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Women in Sudan - reversing into the 1990s?

As Sudan approaches its fourth decade of independence from colonialism, women in the country are faced with what appears to be a new era of repression. Blacklisted by most of the West and largely forgotten by its Arab and African neighbours, the Sudan of 1992 is controlled by a rigid military government. Influenced by the only political organisation which is legal in Sudan, the National Islamic Front (NIF), the government professes to be trying to create an Islamic state. However, the teachings of the Holy Koran have little to do with the rigorous disciplines currently being imposed on the streets.

Fighting a war against non-Muslims in the south and trying to bring the rest of the population to heel, the government of Sudan has introduced stringent new social measures. A war economy and the erosion of individual rights are but two of the side-effects created by the government in its attempts to establish an ideal Islamic state in the Sudan. It is the role and public freedom of women in particular that has been targeted as a priority by the regime of General Omar Hassan Ahmad al Beshir.

Anti-government activists argue that the erosion of women's rights is just the first step in a series of measures aimed at the disintegration of the Sudan as a progressive society.

While many of the rules and regulations that the current government is trying to impose on women exist in other Arab and Muslim countries, Sudanese political activists argue that application of Islamic law is particularly grave in the Sudan.

Unlike in other parts of the Arab world and Africa, Sudanese women have had access to education and civil service jobs since the early 1960s. Women held top portfolios in government ministries and local governments as well as in parliament. The first female diplomat to the Arab league was a Sudanese woman.

The overall condition of Sudanese women was by no means ideal, even before the take-over of the current government in June 1989.

The literacy rate of women remains at less than 15% and the mutilation of women in the country, through female circumcision, is still a widespread practice. Women argue that many of their problems stem from the political instability the country has faced since independence. "Always a new government, new rules, progress cannot take place in conditions of instability," said one woman in Khartoum.

The problem with the current government, as far as women are concerned, is that it has taken active steps to block their progress and even withdrawn some of the accomplishments they were able to achieve during the last 20 years.

Since the take-over of General al Beshir in June 1989 the regime has banned all political parties and even non-political organisations, such as women's groups who were not affiliated to the National Islamic Front (NIF).

Women's organisations had taken a leading role in the drive to eliminate the age-old custom of female circumcision in the Sudan. As a result of government action making these women's organisations illegal, all efforts to curb circumcision have been aborted.

A purge of public and private institutions in the aftermath of the change of government left some 20,000 people out of work, among them many women.

Sudanese women are frequently the primary wage-earners. A high percentage of men have been drafted into the army and are now in the south fighting a decade-old war. Women who work in the informal sector of the economy have been most directly affected by the new government regulations. Most of those working in Khartoum in the informal sector are illiterate, frequently supporting a number of children without any other income. They are often, although by no means only, displaced women who sought northern refuge from the war in the south. These are the street vendors or "tea ladies".

Many of these displaced women who lived in Khartoum have been "re-located" to desert camps where there is no chance to make a living of any kind. For those still living in the capital it has been made increasingly difficult to earn a living.

Because of their vulnerable standing in society these women, who are often widows, are subjected to the whims of police officers who may chose to harass, arrest or flog them on grounds of threatening public security or offending "common decency".

While a general curfew, from midnight till 4am, is still in effect, a special additional curfew imposed on working women forbids them to work after sundown. As a result the famous "tea-ladies" of Khartoum, have lost much of their income since most of their trade is traditionally selling tea on the streets after sundown.

A government dress code passed in 1991 which requires women to wear" Islamic dress" has caused considerable problems. No specifications were attached to the presidential decree other than that women should be well-covered and "proper".

Western clothes, the dress code said, should be shunned and even the wearing of colourful traditional dress should be avoided.

The vast majority of Sudanese Muslim women wear a beautiful, nine-metre long thobe of cloth wrapped around their body. Hardly more than hands, ankles and a bit of the hair are visible with the thobe and the majority of Sudanese women were reportedly outraged at the government's attempt to deprive them of their traditional dress.

The government has said it will make Iranian Chador-like attire, black and made of synthetic material, available at low prices to the general public. Female schoolteachers and government employees are already required to wear these dark, chador-like dresses. Complaints that they could not afford to buy the garments were met with guarantees that government loans would be made available to enable purchase with repayments deducted from their paycheques. The average monthly wage of a teacher in Sudan is the equivalent of $15.

The fact that the new dress code is impractical and unsuited to Sudan's blistering climate appears not to have occurred to the men running government, say Sudanese women.

However, a new dress code, only a step away from the traditional normally colourful thobes has emerged on the streets. Now, these white and cream coloured cotton thobes are on the increase. The change may be an attempt by women to comply with the demand that colourful dress is avoided while striving to maintain tradition. Meanwhile, the government continues to make contradictory statements as to whether the dress code is law or just part of their "moral education" programme, as the spiritual leader of the NIF, Hassan al Turabi, has called it.

Vigilante-like groups of righteous citizens have been empowered by the government to enforce the regulations related to the "moral" behaviour, including women's dress, occupation, movement and action. Groups practising such activities are reportedly on the increase in all Sudanese cities.

There is fear among women that this group, known as the Guardians of Morality and Advocates of the Good, will take every statement by public officials seriously and will routinely flog "offenders" of Islamic law in public, even though the rules and regulations have not been clearly spelled out for those who might choose to follow them.

Travel restrictions for women have also been introduced since the change in government in 1989. In principle, women are no longer allowed to travel without a muharam or male guardian. Exceptions are made, but even when permission is given for a women to travel abroad alone, she is often stopped at the airport and turned back. Such inconsistences in decision-making are common and have served to create confusion among the general population as to what is and isn't allowed and who has the final say.

Travelling, strolling or riding in a car with a male is forbidden in principle unless the man is a "close relative" or can prove that he is married to the woman. Some Sudanese men carry their marriage certificates around with them -- just in case they are stopped.

Advocates of women's rights in the Arab world have shown great concern about the steps to curb women's freedom in the Sudan.

While increased rights for women were at the top of the agenda for the Prophet Mohammed some 1400 years ago, the people who claim to carry forth his message today in the Sudan appear to have reversed that list's priorities, concluded a Sudanese woman lawyer, one woman among the thousands who are still trying to discover the logic behind the morass of confusion that exists in Sudan today.
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Title Annotation:Mosaic; Islamic laws and the repression of Sudanese women
Author:Shahin, Miriam
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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