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Womanhood and Displacement: in Conversation with Sudanese Sisters

Badger Admin

ByBadger Admin

May 6, 2024

By Jess Mitchell

The following is a translation of interviews with Sudanese sisters Naglaa, Rubab and Larin. To protect the identities of those involved, all names and any identifying information have been changed or concealed, such as specific locations, but otherwise, I attempt to tell their stories and share their opinions as they were told to me. 

Naglaa, Rubab and Larin’s Story

Naglaa, Rubab and Larin are sisters who were born in Sudan into privilege and ‘extravagance’ in the oldest sister, Naglaa’s words. Their family’s advantageous position was threatened and eventually taken away under the leadership of the President at the time; Omar al-Bashir. He institutionalised Sharia Law, and purged and imprisoned groups and individuals he considered a threat, such as oppositional political parties and journalists. The sisters’ father was a politician who came under the firing line of al-Bashir’s regime. This meant he was often away, causing the sisters, their brothers and their mother to be harassed and abused by the army, sometimes for information, to intimidate them or simply for being a family without a man present as the figurehead. They recalled occasions at this time of seeing their mother crying and all of them hiding under the bed. One time their brother was nearly thrown off a balcony during a particularly confrontational attempt from the army to locate their father. 

Sometimes the army would arrest and imprison their father. Rubab, the middle sister, described him coming home when he was released periodically, he’d appear exhausted, and weaker each time, having endured excessive trauma and torture. Eventually, their father didn’t come home, and the army informed them that he had died in prison from ‘natural causes’, however, they knew this not to be true. 

The family decided it was no longer safe for them in Sudan, as the political tensions continued to worsen, they set off for Egypt, a country they had grown up believing was like a ‘sibling country’. They saw Egyptians and Sudanese as one and the same, facing the same threats and working together. When they arrived, they were met with a very different reality, while there wasn’t a culture shock as such, as they moved in with extended family who had already made the journey, life in Egypt was certainly not what they had expected. Two of the siblings had to drop out of education to work so that they could make ends meet, Naglaa left university in her second year and Rubab left school so that Larin and their younger brother could finish high school. Rubab worked 10 hours every day, with only one day off in some weeks. Sometimes they struggled to acquire even basic resources, having to resort to using tissue paper instead of proper sanitary products.

However, the financial problems were only half of their worries, they experienced significant racism and physical, sexual and verbal harassment in Egypt, where colourism is prevalent and were even told directly on different occasions that Sudanese refugees were a burden and an inconvenience to Egypt. Rubab remembers thinking when reflecting on her treatment by Egyptian neighbours and colleagues, that “I had just been running away from death and have a need and not a want to be here.” They all reported working late at night and being fearful of the journey home. During her ten years of living in Egypt, Naglaa reported having her mobile phone stolen at least seven times. Mugging was so common that they all became used to it and saw it as normal. 

“I had just been running away from death and have a need and not a want to be here.”

Rubab, on her treatment by Egyptian neighbours

As of January 2024, around 450,000 Sudanese refugees have fled to Egypt since a war broke out in Sudan in April 2023. This mass immigration has revealed the terrible living standards of Sudanese refugees in Egypt, which Naglaa, Rubab and Larin experienced for years before the war broke out. According to Ela Yokes’ article in Foreign Policy Magazine, Sudanese refugees in Egypt “face dire economic conditions, shortages in aid funding from international organisations, and a lack of opportunities to earn a living… With little prospect of returning home soon, the growing Sudanese refugee population, largely ignored by the international community, is stuck in limbo.”

Photo by The Guardian.

The sisters recognised the injustice of their harassment, their resilience was inspiring; none of them internalised this or appeared to have reduced self-confidence because of this bullying and were able to see it as just that. Naglaa particularly stressed that not all Egyptians are like this, but the ones who were nice tend to avoid being out on the streets where all this behaviour occurs. 

However, it had become too much for the family, they felt rejected in the country in which they sought their safety so they began applying for citizenship in any European country which would help and accept them and found the UK most willing to provide them immediate help. Larin described their experience with a Community Sponsorship Group that provided them with a house in the UK, helped them with visas and flights, and continue to support them with language learning, adjusting to life in the UK and any governmental documents required of them.

How has this shaped their perspectives?

Now the sisters live with one brother and their mum in a small town in the UK, and they shared with me how their experiences (many of which unfortunately couldn’t be in this article) have shaped their views on what is expected of them as women, and their experiences of womanhood. 

“Women can do a lot more than men can… [yet] we get erased from the story”

Rubab, on women’s roles in the MENA region

Rubab said “Women can do a lot more than men can… [yet] we get erased from the story” According to her, in the Arab world a woman’s role is to come back home (if they work) cook, clean and take care of the children in every way. Whereas men only go to work and somehow still perceive the woman’s role as much less significant than his, regardless of this nuance. Rubab sees men in the UK as more collaborative with their partners in these roles, and valuing women in a way that reflects how she would like to be treated by a potential partner. 

These perceptions of being undervalued and underestimated as women in the Arab world and the contrast in the UK were shared by her sisters. Larin stressed the freedom in womanhood she has experienced in the UK, she felt that this was the first place in which she was asked about what she wanted to do, and how she feels about things, rather than being told these things. From her perspective, women are expected to listen, and do as they’re told; “it was just something impressive… simply being treated as a human with feelings.” She expressed that in the UK, it didn’t seem to her that women are oppressed or controlled. 

“it was just something impressive… simply being treated as a human with feelings.”

Larin, on living in the UK

Naglaa discussed how carrying out household chores is expected of women, and the idea that she might do them out of love isn’t appreciated, most Arabic men, from her experience, see this as their due. However, she discussed a Sudanese friend who lives with her husband in Sudan, and they share the household roles, in a way that she has seen more in the UK than anywhere else and sees the fact that this isn’t the norm in the Arabic world as a problem. 

Another issue I asked the sisters about, was the normalisation of domestic violence, specifically the responsibility often put onto the woman to endure domestic violence to keep her family together. The shame around divorce in the Arabic world from their perspective is very different to the UK, where from their perspective divorce is much more accepted. All three sisters echoed similar notions in response to this question; that a woman should put herself first, and it’s better for her children to see her showing power and assertion rather than submission, to exercise her rights, demonstrating bravery. That the kind of people who perpetuate the normalisation of domestic violence are unenlightened and uneducated. 

I want to take the opportunity to express my gratitude to and admiration for this family, for sharing their story with me and demonstrating incredible resilience. They currently go to college to improve their English, and each has their personal dreams that they can finally realise, which is certainly something to celebrate. 

Badger Admin

By Badger Admin

The Badger Newspaper

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