Women in the East, Women in the West: Finding the middle ground.


Have you ever had your fundamental beliefs about your role in society challenged?

I never thought it would be so…confusing.

Having recently returned from a four month stint in Sudan, I have been trying to reconcile what I saw and experienced there with my experience growing up in Australia as an Aussie chick.  I think I am still figuring it all out…

I never really considered myself a true victim of the “identity crisis” issues that were said to plague first and second generation migrants that make Australia their home.  I considered myself ‘Straylian through and through, from the way I talked and thought, to my mates and sports of choice (except for cricket…soccer girl all the way).  I loved the fact that I could walk into a pump shop at a mine site in central Queensland as a hijabi-wearing-Sudanese-born gal and instantly relate to the old mates working maintenance because, well, I grew up here. This was my country, these were my people.

I felt comfortable with the choices I had made: my degree and career (mechanical engineer, pretty butch), my sport (boxing: yup, as feminine as they come) and the belief that my gender played no part in the role I was to play in society.  My mantra was pretty much “well if the boys can do it, I can do it too”.  My father was naturally horrified, but hid it well and mostly accepted that was who I had become.

Boy, was I in for a treat when I got to Sudan.

My first month was…interesting.  Not because of the heat, or the conditions or the lack of system…but because of the cultural expectations that were placed on me that I just wasn’t accustomed to.  I understood and accepted the bare bones of it all (after all, my parents brought me up as a Sudanese woman), but what frustrated me was the clear discrepancy between the roles of men and women and the unwritten rules that I was expected to adhere to.

Sport was a big one – my grandmother couldn’t understand why I wanted to train on the local track, competed with my uncle in pushups or was so interested in exercise.   It wasn’t even the obviously masculine things that were different: Apparently the way I walked, sat, talked, laughed…the issues I wanted to debate (politics isn’t for women!) and the interests that I had were all unfeminine and undesirable in a respectable Sudanese woman. 

I used to joke to my aunt: “Someone should write a rule book on “How to live life as a Sudanese woman” so I don’t keep putting my foot in it and doing the wrong thing”

She would just laugh.  “This is how it is here…”

At first, I found it funny.   I loved being the odd one out, flying in the face of what was acceptable, just being me.  Then it began to frustrate me.  Why was I being judged on things that had nothing to do with my true character? Why weren’t my cousins fighting for their rights as women!

It isn’t as if my cousins were “oppressed”.  Hardly.  My cousins are all studying or working and my aunts all have higher degrees.  Their English is great and they are all well educated and well read.  In fact, one aunt is running one of the biggest businesses in Sudan!  So the opportunity for women to do things is there. Yet… I still couldn’t understand how the women were living with such cultural restrictions.

My cousin shed some light on her perspective one night and said something that I had never considered before.

“It is so cool that you are travelling and doing all this stuff and seeing the world Yassmina, but that is your world.  You have to accept what we have accepted that this is our world and we have to operate in it.  It’s not as bad as you think! We know what we have to do and the role we have to play to be a good woman, a good wife, a good Sudanese and a good Muslim, so we do that.  We don’t want to make our lives harder by looking for things that we don’t really need…”

My aunt echoed a similar sentiment.  “You might look at me and say woah, she has a degree but she is sitting at home taking care of the house, how oppressed is she!  But I love doing this! I love taking care of the house, cooking and being there for my family, and many others do as well.  I work [she has a teaching job], but I work hours that will suit the family because at the end of the day, the family is most important.  You might disagree Yassmina, but the woman is better suited to bringing up a family; you can’t have a home without a mother…and I am happy to fill that role”.

Hold up! I thought.  Yes, there were some societal inequalities that women had issues with and were wanting to have resolved…but by and large they were happy with the role they were playing in life? They **wanted** to be caregivers and homemakers? Wait…does this mean our entire definition of success differs? Huh? Didn’t they want to be liberated?

Yikes.  Now I was confused and I began to wonder…

Maybe there is some validity in the way my family see the role of a woman. Maybe it is too crazy for me to expect a man to have an equal share in the housework. Maybe, as a woman, I have to think about my role as a procreator and a homemaker as just as, if not more important, than my career…

If you know me at all, you would know those thoughts are truly at odds with how I tend to see the world.

There is another aspect to it too, one that I haven’t talked about here, and that is how the women see it as their Islamic duty to be the caregivers and the homemakers.  This was harder for me to deal with, because I don’t have the scholarly Islamic knowledge to confidently refute what they were saying.

So I reached a point where I was at a loss.

Do I forget about everything I saw and learnt in Sudan and continue living life the way I had been in Australia, with gender not being a factor in my decisions because “that’s how I grew up”

Or, do I follow the path described by my cultural background, where all my decisions are largely based on gender and gender roles… because that is “where I am from?”

I had – and sometimes still have – difficulty reconciling what I grew up with and what my background encourages. The thing is, I think the expected role of a Sudanese woman in society is at odds with the expected role as an Australian woman in society.

How does one deal with that?


I guess for me, I think I am beginning to realise that the idea that “women can have it all” is fair enough, but perhaps for me should be amended to “women can have whatever they want”.  If they want the house and kids that’s great, and if they want the career that is within their rights as well.  Having it all at the same time though… that might be a little more difficult.

I don’t have a concrete answer to my mental dilemma just yet. All I do know is that I feel there needs to be a middle ground, and that is the one that I choose to take, inshallah. A path that takes into account that I am a woman, but that doesn’t limit my choices, it informs them.

If there is one thing I took away from the trip, it is this: It is important, as a woman, to recognise that if (and inshallah when) you choose to have a family, the role as a mother is invaluable and cannot be substituted… and that gender does play a factor in the family dynamic, whether we like it or not.


How it will all play out and how much will I take from that lesson? I guess only time will tell…

What about you? How do you see the role of women in society? Have you ever had your views so challenged?