Islamic threat to women's college

March 2, 2001

One of Africa's oldest universities for women is struggling to survive in the face of official policies to promote fundamentalist Islamic values.

Khartoum's Ahfad University, which teaches only in English, is also being hit by a government campaign to replace English with Arabic in schools and by the devastation of the Sudanese middle class as the result of international sanctions.

After his re-election last month, President Bashir vowed to press on with imposing Islamic law nationwide and liberating rebel-held lands.

University president Gazim Badri, grandson of the founder, has found himself in the ideological front-line in the struggle between Sudan's National Salvation government, representing the mainly Muslim north and the Christian south, where a 17-year-long civil war is raging.

"The university is in a very serious situation," Dr Badri said. "We are trying to educate women to be agents for change, and if you are not critical, you cannot be an agent for change. Some of our students are traditional in their thinking when they arrive here. But by the time they graduate, most are liberal and free thinking."

Despite his reservations about government policies, Dr Badri maintains that Sudanese women are not oppressed by Islam. "Islam does not oppress women," he said. "It's men who oppress women. The interpreters of Islam are men, so the position of women is based on interpretation by men. Men use religion as part of their manipulatory strategy to oppress women."

Dr Badri said the university was not opposed to the use of Arabic for teaching, as long as Ahfad students knew English. "We have to make sure students can speak and read English because it is the language of science and the main international language.

"The problem is that the standard of English among the students is poor as the standard of English in the schools has deteriorated. If students knew English when they arrived here, then courses could be in Arabic."

In addition to its clashes with Islamic fundamentalism, the university is suffering fallout from the international condemnation of Sudan's government.

Ahfad relies on fees for the majority of its income, but with the poor economic situation in Sudan, many students cannot afford to pay. To raise money, Ahfad has been looking overseas. But Sudan is on the United States' list of promoters of international terrorism, a charge its government denies, and the European Union has frozen $1 billion of economic aid to the country. A major casualty of the freeze was a new (€7.6 million (£4.8 million) laboratory for the university.

Until recently, Ahfad's history has been one of virtually uninterrupted progress. The institution began life in 1907 when Sheikh Babiker Badri, a visionary who conceived the radical idea of providing secular education for girls, established a primary school for nine of his daughters and eight girls from neighbouring families.

The project flourished and in 1951 Sheikh Badri set up a girls' intermediate school, which by 1996 had become a full university able to award honours degrees and to fit in with masters' programmes in Europe and the US.

Today, the university has 4,500 students and offers five undergraduate programmes and post-graduate courses in gender and development and human nutrition.

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