A Pioneer in Women’s RightsFor over 60 years Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim placed herself at the forefront of women’s rights and social change in Sudan. In high school she was writing critiques of colonialism in newspapers and advocating for women’s rights. In her 20’s she would help lead a revolution in Sudan and would later become the first woman member of Parliament not only in Sudan, but in all of Africa and the Middle East. Despite living under multiple oppressive regimes and having her husband executed, Fatima endured on behalf of human rights, equality and democracy. Her impressive story begins below.
In 1933, Fatima was born into a well educated, middle-class family in Khartoum, Sudan. Her grandfather had been one of Sudan’s leading headmaster and an Imam in his neighborhood. Her father was also a teacher, and her mother was a college graduate. Fatima’s educational heritage gave her skills and support she needed to spend decades leading and educating others about social issues, democracy and their rights.
In addition to her educational background, Fatima also grew up in a politically-aware family. Her father had been expelled from teaching post at a government school because he refused to follow the British Colonial rules of teaching in English. Her brother Salah, a writer, lecturer and celebrated poet was active in the anti-colonialism movement attempting to bring democracy to Sudan. Using a code name while attending Omdurman Secondary School she began writing for newspapers and began publishing her own wall paper (A newspaper posted on the walls of public places, the equivalent to a modern blog). Her paper was called Elra’edda meaning “Leading Girls”. The topics focused on women’s rights issues, democracy and the oppression of colonialism. When her school administrators decided that the girls could no longer take courses in science she organized a strike. Not only was this Sudan’s first women’s strike, it also successfully restored science lessons for girls at her school. By the age of 14, she started the Intellectual Women Association in reaction to British efforts to limit the role of women in society.
“women want to participate in political life and state management with men. To direct the policy of your country for the benefit of children, as well as of women, men and society as a whole.” -Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim
Unable to afford university expenses, Fatima dropped out to become a teacher. As Sudan fell under military rule Fatima’s brother began sharing socialist and communist literature with her, broadening her political views and ultimately leading to her membership of the Sudanese Communist Party (SCP), the first political party to allow women. For the next decade she would explore human rights issues, vocally oppose Abboud’s military dictatorial regime and become editor-in-chief of Sawt al-Mara (Women’s Voice). Fatima would also be inspired by Dr. Khalda Zahirand Fatima Talib who started the Women’s Association, which focused on educating and mobilizing women. Together they would start the Sudanese Women’s Union (SWU). The SWU resisted the colonial propoganda and organized to secure women the right to legal status, the right to consent to marriage, the right to vote, right to work, women’s workers rights such as equal pay, maternity leave benefits, pensions, and the abolition of laws requiring women to return to abusive husbands.
Fatima began to change the way women were seen in Sudan. She had married al-Shafi’ a respected trade union leader and intellectual. She rose to prominence as a leader of the 1964 revolution for independence. The victorious nonviolence movement would lead to the dictator voluntarily relinquishing power and dissolving his regime, beginning a short rule of democracy. Her public presence and powerful personality inspired other women to become active in political affairs. Together women in Sudan worked to not only gain legal standing, but to acquire equality and positions within government. A year later, Fatima would become the first woman elected to Sudan’s newly established parliament.
However, it wasn’t long before democratically elected president Nimeiri began to abuse his powers to squash opposition. He began attacking opposition group leaders and banned labor unions and the Sudanese Women’s Union. Nimeiri rounded up union leaders including Fatima’s husband and had them imprisoned, tortured and executed.
Fatima was also placed under house arrest for two years. Despite the threat of life imprisonment, she continued to participate in underground democracy activities. Afterwards she returned as a public figure speaking about social change from her feminist socialist perspective. In 1985, Sudan would return to a democracy, where she began advocating for the representation of women in the new government.
However, after a few years of peace democratic rule was once again overthrown, this time by the Omar al-Bashir and the National Islamic Front. In 1991 al-Bashir imposed strict laws on women, forcing them to wear hijabs, excluding them from public positions, banning them from traveling freely, and reinstating male dominance in the household. Fatima was arrested, released by international pressure, and escaped into exile in London with her son Mohammed. While in exile Fatima started a branch of the Women’s Union in London, and was elected President of the Women’s International Democratic Federation. She would be awarded multiple international honors for her impressive work in the field of human rights. Yet, Fatima always insisted on accepting them on behalf of the women with whon she worked alongside in Sudan. Fatima continually shared her strong belief that history cannot be changed by one person alone, but only by a team of people who support each other, seek common goals and endure.
In 2005, under international pressure following his indictment as a war criminal, president al-Bashir made attempts to reconcile with opposition forces. Fatima returned to Sudan to be appointed as deputy in the Parliament though it remains very much a military dictatorship. She announced her retirement in 2007 at the age of 74, stating “Now is the time to hand over the banner to the youth” and called for a new generation of young men and women to rise up and take her place. Today, countless Sudanese have responded to her call, and joined the struggle for equality, democracy and human rights. Yet unlike Fatima, many of them are forced to hide their identities for fear of government repression and little is known internationally about their efforts.
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