The Islamist government in Sudan deter women from divorce in court insisting they are preserving the cornerstone of the Islamic nation, the Muslim family. Simply ignoring the verdicts, women are starting to fight back.

The people of Sudan live in and deal with multiple legal systems. In a traditionally patriarchal culture increasingly influenced by the Islamist government’s civilizing project, what these multiple legal systems have in common is a deep-rooted fear of family disintegration, a belief that divorce and single parents will ultimately shake the foundations upon which the Muslim community is built. The Sudanese state and the traditional courts’ perseverance in maintaining families intact whatever the costs, makes life hard for women living in abusive relationships. More often than not, the court rules in favour of men, refusing women the right to divorce. But the courts may have gone too far in its attempts to keep families from disintegrating. Society is changing, the courts are lagging behind, and women are starting to challenge court verdicts claiming their rights.

Not fitting into the box
Lamya Badri recently defended her PhD as part of a CMI/Ahfad University for Women-project for Norglobal on violence against women in Sudan. Her fieldwork in Doka in the eastern parts of Sudan is a testimony to women’s agency.

-It is so easy to tick the victim box when talking about rural women and women in disadvantaged areas, but doing so deprives them of any real sense of agency. One of my prime motivations for doing this PhD is that I wanted to challenge the perspective that rural women and women in disadvantaged areas are submissive and subordinated. These women do indeed have their own agency. In situations of hardship and potential sanctions, they decide to act differently than what is expected of them, says Badri.

A matter for the community
In rural Sudan, traditional law based on ethnic legal traditions is common, and marital problems is a matter for the community. Even though women, or men for that matter, do not want their relationship to be a matter for any court, the traditional courts may decide to interfere on behalf of the community. Traditional courts do not differentiate between the public and the private sphere. Their chief worry is that the whole community will collapse, they told Badri.

In urban Sudan, the Islamist government’s formal courts rule by their own interpretation of Sharia’a, which to them is superior to all other versions. Being deemed ‘un-Islamic’ by the government, the traditional courts have now been both formalized and marginalized by the central authorities in Khartoum.

-The government codified the informal and unwritten local laws and merged the informal system into the formal system abruptly. Tribal and communal leaders are now being appointed and fired by the government and their rights and control over resources have been diminished. They have been alienated from their communities, says Badri.

Instead of being a court that responds to changing local dynamics and needs, the traditional courts have become static. Their main aim is to stop families from falling apart. The women Badri interviewed during her fieldwork claimed that the courts are more interested in reconciling wives and husbands than in achieving justice.

-In general, women feel that the traditional justice system has caused them nothing but injustice and harm over a long period of time. They have repeatedly been asked to go back to abusive and neglecting husbands without any kind of follow up, says Badri.

To many of the women seeking divorce, the fading distinction between customary and formal law is still a minor detail. The difference between them is practically non-existent. Some of them believe that they had more rights under the old tradition, but to the majority of women trying to get a divorce, it does not really matter whose version of Sharia’a is prevailing as long as it is a version that insists on keeping husbands and wives together.

‘Stubborn women, idle men’
There is a discrepancy between the courts’ decisions and women’s expectations and understanding of the courts’ role, says Badri. The Islamisation process lacks legitimacy among women. Women reject the courts’ verdicts and leave their husbands despite the lack of a formally recognized divorce.

Gender relations are changing, also in rural areas. More women get an education and a job. With education comes empowerment and knowledge also in religious matters. Women have started to voice their own take on Islam and on Sharia’a. They have also started voicing and claiming their rights influenced by women’s rights activists and international NGOs. In short, women have started to out-perform men in a growing number of arenas. This reshapes gender relations and is changing the social contours of an area that used to be conservative and patriarchal. Some find the changes hard to swallow and worry that men are demasculinised.

-Men perceive women’s decision not to go back to unwanted husbands as being ‘hard-headed’ and ‘not listening’. During focus group discussions it became clear that members of the traditional reconciliatory committees for marital disputes, agreed that women are becoming very stubborn and not easily convinced, says Badri.

The ‘stubborn’ and ‘hard-headed’ women refuse to stay in unwanted relationships. Even though women who leave their husbands can face serious societal sanctions, it has become easier for them to insist on their rights. Well-organized self-support groups have emerged, and women who move from their husbands support each other. To some degree they also have support, although not always out spoken, from their communities who gradually lose faith in the traditional courts.

-When I first started my fieldwork in Doka, women’s access to education and paid labour was improving. What struck me was their empowerment, agency and emancipation. The fact that a significant number of women raised and living in a conservative community like Doka left their abusive husbands against all odds struck me as a very solid example of women’s emancipation and agency, says Badri.