Sudanese women’s rights groups have been fighting for equality in political participation in the transitional government since last year. Sudan has had a bumpy transition since the deposition of former dictator Omar al-Bashir in April 2019. After bloody months of the African Union mediated talks, the military and the Forces of Freedom and Change signed a constitutional declaration that brought into power a joint civilian and military Sovereign Council and a civilian Prime Minister, Dr. Abdalla Hamdok. Within weeks he selected his male-dominated council of ministers which includes four female ministers.
It’s ironic that Sudanese women continue to be shackled by the guardianship system that is deeply rooted in society and facilitated by Sudan’s 1991 personal status laws for Muslims (also known as the family law). In the new political set up, Sudan has a female minister of social development and labour, however, the law remains that women can not work outside the house if their husbands do not permit it.
Sudan earned huge praise across the continent when the new transitional government appointed a female foreign minister but the regulations related to the passport and immigration law as well as the interior ministry regulations continue to hurdle women from travelling on their own or without their husband’s permission. Since I began travelling for work in 2012, I recall being stopped four times at the airport and questioned about my father’s permission. Once I was going to Cairo and another time I was going to Dubai and was also told that Sudanese girls are working as prostitutes there and other times I was travelling to Sweden and Kenya, respectively.
“Although the guardian’s permission to travel was suspended around 2003, the law still exists,” commented Walaa Salah, an advocate, adding that at some point, young men and women were stopped by the anti-terrorism department following the waves of young people travelling through Turkey to join ISIS.
To further complicates things, article 75 (e) states that a woman can be denied allowance by her husband if she refuses to travel with him without a “legitimate cause”. Years later, when I married and had a child, I couldn’t issue an exit visa for my daughter which is a requirement for all Sudanese citizens to travel out of the country, and my husband had to do it for her. The same way he was responsible for acquiring our child’s passport and national ID- without any requirements for the mother to be present or give permission. If you are unmarried and your father is deceased, you have to turn to your male uncles or relatives to support your quest to acquire documentation.
Technically, a child can only travel pending permission from a guardian, but under the ideology that has championed guardianship, a father is considered the guardian.
This makes it a possibility for men to travel with their children without the knowledge of the mothers while women can not do so unless they put themselves at risk and try to cheat the system through bribery.
A few years ago a friend had to do this when her husband refused to allow her to take her children with her on a much-coveted and life-changing fellowship program abroad. Two weeks ago, a little girl named Lujain passed away in Khartoum following a sickness, even though her mother believes that she had a chance to survive and was able to finance her medical journey, but her father denied giving the mother a permit to travel with the child. Her mother wrote on Facebook asking the Minister of Justice to consider her dilemma and bring her justice.
I know in these COVID-19 times and all restrictions on travel, many are struggling to adapt, but for millions of Sudanese women, travel has always been restricted. According to article 34 of the law, a guardian has to conclude the marriage ceremony with the permission of the bride-to-be and her consent to the husband and to the dowry. Oftentimes, guardians conclude marriages without the consent of the women.
The guardianship system in Sudan which finds a support system in cultural norms and a legal framework as its steady backbone is demeaning to women and is central to their continued living as second-class citizens. Much resources and efforts by women groups have focused on ensuring that women are represented in government decision-making positions, and this is for a good reason.
While it’s great to have women in top decision-making after a long time and struggle, it would make a greater change if they could support reform to an otherwise discriminatory system that disempowers and criminalizes women’s lives and behaviours. However, I am not blinded to the fact that sometimes we are setting women up for failure if we push them into offices and into powerful positions without liberating them in private spaces.
How can women succeed in public if their power is challenged, questioned and undermined in private spaces?
Last year, I attended a women’s conference and it was exhilarating to see powerful activist women from all over Sudan. They were lawyers, doctors, civil society activists, engineers, community advocates, students, journalists and all kinds of professional and successful women who have contributed to women’s rights in the country and were active during the revolution all over the country. When they had the opportunity to speak, there was a deep sense of betrayal. We heard from an activist who was released from detention and beaten twice, first by the security forces and later by her father who believed that she had disobeyed him. Another woman was fighting for women’s rights in courts while struggling to get a divorce and get custody of her child.
Sudanese women were always on the frontline resisting Al-Bashir’s dictatorship and working on the streets to put food on the table and advance, despite the crippling economic situation. They are capable, strong and resilient, they don’t need guardians to manage their affairs and lives. They will do just fine. It’s time to bring change, beyond the top into women’s personal lives.
Feature photo: Phil Pasquini / Shutterstock.com
Reem Abbas is a Sudanese Feminist blogger, writer, freelance journalist and a communications and research consultant based in Khartoum, Sudan. She is currently in the coordination committee of the Sudanese Women in Political and Civil Groups (Mansam). Here are her past writings.