A Tale of Muslim Women Sparking Political Change

02/05/2013 10:30 am ET | Updated Apr 07, 2013

She forcefully tucks away her maroon hijab under her chin, hurriedly extends her loose blouse over her denim skirt and wipes away any fleeing sweat with the spare flap of her hijab. Protesting under the wintery heat of the desert, Nawal takes a two-minute hiatus amidst a flurry of chaos, sand storms and chants.

Nawal and other students at Sharg Al-Neil College were protesting the killing of four Darfuri college protesters at Gezira University. University students across Sudan are among the masses fed up with the overt discrimination of minorities in Darfur, journalists and activists, citizens facing higher food prices, scarce employment opportunities, paralyzing inflation and repressive ethnic discrimination.

In a country where female students are prohibited from wearing pants -- seen as an affront to traditional Muslim modesty -- in some of the most prestigious universities and colleges, female activists are integral to the advancement of the cause. Rarely, if ever, does one find a protest occurring without the heavy presence of female students.

"These men wouldn't know what to do without us," Nawal explains. Asked if fear is ever a factor, she chuckled. "Afraid of what?" she replied smugly. "Many are intimidated by the strength of women in this country. If a woman risks more for protesting, I dare them to save their manhood by marching for justice!"

Nawal went further to remind me that female students started the #SudanRevolts movement. Rightly so, because on June 16th female students at the University of Khartoum sparked a series of protests across the country against the regime's human rights violations, inflation and increase in food prices. The June protests numbered in the thousands and led to the closing of the university for over a month.

The female Sudanese activist, like her counterparts in Bahrain, Tunis and Egypt, does not shy away from defying patriarchy in the face of political discrimination. In Egypt, a small group of friends led by Asmaa Mahfouz is credited for being the vanguard of the Arab Spring by uploading a simple video on Facebook urging the youth to take action. Mahfouz is credited with co-founding the April 6 Youth Movement and igniting the Egyptian protests by stating, "If you think yourself a man, come with me on 25 January."

Historically, the Muslimah played the role of protagonist in more than one screenplay of political change. Whether in 18th century Nigeria with the rise of Nana Asma'u, or during the 16th and 17th century of Ottoman rule with the Sultanate of Women era, the muslimah was a vessel of change and an exemplary steward of a faith rapidly growing.

One need not veer far off in the scape of human history to find Muslim women transcending the oft male-dominated world of politics. Take Fatima Ibrahim: the first women elected to the Sudanese Parliament in Sudan, and all of Africa, in 1965. As a member of the Sudanese Communist Party, Ibrahim led the first Sudanese Women's Union and wrote extensively throughout her lifetime. Ibrahim is not alone.

Take Megawati Sukarnoputri, President of Malaysia from 2001 to 2004. Tansu Çiller, who served as the 22nd Prime Minister of Turkey. Take Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh, Mame or Madior Boye of Senegal. And more recently, Nawara Negm and Asmaa Mahfouz of Egypt, Yosra Sabir and Maha Sonosy of Sudan, all of whom have been instrumental in advancing the Arab Spring.

Despite these leaps, stories of women subjected to sexual violence and oppression are everywhere. The recent gang rape of a 23-year-old in New Delhi reminds us all that the road leading to female equality is long and rocky, everywhere. But women of our past have proved that despite all odds, leadership is ours for the taking. We have never been silent. Women are invisible actors with enough agency to spark a revolution, change a regime and lead a nation -- whether in shorts and a t-shirt or a hijab.