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  • Testimonies in Exile:Sudanese Gender Politics
  • Sondra Hale


Using political documents and women's testimonies from interviews collected over many years, I have been analyzing the debates and dynamics among Sudanese women in diaspora. This paper is a sampling of the differences among women activists and an attempt to subvert the totalizing of "women's movement" politics.

Since the emergence of Sudanese women's studies as a field, and even before, Sudanese and Sudanists have considered the expression "the Sudanese women's movement" a code for the Sudanese Women's Union (WU), a wing of the Sudanese Communist Party (SCP). Most writing on the subject, including my own, has been skewed toward northern Sudan and has also conflated most women's activism under the WU or its descendants or appropriators, such as the Union of Sudanese Women under the Sudan Socialist Union (SSU) of the Nimieri regime.1

Such totalizing of women's activism is being subverted by the more nuanced research being done by a new generation of Sudanese women scholars and others. At the risk of continuing to overgeneralize, I would like to categorize women's activism in Sudan into at least three broad types of movements/mobilizations or associations. One is represented by the secular left and consists of the WU, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), the Sudan Alliance Forces (SAF), and the Sudanese Women's Rights Organization, one of the splinter groups that broke away from the WU. A second type comprises the cultural nationalists/religionists,including, among others, the women's wings of the Umma Party, the [End Page 83] Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the Islamist women of the National Islamic Front (NIF), and scattered Christian groups. A third type is represented by grassroots activists, including some nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) working both inside Sudan and in exile.

In many ways, and despite the adversity that many groups in exile and women in southern Sudan and other marginalized areas (such as the Nuba area in the west) are facing, this has also been the most exciting time for debates about women's liberation in Sudan. We are seeing southern women challenge northern women for their racism and conservatism; younger women challenge the old leadership for their outdated ideas; secular and religious women's organizations each observing the organizing strategies of the other; women protesting war and militarism as a solution or even as good politics; and a number of women theorists and activists resisting the notion that politics consists only of political parties and the state.

A new trend in the contemporary dynamic of Sudanese women's politics is the proliferation of liberal and leftist parties and fronts, a consequence of the many parties and politicians thrown into exile by the entrenched power of the Islamists as well as the splits that often characterize groups in diaspora. An example of a New Left organization was the Sudan Alliance Forces (SAF), once a dynamic new political formation committed to military action in the struggle against the Islamists. The affiliated women's group, Sudan Women's Alliance (SWA), is very active and diverse in terms of northerners and southerners. A number of SWA women emerged as leaders in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA, an umbrella group for opposition parties), including Nada Mustafa Ali, a scholar and activist whose visibility in the NDA rivals that of Women's Union member Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim. Many of these new groups, however, are not so easily dichotomized as "secular" or "religious," as their goals and strategies may be mixed, and religious members may have a secular standpoint in terms of separation of religion and state. The overall result of this diversity and secularization is that Sudanese women now have more options for political expression.

Another consequence of the diversity is the attempts at broader coalitions that have emerged. The main strategy of coalition-building has been to invite many groups to a forum or convention. Examples are the [End Page 84] Sudanese Women's Forum, which convened in Cairo in 1998, and the Sudan National Women's Convention, held in Kampala, Uganda, in March 2002. Azza Anis, a progressive northerner now in exile, argues that the recent proliferation of...


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