Sudanese female advocate for Israel relations highlights hope for women

Sudanese women contemplate ties with Israel, country’s future, with peace deal in sight

WOMEN WALK to the market in Abu Shock IDPs camp in Al Fashir, capital of North Darfur, Sudan, last year. (photo credit: REUTERS)
WOMEN WALK to the market in Abu Shock IDPs camp in Al Fashir, capital of North Darfur, Sudan, last year.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Sudanese women are increasingly a force to be reckoned with, from the late adviser of the current leader to the women whose protests helped topple former president Omar al-Bashir last year after 30 years in power.
Najwa Gadaheldam, an aide to Sudanese Transitional Council Chairman Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, died in May from COVID-19. She had worked to build ties between Sudan and Israel, and Jerusalem had sent a medical team to treat her.
Still, women are underrepresented in Sudan’s government. In the Sovereignty Council of Sudan, the country’s collective leadership, some 18% of the members are women. They form 22% of the cabinet, and Sudan’s chief justice is a woman. However, 70% of the demonstrators during the peak protests against Bashir were women.
“Women are a part of the political scene, but many people attempt to minimize their roles and stick them in a … corner,” Nisreen Ahmed Ali told The Media Line. The Sudanese Women in Technology (SWIT) group translated her remarks and those of some other women into English. 
“We hope this will change in the future, especially when the Sudanese [Transitional] Legislative Council [is formed] soon,” said Ali, the founder and chief executive officer of Ubic and Rak wani companies in Sudan and Uganda.
SWIT, founded by Sara AbdAlmonem and M. Alsawi, develops (Apple) iOS and Android applications for the Sudanese market and helps women in various fields. 
Sara Abdelgalil, a consultant pediatrician who heads the Sudan Doctors Union-UK, agreed with Ali.
“There is a gap between the … contribution of women in the democratic change during the revolution [that ousted Bashir] … and the lack of women’s participation at the forefront of the political transformation, which is crucial for the peace process and for ensuring social justice,” said Abdelgalil, a former spokesperson of the Sudanese Professionals Association, which includes 17 workers’ unions.
“It is important to engage women at the grassroots as well as the senior levels of decision-making,” she added.
Liv Tønnessen, a research director at the Chr. Michelsen Institute of social sciences, studies women, politics and Islam in the Middle East and North Africa. 
“What is striking is perhaps what has not changed. And that is the patriarchal mentality of Sudanese politics,” Tønnessen told The Media Line, comparing attitudes during and after the Bashir regime.
“The nominations [for political offices and committees] have systematically excluded or [only] marginally included women, whether for state governors, peace negotiations,” she said. “Instead of religion, this time Sudanese culture is used as an argument for exclusion.”
“Women have been mobilizing online and offline to demand political inclusion as they see this as pivotal in changing the[ir] legal and social status,” Tønnessen said. “But this means that women are largely working the same way as before the revolution, outside of formal institutions against deeply [male-controlled] governing structures.”
Women also face hurdles outside of politics and government.
Rachel George, a research fellow on the Gender Equality and Social Inclusion team of the UK-based Overseas Development Institute (ODI) think tank, said that while Sudanese women have more rights, many challenges remain. 
“Working with the women in Sudan and the diaspora, there has been a really good transformation in some regards, like legal changes” such as banning female genital mutilation, she told The Media Line. “The voices of prominent feminists are present, but [in addition to general gender discrimination] there has been increasing concern around … the military targeting women activists with violence and harassment.” 
Razan Mahmoud Abdallah Ibrahim, a software engineer at Nile Center for Technology Research and SWIT member, also raised these concerns.
She told The Media Line that the biggest challenges for women in Sudan were: “gender inequality based on cultural and societal restrictions and rules, violence against women, a lack of empowerment programs and education about women's rights and a need for their participation in building the country.”
CEO Ali agreed, adding “harassment” and “work environments that don’t take women’s needs into account.”
Ibrahim said the biggest obstacles for women in business and technology were “unequal opportunities, from entry-level to senior management, limited funding due to cultural preferences … an inadequate support system from family, friends and society and not being taken seriously most of the time.”
Women want to be more of a part of the decision-making process in Sudan, including in roles like Gadaheldam’s. 
“After the last revolution, we learned that there is no better way to speak our minds than to protest and take our rightful place in society,” Ibrahim said.
Things are changing in Sudan. Sudan just agreed to pay compensation to American victims of terror, and the US said that in return for the payment, it would remove Sudan from its list of state sponsors of terrorism and lift economic sanctions.
The US has also asked Sudan to establish official diplomatic relations with Israel following the Jewish state’s peace accords with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
The SWIT women had no negative reactions to the possibility of official ties between Sudan and Israel.
Although Ibrahim said she was “neutral about this decision [regarding Israel],” she also voiced “hope [that] it brings some needed peace and stability to Sudan.” 
Ali does not agree with the way that an agreement is being promoted.
“It is great news for Sudan in terms of taking of our country off the terrorism list, but I don’t agree with tying that to an Israeli peace deal. As for the peace deal, I can see that it is accelerating and [I personally] agree it should be completed. 
“I hope to be on the first trip … to discuss as soon as possible with the Israeli side future business opportunities,” she added.
SWIT member Sara Mamoon Tom told The Media Line: “I have no problem with normalization with Israel, and I think it will be useful for Sudanese.”
Nada Arba, a SWIT member and Sudanese TV presenter in programs aimed at women, also expressed support for the Abraham Accords.
“The treaty is strictly diplomatic and experts in each country believe [it] would benefit each country economically. Any country would do what’s good for its people.”
Abdelaziz Yakub, editor-in-chief of Al-Hamish Voice, an independent online weekly newspaper, said the SWIT members’ opinions are generally representative of the country’s population.
“There is a division in Sudan on normalization with Israel, but I think the majority supports establishing relations with Israel – they call for putting the interests of the people first – and others reject it from a purely ideological point of view that has nothing to do with the people’s interests,” he told The Media Line.
Yakub also said that normalization with Israel could especially benefit Sudanese women.
“Women in Sudan have social, political and economic issues that are inseparable from those of society, so certainly normalization will also benefit them, especially with discrimination, the administration of the country and development,” he said. ODI’s George said that relations with Israel could impact Sudanese women for better or for worse.
“It was really interesting to have a female voice [Gadaheldam’s] involved in this process and that gives some sense that as women are entering politics with the normalization of relations, women’s voices might be able to engage on the issue and have [more of a say] in the decisions around that change.”
“On the other hand, this deal might hurt women, with some religious Islamists issuing fatwas against normalizing ties with Israel. These conservative elites have not supported some of the legal changes to enhance women’s rights in Sudan … and it would be problematic if [establishing ties] enhances the positions of these figures,” George added.
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