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Rift Valley Institute

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Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim (1933-2017): emancipation as a craft

This article was written by RVI Fellow Magdi El Gizouli. It was originally published on StillSUDAN and republished with permission from the author.

Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim, a Sudanese veteran communist politician and feminist, passed away in London on 12 August. She is survived by her son Ahmed with the late al-Shafie Ahmed al-Sheikh, a communist trade union leader who met his death at the gallows at the orders of President Nimayri in the aftermath of the failed 19 July 1971 communist coup attempt. For Fatima the political was essentially corporeal. She experienced the treacheries of Sudanese politics as a family dilemma of the first order. 
Fatima’s brother, Salah Ahmed Ibrahim, another communist intellectual and gifted poet of standing, was an early victim of the party’s scornful scrutiny of its intellectuals. Another brother, Murtada Ahmed Ibrahim, was irrigation minister in Nimayri’s first cabinet (1969-1971) and was dismissed in the showdown that followed the 1971 coup. Both did not live to bid Fatima a final farewell. Salah died in May 1993 in Paris and the older Murtada in May 1996 in Sweden. A third brother, al-Rasheed Ahmed Ibrahim, passed way a young man in the United Arab Emirates. Fatima’s two sisters, Nafisa and al-Toma, died in 1997 in London. The family of the late Ahmed Ibrahim, a Gordon College (later Khartoum University) graduate and school teacher, and Aisha Mohamed Ahmed Fadl, one of a few women in her generation to receive an intermediate school education, have all but one, Fatima ‘s brother al-Hadi, crossed death’s way. 
Among her siblings Fatima was the most politically dedicated and organisationally gifted. She is often celebrated as the first woman parliamentarian in her country Sudan, a seat she earned as candidate of the Communist Party in the 1965 elections. True, she was, but the statement somehow reduces a lifetime of innovation in struggle to her brief contribution to parliamentary politics. Fatima, it must be acknowledged, invented the new Sudanese woman of the modern age, a project she launched in her own flesh as it were. She embodied her project as much as she campaigned for it. Her fidelity to the praxis of emancipation rather than its slogans is exemplary. 
As early as 1964-1965 Fatima found herself as member of the Communist Party’s politburo and president of the Sudanese Women’s Union (SWU) in argument with the late secretary general of the Communist Party, Abd al-Khaliq Mahjoub, over the orientation, organisation and priorities of the Union. Mahjoub wanted the SWU to ‘mainstream’, he wanted the SWU to talk ‘gender’ and tackle as its first priority the relationship between men and women in society. Fatima thought the main issue to be the engagement of women in political life; the concerns of the private sphere in her reasoning were to be mediated through women’s invasion of public life (for details see Abdullahi Ali Ibrahim’s ‘The House that Matriarchy Built: The Sudanese Women’s Union’). The issue was never satisfactorily settled and the party and the SWU were soon engulfed in the political tragedies that made all such contemplation an impossibility. 
From that 1965 debate the dust is still in the air. Fatima continued to resist the attraction of ‘identity’ politics to her last days, disappointing many of the young feminists who admired her person but could not tolerate her example. She simply refused to understand how issues such as sexual choice or personal liberties including dress and other lifestyle concerns of the urban and expatriate Sudanese women who came to dominate the feminist scene could have precedence over or even link up with the agonies of devastation and hunger that were and are still today the lot of the women of war-battered rural Sudan, in Fatima’s own words: “What priority can sexual choice have to a woman whose child is dying of hunger in her own arms?” Her detractors are yet to invent that connection and mould it in a productive fashion. Inadvertently, they vindicate her position by their failure to further their own agenda. 
Under Fatima’s influence, the SWU (est. 1952) developed into a grassroots organisation with branches in many of Sudan’s towns and villages. In its structure, it largely copied the organisational grid of the Communist Party with the distinction that it penetrated into the realm of social reproduction with its creative engagement of housewives. Fatima tuned the social agenda of the SWU to the women who are today at best the ‘respondents’ of NGO-feminism. She opened the cow’s mouth, to paraphrase a Sudanese proverb, in her pursuit of the interests of the women left behind not only by men but by the forces of modernisation. In that quest, she was ready to make the most improbable of alliances with Sudan’s sharia establishment. When scrutinised this most productive exchange between the SWU and the sharia judges of Sudan reveals a ‘praxis’ of an indigenous feminism that is essentially her authorship. 
Judging by outcome, the SWU’s campaigns achieved legislations granting young women the right to be consulted before marriage; abolition of the obedience laws; a woman’s right to divorce in case of abuse as well when she had no interest in living with a husband as long as he was paid back the dowry; mothers were granted custody of their sons up to the age of seventeen and their daughters until marriage; in the case of divorce children were granted the right of maintenance by their fathers provided it did not exceed half the father’s income. These breakthroughs which have largely survived turbulence of government since would not have been possible without Fatima’s culturally embedded brand of feminism. It is virtually impossible to imagine such reforms in the absence of the cultural premises that Fatima relied on to negotiate support among women and an agenda against the male sharia establishment. 
Fatima in her sharp and clear prose explained these premises as such: “Emancipation does not mean getting rid of our national good traditions and values, or for us Sudanese women to become another copy of the Western woman. It is emancipation from illiteracy, backwardness, disease, unemployment, poverty and discrimination in the home and in society; Equality does not mean for Sudanese women to become another copy of the man. It means for women to be completely equal to men in rights and in decision-making at all levels; Men, as males are not responsible for discrimination against women. Most of them are also exploited and discriminated against. For this, women and men should work together to make social changes that preserve democracy, which is based on social justice and human rights.” 
For Fatima, it seems the question of ‘who are we fighting for’ overdetermined the question of ‘what are we fighting for’. She drew her answers to these questions from the lived experience of Sudanese women rather than a blind reliance on the discourses of Western feminism. She made a point of showcasing the shortcomings of Western feminism and its inability to live up to its universalist claims. In Fatima’s understanding, women in Western countries, despite their personal freedoms, continue to suffer from physical and structural violence at home and within society. Sexual freedoms as experienced in the West, she argued, did not necessarily translate into equality in power relations between the sexes nor protect women from commodification, sexual violence and exploitation. The focus on violence and rape, she argued further, addresses results and symptoms of social disorders rather than their causes. 
Fatima pointed out the atomised nature of Western societies and criticised the prevalent culture of individualism in the West. In upholding and nurturing this principle, she argued, women’s organisations in the West are “upper” organisations and have no links to women at grassroots levels. In a similar sense gender studies departments in universities, despite their profuse research on the subject, have no direct contact with the mass of ordinary women who also have no access to these researchers. Importantly, Fatima highlighted the fact that the vast majority of women in Western countries are not involved in politics at all. The predominantly “male ruling class”, she wrote, “is keen to keep women out of the ruling class because this helps to limit the competition for getting into power.” 
One remarkable feature of Fatima’s criticism of Western feminism is her obvious rejection of its claims to universality. Fatima’s independence in this regard could be read in light of her record of anti-colonial struggle. Her clearly voiced rejection of these claims is integral to her own concrete praxis. For her the theatre of struggle is not the domain of culture as such which she dismisses as an obfuscation; it is the political arena where discriminatory policies, constitutions and laws against women are introduced and then executed. Her criticism extends in Leninist fashion to liberal democracy which she describes as “artificial” since it does not eradicate class, race and gender discrimination. 
In Fatima’s mind, the struggle the for emancipation of women is intrinsically linked to the struggle for a just society that transcends the ‘capitalist’ deadlock. “Western women are still discriminated against because capitalist societies still practice class and racial discrimination”. “Women will never be equal with men in a society where a man is not equal to a man”, she concludes, “because women’s issues and problems are connected with men’s and society’s problems”. This ‘Red’ Fatima is long out of fashion in the Khartoum circles of feminist activism. However, elements of her critique of Western feminism can be identified in the works of post-colonial feminist theorists. I am not sure whether Fatima read Chandra Talpade Mohanty’s ‘Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses’ but she would have probably approved it.
Now, who are today the heirs of Fatima’s legacy? This a thorny topic. Since the inconclusive debate between Abd al-Khaliq and Fatima in the mid 1960s the SWU deteriorated with every political tragedy that has befallen the Sudanese left as did the Communist Party to become a wasted force. Three competing trends emerged to replace Fatima’s house as it were. The first is arguably the Islamist women’s movement pioneered by women in Fatima’s generation like Suad al-Fatih al-Badawi and decisively promoted by the late Hassan al-Turabi. The second and third are liberal trends of feminism divided between a reformist school around the Ahfad University for Women’s Gender Studies Institute under the directorship of Balghis Badri and a number of declaredly activist and occasionally confrontational initiatives such as ‘No for Women’s Oppression’ or civil society organisations dedicated to the promotion of a trademark ‘feminism’ with a focus on sexuality and domestic violence such as the Salmmah Women’s Resource Centre. 
Quite like Fatima’s emancipatory project but unlike the liberal alternatives on offer, Turabi’s brand of Islamic feminism was linked to a ‘political’ attempt at reworking power relations in Sudanese society at large. As an oppositionist in the 1970s during an era when political Islam offered many a revolutionary idiom to upset given social structures, Turabi made a point to reach out to women offering the young and the ambitious routes out of patriarchal enclosure while retaining the cultural context of Islamic faith. If Fatima was able to think the Muslim woman in secular emancipatory terms, Turabi offered the same woman liberation within a reinforced religious badge and indeed succeeded in drawing scores of young women to the ‘path’ as the words of a once favoured nasheed enticingly proclaimed: “Come to our path you thirsty.. Come to our path you perplexed”. At a certain juncture in the 1980s and into the 1990s the distinction between the Islamist women movement and its leftist and liberal opponents appeared to correspond to the obfuscated class barrier that Fatima was keen to demonstrate. Paradoxically or not so paradoxically, the disadvantaged tob-clad young women turned hijabis from rural Sudan flocked to Turabi’s movement and their class superiors were happier in the hijab-free liberal currents. 
Turabi’s dismissal of the tob as an unnecessary nuisance and its replacement by the hijab as a sort of uniform for the new ‘Muslim’ woman was a master stroke in political symbolism at its time. Political Islam among women had a trademark. Fatima, obviously unprepared for the age of the spectacle, retained the tob and nursed puritan sexual morals to her dying day while the Islamic movement was toying with ideas of ‘casual marriage’ in an attempt to respond to the increasing social dissociation in Sudan’s urban scene. In late age, Turabi, back in opposition in the 2000s, went as far as to proclaim the right of women to marry without a guardian from an Islamic point of view, once again attempting to catch up with the fragmenting pressures of the city. From Fatima’s point of view, these were chaotic and obviously opportunistic overtures that did no account for the needs of the mother with the hungry dying child in her arms. 
Liberal feminists on the other hand dropped Fatima’ kaleidoscopic reading of the oppression of women favouring instead the donors’-watered grazing grounds of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), sexuality, domestic violence.. etc. The critique she hurled at Western feminism she reiterated to Sudan’s feminist activists of the post-Cold War era, stressing repeatedly the lessons she had drawn from years of praxis. Her detractors rightly or wrongly accused her of ‘conservatism’, ‘dogmatism’ and ‘reaction’ and blamed her for their shrinking support base. However, in their frustration they wasted her lessons in grassroots engagement and her textured but sharp reading of the constellation of forces that affect the status of women in society. Patriarchy and Islam replaced class, economy and even race as determinants of oppression. 
Accordingly, when indeed initiatives such as ‘No for Women’s Oppression’ reach out beyond their class constraints the encounter is often a caricature. Where Fatima would have organised the contemporary activist poses for the camera theatrically enacting the role of the oppressed. Such was the situation when activists wanted to demonstrate solidarity with Khartoums’ famed tea ladies. Since tea ladies are readily accessible they have come to occupy a place of priority in the agenda of feminist activism, possibly as place-holders for the ordinary working woman from a disadvantaged background. It is probably telling that domestic workers do not enjoy the status of tea ladies in this cartography of oppression, may be because they sustain the households of the emancipators themselves. Prominent women activists took up positions behind stoves and tea pots with beaming smiles facing the zaps of smartphones. The role play, alas, worked only in one direction. A truly subversive version would have involved the tea ladies occupying the neat houses and driving the air-conditioned cars of their activist friends. 
Fatima’s greatest achievement, I claim, is that she invented relations of common struggle and solidarity between women and also between women and men in Sudan. Hers was a dream for collective emancipation, a communist dream. The route she initiated is arguably irrecoverable today. The women and men who share this dream would have to invent these relations anew and strike new routes to a future unknown. In the words of the late Tijani al-Tayeb speaking on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Communist Party: “The first [communist] pioneers stormed the unknown, unknown to them and to the Sudanese society, and established a party of a new type without prior experience”. Fatima’s life and praxis offer a trove of such experience but who needs her lessons?

In writing this piece I relied on Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim’s Our Harvest in Twenty Years (1972),Our Path to Emancipation (1962), Sudanese Women’s Union: Strategies for Emancipation and the Counter Movement published in Ufahamu 24 (1996), Arrow at Rest in Women in Exile edited by Mahanaz Afkhami (1994) as well as Rogaia Mustafa Abusharaf’s Narrating Feminism: The Woman Question in the Thinking of an African Radical published in Differences 15 (2004), Abdullahi Ali Ibrahim’s The House That Matriarchy Built: The Sudanese Women’s Union published in the South Atlantic Quarterly 109 (2010) and Chandra Talpade Mohanty’s Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses published in Boundary 12 (1984)

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