Mias Saif (from the left), Reem Abbas and Yosra Akasha belong to a new generation of women's rights activists in Sudan.

Reem Abbas is impatient. -We are always told that we have to wait. Building the nation needs to come first, women’s rights come second. The young generation of activists is tired of being told to wait, she says.

Abbas writes her Master’s thesis on gender issues at Ahfad University for Women in Khartoum.She is also a freelance journalist and works full-time for the Siha network, a strategic initiative for women in the Horn of Africa. 

–We are activists in our own way, she says. The Siha network is one of several initiatives that advocate for women’s rights in Sudan, and works with and for women. Their agenda is to fight Islamic fundamentalism, promote legal reform and economic empowerment of women through initiatives like convincing tea ladies and female food sellers to organize in cooperatives.

Reem Abbas, Mias Saif and Yosra Akasha belong to a new generation of women activists. They work from civil society organizations and NGOs instead of associations affiliated with political parties. The fragmented women’s rights movement has always made the struggle for women’s rights in Sudan difficult. Ever since the issue was first raised by activists in the 40’s, political polarization between the secular versus the Islamist perspective has made it impossible to establish a common ground. The Islamist women activists in today’s Sudan are not advocating for gender equality, but for gender equity. This means that they are advocating for women’s equal rights in the public domain in terms of education, work and politics. Yet, when it comes to family affairs, they put emphasis on men’s legal and financial guardianship towards women and children. As part of an authoritarian state structure, they have attempted to implement their particular views on women and Islam through a top-down approach for the last 24 years of rule by Bashir and his peers.

-The problem is that the Islamist women’s rights activists only stick to one perspective. There is only one way, and that is their way. But it doesn’t work like that. Women’s experience vary, says Mias Saif at the Siha network.

She lived in the USA for many years, and studied feminist theory. She saw the situation for women’s rights in Sudan deteriorate under the Islamist rule and decided to return to her country of birth to take part in the struggle for women’s rights. She is convinced that there can be a strong women’s rights movement in Sudan, but the platform is not there yet. In the meantime, Sudanese women empower themselves through little everyday acts of protest. 

But they dream of something bigger.

-I dream of protesting in front of our national Parliament, dancing and chanting, says Yosra Akasha. She started working at the Siha network in 2011 because of her conviction that women are equal to men and should be treated as such. But the concept of feminism is a tricky one in Sudan.

-I don’t think that there is such a thing as Sudanese feminism. Throughout the years, many of the women who have fought for human rights have done it as part of their political party agenda rather than for a women’s rights agenda. They have fought for equal pay for equal work, but they have not addresses issues like women’s sexuality or laws regulating the way women are allowed to dress, she says.

Still, there are signs that things might be happening. The Sudanese society is changing fast, and this is where change has to come first, says Yosra. If the activists succeed in bringing about societal change that strengthens women’s rights, changes in politics can follow. The current government might want to hold on to status quo, but a new government may have a different view.

-There are elections coming up soon. I don’t know what will happen, but with a new government, there is a chance. I don’t know if it will work, but it has to. We don’t want to wait any longer, says Mias.