Committed to the Koran and to Tolerance

Awatif Elageed is a Muslim woman from the Sudan who actively supports the causes of women's rights and dialogue between religions in her native country – and she holds a teaching post at the Ahfad University for Women. By Monika Hoegen

(photo: Ahfad University)
The Ahfad University is a private university in Sudan dedicated to educating women and strengthening women's roles in national and rural development.

​​When you see her in her well-fitted, light beige suit, a red blouse beneath it, you could easily mistake her for a businesswoman from an affluent region of Africa. But in her case, not all is as it seems at first glance.

Awatif Elageed is 40 years old and comes from the Sudan – one of the poorest countries in the world, a nation that has been torn apart by civil war in recent years and still bears the signs of the crisis in Darfur today.

It's a country in which women have few rights. Despite this, Awatif Elageed is a professor at the Sudan's Ahfad University for Women – the only one of its kind in Africa.

Even more surprising is that though this researcher into women's issues is herself a Muslim, she currently receives a stipend from a Christian organization, the German Church Development Service (EED).

This organization is helping the Sudanese lady pursue a post-graduate degree in Germany within the framework of its "Development through Education" program.

Ahfad University for Women

The biography of Babiker Badri, the founding father of the women's university and pioneer of Sudanese education, was just as unusual as that of Awatif.

As early as 1898, this devout Muslim believed that instruction in the Koran should not be limited to young men, but that a minimal basic education should be made available to young women as well.

The British rejected this suggestion on two occasions, fearing an uprising in the Sudanese population. But by 1907, the time was right: the school for girls became a reality. But that was not all: In 1966, Badri's son Yusuf founded the Ahfad University for Women.

The curriculum places less importance on feminist theories than on practical experience. The university conducts several projects designed to support and improve the incomes of women in the country's rural regions. Students at the university are expected to "get their hands dirty" and spend several semesters in those regions.

An unjust distribution of land

This way, the more privileged women from the university become keenly familiar with the problems of women from the provinces. Professor Awatif Elageed is no exception:

"They really do face a great many problems," explains the women's rights activist. "Above all, there's the issue of land ownership in the rural regions – in particular in the irrigated regions. In the areas where there is plenty of rainfall, part of the land belongs to the community, whereas in the irrigated regions, land was distributed only to the men, not to the women."

That's the way it was during the period of British colonial rule in the Sudan, and it has remained so until today. The result: Just 13 percent of women own any land at all. In cities, too, women must continue to fight for their rights – for example to obtain maternity protection in the workplace.

Another problem found throughout the country is circumcision. Up to 80 percent of women in the Sudan are affected. The Ahfad University for Women is trying to use its educational programs to mobilize forces opposed to circumcision.

What's in a name?

But this has become more difficult in recent times, according to researcher Awatif Elageed: "In the past, it was called pharaonic circumcision, because it was assumed to have come from the pharaohs. But now they have come up with a new idea: They have reduced the circumcision and now call it Sunna.

Sunna is an Arabic word meaning Mohammed's doctrine. So now it is more closely connected with Islam. And it has become more difficult for us to put an end to this practice and to solve the problem," reports Elageed.

At the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, she called attention to the situation in her homeland – and allied herself with women's groups from other countries in order to fight for a better life for women throughout the world.

A Muslim woman amongst Protestants

Above all, that requires dialogue. The Sudanese scholar is particularly well-suited for it. After all, as a stipend recipient of the Church Development Service, she experiences intercultural and inter-denominational exchange first-hand every day.

A Muslim woman amongst Protestants – how does that work? Elageed claims it is simply wonderful: "I feel quite well and very much at home. Islam, too, respects other religions. All of us, Christians and Muslims, believe in one God."

She has had no problems with Christians whatsoever – on the contrary, says Elageed: "In every activity I've been involved in, I've experienced help, support and solidarity. This also applies to my colleagues, the other stipend recipients or those from the Church Development Service, and especially to the staff of the stipend program."

Awatif feels accepted as a devout Muslim by the Christians she encounters. At the same time, she is aware of the difficulties and occasionally violent conflicts that have taken place in Europe recently between the members of different faiths.

Mutual tolerance

The women's researcher admits that some Muslims are not tolerant enough. However, she believes that tolerance has to go both ways: "I feel that Christians, too, should respect other faiths and the ideas of Islam. I also really can't understand why they don't want women to wear headscarves. I don't understand what the problem is!"

Women who choose to wear headscarves shouldn't automatically be accused of being religious fundamentalists, says Elageed. She herself chooses not to wear one – because she views herself as a devout Muslim and thus believes that simply wearing a headscarf is not enough. Other, more important rules must be observed.

In her unorthodox attitude and her position as a link between religions, Awatif is following in the tradition of university founder Badri: She is committed to the Koran, yet looking for new ways to move forward.

Monika Hoegen


Translation from German: Mark Rossman

Ahfad-University for Women