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Story Publication logo January 25, 2002

Where Society Stifles Women, School is a Sanctuary



The following article ran as part of an eight-part series by Jon Sawyer, originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch January 16-February 6, 2002.

For a society like Sudan's,which is officially committed to restricting women's rights, the Ahfad University for Women is nothing but trouble.

For its students, the university is something else -- an extraordinary oasis in an often hostile land.

The difference is instantly apparent as you enter the university's walled compound, across the Blue Nile from downtown Khartoum in the section of the city known as Omdurman.

On the streets outside, women cover their heads and arms. Few drive cars. The Muslims among them are allowed in mosques only during the holy month of Ramadan and on Fridays.

And on the inside?

Consider Reem Ali Omer, a more than slightly rebellious 17-year-old who's taking a break before class on the patio of the university's student center.

"Women here can't live a free life like they do in Europe or America," she says. "The rules are too hard. She can't wear what she wants. She can't talk to males in the street. She can't sit in open spaces, like shops. She lives a closed life.

"Some women may be happy, living like that. I'm not."

This is a young woman whose ears are triple-pierced, whose uncovered hair is pulled back in fashionable braids and who's wearing tightly cut camouflage slacks. She loves American pop music -- even "classics," she adds, such as Celine Dion.

Omer gets away with dressing this way only because she drives herself to school and doesn't stop en route. Forget taking a bus -- in those slacks they would never let her on.

None of that matters, not here, in a school that has been instructing women to assert themselves since its beginnings in 1907, when an educator named Barbikr Badri launched a primary school on the Nile River south of Khartoum so that his nine daughters would have a place to learn.

Today it is a full-fledged university of nearly 5,000 students, all women, with six different schools in fields as diverse as medicine, rural development and organization and management. All students take compulsory courses in rural development and women's studies. Many courses are taught in English, in defiance of government rules requiring instruction in Arabic only.

"We want women to assert their own rights," said Awatif Mustafa, the school's vice president for student affairs - and a 1970 Ahfad graduate, in the school's first class of college-level students."

We tell them that rights cannot be requested, they have to be claimed," she said. "And part of our goal is teaching them how to claim their rights."

That Ahfad University exists, let alone thrives, is proof that Sudan'sgovernment, led since 1989 by self-proclaimed Muslim fundamentalists - is not the monolithic power its critics claim.

A reporter's request for an introduction to one of several students wearing a full-body covering, known here as the negab, gets a flip response from gender studies instructor Leena Ohmar.

"You want to see a tent, right?" she teases. "Personally I couldn't care less" about what women choose to wear, she adds.

Ohmar, 26, spent seven years in London as a diplomat's child and two more as a toddler in Washington. "They fed me on American baby food, and I guess it took," she says, laughing.

Clothing choices

The student wearing the negab is Amani Mohamed el-Tayeb. An accounting student, she speaks in Arabic from behind the light green dress, black shawl and long black gloves that cover her entirely except for her flashing brown eyes.

El-Tayeb says she could have attended a more conservative school but chose Ahfad because of its academic reputation. Wearing the traditional clothes is a "comfortable" fit for her, she says, and proved no barrier when she worked with men and women during an internship last summer at a consulting firm in Khartoum.

"The decision on whether to wear a scarf and baggy clothes should be up to individual choice," she says. "If you want to do it, fine. If you don't, that's fine, too."

Rejoice Joseph, 26, is finishing up her last year in the management program and hopes to land a job "making a lot of money," either with the United Nations in Khartoum or through relatives she has in Nigeria.

A Christian, she is dressed in a red blouse and tan skirt; she has no scarf to cover her braided hair.

"I dress as I like," she insists, "and if I run into trouble I deal with it."

On Tuesday, for example, she was quizzed by a policeman on the street just outside the university. "He asked me if I was from the south and if I was a Christian, and when I said yes, he said OK," she said.

She said that in a similar incident a few months earlier, a policeman made her sit for hours in the back of a police van. "He said that even if I'm a Christian I should go back south if I'm going to dress like this."

A nation divided

Religion and race loom larger than gender, according to Joseph and other students, when it comes to social friction - at Ahfad and in Sudanat large.Joseph is from Malakal, in southern Sudan- the least Muslim, least Arab and "most African" part of a country that has been wracked by civil war since 1983.

"The northerners are pretenders," she said. "They pretend that they can live with us peacefully, as brothers and sisters. But in practice that is not so. They always see southerners as less than them."

Rashida Olanigan, a student from Lagos, Nigeria, says she never encountered racism until she came to Khartoum a year ago to begin medical school.

"Most of my friends here are black," Olanigan said, referring to the slightly darker-skinned students whose roots are among the African tribes of southern Sudan.She said that in her view, the southerners are not quite accepted by northern Sudanese with Arabic roots.

"If they know I'm a foreigner, they'll talk to me," she says, "but in the first instance they usually just assume that I'm one of the blacks."

Olanigan, 20, also faulted what appears to her as a double standard.

"They claim that they are real Muslims here but there is nothing there," she says. "They pretend they have this thing called religion, called Islam. They say they practice Shar'ia, the Islamic law. In fact, they impose it - but don't follow it. They beat around the bush.

"You see people here who wear anything at all - but when they step out of the university they put on their black clothes and scarves," she said. "If you're going to have Shar'ia, then everybody should be in black, all the time."

Olanigan, a Muslim, wears no scarf at all.

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