Written by Lewis Twiby.
In 2019, when protests sparked across Sudan, the world seemed perplexed about the level of women’s activism during the protests. Alaa Salah, dubbed the ‘Woman in White’, became world renowned, and the iconic photo of her has been likened to the iconic photo of Che Guevara, Guerrillo Heroico. However, this ignores literal millennia of women’s resistance in the area comprising contemporary Sudan – from Mandy Ajbna carrying the severed head of her father to unite Sudanese communities against the British in the 1800s, to the Kandaka of Meroe defeating the forces of Alexander the Great in 332 BCE. Just two years before the outbreak of the protests one of Sudan’s most resilient and important feminists passed away, Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim. Fatima’s life shows the resistance to oppression regardless of the odds, and serves to inspire countless other women.
Born in Omdurman in 1933, Fatima grew up in a political family – her grandfather was dismissed from the judiciary for opposing British colonialism, her mother was the first Sudanese woman to learn English, and her father was denied a teaching post for resisting the imposition of English in schools. Consequently, she inherited a legacy of resistance, and, at the age of fourteen, set up the Intellectual Women’s Association while at school to demand Sudanese liberation, and to oppose Britain’s support for conservative forces. She even co-founded a school paper called Elra’edda, under the pseudonym of ‘Daughter of Light’, focusing on women’s rights, anti-colonialism, and democracy. At just the age of eighteen she helped organise Sudan’s first women’s strike; Sylvia Clark, the head of the Omdurman High Secondary School, dropped subjects like science, so Fatima and others organised the strike. The strike ended up a success, by misogyny dashed her hopes – her father barred her from attending university. Seeking a new path, she became a teacher, and then Sudan’s leading feminist.
The 1950s was a revolutionary time for Sudan. Across the colonised world liberation movements were throwing off colonialism, and this inspired the new young generation wanting a more equal society. Especially important for Sudan was the 1952 Egyptian coup which deposed the British-aligned monarchy and brought to power a reformist group, soon to be led by Gamal Abdel Nasser. Naturally, this would inspire the young Fatima, fresh off of her protests at school. In 1952 Fatima was one of several influential feminists who formed the Sudanese Women’s Union (SWU), which still remains one of Sudan’s major feminist organisations. Quickly, Fatima became involved with radical politics. When her brother, Salah, joined the Communist Party in 1954 she did as it was the first party to allow women entry. Due to this, Fatima and the SWU would offer radical analysis of women’s place in Sudan, and would especially focus on women’s rights in the workplace. This is further seen in the SWU’s publication, formed 1955, Sawt al-Mara, Women’s Voice, and, despite its first publication being repeatedly banned, it allowed women to present themselves as the subjects, not the objects of discussion. Among the articles discussed were the rights of working women, the rights of rural women, FGM, marriage, childcare, and feminism internationally. In 1956, the same year that Sudan became independent, she became the SWU’s president, but the honeymoon of women’s activism soon came to an end.
In 1958, General Ibrahim Abboud came to power via a military coup, toppling the multi-party council which, albeit poorly, governed the country. Aligning Sudan with the United States against Nasserism and socialism, Abboud cracked down on worker’s and women’s rights. Sudan’s post-independence history saw periods of democratic rule followed by tyrannical military rule, which undertook genocide in the Darfur and south. Despite being banned by Abboud, the SWU continued campaigning and publishing Sawat al-Mara underground, and, just like in 2019, women like Fatima provided the backbone which resulted in the 1964 October Revolution. With Abboud toppled, progressives seized the new opportunity and women won the vote, something which allowed Fatima to become the first woman MP in Sudan, the Middle East, and Africa. Her position in parliament allowed her to use the state to bring women’s rights to the forefront of society demanding equal employment, equal pay, and equal access to higher education. However, there were limits to progressive politics. In order to be respected Fatima was forced into presenting herself as family-oriented and traditional. Then, a second coup happened.
In 1969 Jafaar Nimeiri seized power and started reversing many of the progressive reforms enacted by the October Revolution. For publicly denouncing Nimeiri she was incarcerated for two years, and her husband, who was also a trade unionist, was murdered. Women were expelled from the administration, barred from traveling, and colourful clothing was banned. After her house arrest, Fatima continued advocating for human rights with the, now clandestine, SWU, and was repeatedly arrested for doing so. A revolt in 1985 deposed Nimeiri, but in 1989 Omar al-Bashir, who ruled until 2019, seized power with the National Islamic Front. As al-Bashir used Islam to justify his rule, proclaiming Sudan an ‘Islamic state’, he feared the influence of Fatima. She used Islam to undermine his rule proclaiming that ‘In the Qu’ran, God tells the Prophet “You have no power over people…”. And if the Prophet has received no power over people, what over Muslim could claim the right?’. Arrested again, Amnesty International intervened allowing her to form a new branch of the SWU in exile.
Abroad, Fatima became one of many exiled and proud women who fought for the rights of the oppressed. In 1991, she was elected president of the Women’s International Democratic Federation speaking at conferences across the world, and her high standing allowed her to return to Sudan becoming a deputy in parliament in 2005. Her legacy lives on. Just as in 1956, 1964, and 1985 women were at the forefront of the protests of 2019. Western media often depicts the Islamic world as leaving women utterly crushed, requiring foreign intervention to ‘rescue’ them from men. However, Fatima’s life shows the resilience and resistance of women worldwide.