The Role of Women in Building the NewSudan

By: Sondra Hale

Sondra Hale

Sondra Hale


Dear members of Darb Alintifada, thank you for inviting me to participate in this forum. It is a privilege for me to be writing side-by-side with some of Sudan’s most outstanding women leaders and thinkers. This is such a propitious time for people to pool their ideas, and for women, in particular, to mobilize.

This mobilization can take many forms. Right now, it seems important to comment on the ideological and political structuring of “The New Sudan” so that women do not lose out in playing a leading role in constructing the ideas that will “govern” the New Sudan. Hopefully, women will be doing more than merely commenting on the National Democratic Alliance, the “Asmara Declaration,” the participation (or lack of it) in various political parties, the infamous Article 5, and the like.

The last couple of contributions to this forum, especially Nahid Toubia’s, gave me hope that this symposium is not going to succumb to the “cult of personality.” I agree with Dr. Toubia that the problems are deeper and more long-standing than whether or not a particular person is given a seat in the NDA, or even deeper than whether or not women are given 50% representation in the NDA! It is clear that it is time that Sudanese women should figure out how to organize as women beyond the NDA (not separate from, but in addition to). It would have been a shame to waste this opportunity by discussing the leadership trials and tribulations of only one woman, great though she may be. Sudanese women have a lot more to demand than being “given” one representative, no matter who she is!

We are, as usual, indebted to Ustaza Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim for “shaking up” the establishment and making the struggle visible through her efforts. But let’s not stop there, nor get bogged down in heralding or criticizing one person. It is truly time to be more inclusive of other Sudanese women, especially women from the historically under-represented areas of the south, west, and east. Women everywhere should sweep up our old leaders, praise them for their courage and past deeds, keep them in our hearts, heed their advice, and move ahead! We are the avalanche!

Learning from the Past:

What will the “New Sudan” learn from the lessons of the past with regard to women and revolutionary transformative struggles ? It seems clear that there has been an international learning process in effect in the last decades of the 20th Century. By the late 1960s, we began to see the greater effectiveness of women in revolutionary movements, the emergence of powerful women’s organizations, and the challenging of the Old Order of revolutions: i.e., the idea of the vanguard party; the designation of urban workers as the only real vanguard of the revolution; the idea that women entering the work force in greater numbers and as equal workers is automatically an emancipating factor; the proposition that education is a sufficient condition to end women’s oppression; and the like. Once these ideas were challenged and modified, one after another, women’s revolutionary potential was elevated: in Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, Angola, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Palestine (the short-lived intifada), Eritrea, and South Africa–just to name a few. These are all movements which were often characterized not only by effective state (or party/front) feminisms and well-organized national women’s organizations (that had greater or lesser degrees of independence from the mass organization), but also by grassroots and local feminisms.

We have come to think of the later movements of the “Third World,” e.g., Eritrea, as envisioning and developing a new society (one that is characterized by gender, race, ethnic, and class egalitarianism), while carrying out the armed/military struggle. We have also come to associate the later movements with a de-emphasis on the armed struggle in terms of its overall importance in the total revolution. Revolutionaries in both Guinea-Bissau and Eritrea settled into the underground bunkers and caves and figured out what a new society would look like and began an educational crusade to build that society. Cadres in both of these movements realized that transforming gender relations was an integral part of transforming the entire society.

This may be a time when it is wiser for Sudanese women to engage in a period of political education among themselves. Unfortunately, it is very difficult not to be distracted by the sometimes petty, sectarian struggles that men are engaging in and not to allow our energies to be sapped by having to fight for something so simple as equal representation in the interim organizations of the government-in-exile.

The “New Sudan”:

For certain there has been a “rough start.” The minuscule representation of women in the National Democratic Alliance, the invisibility of women leaders in the SPLM/A, and the predictable absence of women decision-makers in the various sectarian parties, in the Sudanese Communist Party, and even in the newer democratic fronts and alliances does not bode well for Sudanese women. As for class and race/ethnicity, with the exception of the southern ethnic composition SPLM/A, domination of the NDA by northerners and elites does not bode well. For that matter, even the SPLM/A is primarily led by elites. Others in this forum may be addressing some of these aspects of the NDA. My purpose is to present some general ideas about building gender egalitarianism into the movement from the start, or before it is too late. This is an undeniable chance for Sudanese women–from the north and the south–a chance to break the mould.

In this discussion I am suggesting that we might want to look at the NDA, the SPLM/A, the SCP, SAF, and the like, in terms of the attitudes toward the importance of the armed struggle, including the valorization of military leaders or war heroes in peace time, which usually disadvantages women in terms of political careers.

In the Sudan case, which is further complicated by a major regional conflict, I would also suggest that we look at the relationship of northern and southern women (these expressions are over-simplified, of course). It might be instructive for all Sudanese women, for example, if we look to the ways in which southern women have organized around the conflict, both inside and outside Sudan. Our analysis might tell us that women in these two areas (i.e., north and south) have more to learn from each other than they can learn from the men in their respective organizations and movements. I am making some assumptions here:

(1) that women always play a major role in holding up any social movement, whether actually involved in the physical struggle or not and that, therefore, the same idea would hold for southern Sudanese;
(2) that northern women may not have not been as effective in organizing so far, but may have more resources to work with right now;
(3) that women from the two regions may be able to pool their knowledge and resources for an egalitarian movement on behalf of women;
(4) that women are key to the ultimate success of any movement;
(5) and that women have always lost out when they have waited for men to lead them.

I am also assuming that northern women, except those who have been engaged in grassroots organizing, have more experience with state and party /organization feminism , but that southern women have been engaged more in extra-state activities on behalf of women. Both of these sets of knowledges are situationally useful.

There is another very important set of propositions that I’d like to forward here: (1) that a progressive party or an independent national women’s organization or local grassroots units need to build onto extant socio-economic, consciousness-raising, self-help, experiential, occupational, and neighborhood networks–i.e.,the networks of everyday life; and (2) that an autonomous women’s organization(s) might have to opt for dealing more critically with aspects of religion, i.e., not leaving religious issues for our “private lives” when we know that Islam, Christianity, and other religions permeate and invade more than our private lives. “Spiritual” issues may be private; “religious” issues rarely are.

As a scholar and an activist, I have been working for some time on potential strategies for women’s revolutionary participation, with special reference to the transformation of culture. I was raising the controversial point that neither Sudanese progressive parties, nor their “affiliates,” have looked to any aspects of women’s culture for ideas about organizing and that that is a major flaw in leaders’ visions for the future. I was critiquing the closed minds of Sudanese leadership and the consistent reliance on orthodox methods of organizing, e.g., through party hierarchies, reliance on the vanguard, building cooperatives, reliance on literacy, etc. There is, of course, a different set of problems within the NIF.

In general, women are thought of as not “political,” even by women leaders. This is an arrogance of political leaders the world over, that somehow it is up to the intelligentsia to lead the “unwashed” into the light. Little room is left for considering organic intellectuals (Gramsci) and for considering what women know who have had to use very sophisticated survival skills just to keep their families alive. Some of this is a result of a very narrow definition of “politics”–one that generally only includes a public presence, an election, a military coup, and the like. I suggest that women know how to organize, that we have had to do it to survive in our communities, in our villages, in our neighborhoods, and in our families. But male leaders and most women politicians and ######### of national women’s organizations seem practically embarrassed by women’s culture and by some of the actions that women take to defend or support their families and, therefore, overlook some of the creative ideas that groups of organized women might have to offer.

In terms of revolutionary strategies we should be concerned with questions about the autonomy of women’s organizations versus mixed-gender “mass” organizations. Certainly this is a salient question within the Sudanese political arena. How autonomous have the “affiliated” women’s organizations truly been? How independent are they now? Is there a single independent women’s organization functioning in either northern or southern Sudan or associated with the NDA? At what point in a democratic struggle is it useful to work toward the independence of a mass women’s organization? Certainly Sudanese women would not want a situation akin to what we now see in Eritrea. The National Union of Eritrean Women, technically independent from the EPLF, is still dependent on the party, kept low on resources, and made overburdened because every issue that relates to women is given to them to handle, without any consideration of what issues arealso national issues.


Women have enormous, untapped potential for revolution, but itgoes unrecognized by male as well as many female leaders, especially those who have led conventional, established parties.

We can glean ideas for this revolutionary potential from the ways that women organize themselves within indigenous structures and institutions–for example, women’s popular culture, networks, and struggles as workers in the home and in the neighborhood workplace, i.e., struggles around where we live, work, and interact with one another. Organizing ideas that emanate from collective actions to gain rights and to survive in these arenas may have profound revolutionary consequences in the sense of politicizing the networks of everyday life, the practical gender interests (Molyneux).

There are other spheres of women’s activity that have been ignored and which, because of their nature, may give others ideas about organization and mobilization. We need to think about organizing women in the informal sector and women merchants. Some years ago Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim told me that the SudaneseWomen’s Union, from the time of the Abboud military regime until now, has opted to struggle in the national political arena and work on political rights for women over economic rights for women. This is a highly conventional view of the women worker and an underestimation of the potential economic impact women have on the economy. Do Sudanese women’s leaders see the situation any differently now? Do the new and old women leaders still justify stressing political over economic rights for women?

I have also been suggesting trying to politicize the networks of everyday life, not just taking them for granted. Coopt the neighborhood collectives and other localized activities. Why build new collectives when old ones exist already? Why must they fit the mould of old party ideas or be dropped altogether? Included in these networks of everyday life are many institutions that fall under the rubric of “women’s culture.” Many of these are prefigurative political forms, and are, therefore, overlooked or are even thought of as “backward” by established political organizations.

While rejecting most of women’s “traditions,” most progressive parties have opted to coexist with others. For example, established parties, including leftist ones, have done very little tampering with sharia or with many of the religious traditions that some see as negatively affecting women. This is true, also, of the women’s organizations associated with these parties. Leaders, men and women, have opted to work within a particular kind of religious framework, one that divides the genders in many spheres of life. These organizations have been concerned that tactics that might give some cultural relief to women would impede the revolution. What kind of a message does that give Sudanese women? Women are seen as the progenitors of culture, the social reproducers, but they are also seen as the ones who must abide by culture.

There is also a tendency on the part of progressive parties to relegate all sex/gender conflicts to the realm of cultural and to consider the cultural as private. Culture, seen as super structural, separate from the material base, is not to be tampered with; it is seen as private, personal, and individual. Women are abandoned to deal with it, whether this is a religious practice that negatively affects women or a patriarchal “custom.”

This is a significant evasive strategy because, as we know very well, “Much of the oppression of women takes place `in private’, in areas of life considered `personal’. The causes of that oppression might be social and economic, but these causes could only be revealed and confronted when women challenged the assumptions of their personal life..” Because most progressive parties in Sudan have seen politics as something separate from everyday life (as did the Russians, Cubans, and other revolutionaries), and culture as separate from material conditions and political life, the practice of men and women members of these parties widens the polarity between the private and public domains, between production and reproduction, between the personal and political.


Sudanese women are not viewed in the literature of progressive parties as necessary for the success of the revolution, except in terms of adding their numbers to the struggle. There is no acknowledgment of the potential for women as revolutionaries as a resof the multiple oppressions they experience, i.e., that the entire structure might be altered if women were mobilized. Other progressive leaders in history have recognized this, e.g., Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh, Amilcar Cabral, and the Sandinistas. But how to realize that potential is the question. What can male and female leadership do to unleash that potential, rather than to try to hold it in check (which is the orthodox goal of most states and parties)?

In this statement I have suggested we look to the lessons of the past, specifically what we have learned from other revolutions. We might want to examine the contradictions within the structure of Sudanese organizations that claim they are envisioning a “NewSudan,” including the NDA, the SPLA/M, the SCP, and SAF.

How have socialists dealt with “traditional culture?” We have examples of at least two entirely different socialist revolutionary strategies for dealing with indigenous culture:

(1) The Soviets had aimed at undermining indigenous structures; and (2) the SCP at co-existing with them. In contrast to both of these, feminist socialist principles suggest building onto extant indigenous forms or gaining information that would help develop a movement emanating from them.

It would appear that this is a time for creative solutions, for cooperative problem-solving, for keeping the options open, notturning away any idea. A “New Sudan” will not come about without a profound change in gender relations and hierarchy, without releasing the potential of all humans, including women, or perhaps foregrounding women.

Women’s grassroots movements which (1) emanated from, but radically transformed indigenous structures, e.g.,women’s popular culture and networks and their struggles as workers in the home and neighborhood; (2) which emanated from both strategic and practical gender interests; and (3) which consisted of broad, mutually respectful, coalitions between southern and northern women might enable Sudanese women “to make their own revolution in their own name.” Once women build unto these prefigurative forms, and once they move to change their situation, they automatically move against the entire structure of exploitation.

Such movements can only enhance the overthrow of the current Sudanese regime and the maintenance of that revolution after the armed struggle is over. Women may not be able to make this happen under the umbrella of patriarchal organizations; they may not be able to make this happen without forming strong coalitions with each other throughout the country; they may not be able to make this happen under old leadership



About rainbowsudan

I'm just a soul whose intentions are good; Lord, please don't let me be misunderstood.

Posted on July 5, 2012, in Rainbow. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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