Dossier 18: Gender Politics and Islamization in Sudan

Publication Author: 
Sondra Hale
October 1997
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This research is an examination of the relationship of the Sudanese state to issues of gender, religion and class.[1] It is one component of my interest in the mechanisms the state employs for achieving both political and cultural hegemony. I am using Marxist concepts of the state and its hegemonic character to suggest the manipulation of culture (in this case, religion),[2] and feminist theory, which proceeds deductively from a premise of gender asymmetry, to offer a possible explanation in the demographic needs of the state to effect a gender realignment in the area of labor.[3]

One of the most active and seemingly successful Islamic movements in the world is currently taking place in Sudan. Its contemporary manifestation is the National Islamic Front (NIF), arguably the direct successor of the Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood).[4] Whether or not we can label this movement “fundamentalist” is a problematic beyond the scope of this essay.[5]At any rate, using Islam as a primary mode of national-political-cultural expression is part and parcel of a process of identity politics that often obscures class. In fact, “Although the quest for identity and the focus on culture is meant to differentiate one group from another, ‘culture’, like ‘nation,’ occludes class, gender, generational, and other significant differences.”[6] Included in the identity of politics of the contemporary Sudan are the gender dynamics that both enabled the NIF to come to power and are helping to sustain its power.

Certainly in recent years we have been forced, primarily as a result of Islamist movements that have emerged in response to the deepening economic crises in the Middle East and North Africa, to devote more theoretical energy to culture and identity. But Moghadam, among others, reminds us that “cultural cannot be properly understood outside of its relation to the political and especially to the economic. Nor can class conflict be ruled out as an analytic tool and explanatory variable.”[7]

Because conservatives, liberals, Marxists, and post-structuralists alike have had to grapple with identity politics, it serves us to look at some of the ideological debates at the forefront of our particular “case studies.” In my case, I am not interested in the debates among Sudanese of various persuasions, but debates within the fields of Middle Eastern Studies and Middle Eastern women’s studies. Partially I am taking this approach because of the nature of the “New Movement” in Sudan and the difficulties of talking about it in a vacuum. Therefore, I have begun with a discussion of some of the central debates in Middle Eastern Women’s Studies as they relate to gender, religion, class, and politics.[8]

Because women have played a central role in this class-interested Islamist mobilization in Sudan, their position has been rationalized in ideological and cultural-national debates—by islamist women themselves and by others. These debates point to the culturalnationalist nature of this political movement. Central to the debates are controversies over cultural “authenticity” and “legitimacy” and women as repositories of culture. In my research, while showing women to be actors in the NIF movement, and taking the position that Islam cannot explain the condition of women, nonetheless, I found it necessary to analyze the extent to which women are resocialized and religious ideas and institutions manipulated to form new gender power relationships.

I have tried to avoid the conflation of patriarchal gender relations within the family and religiously-sanctioned patriarchal codes and, likewise, the conflation of Islam and cultural nationalism and, in this particular Sudan case, “Arab” and “Muslim,” the last set among the analytical confusions which NIF women activists themselves have challenged.[9]Architects of the New Movement, namely Hasan al- Turabi, try to make a clear distinction between being “Arab” and being “Muslim,” walking a line between not seeming to abandon Arabism and yet liberating Islam from Arab conventions/customs.[10] This allows Islamist women to see the Islamist movement as “liberating” women from Arab patriarchal institutions.

A central strategy is to reshape female and family identity as the foundation of an “authentic” culture based on some symbols of the Islamic past, but “modern” in its class dynamics and institutions. It is beyond the scope of this essay to analyze whether or not the end effect is still to essentialize women and, thus to enmesh them in their difference, to romanticize them as the “ideal Muslim woman,” thus removing the concept “woman” from the material base.

In earlier work on Sudan I explored how Nubians maintained cultural integrity in diasporic conditions largely by positioning women as repositories of Nubian culture, leaving men the freedom to shift between Nubian and Arab identities. This male bi-culturality was key to Nubian elite status in Sudan and to the economic viability of Nubian communities. While the women reproduced the culture, men moved in and out, literally and symbolically, pretending not to understand “women’s world” and either mystifying it by treating it as a secret world of tradition and ritual or degrading it by reference to its “backwardness”. The effect was that the substantial economic and material contributions of Nubian women to both the homeland villages and the urban infrastructure went unacknowledged.[11]

The process we are witnessing now, whereby Islamist women are expected to symbolize authentic culture and be the pillars for relegitimatization, is not dissimilar.[12]

Developing my research on strategies for change in potentially revolutionary or transformative situations, I began to explore particular institutions or organizations, especially as these were apparatuses of the state.[13] My interest in the uses and abuses of culture by political groups to serve their own class interests expanded to research on the Islamist struggle in Sudan over the issue of “authentic culture,” its use as resistance, and the central position of women in this strategy. I try to demonstrate that women are far more than the “Greek chorus” of the Islamic revolution. They have been the central organizers and socializers. In 1988 I interviewed many leading Islamist women of the National Islamic Front (NIF); and contrary to both popular and scholarly notions about the oppression of women under Islam, found that these women were not only learning and interpreting Islam for themselves and other women, but were also militant, independent in spirit, and effective organizers in the movement. The women I interviewed are sophisticated about the goals of the Islamist movement and their position within it, and are activists on behalf of other women. My findings about Islamist organizers in the NIF challenged not only ideas about “false consciousness” but also the theoretically totalizing position of many Euro-American feminist scholars that Islam can explain the condition of women. The northern Sudan case is one where women may be using Islam to improve their situation. I do, however, raise questions about the limits that women may face now that the Islamic state is achieving hegemony.[14]

Some Central Debates in Middle Eastern Women’s Studies

Many of the debates in Middle Eastern women’s studies focus on women and religion. Many of us are trying to bring this much orientalized and essentialized portion of regional studies into its proper place—away from the "Third Worldism" that has plagued us. Simply dichotomizing Middle Eastern societies or groups of people into “secular” or “fundamentalist” or Middle Eastern women’s studies into feminism or Islamism, as many scholars and writers do (either explicitly or implicitly), is part of the problem. The process creates situations in which we stand up and are counted as saying either “Islam [or any religion] is good for women,” or, “Islam is bad for women.” Or, there may be the suggestion that “feminism” which is usually also totalised - is only western and, therefore, bad because it is not “authentic” for Middle Eastern women. Often those who do espouse a Middle Eastern “feminism” are accused of working only within a Western framework, which has the effect of denying indigenous feminism. Another approach is to imply that the antidote (cure) for feminism is “Islamism”.

When we point out some of the 20th century disruptions in the Middle East, we can assume at least two things: that, we are also talking about the 19th century and that the story of disruption should lead us straight to an analysis of women and gender arrangements.[15] One of our problems, however, is that we have not managed sound ways to talk about disruptions and responses to these disruptions without over-privileging certain variables; without totalizing certain processes, and without essentializing groups of people. Another problem is that we use particular variables when we are discussing “culture” or “social forces” or “history.” This is where “women” and “gender” come into the picture. When we are talking about “political economy,” we refer to the conventional variables of land, labor, and capital. Women and gender usually disappear in the thrust and penetration of masculinized political economy. In Middle Eastern Women’s Studies we have not yet feminized, if you will, the dynamics that drive the major economic changes of capitalism, socialism, and Islamic economies. To quote Moghadam:

We are beginning to see why women are important, and why gender is an indispensable concept in the analysis of political-cultural movements, of transition, and of social change. It is in the context of the intensification of religious, cultural, ethnic, and national identity—itself a function of uneven development and social change—that we see the politicization of gender, the family, and the position of women.[16]

In anthropology, in particular, women are often thought of as the “repositories of culture.” The implication is usually that women are positioned by men. But this overlooks the programmatic self-imposed essentialism of many Islamist women—a process whereby women may be using Islamic culture to change their lives—manipulating that very positioning that is thought by observers to opress them.

And that brings me to question that very process of giving emphasis to Islam instead of to women—a central problem in Middle Eastern women’s studies. Islam is usually totalized and privileged as a cultural determinant of Middle Eastern women’s behavior and status. But Islam cannot explain the condition of women, nor the rise or demise of feminism, nor the collapse of the secular/modernizing state. Now, that does not mean that we cannot locate the greatest challenge to Western hegemony in the Middle East, notably from populations professing Islam. I do not see this as a contradiction.

These attempts to use some manifestation of Islam to explain the condition of women often use the veil as a central variable, or certainly as a highly explanatory variable. There are few, if any, other regions of the world where one element in the culture still symbolizes so much to scholars and observers as does the veil in the Muslim Middle East. It conjures up the exotic, the erotic, the process of seclusion, the harem, marginalization, modesty, honor and shame, social distance, gender segregation, and of course, the subordination of women.

The fact is that veiling or not veiling, the type or occasion, the category of person veiling (e.g., class, region, type of occupation, urban or rural, etc.), and the politics of it (as in Iran) are rationales rarely analyzed outside academic circles. The academic rationales for donning the veil run the gamut: to enact seclusion (social distance from men), make a statement about sexuality (social control), to affirm Islam (modest dress for women and men), to display fashion or national dress (sometimes as an abrogation of Western style and values, as in Iran), or simply to deem modest Islamic dress as more practical or economical than other modes of dress (e.g., encourages use of local material rather than the purchase of imported goods).[17] But what do some women themselves say? Until my last visit to Sudan, I virtually never overheard urban working-class women say that what they were wearing was a symbol of a broader social movement, a requirement of some “fundamentalism.” Until the onslaught or intensification of the Western gaze, they were, in fact, amused at my questions about dress.

There is one new breakthrough in Middle Eastern Women’s Studies—which I maintain is under-theorized at the same time that there is a neglect of testimonies of the experiences of the women themselves. We have begun to deal with women as political actors, as agents of their own lives, which should have the effect of changing the way we view Islamist movements. But we still often do it in a political economic vacuum. For example, even though some scholars stress time, location, and context, our studies are weak when it comes to historically contextualizing the relationship of feminism, Islam, and nationalism. What passes for history often rolls along as a series of events that affect women or, sometimes that women affect—with little consideration of the material base, even when state feminism or state-sponsored feminism is being discussed. Scholars like Fadwa El Guindi or Sherifa Zuhur, in attempting to explain some of the views of Islamist women, go some distance in breaking down the dichotomy of Islamism/ feminism—challenging the notion that “Islamic feminist” is an oxymoron. But there is little or no class analysis in these approaches, nor more than a nod to the relationship of gender to the state.[18]

Our analyses, however, are finally focusing on the many different levels and types of political activity carried out by women—not merely or primarily the cliched “private’’ domain, with women exerting only informal political power through men. Rather women are involved in the same kinds of political activity as men, not restricted to power gained only through gossip or political songs, not in the political picture only as victims of the more dominant men, or of an oppressive Islam.[19]

We are more recently reading analyses of the differing ways that women have been mobilized in the Middle East and how this has been interpreted by women themselves, by men, and by the state. Women have become more than the targets of mobilization campaigns or political action programs, more than a mass to be welded into citizens or political followers. We see that women are actors themselves on behalf of themselves. We have begun to ask if the nature of women’s political participation differs if it is initiated by the state (as in Turkey and Iraq, or in an earlier period in Iran), by nationalist movements (as Peteet presents in her work on Palestinians)[20] by Communist parties (my own work on Sudan)[21] or by spontaneous revolt (as we see in Judith Tucker’s Egyptian study or Mary Hegland’s study of Iran).[22] We are starting to analyze women in the contest for citizenry, as political actors, and as the nexus of the relationship among feminism, religion/culture, nationalism, class and state.

We have also begun to explore the potential for the uses of “traditional” culture and “women’s culture,” to mobilize women against their oppression as women. For example, by referring to the zaar (spirit-possession ritual) as a “prefigurative political form,” I try to give the protest ceremony political and social meanings, not just ritualistic, symbolic, or psychoanalytical meaning. To me the zaar is a potentially political gathering which is an occasion for group therapy and for consciousness-raising, self-help, healing through collective action, and emotional solidarity. It is experiential, subjective, egalitarian, and affective. The zaar is a mode of ending the selfsubordination of women by forcing men, if only temporarily, to submit to women’s demands.[23] Such political interpretations of women’s everyday networks, rituals, and “traditional” cultural activities in relation to the “public,” “formal” arena associated with the “politics of men.” Some recent studies present the individual woman as political actor in the Middle East, albeit, the woman as leader or hero.[24]

We have also begun to analyze the relationship between feminist movements and more general social transformations. But must every movement in which women play a leading role, which we may or may not call a “women’s movement,” be a response to secular modernization, to Islam, or to the Marxist left? If the implication is that this modern movement emerged as a response to the material conditions of women’s lives, we need to know that. Or, it would help if we could know the process of raised consciousness that led to women’s activism.

Another of the problematics of studies of women as political actors is that we are often fuzzy or confused about the kind of feminisms or Islamisms we are discussing, or the kind of mobilization or movement. Is it a state-sponsored feminism or Islamism? Is it a grassroots, subaltern movement? Furthermore, are we just as totalizing about feminism as we are Islamism? So much of the critiques of feminism and feminist scholarship itself offer a monolithic approach to feminism. In a 1987/1988 New Left Review debate on women in the Middle East, two of the authors see the studies, within which some of my own work falls, as arenas of struggle for women that most replicate Western experience, i.e., women’s struggles within leftist, feminist, and urban and other grassroots movements commonly found in the West.[25] Some of us have suggested that we look to prefigurative political forms for ideas about the transformation of women’s experience. Some theorists refer to this arena as “subaltern.”

A central theme of Western cultures is the importance of distinguishing differences (usually oppositions) between men and women and presuming that those differences manifest themselves in psychological differences that shape gender roles and relationships between men and women. The result of this Western dichotomous thinking is that the study of women’s lives has often been separated from the analysis of men’s lives—which then impedes our ability to analyze the complexity of relationships between men and women and the social relations of power in culture(s).[26] Studies of gender and “fundamentalism,” then, are often studies of women only. And there is just a short journey to asserting that Islam is determining women’s lives.

We are trying to understand how history, culture, politics, and economic factors coalesce in the construction of gender in specific historical/cultural contexts.[27] Contemporary feminist anthropology, for example, has clearly shown that gender is a profoundly important analytical concept and that what gender is or means in any particular culture at a specific historical moment must be explored and not presumed. However, one of the criticisms I have of the work of feminist anthropologists is that we have tended to privilege particular variables or institutions in particular cultures, e.g., kinship in Africa, family and reproduction in China, and slam/seclusion/veiling in the Middle East (and these three are conflated to mean “woman”). And then we look at gender construction accordingly.

The process of privileging is, of course, political. What we decide to privilege in our studies of specific regions is related to the relationship of gender to the state and the international relationships of state ideologies of gender, which is, of course, related to political economy and the major 20th century disruptions in the Middle East. Or, to follow people like Leila Abu-Lughod, we may, in fact, for reasons of global politics, create culture and cultural differences.[28] This seems at the heart of our overprivileging of Islam.

Some Central Debates on Women and Religion

These processes are part of the ideological frame for the New Left Review debate (1987/1988), mentioned above, between Ghoussoub, on the one hand, and Hammami and Rieker, on the other.[29] Ghoussoub claimed that there are two approaches to the study of women and religion or women in Arab/Muslim society: one addressing the specific role of Islam in Arab society; and the other seeing Islam as a religion like any other but whose importance has been exaggerated in Western perception. She sees herself as the former and Hammami and Rieker as the latter. Hammami and Rieker claim Ghoussoub is an essentialist—essentializing the Middle East, Islam, and women.

I see the debate centering around what is privileged. Is it Islam? Is it what Hammami and Rieker refer to as “subaltern” groups? And although Hammami and Rieker disclaimed that their approach amounts to the “epistemological privileging of the oppressed,” Ghoussoub called their privileging of the oppressed “third-worldism.” Hammami and Rieker accused Ghoussoub of privileging the west and call for a decentering of the west (using Derrida) and for looking at “subalternity.” The debate, then, began to focus on where struggles take place and which struggles are most significant.

Ghoussoub maintained that organized feminism or organized women’s movements virtually do not exist. She looked to the Islamic past to find heroes, showed us the influence of the French during the French occupation of Egypt, indicated the importance of early 20th century men who advocated for women (advocating education mainly, but also suffrage). Basically she acknowledged resistance of feminist activism only in its relationship to the state.

Conversely, Hammami and Rieker looked to a different arena. They maintained that Ghoussoub centered on bourgeois women and should instead have focused her argument on subaltern women. They focused on popular culture as arenas of struggle (e.g., zaar, saint worship or shrine visitation). Thus, they called for an analysis of culture and everyday forms of resistance. To Hammami and Rieker these struggles remain hidden from history because of the hegemony of nationalist historiography. Conversely, according to Ghoussoub, they are in danger of drowning their feminism in populism, and being self-indulgent.

Part of the debate is about the notion of “false consciousness.” Hammami and Rieker viewed Ghoussoub as interpreting Arab women as passive and thus accused her of using, by implication, the explanation of “false consciousness.” The debate could also have been framed as a view of Islam and the state as hegemonic versus a view that there are equally powerful counter-hegemonic ideologies (e.g., Sufis, one of the counter-hegemonic religious processes in Sudan).

Another major area of contention centers around whether it is class or religion that determines most social processes in the Middle East (e.g., the debates on the conflicts in Lebanon). Hammami and Rieker charged Ghoussoub with neglecting class and reducing everything to “religious differences.” Connected to their exchanges are the different interpretations of Islam: is it hegemonic, overarching, a superstructural determinant, a highly codified, unified doctrine, or is it a popular religion with enormous variety and meaning to people as they apply it to their everyday lives?

Implied in the arguments is a rural/urban dichotomy, which takes a special form in Middle Eastern studies because of Islam’s association with the urban domain, but where most of the populace is rural. The implication is that if the peasantry is the point of reference (as it was for Hammami and Rieker), this might de-center Islam or de-privilege Islam.

I would like to echo Hammami and Rieker in pointing out the extent to which even radicals resort to Weberian notions of a collective consciousness called “Islam.” As I mentioned, we have tried to explain the condition of women by Islam. Muslim women have been seen as enduring a universal uniform state of subjugation. And we mostly assumed that without asking them or even trying to observe what Islam is like in their everyday lives. Related to this, of course, is our using the veil as the signifier. Hammami and Rieker maintained that the veil signifies class more than anything else. This may be overreaching. The process is more complicated than assigning a particular class membership to “veiled” women, even though, as in many other areas, Sudan’s Islamist movement is primarily middle-class. But, what is certain is that Islam, the veil, and woman are conflated in many of our analyses of Islamic movements. “Unpacking” these gives us a much more complex portrait on the ground.

The various debates in Middle Eastern women’s studies point out the problems of analyzing gender construction. We began with essentialist categories and moved to debunking essentialism, but we have only now begun to see essentialism as programmatic—whether statist, part of a revolutionary movement, part of a feminist movement, etc. Instead of following the path of some feminist scholarship, i.e., beginning with gender and then assigning gender to a class (if we deal with class at all), we would reap more benefits by analyzing shifting essentialisms and contextualizing them. Likewise, instead of beginning with religion and then trying to fit in gender (or the reverse), we might benefit by starting with political economy and the economic-material relations of women and men. Their popular religious practices may be extensions of these economic conditions; the state, as in Sudan, only now trying to re-shape religious ideology through class-interest.

Background to the Islamist Movement in Sudan

Many sources document that Sudan is one of the poorest countries in the world, and made only poorer by the influx of large numbers of international corporations and agencies. It has a mainly agrarian economy with a sparsely developed urban population except for the capital, Greater Khartoum (consisting of Khartoum, Omdurman, and Khartoum North), which dominates national and cultural life. For much of the 58 years the country has been independent from the British (1899-1956), the military has been in power. When the military has not been in power, strong, class-interested religious sectarian parties have dominated. For many of those years the country has also been split by a civil war (discussed below) between the north and south (intermittently since 1955).

In 1985, calling it an Intifada, a civilian coalition, with the help of segments of the military, overthrew the Nimieri military regime which had been in power since 1969. That civilian government, dominated by the Ansar sect (followers of the Mahdi), in the form of Saddig al- Mahdi, head of the Umma Party, established an “Islamic Trend” government. Then in June 1989, a “National Salvation Revolution, ”another military coup detach, ousted the civilian government and in essence installed a NIF government.

Until 1983, with the exception of missionary attitudes toward the south, northern Sudanese had been relatively relaxed about Islam, the dominant religion (approximately 70 percent), displaying wide tolerance for diversity. Although there had been the potential for some time for sharpie to become the dominant legal/ethical code, before 1983, civil and customary codes had remained dominant.

As for the northern Sudanese women, although wearing a cotton body veil called a to be and practicing circumcision (both clitoridectomy and infibulation), they were considered by some to be among the “emancipated” women of the Muslim world. This was especially true after 1965, when women earned suffrage, and 1975 when the Permanent Constitution had them sharing with men a number of civil rights and freedoms and being singled out for specific gender-related protections.

Heralding a new era, in 1985 military President Nimieri imposed and attempted to enforce strict sharia and set mechanisms in motion for developing an “Islamic State,” as well as inviting Islamists into his government, namely Hasan al-Turabi, then leader of Sudan’s Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan). Since then there has been an intensified struggle between secular forces, who see the non-Muslim southern Sudan, women, and Christians as potentially more oppressed by the imposition of sharia, and cultural nationalist religious forces, who see a “pure” Islam as Sudan’s only defense and salvation against the invading West and the only answer to Sudan’s dismal economic situation (the dynamics of which are discussed below). This is a familiar pattern in the Muslim world.

Confusion and inconsistency marked the 1970s and early 1980s relationship of the contemporary Sudanese state to the Islamists. Until Prime Minister Saddig formed the “Government of Consensus” in the summer of 1988, which invited the National Islamic Front into the official ranks of government, it seemed as if State leaders had courted the Muslim Brotherhood and the NIF, while sometimes seeking to distance themselves from “fundamentalism.”[30] In their attempt to gain power NIF supporters have honed a “modern” image. Even the use of the word “trend” suggests something forward-looking. The NIF’s attempt to look “modern” or be modern has meant reference to processes we would generally consider secular, although these are done in an “Islamic way,” e.g., Islamic banking, Islamic insurance companies, and appeal to potential constituencies through the media missionary work.

In many ways biographical descriptions and an analysis of the ideologies of the two major political leaders of the 1980s can illuminate some of the characteristics of contemporary politics. The two major political leaders are: Dr. Hasan al-Turabi (founder of the NIF, architect of the sharia penal code of 1985, and also the version put before Saddig’s government for consideration in 1988, and Attorney General and Chief Justice at the time I was carrying out my research) and Saddig al-Mahdi (Prime Minister, heir of the Mahdi, Mohamed Ahmed, and current leader of the Ansar Sect and Umma Party). They are both Western-educated—al Turabi in Law at the Sorbonne and Saddig in Economics at Oxford—world-travelled, and are both academic and philosophical sophisticates. Moreover, although Saddig has two wives, both men are married to activist women. Saddig’s second wife, Sara al-Fadl, was educated in the liberal arts at one of the “Sister Schools” in the US, and is highly sophisticated and activist. Al-Turabi’s wife, Wisal al-Mahdi, is university-educated, well-travelled, poly-lingual, sophisticated and activist.

Long-time leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Turabi has sought his considerable political power through the manipulation of a religious identity seemingly very much apart from that western academic background—while still using some of the tropes and techniques of that secular world. Sudan's contemporary Mahdi, Saddig, is seen by many Westerners as forward-looking in his attempts to reconcile, or more accurately, to balance a family tradition which has both Sufist and fundamentalist elements (i.e., Mohamed Ahmed, the 19th century Mahdi of Sudan and Saddig’s grandfather, was trained as a Sufi, but applied a fundamentalist religious code to his Islamic State), with his attraction for Shi’i Islam, while also using certain secular, especially economic, institutions.

One of my research questions was why or if Sudanese leaders often call religion into play during crises. There are some answers from popular and some academic writings, such as the supposed propensity of people, the masses, to embrace religion during periods of extreme deprivation or oppression. Much has been written on the concept of the “religion of the oppressed.” But Sudan has been poor for a very long time. Why now? Many people I interviewed stated simply that Nimieri used sharia in 1985 as his final power play. After a few interviews I changed the question to ask what elements we see in most religions—at least the Judaic-Christian-Islamic tradition—which make them useful as political strategies during socio-economic, therefore, political crises. Are there social processes which religions reinforce or reassert which allow a society to realign itself after social or economic upheavals? I asked if Islam, in particular, lends itself more easily than other religions to a “realignment” strategy? What, in particular, lends itself more easily than other religions to a “realignment” strategy? What, in particular, was happening in Sudan during the post-colonial era? These questions cannot be answered satisfactorily in a brief paper, as they are too integrally connected to the world capitalist system. But we can offer some clues.

In a chapter on uneven development and class formation in Sudan, O’Neill and O’Brien critique “dependency” perspectives of progressive analysts, maintaining that these approaches have not dealt with the competition between fractions of Sudanese capital and the patterns of accumulation that have resulted.[31] Instead, the authors seek to develop an analysis of the contention between “an agrarian fraction of the emergent bourgeoisie and a commercial (and increasingly bureaucratic) fraction [that] has dominated Sudanese politics.”[32] Proceeding from the expansion of capitalist food production (in the 80 percent agrarian society where as late as the 1950s cotton accounted for 80-90 percent of the GNP),[33] the impact on the rural population, foreign capital intervention and the restoration of export dependency, they outline the shifting patterns of capital accumulation, class formation, and concomitant economic crises.

Sudan's indigenous industrial capitalist class was very small and dependent on foreign capital. “The primary source of domestic capital accumulation for other nascent capitalists was in agriculture...[e.g.,] private pump schemes along the Nile.”[34] O’Neill and O’Brien pinpoint three categories of indigenous investors: rich merchants, some tribal heads, and sectarian leaders (the Mahdi and Mirghani families—Umma and Democratic Unionist Parties, respectively). Part of the main politico-economic dynamic in 20th century Sudan has been the conflict between the agrarian capitalist interests of the Umma faction and the cotton-dependent commercial interests of the National Unionist Party. The tragic results of these class formations and antagonisms has been the increasing impoverishment of the peasants, making them susceptible to drought and starvation. O’Neill and O’Brien concluded that:

Limited industrialization and the market imperatives of forms of capitalist agriculture in which output is destined for export and designed to ensure a high return on foreign investment suggest that conditions limit the emergence of a progressive nationalist fraction of the bourgeoisie as a potential ally in the struggle for democracy. This is because where the economic interests of the commercial bourgeoisie become increasingly tied up with foreign capital, there is far less scope for the emergence of progressive elements within.[35]

Most sources point to Nimieri’s running “out of time” or “room to manoeuvre,” as leading to his courting of the Islamists in the 1980s, resulting in their having a wedge in the government. The pressures of war with the south, moreover, were weighing heavily on the politics and economy of his regime.

For the Islamists the civil war and the existence of a large non-Muslim population in the south have given them an opportunity to accomplish and combine many things: to use the rationale of Muslim expansion and national Islamic unity to borrow money for military force, thus strengthening state power; to expand in the name of Islam, not Arabs toward Pan-Islamic goals in the region; to quell various nationalities movements by making the south an example; to keep alive rumors of oil in the south to suggest the potential to be a world player; and to show the strength of Islamic culture to unify and heal.

In Sudan Islamization was a movement from above, not an autonomous movement; it was a method of consolidating state control by exerting cultural (religious) hegemony. Most of the lower to middle class women I interviewed, for example, claimed to be religious, but distanced themselves from what they viewed as “fanatic Islam.” Muslim southerners, too, exhibited “religious sentiment,” but resented state control over religion. Through the years, I have known Sudanese, both northern and southern, to view religion as a private matter.

The variety of state feminism the Islamic regime is exhibiting seems only acceptable to elite Islamist women and a few female religious officials I interviewed (e.g., a sharia judge). Otherwise, there was a considerable resistance—at least verbal—to state Islamic feminism.

Class, Gender and Nationalism

Gender and class relationships in Sudan are similar to Egypt’s.[36] Early in the century Sudanese attitudes about the “role of women” were prominent in two parallel movements, each associated with a particular social class and with a particular nationalist ideology. Liberal and moderate nationalists of the upper and upper middle classes viewed social reform along liberal, Western lines as prerequisites for independence. The “emancipation” of women (e.g., reform in personal status laws, equal access to education and jobs) was seen as essential to a developing country. More “radical” nationalists of the lower middle classes were demanding an end to British rule, and as a part of the nationalist struggle, tended to romanticize “indigenous” values, including women’s role in the domestic sphere, and to foster cultural nationalism. Arguing that it was an imitation of the West and that it would weaken the nation’s basic Islamic unit, the family, these cultural nationalists generally opposed women’s emancipation in the Western sense.

With late 20th century class shifts, it is now the newly educated urban middle class that is espousing cultural nationalism and attaching profound importance to the family and romanticizing women’s primary role in the abrogation of Western culture. This class shift, however, was not so sudden; it has its roots in the 19th century.[37] Spaulding tells us, for example, that commercial capitalism began to replace feudalism in the Nile Valley about 1800, a process which was accelerated after the Turco-Egyptian conquest of 1821. Aristocracy gave way to a new middle class which, consisting mainly of merchants, needed a more sophisticated legal and commercial code. Islam was the obvious choice.[38] This relationship between Islam and the middle class and Islam and capitalist activity is now even more highly developed. Islam, as an ideology, is often a reflection of these commercial class interests. For some time, the Ikhwan, and now Sudan’s NIF, have been mainly recruiting from the urban professional and capitalist middle class. Although Egypt’s and Sudan’s Ikhwan have always been interested in the commercial aspect of Islam, it is with Sudan’s NIF that we see a highly sophisticated rationalization and articulation of Islam and commerce—especially banking.

The Gender Division of Labor and the Law

Turning to law and labor, more specifically the gender division of labor, I observed that these are potential arenas for conflict between Islamist men—the gatekeepers—and women, perhaps especially non islamist women, who are seen more often as transgressing, creating conflicts of interest. But there also emerge some surprising contradictions.

In contemporary Sudan we have witnessed the simultaneous processes of the secularization of the society and a gradual improvement in the material and public lives of women, on the one hand, and the emergence of Islamism, on the other. That both these processes are manifested through the ideology of the gender division of labor and target women, or at least, are having a profound impact on women, is one of the dynamic qualities of contemporary politics. Perhaps it is more accurate, however, to speak of Islamism as a subversive trend rather than a parallel trend. The “Islamic trend,”[39] is the product of a class which seeks to meet the needs of “liberal” international capitalism, without being culturally imperialized, as well as to respond to the continuing crisis of Sudan’s economy. Women and the family unit are among the nexi of these processes. Women’s domestic and wage labor and political participation are analytically illuminating in investigating these processes.

In the immediate post-independence period the state’s expression of gender ideology usually disseminated the message that a “developing” Sudan needed emancipated women. At that time, with the expressed need to build up the urban workforce, the term “emancipated” was thought of as synonymous with wage-earner in the bourgeois liberal parlance, as well as in the Marxist and some of the nationalist vocabularies of post-colonial Sudan. Government media and other state apparatuses (e.g., civil service recruitment, school curriculum) urged the necessity for gender comradeship in developing Sudan. Media images presented the new Sudanese woman as sophisticated consumer or respectable civil servant (earlier as nurse or teacher and later sometimes as doctors). By the 1960s the state could point proudly to the first woman doctors. However, in the decades following we have seen the growth of capital-intensive economic schemes, the appearance of multinational corporations and agencies, uneven regional development, radical changes in labor migration, ethnic power realignments, and Western cultural imperialism, which have all helped to precipitate socio/political/economic crises and which have had, as we might expect, a profound impact on gender arrangements. However, the development in the 1970s of the “Islamic Trend”—or more accurately, the developing politicization of Islam—could be the most significant post-colonial "crisis" for many women, as its ideological expressions often promote an atavist image of them (e.g. reintegrating their duties in the family, etc.). Furthermore, the romanticizing of reproduction could potentially manipulate women out of the labor force or manipulate them into “appropriate” jobs. If these processes develop further, they could set in motion a major contradiction for women, taking hold in less than three decades after a buoyant independent Sudanese society urged women’s “equal participation.” Yet, that contradiction is tempered by the fact that the NIF also uses the claim of “equal participation” for women.

Analyzing the dynamics of the gender division of labor requires an analysis of the class structure of Sudan, a description of the pre-colonial economic roles of women, an outline of Sudan’s religious history, and a documentation of the history of women’s participation in the informal urban workforce. Obviously, I can only draw an outline here. During the immediate post-independence years women’s participation in the formal workforce increased at a slow, but regular pace, partially as a result of government propaganda (state feminism), but in recent years mainly as a result of Sudan’s depressed economy. Now many women have to work for wages outside the home, although that necessity is rarely ever acknowledged.

In the 1960s and 1970s the liberal ideology of capitalism had been effectively disseminated throughout urban Sudanese society; a woman with a wage was seen as an important element in the society, and legal and constitutional apparatuses seemed to support that idea. But material and social conditions changed more rapidly in the 1980s, drastically calling into operation another strand of beliefs governing Sudanese society. We see these conflicting processes in the legal system and in the Constitution, that is, in the areas of human rights, labor laws, and sharia.[40]

It is well known that after the British “reconquest” (1899), two sets of courts were established and that sharia courts were secondary to secular courts. But this began to change after independence, with a growing movement toward Islamization of the legal system. Eventually the transitional Constitution was amended and the Sharia Courts Act of 1967 passed, which ended the subordination of sharia courts.[41]

The Nimieri-led military coup d’état of 1969 was heralded as leftist, but with hindsight we now realize that an important, and ultimately prevailing, ingredient was the influence of Pan-Arabism, or cultural nationalism. Therefore, throughout Nimieri’s “left” period there was a growing tendency toward Islamization, in general, but specially in the legal system.

After 1971, the Nimieri regime began its shift to the right; and the legal system reflects this: e.g., the Judicial Authority Act of 1972 merged secular (civil) and sharia courts. Then the adoption of the Permanent Constitution in 1973, Islamic law and custom were mandated as the main sources of legislation by Article 9. Then in 1983 Nimieri took a bold step when he announced that major changes were to be made which would force the legal system to conform to sharia. The Judicial Decisions Sources Act of 1983 mandated that the court shall decide in accordance with the Koran and Sunnah or principles of Ijtihad. The Evidence Act of 1983 applies conservative laws of evidence to women and non-Muslims (e.g., testimony of women in major crimes is inadmissible; two women are needed to offset the testimony of one man). A process had been set in motion, therefore, for an Islamized Civil Code (1984),[42] a process seemingly in contradiction with extant ideologies about the status of women and in conflict with the Constitution. The uprising of April 1985, which overthrew Nimieri’s military regime, left much of the Islamization process caught in midstream. However, with Mahdist (Saddig al- Mahdi) installed in power (through election) not long after-the Mahdists representing the land-owning and commercial ruling class as well as a special Sudanese combination of Sufism and fundamentalism it was unlikely that these processes would be aborted. To many, the likelihood is that the further politicization of Islam will continue as it has throughout this entire century and much of the last.

Close analysis shows that women were being given contradictory messages. Women achieved the vote in 1965; later equal pay for equal work, in 1975, the right to pensions; special benefits such as paid maternity leaves under the Public Service Regulations; and equality and protections in a number of areas under the same Permanent Constitution of 1973 that raised the spectrum of a more Islamized Sudan. For example, Part III of the Constitution, which dealt with human rights and duties, made no gender distinction, i.e., did not exclude women. In fact, Article 38 provided that “...The Sudanese have equal rights and duties irrespective of origin, race, locality, sex, language or religion”.[43] Article 56 was a workforce anti-discrimination clause which covered gender. Women were given equal education rights, the right to hold public office, freedom of association and unionization, and freedom of speech and movement. Women and children were even accorded special protection by the State Article 55.[44]

Nonetheless, there was a parallel process being undertaken; it was apparent that the rules of civil and criminal law, procedure and evidence, discriminated against women. There were a number of other contradictory indications. For example, the freedom of movement guaranteed in the Constitution was thwarted in 1987 when a Women’s Committee (consisting of one man) was formed in the Department of Passports, Immigration and Nationality to enforce the “rule” that any woman who is travelling abroad has the permission of a male relative—her father, husband, son, etc.—before she is issued an exit visa[45]

That the messages given women were often in conflict in the 1980s merely points to the covert movement away from gender and other egalitarianisms and a movement toward more state control of people’s private lives—a tendency more in the spirit of other aspects of sharia and the apparatuses of an Islamic state. The causes of this movement away from the liberalism of incipient capitalism are, of course, complex. The needs of the new, young, recently urbanized middle class and threats to its hegemony have created a greater need for this class—recently moving into power in the government—to operationalize certain aspects of Islamic ideology in the family and in everyday life (including work). This is a socio-economic process we are seeing in much of the Islamic world: a competition between emerging men of the mostly newly urbanized middle and lower-middle class backgrounds and semi-emancipated women who are, by contrast, from predominantly middle-class, urban backgrounds. This conflict has a great deal to do with changing processes in the world economy and two material processes on a more local level: what Mernessi has pointed out as the exercise of political power and consumerism.[46] The use of Islam by the State, to nurture and appease these youthful followers (and at the same time manipulate them) “makes sense because Islam speaks about power and self empowerment” or “worldly self-enhancement.”[47] Such worldly benefits are attractive to a group of societies which has reluctantly had to confront, as Mernissi reminds us:

The inescapability of renegotiating new sexual, political, economic, and cultural boundaries, thresholds and limits. [They have seen] invasion of physical territory...invasion of national television by “Dallas” Coca Cola.[48] Among these “invasions and boundaries violations,” is the tilt in gender arrangements, which is a challenge to what Mernessi refers to as “authority thresholds.”[49] Suddenly, women appear to have access to jobs, education, benefits, and political participation, and are taking advantage of their new options.

There were many other major material processes taking place in Sudan in the 1970s: the unemployment rate rose and salaries did not keep up with inflation, one of the results of which was an enormous increase in male labor out-migration. At first, the gender arrangements were not appreciably altered because the outmigration was of working class or minor civil service personnel. But soon it was intellectuals and middle to senior level personnel. Although this may have served a government that was under pressure from lending agencies to prune the overburdened civil service, a ramification was that women began to move into some of these better jobs, ones seen as needing to be preserved for men, i.e., better paying and more prestigious jobs.

Sudanese Women and the Contemporary Islamist Movement

It may have been predictable that as Sudan’s economic crisis was worsening and consequent demographic fluctuations were creating social upheavals, an Islamic movement, long in the making was able to assume front stage. The economic/demographic backdrop is a direct legacy of British colonial economic policy, which ultimately has forced hundreds of thousands of male workers and professionals into labor diaspora, not only relinquishing jobs to women, but altering the ethnic composition of the labor force and business communities.[50] The upheaval in the traditional gender division of labor, by itself, is a quiet cultural/economic crisis which the state, and, as extensions, certain political and religious parties and interest groups, are addressing through mainly cultural processes.

Since the 1980s, in particular, all political groups—either those in power and integrally connected to the state or those in opposition— have attempted to stabilize or re-gain control of the traditional gender division of labor, thereby attempting to control women's material lives. Two mechanisms are to control aspects of "women's culture" and to direct women's participation in Culture. Elsewhere I have developed the idea that women's potentially liberatory cultural beliefs and practices are consciously thwarted (e.g., the zaar with its unselfconscious encouraging of solidarity and rebellion) by both conservatives and progressives, while other aspects of culture for women (e.g., sharia) are encouraged, or forced, viewed with acquiescence, or rationalized.[51]

At least temporarily, Islamist men positioned “their” women in the forefront of Sudanese public life, placing them in the 1980s among the most visible and active women in Sudan. Women were organizing for the Islamic revolution in the schools (where most teachers are women), in nurseries set up in the mosques, and in the medical clinics where they were nurses and doctors. In line with the economic self-sufficiency and anti-Western-imports vision of the National Islamic Front, women were also urged to re-learn traditional crafts and domestic skills so that the family can become an important productive unit again, minimizing dependence on imports.

Even though calling on women to serve the revolution from these traditional service positions might seem a contradiction, not fitting the NIF’s call for a “New Movement,” it fits with the NIF’s appeal to “native” values, defined not as Arab, but Muslim. This movement away from Arab patriarchy toward a purer Islam that would liberate women was the core of the NIF’s ideology and one of the bases for its success among women.

The NIF is in a position of needing women’s labor power and numbers, while needing to control their income and power. This can also create a seeming discrepancy between ideological prescriptions (including the emphasis on the importance of women’s domestic role) and economic and political imperatives (i.e., that women must enter the formal work force). A striking example of the way the NIF is managing labor dynamics can be found in the fields of medicine and agriculture. In the mid-1980s there emerged a series of debates —both public and private—about the need for women's employment to be in “appropriate” fields. A main issue in the debate, claimed the NIF and other conservatives, was not over the admittance of women into the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Khartoum (the most prestigious faculty, and where women had begun to outnumber men), but the particular fields that women were entering upon completion. The call was for women doctors to be guided into mother and child clinics, general medicine, and areas that are seen as less taxing, demanding, and public. These are also the least lucrative.[52] Although women are the primary agricultural workers in a country that is mainly agricultural, it is not hard to imagine that the field is the traditional preserve of men—at the universities and in government positions. When the faculty of Agriculture at the University of Khartoum was being invaded by women, the NIF and its supporters effectively curtailed that trend.[53]

As we might expect, this same exclusionary process did not hold for women in working-class positions. Contrary to conventional scholarships on the topic of “fundamentalist” and women’s labor force participation, there is sound evidence that the Islamists are not challenging the numbers of women in working-class or traditional occupations (with the exception of those jobs deemed disreputable such as brewers and prostitutes), but are seeking tight control over women’s access to power and privilege, i.e., through assaults on middle-class women.

Reinventing the Muslim woman as public servant through private life and thrusting her forward as the “vanguard” of the Islamic movement required a great deal of alteration in identity politics in the sense of moving away from the conflation of patriarchal gender relations within the family and religiously-sanctioned patriarchal codes and, likewise, the conflation of Islam and cultural nationalism.

In reading some statements by Hasan al-Turabi and listening to transcripts of my interviews with elite Islamist women, it is obvious that Islamist Sudanese are walking a tightrope in the distinctions they are making between “Arab” and “Muslim” in the current Sudanese context.[54] Clearly, this distinction is significant in the debates about cultural “authenticity,” and is an astute strategy for northern Sudanese whose Arab pedigrees/genealogies were often said by outsiders to be putative. In the 1960s one could even hear other Arabs challenge the legitimacy of Sudanese Islam. Some of this was racism toward the darker-skinned Sudanese, but there was a feeling that the Sudanese were “further away” from orthodox Sunni Islam and were merely “syncretistic Africans.” Sudanese Sufism and sectarianism often fuelled these challenges. Now there is far less room to repudiate them as “authentic” Muslims: Sudan is an Islamic state; the legal system is based on sharia, and al-Turabi, the architect of the movement, has lent prestige to the Muslim society. Northern Sudanese are engaging in a second major cultural invention—first as Arabs and now as avant-garde figures in a world Islamic revolution.

As I have already indicated, a central strategy of this Islamist movement is to place women and the family at the forefront—the former as organizers and socializers, and the latter as the foundation of an "authentic" culture based on continuity with the Islamic, but not Arab past. In this way, women can be convinced that the Islam that was taught to them in the past, via Arab culture/convention/custom, is not the same as the Islam that will take them forward. And al-Turabi himself speaks of the “liberation of women.”[55] The subtle ways al-Turabi comments on women need to be deconstructed. For example, last year he claimed that:

In the Islamic movement...women have played a more important role of late than men. They came with a vengeance because they had been deprived, and so when we allowed them in the movement, more women voted for us [NIF] than men because we were the ones who gave them more recognition and a message and place in society. They were definitely more active in our election campaigns than men. Most of our social work and charitable work was done by women. They are now even in the popular defense is natural now in the Sudan...Of course, I don’t claim that women have achieved business...There is a question whether women will ever be present in equal numbers in all domains of public life...In the universities, they join all faculties. Sometimes, they do it deliberately to prove a point. Most of them won’t practice engineering when they leave school...(italics mine).[56]

One of the most powerful women’s voices in the 1980s was that of Islamist activist and former member of parliament Suad al-Fatih al-Badawi. When she was in parliament she commented:

I do not believe in separate roles [for men and women] in the construction of the nation. Men and women complete and perfect each other...It was an obligation for women [to make] the representation of women authentic and real...Those women who have attained a high level of consciousness which is progressive and untainted by blind imitation of both the East and the West must not be stingy with their intellectual effort...This era is marked by issues of development which the enlightened vanguard must struggle to solve in a fundamental way (italics mine).[57]

I have highlighted her carefully selected vocabulary. She was attempting to suggest a forward movement, all the while circumscribing women’s roles and underscoring the complementarity of male/female roles in Islam.

The entire campaign for an authentic culture stresses being “natural.” One middle-class Islamist woman remarked that for women to be treated differently is the way it should be because women are different. To quote her, “...the entire principle [in sharia] is in accord with the way women are created, since women are naturally empathetic” (italics mine).[58] According to her, we should want to be treated differently in all spheres of life, “We are women after all!” But she quickly added that women can be anything and do anything.

Middle-class Islamist women also told me any number of times that, “We are Muslims by nature, and that the NIF’s main contribution is to emphasize the Islamic nature of society.” As one remarked, “We want it [Islam] to be the core of life.”

The acrimonious debates about women and Islam drew voices such as Taha Ibrahim, a lawyer and vocal critic of sharia. He maintained that:

Islam knows two sorts of male/female relationships (1) buying her—as a slave —and he can do anything with her he likes—violate her in any way...he also owns his own children and can sell them...(2) marriage: in Islam the relationship is based solely on buying and selling... he owns her… he owns her sexual parts... to such an extent that, if she is ill and cannot give him what he wants at any time he wants, she cannot collect alimony. So, with the dowry he buys her sexuality.[59] A working-class urban woman, who maintained she supported the NIF, living under sharia, and the existence of an Islamic state, expressed it this way:

What have all the others [other regimes] done for us? Where is the equality of women? We have very little hope; we are sinking into the sand, disappearing into the desert. Give them a chance to help us. It is our last hope. Let them [the Islamists] tell me all the rules, let them explain this world to me. Doing so will give me peace. What do I care if I am equal to man anyway? What is this about? I want to eat, to. find a good place to live, feed my children, see them protected. Can the Umma [Party] do this for me?[60]

Another working-class woman had other ideas:

I am just a Muslim...I pray, but I am not a fanatic...I greet men with my bare hands [Islamist men and women do not shake hands]. I’m not a fanatic, but I am religious. What they say about the equality of men and women in sharia is false...I want absolute equality with men.[61]

Republican activist Batoul Mukhtar Mohamed Taha (niece of Mahmoud Taha and raised by him),[62] challenged the essentialism of the NIF women, arguing that NIF women accept traditionalist assumptions that men are the custodians of women, agree with the marriage of four women to one man, the woman’s “house of obedience,” with the beating of women, and concede the exclusive and unilateral right of divorce to men. In a series of newspaper articles she claimed that society needs to value women as human beings, “not as a mere type, the ‘female’.”[63]

One of Sudan’s most prominent socialist feminists maintained that women were always the chosen ones to be under girding of the Islamic movement, that the process began in the 1950s with the changes in the school curriculum. An education expert, she claimed that Muslim Brothers had infiltrated the schools and the Ministry of Education long ago, forwarding a very conservative school agenda with regard to subject matter that related to gender arrangements. She was critical of the leadership of the Sudanese Women’s Union for not having the courage to confront the personal status laws as a primary agenda. She condemned the decision/policy, extolled by Fatma Ahmed Ibrahim, long-time head of the Women’s Union, that members’ [of the Communist Party and the Women’s Union] private lives would remain private and that religion had nothing to do with politics. This was an invitation, our leftist feminist claimed, for the continuation of women’s oppression. It made it easier for the Islamist to take over. “It opened the door.”[64]

Although individual acts of resistance are common, organized resistance is rare. The regime was very repressive from the start, banning the People’s Assembly, trade unions, political parties and associations, women’s organizations, all non-governmental media, and the like. Organized or even individual opposition to the government is considered very dangerous.

Nonetheless, there was considerable individual resistance to these attempts to remold Sudanese women to fit an ideal image of the Muslim woman. Although many women of the middle-class with whom I spoke expressed doubt that anything would change in their everyday lives if sharia were implemented, there were outcries in 1988 from very religious working-class women. Nurses and workers from Abu Anja Hospital in Omdurman expressed defiance against attempts to shape their lies through sharia. One very old Arab Muslim said she would “take to the streets again” if sharia were reimplemented.

The militancy and defiance of the NIF women was striking, differing from the Islamist men I talked with mainly in the former’s insistence that Arab customs and patriarchy have oppressed them. Hasan al-Turabi, the clever strategist that he is, has recognized the appeal to women of ending Arab patriarchy in the name of Islam, and has tried to distance himself from the Arab past with regard to women and other issues.[65]


Returning to the above statement by Hasan al-Turabi, it is true that the activities of women under the military and NIF regime are extensive and public. Women are more socially and politically active now than perhaps at any time in Sudanese history. But how much of that activity is only “allowed” by the men and by the state, or prescribed by the state version of “gender activism.” Despite al- Turabi’s claim that women entered the political arena “with a vengeance” because they had “been deprived,” most of the activism did not emerge through the agitation of the women themselves. Moreover, there has not yet emerged an “Islamic feminism” that might challenge some of the government policies that curtail the free activities of women. After all, this had been a long historical process in which first the Muslim Brotherhood and then the NIF, laid the foundation. Sudanese were resocialized through the schools, the mosques, the military, government media, and other institutions. But the economic qualities of this resocialization overshadowed the cultural forms. It is in this sense that I assert that, even though Islamization and gender politics in Sudan are now closely intertwined, it is not Islam, per se, that explains the condition of women.

Interviews with Islamist women reveal their underlying desire to throw off Arab and other forms of patriarchy, at the same time that, to a considerable extent, the economic self-sufficiency seemingly called for in the Islamic revolution relies on them. Many interviewees stressed ideas about how women should behave and dress at work. The NIF stress on appropriate women’s dress in the work place is a statement about control of labor resources in the form of the gender division of labor; it is not about religion. The essentialist views of women expounded by Islamist women quoted above—emphasis on family and child rearing and the importance of women in resocializing the society—are all strategies for the revolution carried out by a group of middle-class capitalists striving to control their own means and mode of production.

In the face of international interlopers, the authentic culture campaign is class-interested and culturally nationalist in the service of those class interests. The cultural legitimacy framework based on Islam verges on essentializing Islam. Women’s behavior in the name of the ideal woman is presented as morally central to the ideal family, ideologically manipulated by male-controlled religio-political institutions. For middle-class and educated urban Islamist women, the “gender activists,” these are forces that may thwart their own attempts at the redefinition of power and relationship to the state.

Reprinted with permission from: South Asia Bulletin, Vol. XIV, No. 2, (1994).

(This journal has changed its name to Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East).

Duke University Press
Journals Division, Box 90660
Durham, NC 27708-0660, USA


[1] Most of the research for this project was carried out in Khartoum, Sudan in 1988, funded by grants from UCLA’s Center for Research on Women and the G.E. von Grunebaum Center for Near Eastern Studies. At various points in the research Sunita Pitamber, Amal Abdel Rahman, William Young, and Sherifa Zuhur worked as Research Assistants, and I want to thank them. Background for this paper also comes from earlier periods in Sudan: 1961-64, 1966, 1971-72, 1973-75, and 1981.

[2] I am referring to Antonio Gramsci’s work on State hegemony. It may be useful here to describe a concept of the “state,” which I interpret as a cluster of interrelated institutions organized by the ruling class (whether this is ruling class by election as in bourgeois democracies or by self-appointment) for the purpose of controlling the subordinate population and disseminating the ideology of that class. State apparatuses of control are, of course, the military, police, militia, intelligence units, the courts, immigration and citizenship laws, and the like. Often less obvious, but just as relevant to this research, are some of the apparatuses for the dissemination of the dominant group’s ideology, e.g., the media, the arts, the educational system, social welfare departments, religious institutions, and the like. Liberals or bourgeois democrats forward the concept that the State is an institution to which the people have access, perhaps through the apparatuses I have just mentioned. But I try to turn this concept on its head in the same way, perhaps, that some have turned the model of patron/client on its head (in reference to Michael Gilsenan, “Against Patron-Client Relations,” in E. Gellner and J. Waterbury (eds.), Patrons and Clients in Mediterranean Societies (London: Duckworth, 1977), pp. 167-185, and present the State as functioning to give itself (ergo, the ruling class) access to the people and their resources. It is not the purpose here to enter into the debates on the nature of the State, e.g., whether or not the pre-capitalist state was an autonomous entity separate from its class base or is an extension of the ruling class. It should be clear that I am using a revisionist approach to the latter, one which derives from the ideas of Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1971); and Selections from Political Writings, 1921-1926 (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1978), but borrows from others, e.g., Nicos Poulantzas, “The Problem of the Capitalist State,” in New Left Review, 58 (1969); Perry Anderson, Lineages of the Absolutist State (London: New Left Books, 1974) and Passages from Antiquiity to Feudalism (London: New Left Books, 1974). I have also found useful Bob Jessop, “Recent Theories of the Capitalist State,” Cambridge Journal of Economics, I (1977), pp. 353-373, in which he lists six different approaches to the theory of the State in the classical Marxist literature: the State as a parasitic institution, epiphenomena, a factor of cohesion, an instrument of class rule, a set of institutions, and a system of political domination (i.e., pp. 354-357), as well as his analysis of Poulantzas debt to Gramsci, The Capitalist State: Marxist Theories and Methods (New York: New York University Press, 1982). Useful also is David Held, et al., (eds.), States and Societies (New York: New York University Press, 1983), in which different conceptions of the State are discussed. As for State apparatuses, I have used ideas from Gordon Clark and Michael Dear, State Apparatuses: Structures and Language of Legitimacy (Boston: Allen and Unwin, 1984), especially a section on “State Apparatus and Everyday Life” (pp. 60-82).

[3] Making “gender” central (however, always in its relationship to class and culture), is often seen as “western” when, in reality, gender as category is not exclusively a concept of western feminist thought. For example, in relation to this research, “gender” is a central category of sharia (Islamic law).

[4] The word “successor” suggests that the Ikhwan no longer exists, which it does. The splits within and hiving off of Islamic organizations is beyond the scope of this essay.

[5] Many of us who do not want to become bogged down with the debates over whether or not the term “fundamentalist” applies to any of the contemporary political Islamic movements, often use the work “Islamism,” which has its own problems of totalizing.

[6] Valentine M. Moghadam (ed.), Identity and Politics and Women: Cultural Reassertions and Feminism in International Perspective (Boulder: Westview, 1994), p. 12.

[7] Ibid., p. 7.

[8] I elaborate on some of these debates in “The Politics of Gender in Middle East,” in Sandra Morgen (ed.), Gender and Anthropology: Critical Reviews for Research and Teaching (Washington, DC: American Anthropological Association, 1989), pp. 246-267.

[9] Deniz Kandiyoti called for a need to make this distinction in “Women, Islam, and the State: A Comparative Approach,” in Juan R.I. Cole (ed.), Comparing Muslim Societies: Knowledge and the State in a World Civilization (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1992), pp. 237-260.

[10] For example, see al-Turabi’s statement in Arthur L. Lowrie (ed.), Islam, Democracy, and the State and the West: A Round Table with Dr. Hasan Turabi (Tampa, Florida: The World & Islam Studies Enterprise [WISE], 1993), p. 66.

[11] Sondra Hale, “Women’s Culture/Men’s Culture: Gender, Separation, and Space in Africa and North America,” American Behavioral Scientist, Vol. 31, No. 1 (1987), pp. 115-134; “Elite Nubians of Greater Khartoum: A Study in Changing Ethnic Alignments,” in N. O’Neill and J. O’Brien (eds.) Economy and Class in Sudan (London: Gower Press, 1988), pp. 277-290; “The Ethnic Identity of Sudanese Nubians,” Meroitica, Vol. 5 (1979), pp. 165-172; and “The Impact of Immigration on Women: The Sudanese Nubian Case,” Women’s Studies”, Vol. 17, Nos. 1-2 (1989).

[12] See Sondra Hale, “Gender, Religious Identity, and Political Mobilization in Sudan,” in Val Moghadam, op. cit., pp. 145-166.

[13] See, for example, Sondra Hale, “Transforming Culture or Fostering Second-hand Consciousness?” in Judith Tucker (ed.), Women in Arab Society: Old Boundaries, New Frontiers (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), pp. 149-174.

[14] See, for example, “Gender, Religious Identity, and Political Mobilization in Sudan,” in Val Moghadam, op. cit., and “The Rise of Islam and Women of the National Islamic Front in Sudan,” Review of African Political Economy, No. 54 (1992), pp. 27-41.

[15] Among the disruptions are the transformation of land into commodity, secularization, and the internationalization of the global economy.

[16] Moghadam, op. cit., 1994, p. 16.

[17] I elaborate on the over-privileging of the veil in “The Politics of Gender in the Middle East,” op. cit.

[18] Fadwa El Guindi, “Veiling Infitah with Muslim Ethic: Egypt’s Contemporary Islamic Movement,” Social Problems, Vol. 28, No. 4 (1981), pp. 465-485; Sherifa Zuhur, Revealing Reveiling: Islamist Gender Ideology in Contemporary Egypt (Albany: State University of New York, 1992).

[19] See, for example, two thematic issues of MERIP Middle East Report on Women and Politics, No. 138 (1986) and Gender and Politics, No. 173 (1991).

[20] Julie Peteet, Gender in Crisis: Women and The Palestinian Resistance Movement (New York: Columbia University Press, 1981).

[21] Hale, “Transforming Culture or Fostering Second-Hand Consciousness?” op. cit.

[22] Judith Tucker, “Insurrectionary Women: Women and the State in 19th Century Egypt,” MERIP Middle East Report, No. 138 (1986), pp. 9-13; Mary Hegland, “Political Roles of Iranian Village Women,” ibid., pp. 14-19, 46.

[23] Hale, op. cit., 1987.

[24] See, for example, Nawal El-Messiri, “The Changing Role of the Futuwwa in the Social Structure of Cairo,” in E. Gellner and J. Waterbury (eds.), Patrons and Clients (London: Duckworth, 1977); and Cynthia Nelson, “The Voices of Doria Shafik: Feminist Consciousness in Egypt, 1940-1960,” Feminist Issues, Vol. 6 No. 2 (1986), pp. 15-31.

[25] The debate, to be discussed more thoroughly below, appeared in two issues: Mai Ghoussoub, “Feminism—or the eternal Masculine—in the Arab World”, New Left Review, No. 161 (1987), pp. 3-18; Reza Hammami and Martina Rieker, “Feminist Orientalism and Orientalist Marxism” [A reply to Ghoussoub], No. 170 (1988), pp. 93-106; and Mai Ghoussoub, “a Reply to Hammami and Rieker” No. 170, pp. 107-109.

[26] Sandra Morgan, “Gender and Anthropology: An Introductory Essay,” in her edited Gender and Anthropology, op. cit., pp. 3-4.

[27] Ibid., p. 8.

[28] Leila Abu-Lughod, “Writing Against Culture,” in Richard Fox (ed.), Recapturing Anthropology (Santa Fe, New Mexico: School of American Research Press, 1991) and Writing Women’s Worlds: Bedouin Stories (Berkeley: University of California, 1992).

[29] Ghoussoub, op. cit.; Hammami and Rieker, op. cit.; and Ghoussoub [reply] op. cit.

[30] The National Islamic Front, led by Hasan al-Turabi, is a group that split off from the Muslim Brotherhood as a result of political and personality differences centered on Islamic banking. It is now the most powerful “fundamentalist”/Islamist group in Sudan, concentrating more on secular politics than on religious ideology.

[31] O’Neill and O’Brien (eds.), op. cit., p. 9.

[32] Ibid. p. 10.

[33] Ibid., p. 18.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid., p. 22.

[36] See, for example, Judith Gran, “Impact of the World Market on Egyptian Women” MERIP Middle East Reports, 58 (1977), pp. 3-7; and Judith Tucker, Women in Nineteenth-Century Egypt (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).

[37] In the sense of historical continuity, it may not, therefore, be accurate to refer, as I do at many points in this essay, to the formation of a “new class”.

[38] Jay Spaulding, The Heroic Age in Sinnar (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1985).

[39] This term, however, is recent (1988) and was used by the NIF and others in the government to denote the new Islamic tendency in Sudanese politics. Here I am using it in a general sense to mean the rise of interest in Islam and the development of an Islamic state.

[40] A great deal has been written about Sudan’s plural legal system (i.e., customary, civil, and sharia), and it is not my goal to describe or analyze this pluralism. My interest is in the evolution of Islamic precedence as this relates to women, and more particularly, to women and labor.

[41] Dina Osman, “The Legal Status of Muslim Women in Sudan,” Journal of Eastern African Research and Development, 15 (1985), p. 125.

[42] Ibid., p. 126.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Ibid.

[45] A challenge to this committee by University of Khartoum anthropologist Zeinab Bashir El Bakri, “ Will the Minister Be Vetted by the ‘Women’s Committee’?” appeared in Sudan Times (1987), p.3.

[46] I have taken the two phrases, “exercise of political power” and “consumerism,” from Fatima Mernissi, “Muslim Women and Fundamentalism,” MERIP Middle East Reports, 153 (1988), p. 9, as well as some of the ideas for this section. But Mernissi leans toward psychological explanations, or at least individualistic or nationalist ones. I look to the international economic forces which create these.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Ibid., p. 10.

[50] A number of sources document the “brain drain,” but only in my interviews were the phenomena linked. Interviews in Khartoum with Dr. Afaf Abu Hasabu, United Nations Development Programmes, July 19, 1988; Dr. Nahid Toubia, July 22, 1988; and Fawzia Hammour, Women’s Studies Coordinator, Development Studies and Research Centre, University of Khartoum, June 16, 1988.

[51] Hale, “Transforming Culture or Fostering Second-Hand Consciousness?” op. cit.

[52] Interviews with Dr. Nahid Toubia in 1988. She took part in the debates and is an ex-member of the Council of Surgeons.

[53] Part of this debate was printed in Sudan Now (1979, 1980).

[54] al-Turabi, op. cit., p. 66.

[55] Ibid., p. 32.

[56] Ibid., p. 47.

[57] Suad al-Fatih al-Badawi, Al-Sahafa, May 3, 1986, p. 10.

[58] This particular statement is by Wisal al-Mahdi, wife of al-Turabi and sister of ex- Prime Minister and Ansar leader, Saddig al-Mahdi, as part of a July 12, 1988 interview at her home. Also present at that interview were an ex-member of Parliament, Hikmat Sid Ahmed, and sharia judge Nagwa Kamal Farid.

[59] Interview with Taha Ibrahim in 1988.

[60] Interview with Awatif Osman [pseud.], 1988. I carried out a series of interviews with doctors, nurses, and workers at Abu Anja Hospital in Omdurman, June 20, 1988. Because of the repressiveness of the current regime, I have either not named or have used pseudonyms for the interviewees. I have not named anyone in this essay who is still in the country, whose views were not already written or well-known, or who said anything self-incriminating against sharia, Islam, the Islamization process, or the regime.

[61] See preceding note.

[62] Mahmoud Taha, spiritual leader of the Republicans (formerly Republican Brothers), and active dissident against the Nimieri regime, was executed in the 1980s.

[63] Batoul Mukhtar Taha, “Today, No Guardian,” Sudan Now, 13 (January/February 1987).

[64] Anonymous interview, 1988, and interview with Fatma Ahmed Ibrahim, 1988.

[65] Lowrie, ed., op. cit.