By Saja Elshaikh
Published on January 25, 2016
In the summer of 2011, I traveled with my parents and three brothers to my parents’ birth country, Sudan, to visit family, especially my grandmother who was ill. The last time I had been to Sudan, I was only twelve years old, so I knew that my experiences would be different this time around. I was older and more mature. Sudan has always felt like home, and I was excited. The fourteen-hour KLM flight was filled with Sudanese families who seemed just as excited as I was to reunite with loved ones. Minutes away from landing at Khartoum International Airport, as if on cue, the girls on the plane who were around my age all began to pull out headscarves from their bags and covered their heads. I thought nothing of it and started fixing my scarfless hair to look as presentable as I could after the long flight.
After relaxing mostly indoors for a few weeks, with various family members coming over to visit us, I was eager to explore Sudan once again. We were in the capital city of Khartoum, which has plenty of newly constructed buildings, bright city lights and shopping malls, and an overall improved infrastructure. The city is constantly changing, so I had planned a busy itinerary full of sites that were newly developed during the four years that I had been away.
On my first night out in Khartoum, my brothers and I went to get ice cream. I wore a casual T-shirt and a pair of skinny jeans, the way I usually dress. Soon afterwards, I noticed several policemen glancing at me, but they said nothing. They didn’t have to: I had felt out of place from the moment we left the house. I tried to brush it off, but there was an uncomfortable feeling I had never felt before in a country that I genuinely love. I told my brother, “We are being stared at. Let’s try speaking in Arabic.” I usually don’t mind standing out from others, but the policemen’s stares made me uneasy.
The following day, as I left to go to the corner store, my aunt gave me a scarf to wear and without explanation, told me to take my three-year-old brother with me. As I arrived at the store, a young man approached and in a judgmental low voice said to me, “Your jeans are not appropriate. You should not be dressing like that. I am certain you are not from here just by looking at you.” I rushed home and thought about these encounters, and I began to pay more attention to how other girls in Khartoum dressed. I realized that girls wore long sleeved shirts and skirts or baggy pants to their ankles. My style of dressing, I now noticed, was in stark contrast to the Sudanese women around me. I asked my mom to take me to the bazaar to change my wardrobe, thinking that maybe this would help me fit in. My mother often suggests to me, even in Toronto, that I wear baggier jeans and longer tops, but in Khartoum, she said to me, “Girls in Sudan dress more conservatively to reduce their chances of being flogged.”
Women get flogged in Sudan for violating the dress code. When I opened my eyes to the social issues in Sudan, I began to see things that I did not see as a young child. I began to realize that in Sudan, women could be alone in the streets, but being accompanied by a male relative greatly decreased the chances of public harassment by men. As ridiculous as it may seem, this was why my aunt had told my three-year-old brother to accompany me, because even a three-year-old boy could possibly protect me from the harassment I might receive if alone in public. If men thought a girl was not dressed modestly, she would be subjected to public shaming, even more so if she was seen as part of the urban poor. I knew that I would encounter cultural differences between Toronto and Khartoum, but it angered me then and it continues to anger me now that these men feel that they can impose their opinions about clothing on women they do not even know. I thought I had stopped the staring at the ice cream shop by asking my brothers to speak in Arabic instead of English, but language had nothing to do with it. They were staring at how I carried myself and how I dressed.
In 1983 Sudan’s president Jafaar al-Numayri (1969-1985) implemented the sharia law in Sudan, which was when the extremist religious traditions began to be enforced. This included the prohibition of alcohol production and sale, the implementation of hudud, where hands were amputated in public for stealing, and the repression of religious freedom in the South. In July 2011, South Sudan separated from Sudan after the civil war and became an independent state. The war had started with Numayri’s presidency, which sought to homogenize the entire nation as Muslim and to use the oil profits from South Sudan to benefit only the Muslim North. When Omar al-Bashir came to power in 1989, he continued to attack the South, kill families and enslave children. Enforcing dress codes on women is part of Al-Bashir’s legacy. There have been several flogging videos posted on YouTube, where men gather around and partake in the flogging of women. Omar Al-Bashir has unabashedly said that those who stand against flogging for inappropriate clothing need to revert to Islam. Al-Bashir’s government endorses a narrow vision of Sudan as an Islamic Arabic nation.
Under Article 152 of the Sudanese Criminal Law Act of 1991, 40 lashes, a fine, or both are imposed for ‘indecent or immoral dressing. In a widely publicized case in 2009, a Sudanese journalist named Lubna Al-Hussein was arrested and sentenced to a flogging for the crime of wearing pants. Her case and many similar ones continue to cultivate fear. Hussein’s case was later reduced to a fine, which she has refused to pay, and in her second sentencing, she chose to go to prison instead of paying the fine. She has since been advocating for Sudanese women’s freedom and human rights, but public flogging continues. As education among women in Sudan increases, the corruption of Al-Bashir’s governance continues to hold the nation back. Religion is key in Sudan but men like Al- Bashir, the policemen who glared at me in silence, and the man who commented on my clothes who continue to distort, exaggerate, and use religion as an excuse to harass women and unjustly treat them.
When I packed my bags to leave Sudan, my cousin handed me the skirts and scarves I had bought from the bazaar in Khartoum. I smiled and asked her to keep them for my next visit to Sudan. After all that I had encountered, some might assume that I was outraged by the inequality in Sudan, and believe me, I am. But the issues are deep and complex. Not all these men are evil, and many simply do not know any better than to follow what they had been raised to believe. Many like Al-Bashir have literal interpretations of the Quran that they truly deem as correct. From a young age, Sudanese children are bought up to believe in male dominance, and as they grow older, they perpetuate and participate in what has been ingrained in them since childhood.
The key to breaking this cycle in Sudan must begin with education. My education has allowed me to recognize the inequalities that I may not have been able to see if I were raised as an unempowered, uneducated girl in Sudan. As we boarded the long flight back to Toronto, I had mixed feelings. I used to feel like I just resided in Toronto, and that Sudan was my true home, but I no longer felt at home in what Sudan has become. What I do know is that through a critical understanding of the history of Sudan, I have become much more aware of the politics of gender, religion, and nation. I continue to seek a place that I can call my home.
- Berridge, William. 2013. “The Ambiguous Role of the Popular, Society and Public Order Police in Sudan, 1983–2011.” Middle Eastern Studies 49 (4): 528–46.
- Fadlalla, Amal Hassan. 2011. “State of Vulnerability and Humanitarian Visibility on the Verge of Sudan’s Secession: Lubna’s Pants and the Transnational Politics of Rights and Dissent.” Signs 37 (1): 159–84.
- Tonnessen, Liv. 2011. “The Many Faces of Political Islam in Sudan: Muslim Women’s Activism for and against the State.” CMI. Doctoral Thesis. University of Bergen.
- Warburg, Gabriel R. 1990. “The Sharia in Sudan: Implementation and Repercussions, 1983-1989.” Middle East Journal 44 (4): 624–37.
Saja Elshaikh was born in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia and is of Sudanese descent. She has been a Canadian citizen for thirteen years, but continues to carry a lot of her traditions and experiences from her childhood. She is majoring in human geography and city studies and minoring in Geographical Information System at the University of Toronto Scarborough. Her childhood consisted of a lot of travel and migration due to her father’s satellite engineering profession, and this has sparked an interest in human geography and how people interact with their environment. Saja enjoys sharing her experiences as a Black Muslim woman in a world that favours white male superiority.