- Ansar al-Sunna and Women’s Agency in SudanA Salafi Approach to Empowerment through Gender Segregation
This article focuses on the Salafist movement in Sudan called Ansar al-Sunna. The movement’s name literally translates as “followers of the Sunna”—that is, of Prophet Muhammad’s teachings and actions. Ansar al-Sunna’s main focus is dawa, Islamic missionary and preaching activities. Ansar al-Sunna calls for re-Islamization in order to purify and standardize Islam. The Islam the movement’s followers preach is Salafism and is based on the idea that there is a unitary Islamic doctrine and only one correct understanding of the Quran and the Sunna. That one correct understanding of the Quran and the Sunna dictates gender segregation and mandates women to wear the niqab. Readings of the Islamic texts that do not conform to this interpretation are quickly deemed “un-Islamic.”
Giving advice (nasiha) in state politics is regarded as an important part of how members of the Ansar al-Sunna movement engage in dawa. Accordingly, Ansar al-Sunna has recently started to engage more directly in conventional state politics with members of parliament and some ministers. Members of the movement ran as candidates on the ruling Islamist political party list in the 2010 general elections. The movement currently supports President Omar al-Bashir, who faces multiple internal armed conflicts in Sudan, Arab Spring–like demonstrations across the country, and external pressures (particularly after his 2009 arrest order from the International Criminal Court).1 Although the movement has assimilated into the state in many ways—in part to revitalize Islamism in support of the president—Ansar al-Sunna remains highly critical of the Islamists’ reign over the past twenty-three years.
Introducing new empirical data on a largely understudied movement from Sudan, I argue that in its attempt to introduce gender segregation, Ansar al-Sunna has provided (perhaps unintentionally) a space for women’s empowerment. [End Page 92] The movement believes that gender mixing causes sexual temptation and moral chaos; thus this necessitates that women take responsibility for spreading the Islamic call to other women, while men address a male audience. While involvement by Ansar al-Sunna in conventional state politics remains a purely male enterprise, women’s dawa forms an important part of the larger project of re-Islamizing a Sudanese society corrupted by gender mixing. At the heart of re-Islamization lie implicit and explicit critiques of an Islamizing state that has instigated a particular interpretation of religion and gender relations forced upon Sudanese citizens top-down. Women have a particular role in implicitly critiquing the state-induced gender mixing through wearing the niqab—the very symbol of the unitary Islamic doctrine—which stands in opposition to the state’s official dress code for women.2 Despite being excluded from conventional politics, these women exhibit political agency in ridiculing the state’s complete misunderstanding of Islam.
The paradigm of gender segregation in dawa demanded the establishment of a separate Ansar al-Sunna women’s center in 2008 to provide Quran classes by women for women. This has further facilitated women’s entry into the Ansar al-Sunna movement’s decisionmaking. The prevailing ideological stance, postulated by the male leadership, is that women cannot participate in conventional state politics because they are more emotional and less rational than men. But the women at the Ansar al-Sunna center are now challenging this position, thereby showing that the Salafi doctrine is perhaps more dynamic than its reputation and that diverse opinions thrive in spite of the fact that Salafism claims to preach a unitary Islamic doctrine with everlasting implications.
This article begins by discussing my fieldwork and the data upon which I base my analysis. I also define Salafism and situate Ansar al-Sunna within the context of rivaling Salafist movements in Sudan. Next, I present my theoretical perspective by discussing the concepts of women’s empowerment, agency, and the politics of veiling as well as how these terms relate to ideas of feminist consciousness. Third, I detail the Islamist model for women’s empowerment. It is launched as a “modern” Islam juxtaposed to a “traditional,” “backward,” or “Bedouin...