Sudan: a lonely road for women MPs in opposition

With the secession of South Sudan on July 9th, North Sudan returns to a familiar and depressing status quo - one party rule. With the elimination of southern constituency seats in Sudan’s National Assembly, only five women members of parliament remain in the opposition. Sara Abbas spoke to two of them
Sara Abbas
8 July 2011

On July 9th the dream of many southern Sudanese will be realized, as their region breaks away to form the world’s youngest country. Secession brings with it an end to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that has governed the country since 2005. Most celebrated for ending Africa’s longest running civil war and for paving the way for South Sudan’s self-determination referendum, the CPA also sought to usher in a democratic phase in the country’s history, starting with multi-party elections that had eluded Sudan for nearly two decades.

Though by and large a male-driven affair, Sudanese women activists celebrated the CPA’s signing, which they saw as the first opening of the political space since the 1989 coup that had brought the National Islamic Front (NIF) to power. The reign of the NIF had been a particularly painful one for Sudanese women. It saw an intensification of the war in the South and the instigation of new conflicts in the North, leaving millions dead , displaced or vulnerable to sexual violence. The regime’s “civilization project”, which rested on the pillars of forced Arabization and forced Islamization, regarded women as prime targets for civilizing. Along with the banning of political parties came the suppression of women’s organizations and their replacement with new structures loyal to the regime. Laws, blind to gender concerns under previous administrations, became downright hostile to them under the NIF, with arrests, intimidation and flogging of women for everything from adultery to “immoral dress” becoming common place, and few avenues for redress available.

Although the CPA was silent on the issue of gender equity in government, women activists hoped that it would bring forth constitutional and political reform. Contending that a key reason underlying women’s marginalization in wider society was their distance from power, women began mobilizing, with demands coalescing around a quota for women in power structures. In 2008, the quota became law, with the Elections Act mandating 25% of seats for women at the National, South Sudan and state level assemblies.

When elections finally came in April 2010, they were a far cry from the hopes vested on them at the time of the CPA’s signature. Citing intimidation and fraud, northern opposition parties staged a last minute boycott. In the South, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), the other party to the CPA, swept nearly every seat. In the North, the National Congress Party (NCP), the NIF’s political organ, dominated the polls. The 112 quota seats in the National Assembly fared no better, with every quota seat in the South going to the SPLM and every one in the North but six going to the NCP.

Following secession, this imbalance is set to become more acute. In anticipation of the split, all seats representing southern constituencies were recently eliminated, leaving the National Assembly firmly in the hands of the NCP. Only five opposition women MPs remain: two from the SPLM representing Blue Nile and South Kordofan states and three from the Popular Congress Party (PCP) representing South Darfur. (A sixth represents North Darfur, but her party is allied with the regime.)

Troublingly, at no other time in the past year has there been a greater need for voices of dissent in parliament. The last few months have seen the NCP launch a deadly campaign in South Kordofan, a border state located between the North and South that is home to the Nuba people, who had largely sided with the SPLM during the war, but who were left without the right to self-determination.

One of the few opposition MPs left, Mary James Kuku, herself a Nuba and an SPLM member, represents this constituency. Speaking on July 4th from Khartoum, she describes the new environment of the Assembly as isolating: “On an individual level, when you’re part of a handful as opposed to a large group, it makes you hold back… you can still speak out, but you don’t have the power you had before.” Recently, she’s felt tensions grow with her NCP colleagues as a result of the conflict in South Kordofan, which the NCP blames on the SPLM in the region. “I don’t want to get into a back and forth with them,” Mary says, “ so I try to stay quiet.”

Silencing at times takes more direct forms. Mary recalls the first session following the withdrawal of the southern MPs, when the Assembly speaker opened with a reading from the Koran, choosing not to read from the Bible as well, a practice that had become customary following the signature of the CPA. As the only Christian woman left in the National Assembly, Mary was pained by the gesture. “The implication is that Sudan is no longer a multi-religious society, when in fact it remains so,” she says. Mary does take comfort from her female NCP colleagues, who she points out do their best to make her feel included. She sees the women’s Parliamentary Caucus - a cross-party platform established in 2007 in the wake of the CPA for women members of parliament - as a less politicized space where she can feel relatively at home.

Aisha Abbakar Taha, an opposition MP from the PCP representing South Darfur, agrees: “In the caucus we can debate, be told we’re right or wrong, and even have some of our suggestions adopted, unlike the rest of the Assembly. It’s slightly lighter on the politics”.

Aisha, whose party leader, Sheikh Hassan Al-Turabi, was once a key figure in the NIF regime, ultimately sees the difference between herself and her female NCP peers as one of relationship to the party, whereby they feel compelled to present the situation of the country, and of the country’s women, in much rosier terms than she does. “In general, we in the opposition speak out on everything. Our opinion is clear. But even if we’re right they’ll find a way to make us wrong.”

Both Mary and Aisha feel that in the present environment, they can do little but seize whatever openings exist, no matter how small, and work to expand them. For Aisha this rests in a desire by all women MPs, regardless of political affiliation, for more training. Women in the opposition and government, she contends, have suffered from a deficit of opportunity.

Mary agrees that the Caucus is a very worthwhile long-term investment, and in fact she is the one who oversees its training programme, but given the urgency of the situation in South Kordofan, she has more immediate concerns. She is joining efforts to form a cross- party coalition of South Kordofani MPs that hopes to lobby for, at the very least, humanitarian relief for the region. “We won’t necessarily agree on the politics,” she says, “but since these are our communities, we can agree on the need to provide basic help as the rainy season fast approaches.”

Otherwise, Mary worries about the impending constitutional-drafting process following secession. “On women’s issues, women MPs are together”, she insists. “The only thing that can divide us is if they base the constitution on Islam.” She feels that enough of her female NCP colleagues support making the document inclusive to make a secular constitution possible, but realizes that she and they will need allies in civil society if they are to have a chance of influencing the process.

Aisha for her part is less optimistic, but remains a strong believer in the power of speaking out, regardless of immediate outcomes. “We are recording our opinion for history, so that people can judge for themselves later.” It remains to be seen whether North Sudan has learnt from its history, but this new chapter has not had a promising start.







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