Sunday, July 31, 2011

Khalda Zahir of Almorada Village: SSA Newsletter, Volume 17, Issue 1 - 1997

The following article is about the life of one of Unity High School's most important students and is taken from the website of the University of Pennsylvannia, African Studies Center.

Khalda Zahir of Almorada Village
(Amir & Caron Zahir)

I would like to introduce some women from Almorada. In doing so, by no means do I intend to undermine the contributions of other women in Almorada, or in other urban and rural areas of Sudan. Or, to claim those women were the only ones who had some contributions that are worth mentioning. Rather, I am simply trying to share with you some of the untold stories of the area I love and grew up in, through the eyes of those selected group of women. One of the first women I will like to introduce to you, is Khalda Zahir. Most probably, I will share with you more information about Khalda than about the other women, because of the shared family history. Khalda was born in Almorada in January 8, 1926. She was the first born child of Fatima Ajab Arbab and Zahir Surour Elsadati. Of course, at the time having the first born to be a babygirl, or having girls in general, was not something that a lot of families would be proud of. Notably, that was due to the prevalent sexist attitude. However, since her birth, her father was so determined to provide her with whatever opportunities in order to assist her in reaching her potential. In order to understand Khalda's upbringing, I believe it is important to touch on some of her father's personal history.

The late Zahir Elsadati (Born, September 2, 1898 and died, November 28, 1981) was an army officer. He was born in Omdurman to a migrant family from Dar Foor in Western Sudan after they settled in the area during the Mahdia. Moreover, he was born in the same day that his father died in the Battle of Karary, and he was brought up by his mother. That was a very important factor in his life, as he developed a deep respect for women and their ability to achieve and survive as he learned from his mother. He joined the army in 1910 as a wald (boy) footsoldier and developed through the ranks. As he stated, he was kicked out of Omdurman Alameeria School, because he plotted with some classmates and beat up the arrogant Egyptian geography teacher. At the time, that was considered an act of mutiny against the newly established colonial authority, regardless of the age of the perpetuators. They were arrested immediately and taken to Alzabtia, or police station. The mufatish (Distirct officer) immediately deemed them unsuitable for formal education, and therefore, the army was the only place that would be able to "teach" them. In addition, shortly after he joined the army, Zahir lost his mother, the only immediate family he had left, after most of the family members died before her in the Mahdia wars.

Although, Zahir did not have any opportunity to ever complete his formal education, he was determined to seek knowledge in every source he could find at the time. So, reading was his major interest. In particular, he was fascinated with history and politics, and he actively got involved in it through the secret activities of the White Brigades Society during the 1920's. Further, that fascination with knowledge, led him to develop a very strong relationship with one of the first Sudanese historians, Shiekh Mohamed Abed Alrahim who became his mentor. Mohamed Abed Alrahim was one of the Kataba of Alkhalifa Abdullahi and he took it on himself to document the history of Sudan as he has seen it or heard it. Furthermore, he had a huge home library that was made available for knowledge seekers. He also published "Omdurman Magazine", which was later became the training ground for a lot of Sudanese writers, journalists, and poets, such as Altijanie Yousif Basheer.

The fact that Zahir was denied the opportunity to complete his formal education, was the driving force that later made education and knowledge as some of his core values in life. Also, in that early age, he has learned and developed a very strong sense of right and wrong, and the importance of being an independent thinker, and being able to live with the consequences of his decisions, regardless of the severity of those consequences. Those circumstances of Zahir's upbringing, shaped up his tough personality and his core values. He also, made sure to pass these strong values to his daughter Khalda.

At the time, educating women was a relatively a new phenomenon, and as we all remember the struggle of uncle Babiker Badrie in trying to bring this issue to the forefront. The only school for girls at the time in Almorada, was Mad'ra'sat Bes'mila (Miss Miller's Primary School for Girls. Currently Almorada Primary School For Girls, which is located directly in front of Dar Alryadh in Shari'a Almorada). So, after Khalda completed her primary education, her father send her to Elersal'lia Junior High School, which was run by the English Church. The building of that school is currently occupied by Altijany Almahie's Psychiatric Hospital in Shari'a Alarba'een near Alseen'ia (the roundabout that was donated to the city by Alhadie Mursal the prominent businessman in 1960). She finished her junior high school years in 1940. That was quite an achievement for a young woman at the time. Particularly, because most young women used to be forced to quit school to wait for the future groom. Or, if they had some support from their family, they would go into teaching, or nursing. However, Khalda expressed her interest in going to high school after she was encouraged by some of her teachers to do so. The only high school for women in Sudan at the time, was the Unity High School, which was a private school that was run by the church, and it was solely reserved for teaching banat Alkho'wajat (the daughters of the "foreigners" the British, and the other communities of people of Greek, Armenian, Italian, Syrian, or Lebanese background.)

At the time, her father was with his army battalion in Southern Sudan. Khalda secured the support of her mother and her younger brother Anwar; however, there was no one else from her immediate, or the extended family that would dare to give her support. Subsequently, she wrote a letter to her father expressing her desire to go to high school, requesting the school fees, and his support. This whole process took some time from start to finish. However, in the neighborhood, it was quite a fiasco, everybody was talking about the fact that Khalda was going to be educated with banat Alkho'wajat. Some of the people had meetings after meetings in Nadi Alzubat (The Officers Club) to discuss the matter, and some people even started joking about it by saying "ha ha ...Zahir awiz yitall' betto mufattisha (Zahir wants his daughter to become a district officer) which was unthinkable even for a Sudanese male at the time. Some even send letters to her father in the South in order to influence his decision. Some suggested that she should abandon her effort to continue her education, and she should instead be a teacher, because, according to them, she was bit fasie'ha jiddan (a very outspoken girl)?

However, after thinking about the whole issue, her father send back to Almorada two letters. The first letter was to Khalda commending her on her decision, and the second letter was to her uncle Mohamed Ajab instructing him to accompany Khalda to the Unity High School in Khartoum and register her for the coming year. Needless to say, Khalda's uncle Mohamed was not please. He, nevertheless, reluctantly signed the registration forms as her guardian, paving the way for Khalda to start the application process. It was not that easy because in the Unity High School at the time there was no Sudanese girl among the Students, and it seems that the administration was not in a hurry to grant the final acceptance. Luckly for Khalda, she received a very unusual support form Ahmed Yousif Hashim, the prominent Sudanese journalist, who was the editor of one of the newspapers at the time, alSudan alJadeed (The New Sudan). It happen around the same time that Khalda was struggling with this issue, Ahmed Yousif Hashim was writing a series of articles about women education in Sudan, or the lack there of, and he mentioned that there was only one high school for girls in Sudan which was the Unity High School, and it had no Sudanese girls among its students. Shortly after that, Khalda received the acceptance from the school administration to start her high school in the following year.

Khalda continued her high school years achieving very good grades. Moreover, that was particularly challenging because, during those high school years, her father was away in Alkafra and Alalameen fighting with the Allied Forces in World War II. So, Khalda as she was the first born, and her brother Anwar as the second born, had to share the parental responsibility of their other younger brothers and sisters. However, and to the astonishment of the school administration, Khalda graduated from high school with very high grades in 1946. Some people in the school administration did not believe a Sudanese girl could achieve such a high academic standard. With those good grades Khalda could have gone to any school she chose. Khalda expressed her interest in going to university and study medicine!! When she made her preference known, another battle started.

At the time, Gordon Memorial College, which was later became the University of Khartoum, was not for everyone from the Sudanese people, especially women. The first battle Khalda had to fight was to secure the support of her family, and her father was very quick to encourage her to continue on with her education. Her father had already returned back from the front and he was living in Almorada. So, other family members and the rest of the elders in the neighborhood, did not bother to fight him on his decision. The second battle was around securing acceptance form the college. To their credit, some of the progressive teachers in the Unity High School, used Khalda's performance and the good grades as a spearhead to lobby the college administration to grant her acceptance to Gordon Memorial College School of Medicine in 1946. In being accepted, Khalda became the first Sudanese woman to ever enter the college and the medical school. That acceptance came just in time, for her father had already made plans to send her to Egypt if she was denied addmittance to the Medical School. The other obstacle that Khalda had to face, was to be able to coup with the college's timetable, and hectic schedule (from seven in the morning to sometimes late at night). At the time, the school had no residence for its female students, and there was no kubrie (bridge) between Omdurman and Khartoum where the college was located. Quickly, her father arranged for her to live with his life time friend, alAmeera'lai Hassan alzin, and his wife Fatima Mohamed Abed Alrahim the daughter of his mentor who lived in the army islag (barracks) in Almog'ran. The arrangement was that she would live with them during the week days and would go home in weekend. With this arrangement Khalda simultaneously had a new family. That relationship between the two families continued strongly until today.

1946 was also a turning point in Khalda's personal history. In addition to starting college, she also became very active in the political and social life in Almorada. As an early sign of developing her feminist consciousness, Khalda and two of her friends from the neighborhood Fatima Talib and Mahasin Abed Alaal founded Jam'ee'yat alfata'yat althaqa'fia (the Women Cultural Society) in order to promote women education and helping to empower young women to enrich their social lives. Around the same time, she also met a close friend of her brother Anwar by the name of Osman Mahjoub the older brother of Abed Alkhlik Mahjoub. (Abdel Khaliq Mahjoub, it is to be remebered, was the former Secretary General of the Sudanese Communist Party, who was executed by Nimeri in July 28, 1971). Subsequently, Osman introduced her to Dr. Abed Alwahab Zin Alabdeen. Later, in the same year, Osman Mahjoub and Dr. Abed Alwahab recruited Khalda to become a member of the alharaka alSudania Lel-taharror alWatani (Sudanese Movement For the Liberation of Sudan), which later became alJebha alMo'adia LelEsti'mar (The Front Against Colonization FAC), and eventually became the Sudanese Communist Party. In doing so, Khalda became the first Sudanese female to ever join a modern political organization.

Khalda continued her political activities both in college and in the neighborhood. In 1948, and due to the mounting pressure from Mutamar alKheriejien (The Graduates Congress), the colonial authority introduced the idea of establishing a Sudanese Legislative Assembly in order to ease that pressure; however, they reserved the right to appoint its members. A political battle started right away between the supporters and people who where against the colonial idea. alJebha alMo'adia LelEsti'mar (FAC) led that political battle, and that what is known now in history books as the "battle of the legislative Assembly". Nadi alKheriejien in Omdurman, became the battle ground, and a series of ndawat (workshops, forums, or meetings) were arranged. The party announced that it was going to introduce Khalda as one of key speakers against the colonial idea of the Legislative Assembly in one of the nadawat. At the time, the idea of having women attending a political forum was very unusual, and particularly having a rather young man as a speaker, was even stranger.

Everybody was very curious, and in the day of the nadwa, a large crowed had assembled in Nadi alKheriejien in a very hot afternoon. Although, a lot of people were skeptical, Khalda delivered a fiery speech that made the crowed shout slogans against the colonial authority. As consequence, Khalda was arrested immediately by the police, and she was taken from there to alzabttia (The Police Precinct), and that was her first arrest. Moreover, that was the first time ever for the Police to arrest a Sudanese woman for her political views. The news of her arrest travelled very fast in all Omdurman, and people started talking loudly about the fact that the Police arrested a "woman" for talking against the colonial authority. At the time, her father was in Bayt Itleet Prison Camp near Tel Aviv in Palestine, after he was taken as a prisoner of war in the War of 1948. So, her uncle Osman Mutwallie met with the Police to negotiate bail. For fear of public outcry, the Police was very quick to grant her bail that same night.

The second arrest was in 1950 during a student demonstration in the college campus. This time, her uncle made it very clear that she had to graduate first, before resuming any political activities. Indeed, for Khalda it was easy said than done. However, she managed to graduate from medical school in 1952, as the first Sudanese female medial doctor. 1952, was also another turning point in Khalda's personal life, as her long time friend and comrade Osman Mahjoub proposed to her. Again, that marriage proposal started another battle for Khalda; however, this time it had a very strong racial overtone. Osman Mahjoub's family were from the Shay'gee'ya tribe, and as I have stated earlier, Omdurman was sharply divided among racial lines. So, people from both families were dead against that proposed marriage. Large number of her family were against it because Osman was Shay'gee, and they wanted her to marry an officer or at least a son of an officer, preferably from the neighborhood, not a teacher like Osman. Whil Osman's family were against the marriage because, Khalda was Foora'wia sakit (a person from western Sudan and did not live up to their standards). Everybody had his or her agenda, and it would appear that there was no consideration at all for the feelings of the young couple. Again, her father who had a deep respect for Mahjoub Osman, the groom's father, met with Mahjoub and finalized the wedding plans, regardless of all of the opposition from members of the two families. None of Khalda's uncles attended the wedding, and a large number of Osman's family did not either, and also boycotted his father and his immediate family for years to come.

In 1952 Mahasin Abed Alaal, Fatima Talib and Khalda, recognized the need of establishing an umbrella organization to unite and promote women issues. Subsequently, they founded alEtihaad alNisaa'i alSudani (The Sudanese Women's Union), and Khalda was elected as the first president. Up to that time, for Khalda, it seemed that every single step she had taken in her life, such as what a lot of people take for granted today, was a major battle. She started her career as medical doctor after finishing her residency between Omdurman and Khartoum General Hospitals. In 1954, the young couple were transferred to Baher Algazal Province in Southern Sudan. Osman as a teacher in the newly established Rombaik High School, and Khalda as Medical Inspector for the province, responsible for supervising the medical assistants in all of the villages and the urban centers in the province.

Shortly after that Khalda and Osman started their new family; however, she continued to work while raising her young children. Through the years, and as a career woman, she had to deal with the pressures and the demands of the job, the sexist attitude of some of her colleagues, as well as, the demands of her large family (a father, a mother, a step mother, nine sisters and nine brothers). Also, the demands of her political and social activities, such as meetings, beyoot bekyat (funerals), sma'yat (celebration for newborn babies), and other social engagements. Visiting sick people in the neighborhood, in their homes, or in hospitals, was an expectation, simply because she was aldictora bet alhilla (the doctor from the neighborhood). Notwithstanding all of that, she never complained. As a matter of fact, she saw that as her duty to do. Khalda continued to work in the Sudanese Ministry of Health, refusing all other generous offers and lucrative jobs she has received from international and regional health organizations. In the mid 1970s she assisted in the establishment of Mujamma' Sihhat alAtfaal (Children's Community Health Center in Omdurman). It was located in an old building that used to be occupied by the administration of her old junior high school, alErsalia in the corner of Shari'a Alarba'een and Shari'a Alurda in Omdurman. Her last post she was the department head of Pediatrics with the Sudanese Ministry of Health. Khalda retired in the mid 1980's. She has four children (Ahmed, Khlid, Mariam, and Suad). Currently, she lives between England, Cairo and Sudan.

The following notes are by Dr. Marina Hitchen:

This woman was one of our most important students. According to the log books in Dec. 1944 two girls sat for Gordon College. Both Copts. Angela Isaak and Marguerite Fanous. Angela passed (3rd class), Marguerite totally failed, resat the year, and failed again. Angela went to study Arts and is known as the first woman to be admitted to Gordon College.

In small writing we see Khalda Zahir also sat. She passed 2nd class and was also accepted to do medicine. Gordon College deferred accepting medical students until 1946 so Khalda had to wait one year. Hence Angela getting the glory. The article states that Khalda was the first woman in Gordon College but that is not true.

Khalda had trouble getting in to Unity because it seems that they were not quite as keen as they make out at letting in Sudanese Muslims. She was a prefect in 1944 by the way.

I would like this article to be on the blog in case she gets forgotten again.

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