Women and the Family
In Sudan, the extended family provided social services. Traditionally,
the family was responsible for the old, the sick, and the mentally
ill, although many of these responsibilities had been eroded by
urbanization. Whether in rural or urban society, however, the
burden of these social services fell upon the women.
Except for a small number of liberated, educated young women
from families of the elite, girls remained within the household
and were segregated at all festivities, eating after the men.
This was particularly the case with Muslim households. Men entertained
in their own quarters, and males of an extended family ate together.
In a small family, the husband ate alone or, more frequently,
took his bowl to join his male neighbors.
A young university couple might live much as in the West, in
a house without relatives, and might live, eat, and entertain
together. Nevertheless, traditional patterns were deeply rooted,
and the husband would often be away visiting his male friends
in the market and cafés. At home a servant helped with the children.
Although the educated young married or unmarried woman had greater
mobility because of her job, she was not exempt from the traditional
restrictions and the supremacy of the Muslim husband. She was
aware that her education and job were not a license to trespass
upon male-dominated social norms.
In some respects, the uneducated woman had greater freedom so
long as it was with her peers; but even among well-to-do families,
a young woman was restricted to her household and female friends
until transferred to similar seclusion in the house of her husband.
Paradoxically, this segregation could create a spirit of independence,
particularly among educated women, for there were a host of aunts,
cousins, and grandmothers to look after the children and allow
the mothers to work outside the home. Nevertheless, social traditions
governed the way of life of Sudanese women. The segregation and
subordination of women in Sudanese society should not obscure
the fact that women dominated the household just as their men
commanded public life. The home and the rearing of children were
their domains--so long as they upheld male-oriented social norms.
Two traditional customs among Sudanese women had an enormous
impact upon their private and social relationships--the zar
cult and female "circumcision." Zar was the name given
to the ceremony conducted only by women practitioners required
to pacify evil spirits and to cleanse women of afflictions caused
by demons or jinn. Zar cults were numerous throughout
Muslim Africa. Illnesses, including depression, infertility, and
other organic and psychological disorders, were attributed to
possession by hostile spirits. Although zar ceremonies
varied widely, they not only freed the one possessed but were
great social occasions where women could communicate together
as men did within male circles.
Female circumcision, or infibulation (excising the external genitalia
and sewing the vagina shut) was widely practiced throughout Muslim
Africa, and especially among Sudan's northern Arab population.
Enormous pressure was put on the twelve-year-old or younger girl,
as well as older women and their families, to observe these ceremonies
The issue of female circumcision was controversial, however,
because of the physical and psychological problems they caused
women. Midwives performed the operations, which often led to shock,
hemorrhage, and septicemia. They created innumerable obstetrical
problems before and after childbirth and throughout life. Despite
international conferences, legislation, and efforts to eradicate
these practices, however, in the early 1990s they appeared to
be on the increase, not only in Sudan but in Africa, generally.
At the same time, the adoption of Western medicine by growing
educated classes was increasingly promoting awareness of the harmful
effects of infibulation on women; the spread of Islam, however,
inhibited the eradication of this practice.
In southern Sudan, the role of women differed dramatically from
that in the north. Although women were subordinate to men, they
enjoyed much greater freedom within southern Sudan's societies.
Female circumcision was not practiced and no zar cult
existed, although the spirits were regularly consulted about private
and public affairs through practitioners. Women had greater freedom
of movement, and indeed participated to a limited degree in the
councils of lineage. Husbands consulted their wives on matters
pertaining to public affairs. Many women also played important
roles in the mediation of disputes.
Data as of June 1991