A view from the 1950’s into Sudan’s leading women’s activist

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The women’s movement in Sudan first came to prominence in 1949 leading to the formation of the Union of Sudanese Women in 1952.

The late Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim, a socialist leader and activist, was one of the key members involved in the formation of the women’s union.


Ibrahim, who died at the age of 84 in London on August 12, was Sudan’s first female parliament member, elected in 1965.

Her activism went beyond raising awareness. In 1947, Ibrahim founded the Intellectual Women Association and later expanded her horizon by establishing the first Union of Sudanese Women in 1952.

Former women’s activist Awatif Al Shaikh gives us a window to the early activism days of Fatima Ibrahim in colonial and postcolonial Sudan of the 1950s.

Daring personality

“She was renowned for her academic brilliance and had a daring personality”, Awatif al-Shaikh said, recalling her early association with Fatima.

“As early as 1952, I started taking interest in Sudanese politics and the struggle against Anglo-Egyptian colonization,” said Awatif al-Shaikh, adding that she was just 11 at the time.

“I was following news related to Sudanese political life, parties and national liberation movements. That was the time when the women of Sudan had risen and were expressing Sudan’s right to independence and solidarity.”

The Sudanese Women Association was established by this time where women took leadership positions and intensely involved themselves in social work, Awatif recalled.

Women’s associations

“We used to hear about Suad al-Fatih al-Badawi and Fatima Talib Ismael, who were my history teachers. Later we came to know about Thuraya Umbabi, Zakiya Mekki, and Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim,” she said.

However, there were reports of conflicts within the women’s association, between Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim leading the socialists, and other leading members. Eventually Fatima dominated the association.

Awatif says that Fatima’s father, Shaikh Ahmed Ibrahim, was a venerable scholar who taught her Islamic studies and Arabic for four years in intermediate school. “I am greatly indebted to Shaikh Ahmed Ibrahim for his guidance and knowledge,” she said.

Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim 1965 in Parliament (Reuters)
Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim 1965 in Parliament (Reuters)

The first encounter

The first time Awatif saw Fatima was during the annual ‘Woman’s Week’ fair which was a festive occasion.

“During the seven days, the atmosphere was lively with the galleries, music and folklore from provinces across Sudan. I still have vivid memories of those days,” she says.

She established direct connection with Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim in 1956 when Britain, France and Israel waged war on Egypt, and the entire Sudanese nation was shaken.

According to her, the instant response to this was the establishment of ‘Solidarity with Egypt’ Organization, constituting all political parties, women’s associations and labor unions across Sudan.

‘Solidarity with Egypt’ was my first voluntary participation in public work. I was 16 at the time. I used to meet with Fatima, chairperson of the Sudanese Women Association, and other leaders,” she said.

Awatif and her associate, Layla Basheer, represented the ‘Nahdat Al Mar’a Association’ (Women’s Development Association).

Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim in a rally (Supplied)
Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim in a rally (Supplied)

Still young

According to her, her young age at the time made her up to the task. “Fatima and I were selected to be part of a committee, along with other political parties’ representatives, headed by Mohammed Saleh Al Shingiti, a senior representative of Al Ummah Party,” she said.

The committee’s role was to collect donations for Egypt and from Sudan’s established dignitaries and leaders such as al-Sayed Abdul Rahman al-Mahdi, one of the leading religious and political figures in Sudan, al-Sayed Ali al-Merghani, leader of the Khatmiyya Sufi order and other big figures in Khartoum.

The tour to collect donations started from Khartoum’s Burri neighborhood, at Sufi leader al-Sharif Yousef al-Hindi’s headquarters. His representatives and followers were welcoming despite women participating in such activities being uncommon at the time.

According to Awatif, the two coordinated until they reached the residence of al-Sayed Abdul Rahman al-Mahdi’s Saraay in the center of Khartoum, an approximately 20km trek.

“We were warmly received by al-Sayed Abdul Rahman who expressed his joy at seeing two women members of the delegation working steadfastly,” she said.

Awatif says she has fond memories of Fatima and her father, Shaikh Ahmed Ibrahim. “They were decent Sudanese leaders who were an inspiration to women not only in Sudan, but across Africa and the Middle East”.

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