Women make revolutions not tea
I was caught in the middle of parliamentarians rushing to the session in the Sudanese National Assembly as the bell was ringing them in. I was there to conduct interviews about the Sudanese women’s movement, historically and presently. For the first time in Sudanese history, 25% of the parliamentarians in the Assembly are women.
The women’s movement in Sudan has long historical roots going back to before the country’s independence in 1956. Already in 1952, the Sudan Women’s Union was established. As women and men have ousted dictatorships in Egypt and Tunisia in what has been termed “the Arab spring”, Sudanese women took to the streets already in 1964 and later in 1986. Side by side men they rose up against one of Sudan’s many military regimes in the October revolution. It was a milestone for Sudanese women. According to a founding member of the Sudan Women’s Union, Nefisa Ahmed al-Amin: “Women, together with other sectors of the society, went out of their homes”. She continues to say that women “were exposed like their fellow men to different sorts of harassment and dangers including gunfire from live ammunition. A great number of them were wounded.” After the popular uprising in 1964 all Sudanese women gained political rights on an equal footing to men. Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim, from the Sudan Women’s Union and also a known communist, was the first (and only) woman to be elected to parliament in 1965 in Sudan.
The mobilization for the 25% quota in the 2008 Election Law was based on a continuous low representation of women in the country’s elected and appointed parliaments since Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim. Sudanese women saw the need for a quota to ensure women’s presence in key decision-making institutions. This was one of few rare occasions during the last 23 years of rule under Omar al-Bashir where women within the government mobilized alongside the opposition. And they did so successfully.
The parliamentary elections in 2010 were conducted in a tense political environment. Major oppositional parties boycotted the elections altogether. The ruling National Congress Party won the overwhelming majority of the 112 seats reserved for women in the Assembly. During their two years in office, little has happened within the area of women’s rights in the National Assembly. Women activists are not hopeful that a parliament made up almost entirely of the incumbent party will bring neither democracy nor equality for women. In their mind they are busy drinking tea together rather than putting women’s rights on the agenda. It has become clear that women in parliament and those in opposition do not share a common vision for Sudanese women. So far, the quota has merely established that the women’s movement is fragmented along political and ideological lines. In the words of a woman activist: “We are operating from isolated islands. There is no coherent movement”.