This thesis investigates the politics of competing Islamic gender ideologies in Sudan. Based on fieldwork conducted in greater Khartoum from 2006 through 2011, the thesis explores Muslim women’s political activism for and against the Islamism of the state. Disputes over Islamist gender politics are an important gateway to understanding broader political contestation concerning the role of Islam in state and society in Sudan. By imposing a particularistic Islamic worldview through state power, Sudanese Islamists have since the coup d’état in 1989 turned religion into a source of both coercion and political contention. Islamization from above has brought into being new modes of women’s activism in the country, which in turn have changed the main arena within which gender politics is played out: namely Islam itself. Women activists have learned to relate, adapt, accommodate, subvert, resist, bargain, and negotiate with the Islamist state in new and perhaps unexpected ways.

The Islamist state and its “civilization project” (al-Mashru al-Hadari) have gone through various phases in the years since the coup d’état of 1989 until today. Many scholars have noted the pragmatic and de-ideologized power politics adopted by the Bashir government since the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) with southern Sudan in 2005. By excluding gender, however, this analysis fails to consider the continued importance of Islam in helping determine the position of women, both within the government and among other contending political forces in Sudan. To date, arguments for the abolition of Sharia have been successfully suppressed by an authoritarian state and are hardly visible in the public debate, particularly with respect to the woman question. The paradox of the failed “civilization project” is thus the strengthening of Islam’s role in politics at a time when the northern Sudanese state is emerging as a new political entity after southern Sudan decided by a popular referendum to secede in January 2011.

The signing of the CPA in 2005 ushered in a relative degree of political pluralism and freedom, which in turn allowed political criticism by many actors to come to the fore. This has created space for political critique and debate on Islam and the politics of the state generally, and on Sharia and women in particular. But the debate is intensely politicized and polarized: the accusations of apostasy toward opposing political contenders show that powerful symbols and fundamental values are at stake. In this thesis, I explore the politics of Islam by analyzing three groups promoting competing gender ideologies for and against the state: the Islamists advocating gender equity, the Islamic feminists promoting gender equality, and the Salafists propagating gender segregation. The gender ideologies are all framed within Islam and are linked to different Islamic groups and personalities with widely different outlooks on women’s rights and Sharia and the role of Islam in the society and state more generally.

Gender politics is perhaps the most politicized and polarized area in post-CPA Sudan. Recent reports of public floggings, rapes, arrests, and harassment of women activists show an Islamist state trying to brutally impose Islamic law on the everyday lives of its citizens at a time when the government faces fierce national and international pressures. The treatment of women has become one of the last Islamic markers of a corrupt and politically pragmatic Islamist state struggling to uphold its Islamic identity and legitimacy. While women’s rights activists in Sudan are engaged in resistance to, co-optation, and negotiation with the authoritarian Islamist state, my findings suggest that this activism does not always take the feminist direction that many scholars expect, policy makers demand, and Western feminist activists wish for. Posing two alternatives to the official Islamist position of the state, competing Islamic voices advocate, on the one hand, an “emancipated” Muslim woman, framed within a rights-based approach which assumes that Sharia law agrees with international women’s human rights (Islamic feminism); and on the other hand, a “protected” Muslim woman, framed within a conservative, gender-segregated doctrine which refutes all non-Islamic laws (Salafism). These may be seen as competing Islamic models for the future of women in an emerging northern Sudanese state.

The findings thus suggest that the political life of women’s opposition to Islamist authoritarianism is not to be found in blatant collective defiance of the state nor in complete compliance, but in between the two opposites. This thesis is concerned with the entanglement between domination and resistance and thus explores women activists’ strategies of negotiation, bargaining, accommodation, and co-optation vis-à-vis the Islamist state. Strategies of resistance do not necessarily take the form of “pure” opposition. Women’s and men’s counter responses to the Islamist “civilization project” are fragmented  and thus do not correspond to a collective, organized politics of protest. In post-CPA Sudan, different types of women’s activism offer qualitatively different and competing gender ideologies within the framework of Islam and Islamic law. Resistance to the Islamist state in Sudan, then, can be seen as moving in two conflicting directions. It is thus important not to demonize the Islamist state while romanticizing political parties, religious movements, and women’s organizations in opposition as they can be just as discriminatory toward women as the state. While the Islamist state’s ideology does not provide full gender equality, resistant Islam is not necessarily more inclusive with regards to women’s rights.

Liv Tønnessen

Director of Center on Law and Social Transformation and Senior Researcher