Women Recommend: Sudanese Women Writers

Here, Sudanese writer, critic, and scholar Ishraga Mustafa Hamid offers an introduction to Sudanese women’s writing from the 1950s to the present. She is joined by fellow Sudanese writers Zeinab Belail, Lemya Shammat, and Ann El Safi, who recommend works by their favorite women writers from Sudan.

Ishraga Mustafa Hamid: An Overview of Sudanese Women’s Writing

Sudan’s first female novelist, Malika al-Dar Muhammad Abdallah (1920–1969), wrote her first novel الفراغ العريض (The Broad Gap) in the early 1950s, but it wasn’t published until the beginning of the 70s. This story and the biography of Sudanese women’s writing has sadly been neglected in the book مائة عام من الرواية النسائية العربية 1899-1999 (A Hundred Years of Arab Women’s Writing, 1899–1999) by Buthayna Shaaban, despite the fact that the history of women’s writing in Sudan dates back further than in many other nations. Nevertheless, the authors aren’t acknowledged, even though they wrote in Arabic, which was for many also their mother tongue.

Ishraga Mustafa Hamid

The novel The Broad Gap discusses many issues of social reality in Sudan, as well as the repression faced by Sudanese women during that time. It treats the period before independence and makes clear that the birth of the feminist novel in Sudan coincided with the beginning of the feminist movement, which cannot be viewed in isolation from Sudan’s national liberation movement. The novel reflects this social struggle consciously undertaken by Sudanese women. This is manifested in the novel, which was written in a time when women’s consciousness of their rights and how these rights were inseparable from the rights of the nation first crystallized.

Despite these early beginnings for women writers, there was an interruption of more than a quarter century before new words appeared in the 1980s. Among these writers are Zeinab Belail with الاختيار (The Choice), كش ملك (Checkmate), and نبات الصبار (Cactuses), Malika El Fadil with جدران قاسية (Hard Walls), في مكان ما (Somewhere), and Buthaina Khader Makki with أغنية النار (Songs of Fire) and صهيل النهر (The River’s Neigh). Buthaina Khader Makki also treats many issues in her novel حصار الأمكنة (The Siege of Places), most importantly infertility, questions surrounding men’s infertility, and whether society regards infertile men the same way as women who cannot bear children. She also discusses questions of honor that are only ever associated with women, not men.

The “secret writing” that is reflected in the novel and the secrecy that reigns over women’s lives is still governed, on the other hand, by self-censorship that cannot be separated from institutional censorship. Buthaina Khader Makki is to be lauded for overcoming this self-censorship by writing descriptions so flowing in their simpleness without shortening or mutilating them. However, in the chapter on wine, in reference to the September laws (the Laws of Islamic Sharia), this censor intervenes, explaining that the information about houses of wine and prostitution was obtained through another person who she thanks at the end of the book, the former minister to Shamo. It is difficult to be entirely free of self-censorship, which still trails the writer however much she announces her revolt against it. Here, the painful harmony between the writer practicing in secret and the power of self-censorship are inseparable.

The generation of women writers of the 1990s found the way paved for them, but the gap to walking this thorny path to self-expression and formulating their oppression by society with a loud voice was still wide, even after the previous generation of women writers had prepared the way. Among these are Rania Mamoun with أين الشمس (Where is the Sun?) and Shama Mirghani, with حجر الدم (The Blood Stone).

In the new millenium, new names emerged, for example Sara Al Jack, who moves between writing short stories and novels, with her novels خيانتئذ (That Betrayal) and السوس والأحجية (Licorice and Mystery); Asmaa Abdelrahman with بستان الخوف (Garden of Fear); and Kulthum Fadlallah with الصدى الآخر للأماكن (The Last Echo of the Places).

The role of short-story writers must also not be neglected: Fatima as-Sanoussi, who stands out with her extremely short flash fiction, Awda Yousef, Najat Mahmoud, Salma al-Sheikh Salama, Amal al-Zayn, Su’ad Mahmoud, Sabah Sanhouri, Najat Idris and others.

The topics treated by female novelists vary, but at their top stands the social prejudice women suffer which does not change much, since the reality that produced these prejudices is still present. The change the writers propose in their works is inspiring change on the ground. The treatment of these issues is connected to the area of freedom, the freedom of expression that cannot be separated from the mostly dictatorial regimes. This is why the political also appears in literary texts, through feminist characters in the novels, and this manifests in the institutional violence discussed by some novelists.

Nevertheless, the qualitative and daring shift in the presentation, ideas, and treatments does not hide the creation of expressive aesthetic images: Taboos are treated in a clearer and louder voice, and issues of public and private freedoms are reflected here. It can be said that there is a “feminist” movement that has begun to take shape in literature as in reality, as the debate continues to rage between those approving of and those rejecting the “genderedness” of literature.

There are also Sudanese women writers abroad and in exile whose forced emigration began with the coup of the National Islamic Front with the complicity of the military in 1989. Since then, non-stop emigration has virtually bled the country dry. In this context, Sudanese women novelists emerged who reflected on many issues facing the Sudanese woman in Sudan as a place or in their new homelands.

Sanaa Gaafar’s novel حوش بنات ود المعدة (The Courtyard of Wad al-Omda’s Daughters) discusses many of the complicated issues faced by women, beginning with circumcision, customary marriage, homosexuality, and racism, all in a frame that is conscious of reality. Circumcision is also a focus in the novels آماليا (Amalia) by Manahil Fathi, and الغابة السرية (The Secret Forest) by Leila Salah

Female circumcision is a theme that accompanies many authors, regardless of the different times in which they write. The novelist Amal Akasha, who lives in the UK, examines in her novel طاحونة العاجبة (The Ajiba Mill) topics of extreme complexity, such as slavery, racism, suicide, and sexuality, with a courage that is consistent with the spirit of the narrative.

Also of note are the novels انا الاخرى (Me, Too) and اوفيداسيهن (Until Next Time) by Nahid Qurnas, and رسائل من فكتوريا (Letters from Victoria) by Sara Fadel, as well as biographical writing like Hajar Sayyed Ahmad al-Sheikh‘s الانتصار على المأساة (Victory over Tragedy). In the same context, I published my own أنثى الأنهار: من سيرة الجرح والملح والعزيمة (Woman of the Rivers: From a Life of Hurt, Salt, and Determination), as well as الدانوب يعرفني، الوجه الآخر لسيرة الأنهار (The Danube Knows Me: The Other Side of the Life of Rivers), in which I treat my experience in Austria in the context of immigrant issues and the politics of migration.

Last but not least, two novels by Suzan Kashif, ايرات (Irat), and توابيت عائمة (Floating Coffins), discuss the violence emigrant women are exposed to, among other issues, such as sexual harassment and rape as an instrument of political oppression.

I will also point here to the novelist Ann El Safi, who has published numerous novels, such as كما روح (Like a Soul) and الغواية (Seduction), and جميل نادوند (Jamil Nadunad) for younger readers.

Leila Aboulela, who has written most of her works in the UK and who writes in English, has had her novel The Translator recognized on the New York Times Bestseller List. Her other novels include The Minaret and, most recently, Bird Summons.

Many of the female novelists above have tried to triumph over women’s issues and expose the patriarchal society. However, despite the strength of the female characters in their novels, in the end, they succumb in one way or another to the influence of society, starting with the family and ending with the state. This does not invalidate the fact that there are novels whose female characters remain steadfast to the end, as in The Secret Forest by Leila Salah, in That Betrayal by Sara Al Jack, or in Until Next Time by Nahid Qurnas, which all incline to having the main female character stay firm in her decisions, despite the complications of the fictional reality.


Dr Ishraga Mustafa Hamid is an author, freelance journalist, translator, human and female rights activist. She studied Journalism and Communication Sciences in Sudan and Austria. She finished her PhD in Political Science at the Institute of Political Science, Vienna. She has published numerous books in Arabic as well as in German. Her works in English translation have been featured in Words Without Borders and The Common. She has translated nine books into Arabic and co-translated some into German.  In 2020, she was awarded the Golden Medal of Merit of the City of Vienna.


Zeinab Belail Recommends:

في مكان ما (Somewhere), by Malika El Fadil (2016) 

Zeinab Belail

This novel tells of the cruelty of life in the camps of those displaced due to tribal conflicts and unjust civil wars that destroyed people and places alike. It discusses the fluid state of safety, the kidnapping of children, human trafficking, the invasion of foreign organizations, and the reliance on relief in a place whose hidden resources would suffice to feed the world.

“The commander said: ‘We are tired of storms. They only lead to other storms. What have we gained except jagged destruction and these camps? A wilderness and saplings in which there is neither life nor death. What use is there to what we do? We fight each other. Weapons arrive regularly from outside parties whose people do not fight. Money is pouring in from God knows where to keep this funeral pyre burning. Our good land is desolate and barren instead of green. Why this destruction?'”

خذوج (Khadduj), by Najat Idris (2019)

Most of these stories relate the bitter reality experienced by a person in that region: oppression, poverty, violence, and displacement.

“Miqass told her everything that had happened to him since the outbreak of the war in Darfur. He told her in tears how his father and brothers were killed right in front of him. About the rape of his sisters and how their homes were burned, how he was then displaced to this distant country. As for Joseph, he was born in the camps for the displaced, but they left when they were tired of standing in the winding queues and of the miserable food. They left the camps and took shelter in the street. Joseph spoke with sorrow as someone listened to him for the first time in his life. He cursed war in gibberish and poverty in English, and then shouted his hate to the world in Juba Arabic.”

أشبح المدن (Ghosts of the Cities), by Buthaina Khader Makki (2017, Hay’a al-Khartoum li-l-Thaqafa wa-l-Nashr)

Ghosts of the Cities is a collection of short stories written by Buthaina Khader Makki. Its focus is human oppression, particularly that of women, who are treated as third-class citizens.

“She removed a heavy stone from the well cap, then threw the bucket into it. When she heard it hit the bottom of the well, she shook it a little to make it fill up. Then she pulled it up and emptied it into the tin. After the tin was full, she struggled to lift it onto her narrow shoulder and started walking in a stumbling gait. She put the water near the basin and then squatted down to wash the dishes. The bell of the nearby school rang and her heart beat violently… that ringing shook her whole body. She struggled in vain to control the tears that dripped onto the dishes stacked in front of her.”

حجر الدم (The Blood Stone), by Shama Mirghani (2016, Awraq li-Nashr wa-l-Tawzi’)

The novel The Blood Stone by Shama Mirghani illustrates violence and oppression against girls.

“With the sharp blade of the razor, the midwife cut my genitals. My screams rose, and with them the joyful trills of the women. When I reached puberty, I began to suffer: sharp pain in my lower abdomen, then I found spots of blood in my underwear. The pain returns every month. When my temperature rose and my feet began to swell, the doctor diagnosed it as malaria. I was plagued by painful itching and difficulty urinating, then an unpleasant smell appeared. I thought I knew its source, so I washed thoroughly, but the smell persisted, and my belly became distended. The teacher took me aside and asked me if I knew young men or had a special relationship with any one of them.”


Zeinab Belail was born in 1947 in the Sudanese town of Sinja. She is a graduate of the Faculty of Music and Drama, majoring in Criticism and Drama Studies. She has held various posts in the Sudanese literary and cultural scene––including the chair of the Cultural Forum for Literary Criticism and a member of the Female Writers Association––and has sat on several literary award committees. Belail wrote and directed the play To Be or Not To Be and has published five novels since 1984. Her third and most critically acclaimed novel is Nabat Al-Sabbar (The Cactus Plant), for which she won the Sudanese Martyr Al-Zubair Muhammad Salih Prize.


Lemya Shammat Recommends:

المحاربات (The Warrior Women), by Nahid Muhammad al-Hassan (2017, Rafiqi li-l-Taba’ wa-l-Nashr)

In her novel The Warrior Women, Nahid Muhammad al-Hassan continues to be preoccupied with exploring the female self, its private worlds, and its psychological and emotional archives. She approaches this through a group of fictional characters who give women a platform and voice to reveal their anxieties, inclinations, desires, dreams, and failures, as selves trapped by many constraints, pressures, and existential walls, where it is symbolized by a fortress and raised to the degree of a psychological, emotional, and spiritual safe haven.

Lemya Shammat

My own trip to this fortress was a journey back in time and a pilgrimage undertaken while staying put, and more… A spot that women who want to get to know themselves and heal themselves without giving up their dreams resort to. In this place women don’t have to exchange their emotions and their bodies for a piece of bread or a warm bed. 

These stories are used in the novel as a horizon of ideational and cognitive treasures through which women understand their secrets, their life experiences, their existential questions, and their human struggles. The novelist has created her narrative in a poetic language full of piercing contemplation and philosophizing while drawing inspiration from Quranic storytelling, mythology, myth, and folktales.

Tamader Sheikh El-Din Jibreel

Tamader Sheikh El-Din is a graduate of the Higher Institute of Music and Theater, an actress, director, and writer. She has played various roles in television, theater, and cinema via Sudanese media outlets. In the USA, where she lives now, she has produced, written, directed, and acted in a number of one-person plays. She also writes poetry and practices various arts such as drawing, percussion, and singing.

In her poetry, the writer presents scenic poetic texts full of lively images, scenes, movement, and sounds. Tamader’s poetry is in correspondence with the great narrative legacy of Tayeb Salih: She enters, for example, the universe of Season of Migration to the North, and chooses the personality of Hasna bint Mahmoud to give her a space for a fair trial, allowing Hasna to raise her voice as a repressed woman, to plead with the voice of a woman who refuses her sense and humanity being seized to turn her into a mere body, object, and purpose. She struggles stubbornly to the point of death in defense of her value as a human being and woman, in the face of a strict society that incriminates and blames the victim, while making excuses and facilitating privileges for the other side.

Israa Rifaat Hasan al-Na’im al-Qurshi

In her short story الضائعان (The Lost), which won the Tayeb Salih Prize for Literature, the author tells of the harsh and painful reality of war and the resulting suffering, human tragedies, and psychological and emotional wounds. She also discusses through her narrative the ambiguous and thorny question of identity. The story demonstrates well the author’s style, which is characterized by the delicate poetic language of a wide semantic spectrum. She hereby reveals the visions, emotions, and contemplations that explore the innermost self. This language also extends to a dialogue with the Other through the common human perspective. At the same time, it also highlights a certain narrative economy which is invested in the techniques of condensation, ellipsis, and creative management of the limited space of a short story. This allows the writer to present a structurally compact text that carries both psychological and emotional loads.

In her short story collection القرية التي اشتعلت من بقعة سرير (The Village That Caught Fire From a Spot in Bed), the writer works with a set of themes that discuss complex human issues such as poverty, wars, homelessness, and the identity crisis. Its stories also include contemplative pauses that spring forth from the reality of daily life and extend their wings to mythical and exotic spaces in supple and lucid language.


Essayist, short-story writer, and critic Lemya Shammat has a PhD in English Language and Linguistics from Khartoum University and is an Assistant Professor at King Saud Bin Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. A member of the Sudanese Writers Union, Shammat has published a book on literary criticism and discourse analysis as well as a collection of short-short stories. She also translates between English and Arabic, and her work appears in ArabLit Quarterly.


Ann El Safi Recommends:

حصار الأمكنة (The Siege of Places), by Buthaina Khader Makki (2019, Majaz li-l-Tarjamah wa-l-Nashr)

Ann El Safi

The Siege of Places is set amidst a mixture of political anxiety, customs, traditions, psychological crises, and the balancing scale of virtue, no matter what the cost may be to the soul, even ending in voluntary suicide. The novel is filled with worlds of cultural diversity, reaching across segments of society whose paths sometimes intersect through the text and some run parallel, and each one reaches its destiny, as the writer of the text saw fit.

خيانتئذ (That Betrayal), by Sara Al Jack (2013, Markaz Abd al-Karim Mirghani al-Thaqafi)

That Betrayal is a cry from an innocent throat that loved life and family, uttered by those closest to her for a sin she did not commit. It is a bold work, burdened with choking concerns for pure souls that branches out into the realms of issues centered on discrimination and corruption. Both are the cause of the problems arising from the use of ideologies to break up societies and sow discord.

There are fingers pointed at the military and their betrayal of the people: causing the killing of innocents, subjugating the judiciary apparatus to favoritism, killing the oppressed, and acquitting the oppressor. What results from the reversal of the proper formulas is a disgrace to a people stemming from such an ancient civilization which honored women thousands of years ago, celebrated the humanity of its society through noble ideals and values, and bequeathed them to successive generations. Tolerance is an embedded and authentic value in this society, and it has always been fruitful on the grounds of cultural diversity, benefiting peace and security.

Ann El Safi is a Sudanese novelist who lives between the UAE and Canada. Her published novels include Folak al-Ghuwaya (The Ark of Seduction, 2014), Kama Rauh (Like Spirit, 2016), Innahu Huwa (It Is Him, 2017), and Khubz al-Gajr (The Bread of Gypsies, 2019). With a professional background in technology, media, and human development, she writes and lectures on a variety of topics. Her ongoing project Writing for the Future explores the writer’s role in responding to sociocultural and technological changes and integrating them in the fictional worlds they create.

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