese migration characterized by the preponderance of men:
First are women who are unmarried, relatively young and educated. In their demographic as well as socioeconomic characteristics, they approximate Sudanese male migrants, especially in their occupational status. The majority of women in this category indicated that they held white-collar jobs before coming to the United States and Canada. Entering this country as visitors, they subsequently decided to apply for asylum because of their well-founded fear of persecution upon return.
Second are Southern Sudanese refugee women who lived outside the Sudan before their resettlement in the United States. Although there are a large number of Sudanese women who came here and then sought asylum, Southern women came here as refugees whose claims of persecution were recognized prior to their move.
Third are women who entered the United States as green card lottery winners. I observed on numerous occasions the presence of single women who arrived in this country on the diversity visa lottery program. The Sudan is allowed nearly 5000 visas to be granted to lottery winners annually. The offices that handle applications for this program are scattered all over the Sudanese provinces. The majority of women I talked with indicated to me that they either applied from the Sudan or had relatives in the United States apply on their behalf. Their arrival occurs with predictable regularity, a reality that is corroborated by one migrant's comment. Ahmed, 35 and living in Colorado, tells friends:
I really want to get married to a woman from the Sudan. But these days everyone knows that Sudanese at home are starting to call America "Armica" -meaning to throw out-because people go home, get married, but cannot bring their wives. I decided to apply to six women from neighborhood for the lottery, any of them who wins the lottery, I am willing to marry. That way we don't have to have a trans-continental wedding.
This humorous comment, reflects the awareness of Sudanese people here of the rising numbers of single women arriving annually in the United States.
Fourth: women who are married and expecting children. They come here with the sole intention of giving birth to "American children." Rarely accompanied by their husbands, these women spare no effort in planning their visit, obtaining visas to the United States and networking with those already here to facilitate their stay until the babies are born. They return to the Sudan after accomplishing their mission.
Finally: women whose husbands are still working in the Gulf and who move with their children in search of a secure place to live. They are largely concentrated in metropolitan Toronto. Sociologist Edite Noivo, in her book Inside Ethnic Families: Three Generations of Portuguese-Canadians, depicts a similar choice among Portuguese women, who reported that a consensus was reached when certain family members had to migrate to Canada. For Sudanese women, too, separation of the family was a tactic pursued for the good of their families.
What are the reasons prompting these women to break with their traditions? The increased presence of Sudanese women migrants and exiles is dramatic evidence of this change. Edward Said has argued that "the exile knows that in a secular and contingent world, homes are always provisional. Borders and barriers that enclose us within the safety of familiar territory can also become prisons, and are often defended by reason or necessity. Exiles cross borders, break barriers of thought and experience (1990:365)." My conversations with Sudanese women were illustrative of women breaking barriers and crossing borders that once enclosed them in order to protect their well being and prosperity.
These stories demonstrate the self-reliance, resourcefulness and assertiveness of many who opted to migrate. To them, gender, like ethnicity and class, is nothing but a situational social construction that undergoes significant transformations as conditions demand. The magnitude of female migration testifies to the fact that gender is no longer a stumbling block to women's mobility. Whether they are refugees, visa lottery winners, or wives coming here without their husbands, the trend of women coming to the North America has forced Sudanese society to revisit some of the most basic organizing principles of people's lives. Today several hundred Sudanese women unaccompanied by men are spread throughout the United States while several thousands reside in Canada, with the highest concentration in Toronto.
The narratives below are representative of women's commentaries on their status within an Islamic state, and their resistance to its politics. I have chosen these stories (in addition to Hanan's) because they trace the links between the migratory decision and the larger role of the State in the reconstruction of the "Sudanese woman."
"BRAZEN ACT" OR VALIANT ACCOMPLISHMENT: THE STORY OF EIGHT REFUGEES
In their essay "Gender and Creativity in an Afro-Arab Islamic Culture: The Case of the Sudan," Sudanese psychologist Omer Khaleefa and colleagues argue that generally, African, Arab and Islamic social and cultural elements seem to affect the behavior of individuals and groups differently. These elements reinforce more freedom and independence for males than for females (1996:52).
Of relevance here to the new pattern of migration is the relegation of women to a subordinate position. In the words of Sudanese authors Magda el Sanusi and Nafisa Ahmed el Amin, "under the current regime women will not occupy formal political positions, such as minister. With the declaration of Sharia, which enhanced the quamma (superiority) of men, women must always have a lower status"(1994:682). Limiting women's participation in public life through local decrees and orders; the imposition of hijab, and the Islamic code covering women's dress and behavior have all converged on the lives of Sudanese women. The situation confirms in its most extreme form the general model of how gender becomes "inextricably bound to a notion of an ideal social self which could be endlessly constructed and reconstructed" (Leiss, quoted in Grigger 1990:96). According to Azza Eltigani and Mohamed Khaled of the Omdurman Center for Women Studies, in recent years Sudanese women have been subjected to discriminatory practices:
too many have also been subjected to detention, ill treatment and torture. Whipping has been introduced by the state as a punishment, and women are specifically targeted for this harsh treatment. The current regime has enacted many laws to undermine women's rights in the name of Islam. (1998:223).
HANAN (INTERVIEWED N NOVEMBER 1996)
One of the first women I interviewed was Hanan, a 32 year-old Sudanese Muslim woman who was born in El Damer, a town in the Northern Province of Shimalia. Prior to her migration she attended college in the Sudan where she earned a bachelors degree in Commerce. Subsequently she maintained a government position in the Ministry of Finance for three years; in her words, she "was very satisfied with it." She arrived in Minneapolis in 1993, four years after the Islamic government seized power in the Sudan. Hanan was candid about her anti-government political opinions. Fearing interrogation about her political activities in an opposition political party, Hanan says that she was impelled to leave:
In the Sudan I was very outspoken politically. During the Intifada (the April 1985 popular uprising against Nemeri regime) and the return of democracy, we were very relieved to be able to express ourselves. Heated debates in our office about Islam, the Sharia and Islamic leaders were something we all talked about freely. I was and still am clear on my position on the application of the Islamic Sharia because not everyone in the country is a Muslim. After Omer El Beshir came to power and the Islamic took control, everybody was insecure. The conversations that we had about Sharia were a source of worry to me. I decided to leave.
I went to Egypt first to process my visa from there. With assistance of one of my neighborhood's old friends residing in Minnesota, I was able to find initial residence from which my quest for asylum in the North America was launched. I have other Sudanese women, whom I am friendly with, in Cairo were also in search of an avenue to the United States. Their situation in Egypt is very difficult because of unemployment and financial need. I feel lucky to be here. Especially when I remember the stress and worry I went through in the Sudan. But, as I promise the family, back home that I intend to return when the rule of this regime ends.
Contrary to conventional wisdom that migration for political reasons is an activity limited to men, Hanan's story demonstrates the strong political agenda behind her migration as well as the possibility for her return home with "the restoration of democracy." Hanan's participation in the "Intifada_" proves that women like her were instrumental in challenging authoritarian rule. The Impact of governmental policies has prompted the formation of a North America refugee community, whose members share a vision about the Sudan and their place in it, as "females." According to Rey Chow, "in the imagined community of the new nation, women are admitted only with reservation and only as sex" (1995:22). This statement describes Sudan's new fundamentalist society and attitudes towards women. For example, Hanan's migratory project, like that of thousands of refugee women, raises a significant issue of women and Islamization. Her vocal opposition to Sharia laws during the short-lived democratic rule created feelings of un easiness and anxiety about her future in the Sudan. Hanan surmounted the obstacles she recounted in her narrative by travelling first to Egypt, arranging there for her ultimate destination. After her arrival, she was willing to settle for a low-skilled job in a nearby shopping center. The realization that she is "free from military oppression," however, outweighs the disadvantages of her job, which she maintains will improve in time.
MAHASIN (INTERVIEWED IN NOVEMBER 1996)
Mahasin, 37, was born in Elfashir town in Western Sudan. She is a Muslim and a single woman. Before her arrival in Canada she was not employed in the Sudan, but indicated that she had the experience of working abroad as an officer with a European organization running an agricultural experiment in Yemen:
I worked in Snaa, Yemen for two years during which I was a community development specialist, working especially with rural Yemenis women. When my job ended in Yemen, I decided that I am not going to the Sudan under the present situation, which is bad for almost everyone but especially for women. My reasons behind coming here are the bad government, which discriminates against women. My other equally important reason was getting a degree to enable me to obtain a career in a good field of specialization. I wanted to be independent. I came to Canada in 1992 with the assistance of a friend who sent me an invitation. This helped me very much when I presented it to the officials in the American Embassy. So I got an entry visa to the United States. This was the most exciting thing that had ever happened to me. I was staying at this friend's place but I had my own savings in American dollars from job in Yemen. I am satisfied with my decision to immigrate.
After I came to Canada I found that health care and education are my rights as an immigrant. Having also the freedom of expressing opinions is also something that I hoped for. Life is very short and going back to Sudan to live under a military dictatorship was like poking out my own eye. My life in Canada is good; I have a lot of Sudanese friends. I also think that being independent of social restrictions is something that was worth migrating for. I really think that Sudanese women should learn from this experience to be assertive and forget about the feminine ideals of being shy and learn to represent them. This is something I always believed in and now I am validated by my own experience.
Mahasin's statement stresses the importance of discrimination as a factor determining her move. The complexity of the situation for Sudanese women is leading to their subordination in all spheres of activity, and her migration can be seen as a firm act of insurgency and sedition. Is Mahasin a perpetual migrant? Some migration scholars have indicated that past history of personal mobility influences one's propensity for migration (Du Toit, 1990). This argument is less relevant in politically determined forms of human mobility; Mahasin's answer to the question of whether she is a perpetual migrant is in the negative. "Had there been a democratic government, what are my reasons for not staying at home?"
AMNA (INTERVIEWED IN NOVEMBER 1996)
Born in the town of Omdurman, a city that witnessed admirable nationalistic struggles against colonialism and oppression, Amna's background illustrates that like Hanan and Mahasin, she is a political migrant. Amna, 38, is a Muslim, a college graduate and unmarried. She migrated to Toronto in 1990 after a brief stay in Virginia with some friends who facilitated her entry visa by sending affidavits of support for her as a tourist:
In the Sudan, I was a government employee in the Ministry of Development and Economic Planning. I graduated from Cairo University, Khartoum branch. I was determined to get out of the Sudan. The decision itself was very hard because I have to leave my sisters and my parents. My departure was a bittersweet thing. I was very happy when I was finally able to leave and at the same time the day of my departure was the most painful event in my whole life. Before I came here in 1995, the situation was tough in the Sudan. Every move you make is calculated and you feel watched the whole time. I like to lead a normal life. Officials should not rob me of my most basic rights just because I am a woman. I think what is happening to women in the Sudan is not right. The Sudanese woman by nature is one who cannot take any degradation. This generation especially is suffering, because they are the first to be laid off from their jobs, these women are becoming very desperate. I was a secretary in the Sudan; all the money I got was put into savings to be able to get out. When I arrived in Canada, I realized I was not alone. I met a lot of Sudanese refugee women, many of them are unmarried are generally young in their thirties maybe. Like other refugee women, I can summarize my reasons for coming here: military oppression, imposition of laws that threatens me as a woman and shrinking opportunities to get ahead, have a decent life. Definitely, my migration was the answer.
Amna's story highlights the double-edged nature of exile. On the one hand she rejoiced at the idea of coming, at the same time she felt an extreme sense of sadness and loss. But the overall conditions at home forced her decision to migrate, a decision specifically linked to her yearning for self-fulfillment and the inability to achieve such satisfaction in the Sudan because of her gender. Being coerced to leave should not, however, be viewed as a sign of women's victimization and injury; paradoxically the departure highlights their self-hood and strength.
SAFIA (INTERVIEWED IN SEPTEMBER 1994)
Safia was born in 1967 in Obeid, a commercial center in Kordofan Province in western Sudan. Her family migrated to Khartoum, however, where she spent all her life. As a health worker in a non-profit foreign organization she was able to move to New York. Unlike many Sudanese, she was able to get a job shortly after her arrival in 1992. Safia maintained that the security people in the Sudan harassed her for wearing pants. She was called dakaria (dike), reprimanded and nearly lashed for her "indecent appearance":
I was very mad about what happened to me in the Sudan. The people from Elnizam Alam [Public Order] were very disrespectful to me just because I was not muhajaba [covered]. Some were repeatedly talking among themselves that I was Ethiopian, maybe. The whole ordeal was painful and every time I remember it, I feel sick to my stomach. I did not immediately move after that, but that incident stayed with me for sometime. A year later I came to New York and got a job as international staff. I got married to a European man I met here and I am happy. I assisted my sister to obtain a tourist visa and she too is looking for a life of freedom and welfare here. Things went very well and I feel that going back is not my outlook.
Safia's story reveals important themes that are emerging with regard to the contention of women with the military regime, which claims to be reinventing Sudanese "authenticity," "morality," "appropriate woman's behavior" and gender ideology. As far as appearance is concerned, Safia was labeled "a dike," "not a Sudanese," a point which coincides with Shahanaz Khan's argument that "the body of the Muslim women often becomes contested terrain between competing visions of authenticity, and as such is experienced by individual women as a site of contradiction (1995:146)." Safia's appearance as an uncovered woman implies that her religiosity and morality are questionable. Safia's motive for moving is her objection to "being remolded." Her refusal to adhere to the Islamic code of dress brought interrogation and harassment. According to the Law of Public Order of 1991 (chapter 3) "(any) woman who appears in the place of work or the street without the legal dress will receive punishment not exceeding 25 lashes, a pen alty of LS500 or both."
American anthropologist Sondra Hale states that the government's "attempts to remold Sudanese women to fit a Muslim ideal were not totally accepted by either left or right (210)." Sudanese Women's Union leader Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim is not alone in her attempt to clarify the intersection of economic interests and religious justification those women are falling victim to:
In 1994 (the government) issued a law, which considers the Sudanese women's (dress) (tobe) as not Islamic, and legislated that women should put on the Iranian costume, Shador instead. Our Union organized a campaign against the law, and issued a declaration in which it challenged the government to publish the verse of Quran that considers the Iranian costume the official Islamic uniform. It also revealed the fact that Iran had given them tens of thousands of these costumes for free. They made shador compulsory in order to make a profit from its sale.
ARAFA (INTERVIEWED IN NOVEMBER 1996)
When I visited 42 year-old Arafa, her one bedroom studio apartment in Toronto was impeccably clean. Her not-so-new brown wall-to-wall carpet was vacuumed and her magazines were placed neatly in a woven basket underneath a coffee table. Arafa was born in Omdurman, one of the three towns comprising the capital.
Before I came to Toronto, I was a government employee. I lived with my parents and although my salary was small I managed my financial situation very well. I was saving for this moment for a long time. I joined a Sanduq [saving plan], and I did not have to pay rent, though I always brought back a bag of bread or fruit to contribute something to my parents. My experience is very similar to that of other Sudanese women here. It started in 1993 after it became clear to me that the Kaizan [a term Sudanese use to refer to the Islamacists were not leaving power in my lifetime. I felt that the political situation was going from bad to worse and I felt makhnogga [suffocated].
I am not married and you know in the Sudan a woman my age is considered baira [unwanted commodity]. People always asked me whether there was wad el halal [a guy] who wanted to marry me. I was, in short, sick and tired of everybody. Of course I did not come here because I am not married, but for the political repression in the country; after all marriage is qisma wa nasib (fate and luck). Anyway as a Sudanese woman, the social pressure reflects lack of freedom and the political situation meant more restrictions and poor economic conditions with no opportunity for selfimprovement. Besides, I was very outspoken about my political views during the democratic government. I made my position clear that I am against the Islamic leaders when they were trying to force themselves into different government positions against the wishes of the people. A lot of people I know from our office were laid off Lii Salih Alam [a government policy for dismissal "for the common good"]. I was afraid and angry.
So what can I tell you? I started moving fast before things got worse. My friend in New York helped me to get a visitor visa. I also have a lot of friends in Washington, D.C. and Ontario. My friends from Canada knew the process very well because almost none of them arrived directly from the Sudan. They had to make a stop somewhere. So I was told to take the bus or ask my friend to arrange for me to go to Buffalo and then go straight to Immigration in Canada.
The day of my departure from New York was a lot easier than that from the Sudan. I knew if anything happened I could go back to my friend and his wife who were very helpful to me. The bus ride from New City ride was the longest. My brain was working. I had a lot of questions and I was worried about what lay ahead. I did exactly as I was told and told the immigration officer about my situation and my request for asylum. They started the paperwork but he told me to go back to the U.S. and return to the border a month later.
Some Sudanese who face similar decisions usually go to churches and shelters if they don't have friends in the area. I had mixed feelings. Shall I go back? Or shall I go to the shelter? I said to myself jinan tarafu akhair min jinan taghaba [a devil you know is better than a devil you don't know]. I returned to the City for one more month during which I was able to work under the table to save money for Canada. Finally, when the time arrived I returned to the border and was admitted. I had my friend's address in St. Catharine. I contacted him and thus started another cycle. He helped me a great deal. I stayed again with him for a few days till I found a place of my own.
Through him I contacted a lawyer who helped thousands of refugees. The day for my claim in court arrived and I was scared to death. I knew that as someone who fled for political reasons I had a case, but still you never know. Fear and anticipation gave me the worst stomachache. I reminded myself of the stories of other Sudanese women who got asylum in Toronto. I calmed a little before fear swept over me again. A few friends accompanied me and when my claim was granted asylum, we were very happy. People were congratulating me and I really felt that my life had begun with that moment.
Now I am living legally in Canada as a landed immigrant, thank God. I finished a community college focusing on computer programming and am working for a reasonable income. I have a good life here as part of the Sudanese community in Canada. At the same time I am glad that I am able send money and medications to my family in the Sudan whenever I have the opportunity and I am very glad that I was able to beat the odds. I've come a long way
The narratives above exemplify the insurrection of Sudanese women against the State's "symbolic politics" and its deeply entrenched patriarchal ideology. This observation is in line with Mary Elaine Hegland's statement that "to fit into this idealized symbolic image, individual women must fulfill often traditional or even exaggerated "feminine" behavioral and attitudinal requirements, such as loyalty, obedience, selflessness, sacrifice, and proper deportment" (1998:391). The stories above show women's defiance to being subsumed under totalitarian ideologies.
In their migration to the United States and Canada, these women have redefined the feminine ideal as well as predominant stereotypes of women's inertia, passivity and dependency. These are politically conscious women whose migration to the United States and Canada is perceived by them as a grievous but necessary affair. The political crisis of their country has entailed a corresponding personal crisis in their daily lives. Migration was a way to circumvent the political obstacles embedded in Islamism, militarism, and gender antagonism.
In their stories, the attempt to reconstruct the familiarity of their old lives is a recurrent theme. Social anthropologist Marita Eastmond has argued that "the ultimate dilemma of exile may be the emerging doubts about one's own cultural constructions of reality (1993:51)." For Sudanese women, this struggle has been resolved in the process of resettlement by stressing the continuities between the past and the present. The politicization of the Sudanese migrant community has also played a significant role in the redefinition of Sudanese women's role in their countries of asylum. Their stories bring into focus the dynamic process of gender role transformation embodied in the experience of asylum. Many of the women I interviewed in Toronto and the United States viewed their migration as forced movement carried out under the pressure of the State.
These women had greater social mobility before their migration than thousands of Sudanese women who could not execute migratory decisions. Despite their manifest educational attainments and occupational status before migration, the exigencies of being a refugee propelled them to broaden their horizons through activities and even through jobs that Sudanese have tended to shun at home [i.e. grocery stores cashier, nanny, janitor, etc]. Economically, some did well for themselves; others are still on welfare assistance while the majority has experienced proletarianization similar to their Sudanese male-counterparts. Nevertheless, it will be fair to say that Sudanese women have shown strength and self-reliance as they persist in remaking their lives and struggle to overcome the psychological and physical pressures associated with being a refugee in another country. As Samia, a refugee in Texas, pointed out, the feelings of fear, anxiety and confusion of awaiting court decisions can, "drive you crazy."
Many of the Sudanese women whose narratives have been excerpted above hoped to retain in their exile the fundamentals of their Sudanese culture as they anticipate returning home should political conditions change. Their Sudanese cultural heritage becomes a metaphor, serving as a rear-view mirror. They look at it frequently to see what is occurring behind them, but they do not dwell on it. Starting new lives in exile while simultaneously reconstructing old identities is an art that many Sudanese women have successfully mastered.
Below are the stories of three women from Southern Sudan. Significant similarities and differences exist between themselves and their northern countrywomen. We have seen that the Sudanese society is far from being amiably disposed to the idea of women's migration. According to Pressla Joseph, the same attitude prevails among Southern Sudanese who were forced to accept migration as an unfortunate event. She argues that, "the migration of our youth in general and our women in particular is a new phenomenon. In spite of its forced nature, it still created negative impact on Southern Sudanese community. The notion of women travelling overseas is equally disconcerting and worrisome. This demonstrates the extent to which individualism has replaced our cherished ideals of collectivism" (Alayam, 2000:5).
VERONICA (INTERVIEWED IN MARCH 1994)
Forty-two-year-old Veronica was one of the first people I interviewed. Veronica is a scientist who was born in Juba, the capital of Equatorial province, 745 miles south of the Capital City Khartoum, and a site of military control and systematic refugee movements. Like most Southerners arriving here, Veronica is Christian. When she was in elementary school, her family was forced to leave the Sudan to seek safe haven in Uganda. Although she has been in the United States since 1977, Veronica views her migration as a temporary situation and has every intention of going back to Sudan.
We left the Sudan because of the war. In Uganda where I received my education up to high school, Sudanese were very successful in the Cambridge College Admission Certificate, but the Uganda government issued a decree prohibiting Sudanese from signing up for these exams. So, I was looking for a place to sponsor me to go to college and indeed I was awarded a scholarship as an undergraduate in a college in Pennsylvania. My experience was good, once I entered college I was able to work on campus and put myself through school.
As I remember from my early youth, those living conditions were far better in the Sudan. No worries, no stress, safe, carefree, no fear of danger in the street. My memories are happy ones. I did not face any problems here. I was lucky to have lived in Uganda; perhaps that is what made me ready for any situation that I come in contact with. I did not face any discrimination. I find Americans to be kind and warm to be, they greatly admired my uniqueness as a Sudanese.
As many years as I spent here, I must say that I am very much the Sudanese who arrived here twenty years ago. Nothing had changed a bit. I join Sudanese activities, dinners, social gatherings, and demonstrations. My friends are all Sudanese whom I contact on regular basis. Emotionally I am a Sudanese in every way. I am here as a refugee. I just wait for the war to end because I cannot spend the rest of my life outside. I should say that many Sudanese especially coming here recently, tend to change faster than people in the Sudan, especially in the South are just trying to stay alive, due to bombing and starvation. What they need right now is just to make it out to safety anywhere and not necessarily to the U.S. or Canada. But if anyone makes it to America, I don't have any negative reason for why they should not.
SUSAN (INTERVIEWED IN MARCH 1994)
Like Victoria, Susan, who was also born in Juba, was propelled to move with her family to Uganda. At age 39, Susan is a scientist in Washington D.C. Susan too, completed her graduate and college education in the United States. Like millions of Southern Sudanese, Susan's migration was prompted by war. She told me that she is determined to return to the Sudan "when there is freedom of religion and when the South becomes independent." She, similar to the rest of the Southern Sudanese women I interviewed are not favorably disposed to the notion of a united Sudan. Susan expressed deep disagreement about the opinion of those who think a United Sudan is a good idea. "We have suffered enough with the problems with the North, we have to decide for ourselves and govern the region as an autonomous country. I think that people who think that the South has problems within the same community and can not govern itself. I think that is very paternalistic. Southerners are deserving of a chance to prove themselves." Susan wen t on to argue that, "when we hear now that most of the Southern Sudanese displaced women in Khartoum are in prison because they make alcohol, I say to myself that there is no justification for us to stay in an Islamic state. Southerners are Christians, some of them have their own religion and a small number are Muslims. I think that we deserve our independence. That is the only way out."
JOSEPHINE (INTERVIEWED IN MARCH 1994)
Unlike Victoria and Susan, 28-year-old Josephine left the Sudan as a nanny with a Northern Sudanese family. Josephine has only finished third grade but decided to enroll in a Sunday school at a local church in Virginia. Her story is a compelling example of what can happen to migrant women who are unequipped socially and economically to deal with their new role:
Before I moved with a northern family to Maryland in 1989, 1 was working for them also in Kuwait. Once we came to the U.S. this family refused to pay me my salary. They claimed that they were already paying for my food and shelter. They did not allow me to leave the house or learn English. My life was terrible; I wanted to go back to the Sudan so bad. Some Sudanese friends told me that, in this country I have rights. If I am not happy there are things I can do. That is true, because there is nothing I liked about living here, if I could help it, I would have left immediately but I was not able to do that. That is why the Sudanese people whom I told my story were very angry and they advised me of leaving this family. So, I did. I am lonely here; most of the people I am friendly with are busy. My life was better in the Sudan in spite of all the problems. But the war is going on in the Sudan. I can't go now, I think of home and a lot of times I cry but there is nothing I can do now. If things change, I will go back.
In 1996, I attended a gathering in the Harbourfront Center in Toronto to listen to a discussion on the role of Sudanese women in peace making in the Sudan. The Inter-Church Coalition on Africa, a Canadian organization resettle sponsored the event. About four hundred people congregated in the auditorium, including Sudanese, Canadians and other African immigrants. Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim, a northerner, was Founder and President of the Sudanese Women's Union; Anisia Achieng Olworo, a southerner, was the Coordinator for Sudan Women's Voice for Peace. The first speaker Fatima, started by stating the purpose of her visit "to explain to the Canadian people how this regime has misused Islam to wage a civil war and suppress Muslims in the North." She addressed an event that took place in September of 1995 in which more than 30 women from all parts of the country -south, north, east, the Nuba Mountains and the Ingessena Hills--met in Nairobi for a conference called Harvest for Sudan: Sudanese Women's Peace Initiative. At the event they discussed the religious, ethnic and political antagonism and decided to adopt a strong stand against atrocities committed towards peoples in every spot of the country. In their declaration Sudanese women, appealed to the regional and international bodies, in particular to the UN Security Council to review the situation in the Sudan and to ensure that the rights of every Sudanese is respected and all options that will bring lasting peace and justice are considered. They declared that "we, Sudanese Women participants from the North, the South, the Nuba Mountains, the East and the Ingessena Hills, recognizing our diversity, differences and commonalities, "agree to call on the warring parties and the people of Sudan to engage in serious negotiations to end the long lasting war and to achieve sustainable peace."
The speakers addressed political strategies for peace making and emphasized the importance of women's efforts to counteract the totalitarianism of the State.
"I DON'T NEED A GUARDIAN": THE MIGRATION OF WOMEN IN THE AFTERMATH OF OPERATION DESERT STORM
In the aftermath of Operation Desert Storm, significant shifts occurred in Sudanese migratory choices and alternatives. The Gulf war marked the closing of migration alternatives previously accessible to Sudanese migrant laborers. Few of those who worked in the Gulf managed to keep their jobs, but became increasingly aware of their encumbrances and vulnerability. The wives of those Gulf workers constitute one of the most significant flows of female migration to the North America, This migration can be described as a chain migration; once started, it gained a life of its own, with friends from the Gulf following others who came before them and settling in the same area. Today, I have been told, there are hundreds of women who have settled in Canada and, to a lesser degree, the United States.
We cannot and will not ever go back, except may be for visits. My husband finished his degree and now he has to worry about the children. When we came here we wanted to go back to the Sudan. In fact my first year here was a very emotional time for me. I felt isolated and really missed my family back home. But as I started to get used to New York and the cold weather, I was fine. In the course of the years our plans have changed. I felt that my children deserve a good life here. There is no stability in the Sudan and no future. I used all different kinds of plans to convince my husband. But finally he yielded because deep down, he is also convinced that he should not go back.
Rashida's role in the family's decision-making process is obvious. And like those who have directed themselves and their families toward Metropolitan Toronto, women like her have brought about profound transformations within the spheres of gender and class.
In the summer of 1998, I traveled to Toronto to conduct interviews with eight Sudanese wives who had migrated from the Gulf with their children. With only one exception, they had come without their husbands. Most of these women have settled in an opulent neighborhood otherwise unaffordable to other Sudanese in Canada. I spoke with two of them in more depth than the others.
Manal, 36 years old, was among the first women in this category whom I interviewed. She is married to Ali who still works in the Oman Sultanate where he has been a highly paid computer specialist for the last 14 years. Since she arrived with her two children, aged ten and thirteen, she rented an apartment next to two others Gulf women who came before her. The interview took place in Manal's elegant and spacious apartment, which was tastefully decorated and furnished with expensive furniture, paintings, oriental rugs and elegant window treatments. Manal prepared tea served on a gold-plated set and we started our conversation over a steamy cup of mint tea. We discussed the impact of her migration without her spouse on family politics, decision-making, conjugal relations, child-parent relations, and gender roles
I was told by Manal that family separation was in the best interest of the children. But seeking security often coincides with other reasons.
I decided to migrate to Canada for several reasons. First, the insecurities that were created after the Gulf war, especially the fear of instability of the Gulf region in general. We were forced to think about a place to go if another war erupted. We cannot go back to the Sudan, because we will not be able to maintain the life that our families are accustomed to. Actually, I did try for a year to go back to the Sudan but it was very hard on the children. Our second reason is the education of our children, because we put them in private schools in Oman, we found that it is much better if they come here where they can still get good education without spending so much money. We found that the immigration procedures to Canada were a lot easier compared to other countries like Australia and New Zealand. We do have friends who applied for Australia and New Zealand, some managed to go, the others are still waiting. We did explore the opportunities and decided to go to Canada. Also in the Gulf now there are many law yers and agents who provide legal assistance in processing your application for landed immigration in Canada. We paid $5,000 (Canadian dollars) for the whole thing and it took about a year from beginning to end till we got the papers.
We knew that it was going to be tough from the standpoint of family separation. Ali is very well paid and we did not feel that he should leave his job and start from zero. The decision was made for the welfare of the family; the kids will get the best education. Now my husband sends enough money for us here and I also want to go back to school for additional training. I also want to say that not everybody in the Gulf can make this decision. Only people with very good incomes are financially able to bring their families. But of course there so many people who talk to us to find out exactly how we went about this.
The Gulf employment can no longer provide the security and the expectations they had decades ago when Sudanese communities were established there. This sense of insecurity led people to resettle elsewhere. The family decision was hard in the beginning. But I always felt that I did not need a guardian to accompany me. Coming without my husband, of course, put a lot of pressure on me for assuming the responsibilities of two parents, but it was worth it. My husband comes once a year during his vacation. Although he was reluctant in the beginning, I was very firm and I made my intentions known that either he will be supportive of the decision and we can still be a family, or I am going by myself. Keeping in touch with the family, proved to be very expensive since we have to save every penny. Luckily, I have a "Net to phone" program. This decision of course had an impact on the family but I think it is a positive one.
Like Manal, Wigdan has also came from Oman Sultanate to Toronto in 1995. Whereas Manal arrived alone, Wigdan's husband accompanied her and subsequently returned after getting the family situated in a beautiful three-story home in Missisaugh. At the time I interviewed Wigdan, her husband Omer, a physician, was visiting the family during his vacation. I was as much interested in his thoughts of his wife's decision as with her own story.
After a phone call paid by Manal to Omer and Wigdan, we were invited to their home. We were seated in a spectacular but tasteful wall-to-wall carpeted living area. Impressionist paintings hung on the walls and sandalwood incense released a sweet scent. Wigdan's appearance reflected her material comfort; from the genuine pearl jewelry to the sky-blue silk outfit, there was no doubt that she led a life very different from the refugee women in Toronto. I informed my hosts of my interest in documenting their migration journey, especially Wigdan's experience as a female migrant. At this point Manal and her friend exchanged a joke about how wonderful it is to be "free of husbands" and how smoothly their lives were running. Both Omer and his wife Wigdan got the opportunity to reflect on their experiences. Omer began.
Since the Gulf war, we decided that we must find a secure place to live. Going back to the Sudan was not a feasible thing to do, because our children are in high school now and soon will be going out for college. Schooling is not stable in the Sudan; education is always interrupted by government decisions to close down the schools for fear of demonstrations. Staying in the Gulf was also questionable. I have to say that my position as a physician in the Sultanate is secure and I have no financial problems supporting my family in Canada. I was sure that my wife would be very capable of being here and quite good at managing her own affairs.
When they came here, it was difficult, just the idea of being so far from them was troubling to me. But we are increasingly becoming e-mail parents. I e-mail my children everyday, and they ask me sometimes for helping them with homework via the Internet. I know that other migrants in the Gulf have tried to bring their wives [to Canada], but [their wives] couldn't take it. The wives were always on the phone with them, so it did not work. I think my wife's background, as someone who worked before, is important. Here she is doing well and after sending the children to Catholic schools she feels that they have a good education.
The husbands back in the Gulf often get together on the weekends, play cards and exchange news. The family separation is easier for some than for others, but this type of migration is really increasing. As far as marital relations are concerned I think that I have a good relationship with my wife and it does not matter to me whether she is there or here. Others however find it difficult and we hear some rumors of husbands who start to fool around. I think that the decision to come to Canada was in the family's best interest.
When Wigdan got the opportunity to talk about her experience, she had this to say about life in Canada, her independence and her role as a female household head:
Coming to Canada was a good decision. After all this time I am very used to it and I have an independent life. My children are at a stage now where they are reliable and responsible. They realize that I am responsible here and rarely do they make any decision without consulting me. I also found it necessary to bring them every summer to the Sudan. I feel that raising them as Sudanese, not Canadian, children will make them more accepting of my advice.
The responsibilities here are big. I have to budget our income, although we get more than enough, but I feel I have to be careful and secure savings for the family. I decided to join a community college in Toronto to get ready for a job, so that we can also have an extra security. I think that I have changed. In the Gulf I had maids and I had people do things for me all the time. My adjustment experience in Canada in the beginning was hard in assuming the role of a maid, driver, teacher, mother and father, but I got used to it and I organized myself. What I also find encouraging is that whatever difficult issue you become confronted with, you don't run to the husband for answers. I am figuring everything out on my own. Our life here is nice especially my social life is rich because of the presence of other friends who are in the same position like myself. Rare is the day that when we don't talk to each other or visit one another. From every direction coming to Canada was a wise decision. When I go to the Sud an in the summer, I get the emotional support I need for the whole year, till I go back again. There are no problems.
Migration brought about significant transformations in the life of these migrant women, including increased freedom and mobility, especially the opportunity to socialize with each other. They spend weekends together, attend social events, pay visits to others in the community in times of happy and unhappy occasions. Or they just call for wanasa (chat) or to exchange information. For many Sudanese women who came unaccompanied by their spouses, the decision to come to North America represented a threshold that they successfully overcame. Many point out that in the beginning their husbands and in-laws nagged them that it was not a good idea before coming to accept the situation.
The majority of women who came to Canada had not been previously employed in the Gulf countries, although most of them attained a college education in the Sudan. Once in Canada, and in spite of the thousands of dollars sent by their husbands to cover all expenses, these women worked hard at achieving their own financial independence. For example, Manal and Wigdan told me that they started training in computer programming to ensure job access in the Canadian labor market. Others have already started in similar occupations, which has only strengthened their sense of self-hood and independence. This observation coincides with numerous observations of other migration scholars. For instance, anthropologist Patricia Pessar has observed in the context of Dominican women's migration to the United States that "women's claims to co-partnership in heading the household have brought them increased authority in decision-making over budgeting, contraception, the discipline and education of children, and control over socia l life outside the household. This change is exceptionally applicable to Sudanese women in Toronto, whose migration has endowed them with a sense of control over resources, finances and their own bodies. For this last aspect it is worth mentioning that the majority of these women have two to three children, an extremely small family by Sudanese standards. Manal for example has indicated that, "by living in the Gulf, women have nothing to do except to get golden jewelry and get pregnant annually." Family structure and the rearing of children had been transformed through migration, thus contributing to greater sense of self-worth and autonomy.
However, one of the important implications that the migration of Sudanese women is raising at the level of the Sudanese community in Canada is the marked class differentiation that it has created. Most of the Sudanese nationals in Canada are refugees, and they depend solely on the government's welfare programs. For many it takes a long time, ranging from two to three years, before adequate training for new jobs takes place. The limited income of many has led to a residential pattern in which sharing a house with other families is not uncommon. Single Sudanese men also tend to adopt the same solution in order to save money and make ends meet. For the post-Gulf women I observed this is by no means the case. As Leila, 37, from Khartoum North pointed out:
The people who came from the Gulf maintain the same level of material prosperity as they used to have in the Gulf Everybody knows that in the Gulf people do not have to pay for rent, taxes or anything, so they have decent incomes, and the currency is strong compared to the Canadian money. There is no comparison between them and the masakin (the poor) Sudanese who are on welfare.
My own observations and conversations have proven that the Sudanese migrant community is a highly heterogeneous social entity encompassing class, ethnic and gender differences. The women of the Gulf feature prominently into this highly diversified picture.
"TOO MANY PEOPLE ARE WINNING THE LOTTERY NOW": IBTISAM'S STORY
One of the avenues of entry into the United States is the Diversity Visa Lottery Program. Ibtisam, who migrated to New York in 1997, was originally from Shendi, a town that is between the capital Khartoum and the Dongola region by the River Nile. Ibtisam moved to Khartoum to attend college and then obtained a job in the government sector where she was an accountant. Like thousands of her Sudanese counterparts who have won the "lotteria," as Sudanese women call it back home, Ibtisam was an immigrant on her arrival rather than a refugee. I met Ibtisam one evening during an Eid celebration in the Bronx. Ibtisam, who was wearing a tobe, the Sudanese traditional dress, was among nearly three hundred Sudanese who congregated for a concert by the Sudanese singer Sammy Elmagarabi, and a banquet catered by a Sudanese chef, herself a lottery winner. On April 1999, I asked Ibtisam about her decision to come to New York.
I have a lot of people here in Brooklyn, both relatives and friends. I was working in the Sudan but the working conditions there are hard in every way. The mahia [salary] is not enough. I get it in the beginning of each month and by the end of the first week we start to scratch our heads wondering how to get by for the coming three weeks. We borrow money, try to cut down, ride a bus instead of a taxi, everything you try to do is of no use.
My economic situation was very strained. But all the time I was in the Sudan I wanted to get out of the shagawa [hard life] and the oppressive heat and the running around I did just to get by. I was keeping in touch through letters with my relatives here in New York and they were very helpful to me. I asked about the lottery because if you do it yourself in the Sudan you have to pay someone to prepare it for you. I sent my information and when the lottery was announced, it was big news. I felt like I wanted to fly of joy.
The family, to tell the truth, did not object because I am a single woman; just the opposite--they were helpful and understanding. Even the oldest people in the family wished me success. In the Sudan, the American consul used to come from Egypt about once a month to process the visas for lottery winners. Now you have to go to Egypt to get a visa because the American Consulate is shut down in the Sudan. Everything went well. I arrived at New York, where two of my very close people met me and brought me to their house. I have a job now in New York but not as an accountant. I need to give myself time to learn English before I try for another job. I am sharing an apartment with other people, here. I like New York except for the cold winter, but what can I do?
I am glad that I was lucky and once I settle enough I can help my brothers and sisters. Already one of them works outside the Sudan in Jeddah. As for the coming of women here, this has been a normal thing. People do not resent it like they did in the past, and your own family expects you to lift the financial burden from their shoulders when you send dollars; even if you send twenty dollars, it amounts to a lot.
Ibtisam's case resonates with that of several women, who obtained permanent residence through the lottery. It highlights the importance of the broader milieu of Sudanese socioeconomic life, where expectations are constantly changing. Those Sudanese families are increasingly becoming more tolerant and accepting towards female migration illustrates the adaptability of Sudanese culture under the difficult and alien conditions of the ghorba.
SHE IS NOT GONG HOME UNTIL SHE GETS HER CHILD AN AMERICAN PASSPORT
"She is not going back until she gets her child an American passport." These are the words of 41 year-old Salwa, a migrant living in Alexandria Virginia, speaking of her neighbor's sister. Four Sudanese migrants in Washington spoke with me about Sudanese in the United States and their ever-growing numbers in the nation's capital. The topic of women coming to the United States specifically to give birth came up. "What would they do in case of an emergency?" "What are they thinking, coming on this trip while in the last stages of pregnancy?" "What if they give birth in the airplane?" These are a few of the questions that circulated around this new pattern of "giving birth to American children." Surprised by the ever-shifting attitudes of Sudanese toward their homeland, Imad, 38 years old, began to reflect on his own mother's story:
Forty years ago my father was a graduate student here in the United States. When my mother was expecting my older sister, she insisted on going back to the Sudan to deliver the child there. She wanted to be with her family and friends during this time, and she returned to the U.S. after my sister was born. The irony of fate is that my sister is here now as a graduate student and she trying her best to obtain permanent residence. Now it is the opposite; women come all the way here by themselves to make sure that their children will be American citizens by birth.
Several Sudanese migrants told me that in areas where large numbers of Sudanese migrants reside, women arrive frequently to give birth. I had the opportunity to gain an insight from a woman, Aziza 39 years old (interviewed in April 1999) who has herself has given birth in Brooklyn. Here defense of a decision that appeared to many as adventurous is this:
First of all I have to say that if I did not have a relative here in the United States it could have been difficult to come here. When I made this decision a lot of people in the Sudan thought that coming here for the reason of giving birth is a moda [fad] introduced by rich Sudanese women. In my case, I am a working person and I had to save money to do this. In the Sudan people there will make comments that show you that they do not support the decision of traveling somewhere to give birth, but I did not mind. If the Sudan were stable, I think it would be a lot easier to stay there and be among family members. The important thing is that when I got everything organized, my husband was supportive and excited. I decided to come for the sake of the child's future. We don't know what is going to happen in the Sudan twenty years from now, certainly there is no sign that things will improve. I thought that at least my son could come back to the United States as a citizen. I am not worried about myself but about m y son's future. I am thankful that I had this opportunity. My son can come here to go to school and lead a good life, get good education and health care, just everything here. And it is true that in the Sudan women are coming here for that, in spite of the criticism of other people. When I go back, I will feel satisfied that I did everything in my power to make sure that the next generation has an easier life.
This phenomenon is a good illustration of the ways in which the Sudanese community in the North America is expanding and multiplying. According to other scholars, the fact that it is contributing to the increasing rise of Sudanese migration is identical to a pattern identified within other migrant communities in the United States. For example Patricia Nabti has pointed out the same strategy among Lebanese when they began settling in the United States. Whether this type of migration is introduced by "rich Sudanese women" or not becomes a secondary issue, since its far-reaching implication is that it leads to the formation of a community of American children in the Sudan who will probably come home one day. And it is women who are the prime movers behind this community.
The stories told to me by dozens of Sudanese women in the United States and Canada are illustrative of many trends and transformations that Sudanese people are experiencing back home as well as in their state of ghorba. These stories mirror the changing nature of gender roles and expectations that have historically characterized the social organization of the Sudanese society. Social relations and societal values have unquestionably been more confining to women, affording them little mobility compared to Sudanese men. Breaking this cultural mold, single women are coming by themselves without Awlia Amr, or Guardians. The stories, too, demonstrate how Sudanese women are carving a space for themselves in the social landscape of their receiving societies. They offer insight into the changing perceptions of the long-lasting and widely held image of passive, voiceless, docile and dependent women who can only been viewed "as tails" rather than as independent actors. The Sudanese saying "elmara kan fas ma bitkisr el ras" [even if the women was an ax, she would not be able to break the head], denoting helplessness and passivity, receives no corroboration from the experiences of Sudanese women in North America.
Rogaia Mustafa Abusharaf is a Postdoctoral Fellow at Brown University and a Lecturer in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Tufts.
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|Author:||Abusharaf, Rogaia Mustafa|
|Publication:||Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2001|
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