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Friends and foes unite to honour Sudan's first female MP

Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim, Sudan's first female MP
Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim, Sudan's first female MP

In life Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim, a committed communist left-wing politician, was perhaps a controversial figure about whom differing opinions were held, but in death her passing has united a whole spectrum of opposition and government politicians in her honour and praise.

Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir, with whom Ibrahim had major differences said she "served her country with sincerity and devotion". In 2005, she returned from political exile after leaving Sudan for the UK in 1990 following the coming to power of the National Islamic Front (NIF) led by Al-Bashir and veteran politician, Hassan Abdullah Al-Turabi. Tributes on social media also poured in from the Umma Party, who remained political adversaries of Fatima Ibrahim as far back as in 1965 when a constitutional crisis was caused by the illegal exclusion of the democratically elected Sudan Communist Party (SCP) members from the Sudanese Parliament. The exclusion was spearheaded by the Umma Party's leader Sadiq Al-Mahdi causing much acrimony between the two parties.

In a press statement, a spokesman for the Communist Party, Fathi Fadul, called on "all communists, democrats and members of the Women's Union" to come and accompany the "big advocate of women's rights" to her final resting place. The news of her death led to the immediate formation of a governmental committee, headed by ex-intelligence chief Salah Gosh, to organise Ibrahim's homecoming and burial and to pay the funeral expenses.

The burial of one of Sudan's most famous parliamentarians, women's rights activist and celebrated 1993 winner of a United Nations human rights award is expected to take place tomorrow after her body returns from London where Sudan's famous daughter passed away in the early hours of Saturday morning after an operation. Her passing has prompted an outpouring of condolences and a flurry of obituaries in the Sudanese press and indeed in the international media. The Times of London called her a "fiery activist" and "tireless campaigner" for women's rights.

Ibrahim became the first woman to be elected as a member of parliament not only in the Sudan but in the Middle East and Africa in May 1965. Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim's no-nonsense nature made her a formidable parliamentarian, a critic of colonialism and colonial policies and pioneering founder and president of Sudan's Women's Union.

Read: Prominent Sudanese feminist passes away

Ali Mohammed Ahmed, a member of the Sudanese Communist Party told MEMO: "On arrival, Fatima's body, she will be taken to the headquarters of the party in Khartoum 2 and then to her family home in Abassia, Omdurman. Her body will not be driven to her resting place but will be hand drawn by a cortege walking the distance to the cemetery, so that as many people as possible can come out to pay their respects."

Ibrahim's official papers say she was born in 1934 but according to members of her family the fourth of eight children was born in 1929 in Omdurman, Sudan. Her mother was literate, unusual for the time, her father was a teacher and her brother Salah was an acclaimed poet who dedicated verses of poetry to his mother. At the age of 14 Ibrahim founded the Intellectual Women's Association in protest at British attempts to curb the role of women in colonial Sudan.

Although her father prevented her from attending university she was never far from politics and at 19, some say influenced by her brother, she joined the Sudanese Communist Party (SCP), the only political party in Sudan at the time that allowed women to become members. Throughout her long association with the party, she became Editor-in-Chief of the magazine Sawt Al-Mara (Women's Voice), despite women being banned from working as journalists, and in 1956 she was elected president of the Sudanese Women's Union.

It was in the Communist Party where she met her husband, Al Shafie Ahmed Al-Sheikh, one of the most prominent leaders of the party in Sudan. The couple were married in 1969 and became a "golden couple" for progressive politics. They drew the attention of the Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser who decorated them and asked them to share their ideas on women's movements and trade unionism.

However, with the coming to power of the Jaafar Nimeiri in Sudan through a military coup in 1969, all political parties were dissolved in favour of a revolutionary council. When her husband refused a position in Nimeiri's government he was promptly executed. Ibrahim, who ran a small bookshop, was kept under house arrest for two and a half years. Her only child, Mohammed Ahmed, travelled to England.

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Ibrahim's determination to pursue her political convictions meant she was at odds with the ruling governments and despite being stopped from working several times because of her activities, she would did not back down. She continued to produce a great deal of writing, including several books: "Our Way to Liberation" and "Arab Women and the Image of Social Change".

In 1993, she received the United Nations Prize in the Field of Human Rights. She became the voice of women at a time when women in the Arab world were far from politics, she was given an honorary doctorate from the University of California in 1996 for her work's benefit to women and children.

Ibrahim's achievements did not stop there; the "Communist Lady" assumed the presidency of the World Women's Democratic Union and was the first Arab and Muslim to assume a similar position. She leaves behind a long legacy of political action and struggle for women's rights and, to many, Khartoum's daughter became a vibrant symbol of social action.

In his book published in 2012 entitled "Fatima Ahmad Ibrahim: A Beautiful World", Dr. Abdallah Ali Ibrahim summed up the historical role shouldered by Ibrahim in the defence of women's rights, scoring successes unmatched in many countries. Those successes, he argues, continue to shelter millions of Sudanese women today.

In 2006, Ibrahim picked up her last major award, the Ibn Rushd Prize for Freedom of Thought, and spoke the word's that perhaps sums up her own struggles for justice and equality:

O women of this world, I call on you, unite your energies! Stop injustice, repression and pain! Let us be an influential power in all fields and be influential at all levels! There is no leader nor president, who makes history alone. One hand is not able to clap on its own, no matter how strong it is.

"May the Women's Union, our great nation, the people who are yearning for democracy and may all fighters for human rights be victorious!"

Born on 20 December 1934, Ibrahim died on 12 August 2017, after an operation, aged 82.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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