The XX Factor

The Sudanese Referendum May Only Benefit Half the Country’s Women

On February 7, the results of the Sudanese referendum vote became official: Nearly 99 percent of the South voted for independence. Women like Zainab Talib, a resident of the Southern city of Juba, rejoiced.

“Southern Sudanese women have just woken up,” she told me. “Women now feel like they can do something for themselves.”

Hundreds of miles away, in the city of Khartoum, Northern Sudanese women grieved, lamenting the loss of their Southern partners in the fight for women’s rights. The new border, some told me, would likely hamper communication for national women’s organizations. On January 15, after the preliminary results rolled in, many women in the North wore white, a color that signifies mourning.

They also began to worry about their own futures.

While the international community is focused on nation-building in the rural and impoverished South , some women in the comparatively developed, metropolitan North are concerned that they’ll be left behind. Rebecca Hamilton, a fellow at the New America Foundation and Sudan correspondent for the Washington Post , says her email inbox is full of panicked messages from Northern women who fear that their plight will be ignored as attention is diverted to the South in the coming months and years.

To be sure, women in the South need the attention. As a result of the antiquated, tribal legal system adhered to in the region (known as customary law), most women there get married when they’re teenagers and don’t finish school-if they even have the rare opportunity to attend. Only eight percent of Southern women are literate. Marriage dowries make women feel that they are owned by their husbands, further perpetuating inequality.

However, women in the South are in a holding pattern until the country officially declares independence on July 9. And their statutory rights won’t change until the new constitution is completed, which could take up to two years.

In the North, however, change feels imminent, particularly as the spirit of revolution continues to spread throughout North Africa and the Middle East.

I recently spoke with about 20 women-a combination of Northerners, Southerners, and American policy experts-about women’s rights in post-referendum Sudan. Most represented not only themselves, but greater networks. Their concerns were not homogenous (some focused on the question of dual citizenship, others on how the country’s oil revenue would be divided ) but I was struck by how many of them expressed worry for women in the North.

One of the strongest concerns has to do with Sharia, or Islamic law. In December, Northern Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir vowed that if the secession vote succeeded, his government would intensify the implementation of Sharia in the North . Southerners living in the North have traditionally borne the brunt of al-Bashir’s discriminatory and oppressive policies, but some worry that as those Southerners return home, the Northern women who remain may become the regime’s new minority target.

Al-Bashir already has a record of using Islamic law to oppress women. In July 2009, 13 women were arrested for wearing trousers-an indiscretion punishable by up to 40 lashes. In December, al-Bashir defended a viral video that showed a laughing police officer flogging a woman for wearing pants.

In the pre-Sharia 1950s, 60s and 70s, Sudan was the continental leader in women’s rights . The country boasted Africa’s first female parliamentarian and its first female judge. But in the early 1990s, not long after al-Bashir came to power, all women were forced to wear hijab, the customary Islamic garb, and the government shut down more than 100 women’s volunteer groups and societies. It also banned all other women’s organizations. One Northern woman who lives in New York told me that her friends back in Khartoum say the city feels today like it did back then.

To be sure, the future of Northern Sudan remains unclear. Regional experts aren’t sure when its constitution will be revised, and whether any changes will touch directly on women’s rights. The situation for women there remains an underreported subject. But in the coming months, those of us who are concerned about female equality should keep our eyes on Northern Sudan, as well as on its newly independent sibling.

Photograph of Southern women waving goodbye to Northern Sudan as they queue at a polling station courtesy of Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images .