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Sudanese women strive for change
Despite challenges, female candidates stress importance of their presence in political arena.
Last Modified: 10 Apr 2010 20:18 GMT
Intisar Ahmed al-Agli's motto is that 'women are the symbol for change' [Fatma Naib]

Fatma Abdel Mahmoud from the Sudanese Democratic Socialist Union Party is the first female presidential candidate in Sudan's history.

Despite having her doubts about the electoral process, Abdel Mahmoud has refused to withdraw from the race - against all odds in a country whose political scene is dominated by men.

She has had several other "firsts" in her life.

The 65-year-old paediatrician was also Sudan's first female minister in 1973 and spent 10 years in Sudan's National Assembly.

The country's National Elections Commission initially rejected her nomination, surprising many commentators and sparking accusations of sexism from her supporters.

But a Sudanese court upheld her appeal and she was reinstated.

Abdel Mahmoud's small party wants equality for women and is pushing for Sudan to pass a law ensuring that a percentage of the profits from oil and other resources gets passed on to the Sudanese people.

Abdel Mahmoud is campaigning on a platform of change: she wants to change her country's international image and bring it in from the cold.

'Opening a door'

Abdel Mahmoud also wants equal rights for women. She says women are the majority of the electorate and urges them to vote for candidates who want gender equality.

But she knows the scale is heavily tilted against her.

"[By standing for election] I am opening a door for women in the future. I don't want to interrupt my election campaign as a woman due to any reason. I am ready to receive any result, regardless of how this election will go," she said.

IN VIDEO

Sudan woman makes presidential bid

Abdel Mahmoud is one of many Sudanese women who have worked hard in a male-dominated society to stand up for their rights and make room for themselves within the political arena.

Al Jazeera spoke to two other women - one a northerner and the other a southerner - to compare and contrast their hopes and dreams.

Intisar Ahmed al-Agli, of the Democratic Naseeri party, is standing for a seat in the state assembly from the Khartoum constituency.

Despite the main opposition parties' decision to boycott the elections, al-Agli decided to go ahead.

She says she has been active on the political scene since she was in high school, starting with student activities.

Facing challenges

Women such Abdel Mahmood among other female Sudanese activists have inspired al-Agli to carry on with her work despite the hardships and challenges.

"I was very lucky and privileged to meet the leading ladies within the women's movement. I learned a lot from them. They prepared a generation of ladies that set the ground for the women's movement of Sudan in 1952," al-Agli says.

"I learned the importance of taking part in civil activism where we can be a positive contributing force. I believe that the 25 per cent women's quota system in the elections has pushed so many women to nominate themselves.

Al-Agli is hoping to get a seat in the state assembly from the Khartoum constituency

"My family were my biggest supporters. Their support was a great push in making me strive forward."

Women in Sudanese society have long been a strong driving force for change.

They were the first that went out and demonstrated in the streets against the high cost of living. At one such protest, al-Agli was arrested and detained.

"I have been arrested and detained several times after that and it didn't stop me. My detention periods would vary from one day to two months with several intervals in between each time," she said.

"The hardest bit about being detained was the fact that at that time they didn't have a section in prison for political prisoners' so I was detained in the same cell as murderers, thieves and prostitutes."

But she managed to turn her difficult detention into a positive experience by teaching her fellow detainees various things from civil rights to teaching the illiterate how to read and write.

Enriching experience

Al-Agli tried to take advantage of being there by learning more about other women in all walks of life in Sudan, and she believes that experience "enriched" her as a human being.

It made her stay connected with her fellow women, it "empowered" her and it made her more determined to carry on.

"These elections, despite the hardship that comes with them, provide a new exciting challenge for us Sudanese women", al-Agli says.

"My motto is that women are the symbol for change. As women, through our handwork, we can play an important role in making change happen.

"As long as we have truth by our side then it will always shine through."

'Difficult balance'

Keji Jermalili Roman is a medical doctor by profession, and she is also the secretary of culture, information and communication for the northern sector of Sudan People's Liberation Movement [SPLM].

She is originally from central Equatoria region in the south but lives in Khartoum.

She found herself in the middle of politics almost "accidentally". She had always been active in civil right and in creating awareness of human rights and civil rights until she became an active member of the SPLM seven years ago.

Roman says life is different for women in the north and the south [Fatma Naib]

"I think it is hard for Sudanese women to hold public offices. It is very demanding because as a Sudanese woman you have to [strike a] balance between your social life and professional life.

"Taking care of the family at home is very demanding, and keeping up with the social life while balancing being in a public office is very difficult.

"I believe that this is the reason why many women do not participate in political life. It is different from one case to another. In my case I believe that I got very lucky because I got involved in politics early.

"Politics has become a part of me, but I still feel like we need to encourage women to participate in politics. In an unstable country like Sudan, it can be very dangerous to be politically active and I think that this is what is holding many women back."

Jermalili Roman believes that the biggest challenges for every Sudanese woman are the social and cultural barriers.

"Our traditions do hold us back ... We raise girls to be mothers and wives. We don't raise them to be human beings that can have other roles in life in addition to that.

"The way we raise our daughters is the way they end up dealing with their lives and they would worry more about getting married rather than to study and choose a profession. This is very common all over Sudan.

Question of freedom

But Jermalili Roman says that being a woman in the south and the north is not the same

"I believe that woman in the south have more freedom and credibility than women in the north. For example the way you dress. No one in the south care about how you are dressed. You can wear whatever you like," she said.

Roman says women in the south work more but this could be because of the war as they were forced to fend for themselves because their husbands, fathers and sons were at war. 

"This has created generations of working woman with a high [level of] self-esteem," she says.

For all the differences, however, Roman says people from different regions of Sudan must accept one another.

"We need to come to terms with who we are, we need to reconcile with ourselves and forgive and reconcile with each other," she says.

"This country has a place for all of us."

Source:
Al Jazeera
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