Sunday, 26 July 2009

The Red Threat... in a dress.

Over the course of the past week, I have heard two stories of Sudanese women being accused of communism. One was a doctor with no interest in politics whatsoever and the other was a professional involved in multinational business. What makes them commies? 

Their hair.

Now you could argue that hair is intrinsically political- and that showing or not showing your hair is basically putting your religious and political convictions out where everyone can see them (on your head). But communism? Really? I shall have to go back to Marx and find the section on hair. Marx himself had quite the mane- maybe that’s the connection? 

I'd like to sit in on the political science element of security training in Sudan. They must have check lists: "How to identify a communist" 

Step One: uterus?

Step Two: HAIR! 

Step Three: lipstick. 

Step Four: Smoking sex Appeal. 

This is beginning to sound like a cold war film, isn't it? 

But getting back to the ladies in question... Due to their apparent “redness” both faced difficulty in their careers. One was accused of being a communist by a senior hospital administrator and as a result had her “wasta” (social capital) badly damaged. She is currently unemployed. The other got held up by “security” in a big company. Weeks passed and the HR manager got impatient. He went to the security man and asked why it was taking so long. He was told that this woman was a “communist” and posed a security threat to the company. Luckily, the HR manager fought for her (as she was a great candidate for the job) and eventually she was accepted. Ilhamdulilah! But these two cases demonstrate how politics and religion are deeply gendered in Sudan.

There is clearly more than one type of “wasta” in Sudan. In some fields, it is all about family. In others, they want candidates who have studied or worked abroad, preferably in an English speaking environment. Among some communities, like the Nubians for instance, tribe or ethnicity play a huge role. And finally, in fields closely connected with the government, the “wasta” is very political, NCP membership. The doctor told me: “you will get a job in a government hospital if you are a member of the National Congress Party. If you are not, then things will be tough for you.” Scholarships and training abroad are also strongly associated with political "wasta". 

To a certain degree, this explains the different fates of the two women. For the doctor, she was pushed out of the system whereas for the professional, she had enough other connections and support to win her case for her. She had experience in other companies and a critical mind that convinced the HR manager that she was the (wo)man for the job. Here business beat politics. 

Of course, you could say that political “wasta” is more accessible than family “wasta”. We cannot choose our family members, whereas we can choose to join a political party. I have heard that the tribal explanation is often overplayed; that to a certain degree, political “wasta” is less governed by tribal background than in those industries controlled by family connections. But when it comes to NCP, there are still sacrifices to be made. For women these sacrifices are bigger and much more public.

The “communist” doctor recently had coffee with a male colleague from university. He was about to start his civil service in a military hospital, where he was to be paid handsomely (in other hospitals, this is not the case for those undertaking civil service). He revealed that he had recently joined the NCP. This surprised her for he was not your typical NCP character: a rock musician, a heavy drinker, a smoker and a bit of a “man about town”. He said that it didn’t matter; the NCP was changing, he said, they accepted me as I am. New generation. 

The doctor was pissed off… and rightly so. She IS religious. She DOES pray. She just doesn’t think it is anyone’s business to make judgements about her background based on her appearance. Furthermore, why must she suffer for her bare head of hair when there are men, far less conservative than her masquerading as NCP in order to acquire useful political-religious “wasta” from the same people who call her a “communist”?

Politics and Religion are entwined in Sudan, I get that… but it is important to look at the gender issues inherent in this “entwining”. In Sudan, access to political, and therefore economic opportunity is a thoroughly gendered field. The heart of a woman must be worn on her head at all times... not on her sleeve (a much subtler place). 

If you are a liberal woman, you will become "communist" in the eyes of the public. Whereas, if you are a liberal man, don't worry, you can still get a NCP card. It's what we call: New generation. 

Today I am feeling mighty like a feminist!

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