Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim has spoken about feminist issues concerning the African and Arab world since the 1950s, active in the women’s and anticolonial struggle in the Sudan. Her political streak soon became evident in secondary school when she started her own wall paper (like a paste up) called Elra’edda, meaning “Leading Girls”, which explored women’s rights issues, democracy and the oppression of colonialism. After school she joined the Sudanese Communist Party and became an active member, opposing the Abboud military dictatorship; she also became editor-in-chief of Sawt al-Mara (Women’s Voice). In 1962, she published Our Path to Emancipation, which articulates a Sudanese feminist history and praxis — an approach that moves beyond the toppling of sexual oppression, to consider the configurations of society that form collective and individual experience (Abusharaf 2004). The work was important and was often debated within the Sudanese woman’s movement.
Decades before the contentious and unjust debate on the veil in the West, Ibrahim introduced a conceptual framework for the Sudanese Women’s Union stemming from her belief that:
Women can be veiled but liberated. The equation of the veil with male supremacy is shortsighted and narrow. The veil does not oppress women, but politics and oppressive regimes do.
Ibrahim knew that taking off the veil wouldn’t result in liberation, rather empowerment would come through economic independence and, education. The other element that mattered was habit, social relations, and tradition. In a 2003 interview, Ibrahim states that “changing deeply entrenched traditions and norms are far more difficult than changing governments.” The way to counter this is to engage in engage in critical thinking about oppressive practices. What is significant is that emancipation means “transcending culturally sanctioned oppressive practices”: a ‘woman’s movement’ — a movement of multiple women that a freedom fighter might lead then — is about women gaining “the culmination of (..) consciousness about their grievances as a sex. It is also a manifestation of the increased recognition of their rights and the significance of coming together to organize for change.” (Ibrahim 2003). In other words, consciousness raising. Ibrahim also points out that although education might be one road to liberation, it is not the way to necessarily change the status quo (Abusharaf 2004). She mentions that a large number of educated women were not members of trade unions, for example.
I have given only a fragmented view of a woman’s life, but this is a reminder that there are remarkable feminist thinkers and doers who are not part of the academic west, who have evolved their own theories and practices in cycle with the politics of context. I would like to read Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim’s texts Our Path to Emancipation and Our Harvest in Twenty Years when they become available. Her (1996) journal article “Sudanese Women’s Union: Strategies for Emancipation and the Counter Movement” is available (open access) here — it is worth reading in her own words.