Liv Tønnessen and Samia al-Nagar were finally able to meet again in Cairo. Conversation flows easily between the long-time collaborators.
16 Oct 2023

Putting gender research on the agenda

Samia al-Nagar and Liv Tønnessen are working to make Sudanese women more visible, both in academia and policy debates.

The first time Liv Tønnessen and Samia al-Nagar met was in a seminar at the University of Bergen. Tønnessen, having just started her trajectory as a Sudan scholar and of course being familiar with the work of Abdel Ghaffar Ahmed who was one of the pioneers of the long-standing collaboration between the University of Bergen and the University of Khartoum, asked al-Nagar if she knew who Ahmed was.

-Yes, I know him very well. He is my husband, she said with an ambiguous tone whereupon Tønnessen thought she had ruined any chance of getting to know al-Nagar and her work better. But she could not have been more wrong. The first impression that she had blown it was just an expression of Al-Nagar’s fierce integrity and independence.

Immediately upon meeting, Tønnessen and al-Nagar connected both on a personal level and in terms of research interests. Attracting funding from both the Research Council of Norway and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as well as international actors like the Carnegie Foundation, and co-publishing extensively in international journals, the pair have brought gender studies firmly into the Bergen-Sudan collaboration. Now, they are sitting together at a coffee shop in Cairo, finally being able to meet again after al-Nagar and her family were forced to flee war-torn Khartoum.

Pushing the boundaries of gender studies in Sudan
Jumping back to al-Nagar’s aforementioned integrity and independence: Coming from a patriarchal society, it has always been important to her to prove that she stands on her own feet and that she has not been granted any special services simply because of her marriage to one of the pillars of social anthropology at the University of Khartoum. Al-Nager has always been cautious not to be associated with her husband in any situation regarding work.  

Testing the frames of patriarchy and traditional gender norms has been a hallmark not only of al-Nagar’s research, but also of her way of navigating Sudanese political milieus and activism. She calls herself a feminist activist, and in the fight for women’s rights she has been unwavering. Where many of the older generation of women’s rights activists have been skeptical about feminism, the younger activists have called for a more radical approach. The disagreement about the best way forward has caused a deep generational split in the women’s rights movement in Sudan. But al-Nagar has skillfully managed to navigate this fragmented environment.

-She is one of the very few women’s rights activists who can build a bridge between the older and younger generations, says Tønnessen.

She emphasizes that al-Nagar also has managed the masterpiece of having access to even the most closed political parties, and that she also has a unique network among women outside of Khartoum. Having worked not only as a researcher but also for organizations like UNDP has given her a diverse network in local communities in large parts of the country.

Tønnessen thanks al-Nagar for the extensive network she has among both Sudanese women researchers and activists; a network that al-Nagar gave her the first access into, but that she herself now is growing.

When asked if working so closely with a Norwegian researcher has caused trust issues among infterlocutors and networks, the answer is an unequivocal ‘no’.

-The Sudanese are open-minded people. I have never encountered any skepticism towards me working so closely with a researcher from outside Sudan. But this has also got to do with Liv’s own approach. She meets everyone with humility and curiosity, says al-Nagar.

If you ask Tønnessen, that humility she learnt from her role model al-Nagar. To anyone following their conversation, it is very clear that al-Nagar and Tønnessen are truly aligned in what they want to achieve with their research, that they share a similar world view, and that they feed on each other’s energy and commitment.

 Successfully maneuvering a politicized research field
While it may seem almost blasphemous to researchers well established within the Western tradition of academia to talk openly about activism, in Sudan research and activism are almost impossible to separate. Especially when it comes to gender research. It merges to become a means to a bigger end. In Sudan, researchers are respected.

The sometimes blurry lines between research and activism also inevitably come with the territory. Any piece of research putting gender on the agenda is progressively politicized, and not only in Sudan. Gender research is increasingly under pressure all over the world. It is accused of being a political means, and a field that politicians increasingly want to control.

Gender research is highly politicized in Sudan. The Islamists are suspicious towards the struggle to lift women’s rights onto the political agenda, hence also towards gender research.

-Advocating for women’s rights and a research focus on gender is seen as a threat. It is seen as opposition to your husband and the state. The concept of gender is in itself politicized, says Tønnessen.

But controversial as it may be, al-Nagar and Tønnessen are not ready to shy away. Why? Because women contribute just as much as men, but still do not get the same dividends as men for their efforts. Not in academia, not in everyday life.

For example: 95 % of farmers of the farmers in Sudan are women, but no one sees them. No one writes about them. They are completely invisible in the research literature about Sudan.

The women of Sudan also played a central role in the revolution that succeeded in ousting then President Omar al-Bashir. Still, there is no guarantee that they will be allowed to play a role in decision-making processes when that day comes. Actually, experience shows that they will not.

The war that broke out on April 15 may have crushed the momentum from the revolution. But al-Nagar warns against letting the focus on women slip.

-We have to plan for peace. In what position will women be when, at some point, negotiations take place? There are still women’s rights activists working, day and night. That is why we need to write about it, to talk about it, to discuss it, also with men, to make sure that women are not left out yet again when peace comes, she says.

A commitment to women in marginalized areas
The word humility pops up again in their conversation. Humility paired with a genuine commitment to make a difference, especially for women in the long marginalized areas of Sudan. Central to their research and the objectives of a long-standing string of joint CMI/UiB/UofK and regional universities in Sudan-projects is a wish to lift young female researchers to the forefront of both the Sudanese and the international scene; to contribute to make their voices heard in academic and policy debates on Sudan.

-The way gender research is debated is not like any other academic discipline is debated. It becomes very emotional. In any discussion on gender and women’s rights in Sudan, you will have a room full of men providing arguments based solely on their own opinions. And in an academic discussion, ‘In my opinion’ cannot be accepted as a valid argument, says al-Nagar.

In this kind of debate climate, it takes exceptional courage to raise your voice as a young woman. But this is exactly what al-Nagar, Tønnessen and the Bergen-Sudan projects have succeeded in. For example; as part of one of these projects, al-Nagar, Tønnessen and several female researchers from the regional universities that have been project partners have been studying the drivers behind child marriage. Al-Nagar and Tønnessen arranged for these young female researchers to present the findings at a big conference with representatives from the National Council for Child Welfare. For anyone who knows just a little about the Sudanese tradition of patriarchal gender norms and about the history and relationship between Khartoum and the marginalized regions of the country, they will immediately understand that what happened at this conference was unprecedented. National bureaucrats don’t listen to representatives from the regions. And older men don’t listen to young women.

-To me, this is the proudest moment of our work together, says al-Nagar.

Now several of them have taken giant leaps, regularly raising their voice about women’s rights in public debates, conducted research on sensitive gender issues, and are being featured in local news media.

Their work on child marriage, closely collaborating with their regional partners, serves as a perfect illustration of what al-Nagar and Tønnessen more than anything dream of achieving: To see more and more young Sudanese women engaged in research on women’s rights and feminism

-The dream is for young, female Sudanese researchers to populate the google search on gender and politics in Sudan, and not western researchers like myself, says Tønnessen.

Liv Tønnessen

Director of Center on Law and Social Transformation and Senior Researcher