Revisiting Sudanese Feminist Movements by Amel Aldehaib

Amel-Skordofan-1Colonialism, racism, undemocratic states, and Islamic fundamentalism have negatively impacted the lives of different Sudanese women to varying degrees. Women who are less privileged by reason of race, class, religion and space are the most oppressed.  This post challenges Sudanese feminists who claim to speak to and for all the women of Sudan but too often reflect the experiences of a group that is privileged urban, middle-class, educated, Islamic and Arab. In fact, women in the countryside and war zones who disproportionately experience rape, displacement, extreme poverty, and high illiteracy are often largely invisible.

The Sudanese women’s movement and different Sudanese national groups have been greatly influenced by western neo-liberal notions of universal women’s rights. Advocacy often focuses on political and civil rights, which are of particular interest to privileged women. In a recent interview, the prominent Sudanese social and political female activist Khalda Zahir, who was the first Sudanese woman to chair the Sudanese Women’s Union in the 1950s, identified past failures in concluding:

“we have remained for nearly half a century addressing women’s issues from the viewpoint of urban women, while 80% of women are living in the country and facing complete different problems throughout their daily lives.” (Adnan Zahir’s interview with Khalda Zahir 2006)

While recognizing a singular women’s identity as a powerful political category of analysis, Sudanese feminist activists such as myself are now much more likely to emphasize complications.  We increasingly apply intersectional analysis to women’s lives.  While pursuing a doctorate in social justice in UBC, I am looking at strategic linkages that need to be between Sudanese women across differences, what Spviak refers to as “transnational literacy ‘strategies “through learning from below and unlearning privilege.” (Spivak 2000) Only this will ensure both more diverse representation and an effective challenge to the full range of structural injustices that ‘nation’ building’ may involve.  Feminist activists in the Sudan, as elsewhere, need to involve women of diverse backgrounds and to address the full range of social inequality.  Only then will the most disadvantaged be well served.

Spivak G (2000) Claiming Transformation: Travel Notes with Pictures in Transformations:Thinking Through Feminism. Online e-book (last visited on06/12/2011)

Malala Yousufzai

(12 July 1997 – )

On 9 October  2012, 14 year old Pakistani school girl Malala Yousufzai was shot in the head and neck by a Taliban gunman, targeted because she publicly promoted education for girls. She was returning from school in the town of Mingora in the Swat Valley of Pakistan when two gunmen flagged down her school bus and fired on Malala and two other children. Taliban spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan, stated to the BBC Urdu service that the attack was justified because Malala “promoted secularism.”  He said that if survives this attack she will continue to be targeted.

From Status of Women Canada

Malala’s father has always been a strong supporter of his daughter and education for girls more generally and he ran own private school for girls. Malala’s own advocacy of education for girls started at age 11, when she began writing a blog for BBC Urdu under the pseudonym Gul Makai. The blog detailed her life in Taliban-controlled Pakistan, where the threat of violence was common and the simple act of attending school took a daily act of courage.  Malala’s blog entries often talk about her fear that she would not be able to continue to attend because of Taliban.

After the Taliban were driven from the Swat Valley in 2009, her identity was revealed and she won a national award for bravery in Pakistan. Malala says that the government recognition has inspired her, and she hopes one day to help her people by going into politics. But perhaps Malala’s greatest show of commitment to education for girls is the fact that despite the international attention and demands on her time, she has continued to attend school.

Within Pakistan, government officials immediately condemned the attack;  rallies and public vigils were held in her name while schools across Pakistan shut their doors to hold vigils. The international response was also swift with diverse expressions of support including from, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. But writer Halima Mansour of the Guardian UK says “Malala doesn’t want to play to some western-backed or Taliban-loved stereotype. She shows us that there are voices out there, in Pakistan, that need to be heard, if only to help the country find democracy that is for and from the people, all the people.”

Unfortunately, Malala’s story is not unique. It is an especially egregious example of a larger global problem of discrimination against women and girls. Of the 110 million of the world’s children not in school in 2012, 60% are girls. By age 18, girls receive on average 4.4 years less education than boys.[1]  Lack of access to education has been linked to higher maternal and infant mortality, increased experience of domestic violence, lower economic prosperity, and reduced political opportunity[2] It is widely recognized that one of the best indicators of national peace and security is the condition of women and girls.[3] Yet, despite many promises to the contrary by governments and efforts by international organizations such as the UN, gender discrimination in education remains commonplace globally.

While some might dismiss Malala’s story as an extreme example of terrorism, it provides a critical reminder of global struggles for gender equality and the penalties  sometimes paid for resisting the pervasive inequalities. For example, Indigenous women in Canada have lower income and educational levels than the national average and such disadvantage is linked to their similarly greater experience of violence and higher rates of incarceration.[4]  The link between lack of opportunity, systemic violence and discrimination is not always acknowledged even by those with a mandate to serve. Thus, even as the world condemns the attack on Malala, every jurisdiction needs to consider its own record. Most are at best uneven.

Education, as Mary Wollstonecraft and other feminists have long argued, is a crucial step in securing women’s rights. Malala’s choice to attend school, and stand up for the right of girls to do so, is aligned with a long history of global struggles demanding a equal opportunities for girls and women.  The Taliban are right to fear the voice and actions of one teenage girl. And the world has a responsibility to listen and respond to the struggles of girls globally.

[2] Fancy, Khadijah. Because I am a Girl: The State of the World’s Girls 2012. Graphicom, Italy, 2012


[4] Aleem, R., Czapska, A., Taefi, N., & Webb, A. (2008). Submission to UN Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women at its 7th periodic review of Canada. Justice for Girls & Justice for Girls International


Malala’s blog

BBC. (2009). Diary of a Pakistani School Girl. Retrieved October 14, 2012, from

Opinion Pieces

Chemaly, S. (2012, October 12). Sex and World Peace: or, What Little Girls Have to Do with Our Wars. Huffington Post.

Dobson, W. J. (2012, October 12). Why the Taliban fears teenage girls. Canberra Times.

Ellick, A. B. (2012). My “Small Video Star” fights for her life. The Lede- New York Times.

Ijaz, S. (2012, October 12). We are not Malala. International Herald Tribune. Retrieved from

Kristof, N. D. (2012, October 10). Her “Crime” was loving school. New York Times.

Mansoor, H. (2012, October 10). Malala Yousafzai: a young Pakistani heroine. Guardian UK. Retrieved from

Walker, R. (2012, October 11). Malala and the First International Day of the Girl. Huffington Post.

The Documentary featuring Malala:

Ellick, A. (2009). Witness: A Schoolgirl’s Odyssey. Al Jazeera English. Retrieved from

Academic Sources:

Aleem, R., Czapaska, A., Taefi, N., & Webb, A. (2008). Submission to UN Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Wome at its 7th periodic review of Canada.

Babur, Zaheer Udin, “Violence Against Women in Pakistan: Current Realities and Strategies for Change,” M.A diss., European University Center for Peace Studies, 2007

Fancy, Khadijah. Because I am a Girl: The State of the World’s Girls 2012. Graphicom, Italy, 2012

Hudson, V. M., Ballif-Spanvill, B., Caprioli, M., & Emmet, C. F. (2012). Sex and World Peace. New York: Columbia University Press.

United Nations Cyberschoolbus. (2012). Girl Child. Briefing Papers for Students. Retrieved from

Woman Stats Project. (2012). Woman Stats Project. Retrieved from

International Women’s Day

By the end of the 20th century, March 8th was globally celebrated as International Women’s Day or IWD. This recognition has slowly become more than a doff of the hat to the world’s women. It now serves as an inspirational call for sisterhood in action. Its origins date to 1910 when an International Women’s Conference associated with the Second Socialist International endorsed a special day of global recognition (following up a 1909 claim for a national day by the Socialist Party of America). Unlike Mothers’ Day, which originated in the United States in the mid-19th century to honour one aspect of women’s lives (though with the important but all too forgotten associated political message of peace), early IWD emphasized paid work. It too, however, likewise raised the possibility of a global sisterhood especially committed to non-violence. While sentimentalism and hypocrisy dog both days, all the more so as cultures have become increasingly commercialized, the call for ‘bread and roses’ supplies a permanent reminder of the necessity of both material support and individual respect. Early socialist champions such as the German Clara Zetkin (1857-1933) trusted that celebration would help ensure that specific tragedies such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in New York City in 1911 and pervasive unfair wages, unhealthy work environments, and lack of recognition and opportunity would not be forgotten. When, after the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the creation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, IWD became an official holiday in both countries, even if both largely failed to offer full equality, liberal democracies, not to mention dictatorships, shied away. To affirm women as workers and as global citizens seemed a radical step too far. The need for public recognition of women’s worth was not, however, forgotten. The rise of the second great feminist wave beginning in the 1960s brought demands for renewal. The United Nations, like the League of Nations before it, provided a critical site for assertions of women’s rights (notably the Convention on the Political Rights of Women in 1952, the Convention on the Nationality of Married Women in 1957, and the Convention on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage and Registration of Marriages in 1962). Under UN auspices, Mexico City hosted the first World Conference on Women in 1975 and inaugurated International Women’s Year and the International Decade of Women (1976-85). The all-important Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women or CEDAW (1979) was a direct result. Nor was IWD forgotten. In 1977 the UN encouraged members to proclaim March 8th ‘the UN Day for Women’s Rights and International Peace’ (Wikipedia). The continuing linkage of women and peace suggests the persisting strength of the 19th century western views of female nature. (These of course co-exist along side older views of the Christian Church fathers, among others, which have been far more likely to credit women, all potential ‘Eves’, with particular capacity for violence rather than harmony.) For all the dangers of cultural ‘baggage’ that insists upon women’s special responsibility (nicely letting others off the hook) for ending conflict and human survival, IWD offers a critical moment to pause and reflect on justice and democracy, not to mention to celebrate the possibility of a sisterhood that acknowledges the differences of class, race, sexuality, and ability. No wonder, and all the more so in times of deepening exploitation and violence, the modern women’s movements and their allies embrace IWD for its promise of a fair deal and good times for all.



Chatterjee, Choi, Celebrating Women. Gender, Festival Culture, and Bolshevik Ideology, 1910-1939. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2002.

“Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women,” Division for the Advancement of Women, United Nations,

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