The media today puts women in Sudan under the spotlight for the lack of rights they have. Since the early 1900s – even before Sudan’s independence in 1956 – Sudanese women have fought for their rights, wanting social and political equality. They are pioneers in education, science, politics and activism. Sudan boasts lots of “female firsts”. The country had one of the first and most active women’s movements in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region during the 1960s–70s. Sudan is the first country in region to have a female parliamentarian, judge, TV presenter, police officer and more (Check out “A Precise Biography of the Pioneers of the Sudanese Women MovementvCompiled by Haga Kashif“). However, until today, the fight for women’s rights in Sudan continues.
In no particular order, here are women (and a man) who, throughout time, fought for women’s rights and education in Sudan:
1. Madina Abdullah
Madina was the first Sudanese woman who thought of opening the Night Schools for the literate women. She opened a night school in 1940 in her house in Wad Nubawi. She established Madina Intermediate School for Girls in 1957 where she worked as a dean. She received her education in Beit Almahadi with Al Mahdi’s daughters and other female family members. They were educated by Alsheikha Khadeega bint Wad Abu Safia who used to move from house to another to teach women the principles of the Holy Quran and Islamic Studies. She joined Wad Nubawi Elementary School as a married woman and mother when it was opened in 1926 and graduated in only two years. Later, she joined the Women Teachers’ College and exempted from one complete year due to her age and intelligence. In 1929, she was employed as a principal of Wad Nubawi Elementary School in Omdurman. She was also the first women who was employed as inspector for girls’ education in Sudan. She remained in that position for 17 years and requested to be exceptionally pensioned off as an appreciation to her efforts. She was a member of Sudanese Women Union, Sudanese Red Crescent, and Motherhood and Childhood Protection Society. She performed Hajj (Pilgrimage) and visited the Ka’aba (The Holy House in Mecca) 27 times. She was offered a badge from the British Empire for her distinguished service. The University of Khartoum offered her the Honorary Master of Arts in 1970 as an appreciation to her efforts in education. She died in 1991.
2. Nafeesa Awadalkareem
Nafeesa attended Ruffa’a Elementary School and graduated from the Faculty of Teachers’ Training in Umdurman to later work as a teacher in many parts of Sudan. She was the only Sudanese female teacher among the teaching staff of the first intermediate school for girls opened in 1940. She was the first female teacher and started the idea establishing the school theater at girls schools. She’s the author and director for several novels and plays. She wrote about the importance of girls’ education in Sudan. She exerted a big effort in combating female genital mutilation (FGM) and participated in the campaign organized by Dr. Ali Badri, the Minister of health, against the Pharaoh circumcision in 1944 and as result to that activity she experienced a lot of problems, ordeals and insults. She took the position of the education inspector at the Ministry of Education, then became the assistant of girls’ education supervisor. Then she was the first Sudanese woman to take that high position. She received the Empire medal for Girls in Ruffa’a. She died in 1966.
3. Fatima Talib Ismail
Fatima proposed the idea of forming the first social women organization and one of the first pioneers of Sudanese Women Movement. She graduated from the faculty of Arts-University of Khartoum. She was the first Sudanese woman to get the bachelor degree from the University of London. Worked as a teacher and received training in education in the UK. She received training in Egypt in the area of community development. She was the first principal for a girls’ school and formed the first woman organization in Sudan – the Association of the Educated Girls in 1947 in Omdurman. Following her political disagreement with some of the women in the association of Educated Girls, she participated with the Mahdi’s Beit women in forming ‘Women Development Society’ in 1949 in Omdurman. She was the founding member of the Sudanese Women Union and Sudan Women Popular Organization. She wrote and addressed various issues concerning women inside and outside Sudan. She died in 1994.
4. Nafeesa Daffallah
Nafeesa was a founding member of women’s club in Medani in 1944 and a founding Member of Women Cultural Renaissance Society in Omdurman. She founded and chaired the charity society in Port Sudan founded the branch of Sudanese Women Union in Elobeid in 1954. She’s a Chairperson of Women Union in Medani in the late 1950s. She was the first woman to propose, with some other women in the UK at, instituting a petition to the Prime Minister Ismail Alazhari requesting him to lift the constraints and restrictions wives travel with their husbands and that petition was positively responded to and then wives constraints lifted. She died in 1991.
5. Mahasin Geilani
Mahasin was a founding member of the Sudanese Women Union and member of its executive committee until 1969 and founding member of Women Initiatives Group as well as a member of the Trade Union of Sudanese Teachers Union. In addition, she was a member of Sudanese universities and High Institutes Graduates Association. She participated in the branches of Sudanese Women Union in Meridi and Kosti. Mahasin was among the group that organized the first girls’ school’s strike in 1951. She graduated from the Faculty of Arts at Khartoum University in 1956 and received an M.A. in Arabic language from Khartoum Institute for Non-Arabic Speakers. She worked as a teacher in the intermediate and secondary schools in Omdurman, Khartoum, El Obeid, Kosti and Meridi. Mahasin carried out some journalistic and radio activity and attended many local, regional and international meetings and conferences on women issues. She worked a lot in the field of literacy eradication amongst women in Khartoum in the North especially Bahri and Southern Sudan.
6. Um Salama Saeed Abdul Latif
Um Salama was the founding member of Sudan Counselors’ Society, Sudanese Girls Association in 1947 as first women society and Sudanese education society whose name changed into Umdurman woman Renaissance Society. In addition, she was one of the founders of the Sudanese women union and member of one of its executive committees until it was solved. When the women union was formed, she became a member of the general secretariat of the preparatory committee and then a member of the executive board. She was a member of the first executive committee of teachers’ trade union, member of the executive committee of the intermediate schools teachers’ trade union and chairperson of Gari Council. She was also member of the executive board of the Sudanese Women Union and chairperson of first Sudan counselors’ society. Um Salama was the chairperson of the high council for scout and counselors and a member of international counselors’ development movement and the general secretary of Arab counselors. She joined the training institute as one of the first two Sudanese women taking the position of the principal of an intermediate school and worked at the English department at the institute of intermediate schools’ teachers (females teachers). She took the position of the dean of Female Teachers College as the first woman who feminized this post and was employed as director-assistant for teachers’ training at the head office of the ministry of education and guidance. In 1976, she was employed as the deputy of the minister of youth and sports and then became the chairperson of high council of sports after canceling the ministry of youth. Her activity associated with teachers’ trade union included the right for a pregnancy leave, delivery and the feminization of some positions at girls’ schools. The scout movement expanded during her time as chairperson until it became a peoples’ movement and occupied a high position on the regional and international arenas.
7. Suad Ibrahim Issa
Suad Issa was a member of the Sudanese Women Union since its establishment in 1952 and its executive committee. In addition, she was a member of the Sudanese Physicists and Mathematicians Society and its vice-chairperson in 1979-1980 turns. She was the general secretary of the Sudanese Women Union in 1955-1956. Suad established the first school of the Sudanese Women Union; Khartoum Intermediate School for Girls (Alum School) in 1953, participated in establishing Sout Almaraa (Woman’s Voice) Newspaper and was the founding member of Babikr Badri’s Scientific Society for Women Studies. She is also the founding member and general secretary of the women initiatives group. She wrote on women issues on the Sudanese newspapers and magazines and had some activities on Radion Omdurman and Sudan TV on the Woman Rukun program. She also presented special educational programs to students on that Rukun. She participated in many local women seminars and conferences as well as in International Seminar on Mathematics Development in the Third World Countries held in Khartoum. She attended Umdurman governmental elementary, intermediate and secondary schools. In 1062, she attained a diploma in education from the faculty of education at London University and later worked as teacher in the intermediate schools until 1966. In 1972, she attained a bachelor of Sciences (Honors) in Mathematics and later worked as a Mathematics head department in Omdurman Secondary school until 1974. She received an MA of Mathematics in 1975 and an MA of Statistics in 1978 as well as a PhD in the educational statistics at the University of Khartoum in 1990. She is currently working as a registrar at the School of Mathematics at the University of Khartoum and a lecturer at the faculty of Education.
8. Khalda Zahir
Khalda Zahir was the eldest daughter to Zahir Alsadati, the commander of the Sudanese Armed Force Battalion that took part in Palestine war in 1948. Khalda Zahir was the first female university student, first woman doctor, first chairperson of the Sudanese Women Union, first Sudanese women jailed for political reasons during colonization reign and the first women obtained an official membership in a Sudanese political party. She joined Gordon College as the first female student allowed to reach university. Khalda continued her medical study in Gordon College till she graduated in 1952 from Kitchener Medical School as the first Sudanese woman doctor. She did her postgraduate study in Slovakia and UK where she specialized in pediatrics. She upgraded in the profession scale until she became an undersecretary in the Ministry of Health. Throughout her work, she moved and went to all Sudan’s regions; fully committed to her profession’s duties in disseminating awareness on woman and child health, child rights and combating detrimental practices.
9. Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim
Fatima Ibrahim is a Sudanese writer, women rights activist and socialist leader. She joined Omdurman Girls’ Secondary School, and her activities towards women rights started from that time. Fatima published a wall newspaper called Elra’edda (meaning Vanguard or The Pioneer girls), focusing on the women rights. She wrote in newspapers at that time by code name. Ibrahim conducted the first women strike in Sudan when her school administration decided to omit the science lessons and replaced it with family science lesson. The strike was successful. In 1947, she founded Intellectual Women Association and in 1952, she worked with other women and founded Aletahad Elnees’y Alsodanni (Sudanese Women’s Union). A sphere of action of Women’s Union (WU) opened membership to all women in Sudan and WU opened branches in different provinces in the country. At WU, she also worked to establish equality with men in wages and technical training, and helped to remove illiteracy among women. Because of WU’s objectives, there occurred clashes with the political right such as Jabihat El-methaiq elaslami (Islamic Pledge Front). In 1955, Ibrahim became a chief editor of Sawat al-Maraa Magazine (Woman’s Voice Magazine), published by WU. The magazine later plays an essential role in the overthrow of the Ibrahim Aboud regime. In 1954, Ibrahim’s joined the Sudanese Communist Party (SCP) and became a member of the Central Committee of the SCP (SCP was the first Sudanese Party which women had a formation inside the party since 1946). In 1956-1957, Ibrahim became the president of WU. In 1965, Ibrahim was elected to enter the parliament and became the first deputy Sudanese women. During Nimiri’s regime, Ibrahim was arrested many times. In 1990, Ibrahim left Sudan after Omar Al Bashir military coup, and joined the opposition in exile as the president banned WU. In 1991, Ibrahim was elected President of the Women International Democratic Federation. She returned to Sudan in 2005 after reconciliation between the government and opposition, and currently has been appointed as a deputy in the parliament representing the SCP. In 1993, she received a UN award for Outstanding Achievements in the Field of Human Rights. In 2006, she was awarded Ibn Rushd Prize from Ibn Rushd Fund For Freedom of Thought.
10. Nahid Toubia
Nihad Toubia is the cofounder and President of RAINBO. She’s a surgeon and women’s health rights activist, specializing in research into female genital mutilation (FGM). In 1981, she became a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of England and the first woman surgeon in Sudan. Recently, Nahid worked for four years as an Associate for Women’s Reproductive Health at the Population Council in New York and is currently an Associate Professor at Columbia University School of Public Health. She is also a member of several scientific and advisory committees of the World Health Organization, UNICEF, and UNDP, and Vice-Chair of the advisory committee of the Women’s Rights Watch Project of Human Rights Watch where she previously served on the Board of Directors. She publishes extensively on issues of reproductive health, women’s rights, and gender inequality with focus on Africa and the Middle East. Among Nahid’s publications are Female Genital Mutilation: A Guide to Worldwide Laws and Policies, Caring for Women with Circumcision: A Technical Manual for Health Care Providers, Learning About Social Change: A Research and Evaluation Guidebook Using Female Circumcision as a Case Study and Female Genital Mutilation: A Call for Global Action.
11. Lubna Hussein
Former journalist, Lubna Hussein, attracted international attention as a symbol of women’s oppression in the country with strict interpretations of Islamic law when she was arrested in Sudan in 2009 for wearing trousers. She is known for her public criticism of the government of Sudan’s treatment of women. Along with 12 other trouser-wearing women, Lubna was arrested at a restaurant in Khartoum under restrictive decency laws, beaten in a police van. Ten of the women pleaded guilty and were given 10 lashes and fined, but Lubna asked to go to trial. As a press officer for the media department of the United Nations Mission in Sudan, she was offered immunity from prosecution but she resigned so that she could face the charge, inviting women’s rights campaigners, protesters and journalists to her trial. Hussein was not sentenced to flogging, but was fined and briefly imprisoned when she refused to pay. Despite death threats, Hussein continues to speak out about women’s rights in Sudan. She wants to change the law on behalf of all the women of Sudan. She argues that Article 152, which allows the flogging or fining of anyone who “violates public morality or wears indecent clothing” without defining “indecent clothing”, itself violates both the Interim Constitution of Sudan and sharia.
12. Amira Osman
Amira Osman is a civil engineer and women’s rights activist in Sudan. In August 2013, she was arrested under the country’s public order act, for refusing to pull up her headscarf. As a result she was charged with ‘indecent dress’. She was tried for “indecent conduct” under Article 152 of the Sudanese penal code, an offence potentially punishable by flogging. Her case was used to raise awareness around the problems of the public order law. She recorded a powerful video, calling on people to join her at the courthouse, and “put the Public Order Law on trial”. Her legal team has challenged the constitutionality of the law, and the trial as been postponed for the time being. She’s still awaiting her trial – it’s been postponed twice already. If Amira is found guilty, her punishment will be a public flogging.
13. Nahid Gabrallah
Nahid Gabrallah is a women’s rights activists and the director and founder of the non-profit Seema Centre for Women and Children Protection. Through Seema, victims are supported from the beginning until their recovery. They are given legal assistance, psychological support and shelter. For many years, Seema has provided support to women and girls in situations of violence and social aggression. Nahid has become known for her courageous work for women and young girls in Sudan on the issue of gender-based violence including female genital mutilation (FGM). She has recently been nominated for the 2016 Human Rights Tulip Award.
14. Awadeya Mahmoud
Awadeya Mahmoud is a well-known ‘tea lady’ in Sudan. She founded the Women’s Food and Tea Sellers’ Cooperative and the Women’s Multi-Purpose Cooperative for in Sudan. Through these cooperatives, Awadeya works on providing legal and financial aid to the members. Many of the cooperative’s members are tea ladies like Awadeya who face continuous arrests and confiscation by authorities. Awadeya herself was jailed for four years for her work. When she was released, she found the cooperative consisted of 8,000 members. The organisation came to represent women displaced by the conflict in Darfur and other troubled areas in Sudan. On 28 March 2016, the United States Department of State announced Awadeya as one of the recipients of the International Women of Courage Award for that year. The American award is presented annually by the United States Department of State to women around the world who have shown leadership, courage, resourcefulness, and willingness to sacrifice for others, especially in promoting women’s rights.
15. Babiker Bedri
Babiker Bedri (1856 – 1954) was the pioneer and initiator of education for women in Sudan. The Mahdist warrior was a social activist and worked towards creating the means for women’s education in Sudan. Babiker was present at the battle of Omdurman, where the Mahdist army was destroyed. After the battle, he migrated to Rufaa, a small town in the region of the Blue Nile, where he founded the first school for girls in Sudan in 1907 and named it “al Ahfad”. Initially it took place at his home, and consisted of the daughters of neighbours. The school was inspected by Currie, the Condominium Director of Education, and found satisfactory, and received a subsidy thereafter. His ideas about girls’ education were strongly opposed by older Sudanese who were suspicious of idea of sending girls to school. The main direction of the schooling was towards better nutrition and healthcare, with a view to ensuring healthier children. In 1979, the Babiker Badri Scientific Association for Women’s Studies (BBSAWS) was formed as a fulfillment of a recommendation of the symposium of the Changing Status of Sudanese Women held in March 1979, by Ahfad University for Women to celebrate the Ahfad Diamond Jubilee. BBSAWS is a voluntary, non-political and non-profit making NGO dedicated to enhancing women’s status and for achieving equality, empowerment, development and the full realization of their human capacity. It established membership and networking with other NGOs and ministerial committees, as well as international organizations. It has obtained affiliate status to the United Nations agencies and related committees. Babiker’s son, Yusuf, continued his work and later transformed the school into the al Ahfad University for Women. Babiker’s grandson later became president of Ahfad University for Women.
*Updated on 2 September 2016. This article has been updated to add Nahid Gabrallah and Awadeya Mahmoud. The article was previously titled: “12 Women (And A Man) Who Fought for Women’s Rights and Education”.
- Ola Diab, “Sudanese Who Made It Big”, 28 May 2011, https://oladiab.com/2011/05/28/sudanese-who-made-it-big/
- “A Precise Biography of the Pioneers of the Sudanese Women Movement Compiled by Haga Kashif” http://www.suwepmovement.org/SWHistory.asp