Fashioning a Nation

Graduate student Marie Grace Brown explores how women participated in constructing Sudan's national identity during the country's independence movement.
March 31, 2011

As the battle in Libya between rebels and Muammar el-Qaddafi’s regime grows increasingly violent and protests and uprisings engulf the Arab world, it’s easy to forget that Africa’s largest nation has been engaged in its own—albeit more quiet—revolution. In a referendum in January, the people of Southern Sudan overwhelmingly supported the division of the country into two. Although it capped more than two decades of civil war between the southern and northern regions of Sudan, the vote was relatively peaceful and a formal declaration of independence by Southern Sudan will be made this July.

“I think when we look back at how the Middle East is changing right now, we need to include Southern Sudan as part of this revolutionary process,” says history doctoral student Marie Grace Brown. A scholar of nationalism, Brown says she initially became interested in studying Sudan because the country defies easy categorizations as Middle Eastern or African. “Internally as well,” Brown says, “Sudan has historically been torn on how to identify itself—an issue now being directly addressed in the referendum.”

"Women were clearly taking an active part in the Sudanese nation-building process, but this is something that has really been excluded from any of the political histories you read about modern-day Sudan."
– Marie Grace Brown

Brown’s own research explores how Sudanese women participated in constructing Sudan’s national identity during the country’s independence movement in the mid 1900s. In post-colonial settings, Brown explains, women’s bodies are often used as symbols of the need to be free, but their voices and interests can take a back seat to anti-imperialist or nationalist movements. “I’m interested in the ways women have actively engaged in nation-building,” she says.

At the center of Brown’s analysis is the tobe, a garment that Sudanese women wrap around their bodies when outside their homes or in the presence of non-related males. In 1952, the Sudanese Women’s Union—Sudan’s first political party for women—declared that the adoption of the tobe as the national costume for women was integral to women’s gaining increased economic and social rights. After that, Brown argues, “women activists transformed this square bolt of simple cotton cloth into an important symbol of national distinction and cultural authenticity.”

These activists used the tobe to define what the Sudanese woman looks like, both to themselves and to the wider world. The garment sent messages like, ‘Sudanese women are modest’ and ‘Sudanese women do not dress like their former British colonizers or their Egyptian neighbors to the north.’ And, by declaring the tobe as “authentic” and “traditional,” activists were able to use it to forge their entry into new public spaces. For example, the garment was originally reserved for married women, but young women started wearing it when they began attending school in the early 1900s. In addition, activists would make sure to dress in a tobe when lobbying for issues like education for women, the right for women to vote, equitable pay for work and increased maternity leave.

“In addition to giving them an air of authority—many of these activists were under 20 at the time—wearing the tobe also conveyed that feminist messages were not imported, but were indigenous—in keeping with local traditions and, especially in the north, with Islamic values,” Brown says.

Brown also argues that tobes carried an additional layer of meaning because women used them as a stage to broadcast political messages. They would refer to some tobe styles with names that reflected political issues and events. One, for example, was called “Message from London,” alluding to the fact that many tobes came from the textile mills of Sudan’s former colonizer. Another, dubbed “Police Siren,” came out the same year that the Khartoum police force got its first squad cars. In the 1960s, names like “Women’s Liberation” and “Freedom” were common. While most of these monikers came about informally and organically, one Manchester tobe maker actually contacted Sudanese activists requesting labels to stitch into the garments. 

 “This shows me that women were clearly taking an active part in the Sudanese nation-building process,” Brown says, “but this is something that has really been excluded from any of the political histories you read about modern-day Sudan.”

Part of the reason for this, she explains, is that historians depend on written records, but because of high levels of illiteracy among Sudanese women and the small community of readers that exist, there isn’t much writing to sift through. And, subsequent to Sudan’s independence in 1956, many of these activists found themselves in tension with the state as they aligned with the Communist Party to push for more robust workers’ and women’s rights and opposed the move toward Sharia law, which was instated in 1983. Women who did write and publish sometimes destroyed their work to protect themselves from legal action.

As a result, when Brown went to Sudan last fall on a Faye Rattner Doctoral Research Grant to conduct archival research, she found that she quickly had to shift strategies. By word-of-mouth, she sought out women who were involved in the independence movement as well as present-day activists to acquire first-hand anecdotal data. “I hope one of the contributions of my research is finding new ways to look for and elevate women’s voices,” Brown says. “In situations like this, we need to find alternate sites of expression, and we’ve really found it here in the ways women are using fashion.”

Brown sees both challenges and opportunities ahead for Sudanese women as they prepare for their new political reality. With most of non-Muslim population (Christians and those who follow indigenous religions) living Southern Sudan, the Sudanese government is hinting at moving toward a more restrictive version of Sharia law. “This means that women in the north are really going to have to renegotiate their relationship to the state,” Brown says. “In the south, an entire government needs to fill its positions, and there is so much need for infrastructure and resources. We can hope and advocate that women are represented in all these avenues. And I think there’s an opportunity for women in the south—where there are nearly 100 languages spoken and close to 50 ethnic groups—to help mediate what it is that will unite this new country.”