North Sudanese Culture

Family

One’s family is the most important aspect of life for the North Sudanese. People take a lot of pride in their family’s reputation and history. The “family” itself can refer to an expansive kinship network including the extended family, distant relatives and extended family connections related by marriage. It is common for members of the older generation to have 10 siblings or even more, each of which often has children of their own. Therefore, many Sudanese have dozens of cousins, aunts and uncles. In this way, the organising principle of society is based on a broad community of relationships rather than the nuclear family

 

The size and importance of extended family ties means that many Sudanese feel a strong obligation to support kin that may seem ‘distantly’ related by Western standards. For example, a Sudanese person living in an English-speaking Western country may prioritise sending money back to extended family members overseas over building their personal savings.

 

Household Structure

Rural households are often multigenerational. The structure usually consists of three generations of males (that are related as fathers and sons) as well as each of their respective wives and children. It is common for couples in rural areas to have up to six or seven children, as this helps with carrying out agricultural duties. In urban areas, people tend to prefer to live as nuclear families. However, some extended families may share multi-story homes, with a nuclear family on each level. People from urban areas generally opt to have smaller families – usually four or five children.

 

Gender Roles

Gender roles are highly patriarchal and rigidly defined in Sudan. The men are viewed as the main income earners, while women are seen as the homemakers. Husbands are expected to provide economically for their wives and children throughout their lives. Therefore, it is generally believed that a woman does not need to be financially independent, as her husband or father’s earning power will support her. Under Islamic inheritance law, females receive exactly half of the wealth that their male relatives receive. This division is based on the idea that it is a man's duty to care for the women in his family. 

 

Traditionally, women carry greater expectations of social compliance and are seen as particularly vulnerable targets that need to be protected. They are often considered to be the carrier of family honour (see ‘Honour’ in Core Concepts). Meanwhile, fathers and husbands see it as their duty to keep their female family members free from scandal. A mistake by a woman is sometimes interpreted as a failure of the man of the family to protect her from doing so. Therefore, male relatives’ attitudes towards women are often very paternalistic.

 

If a man’s sister or female relative is offended or humiliated, he will usually do what he can to defend and protect her. However, if the woman herself has brought the family dishonour, she may be punished. Ultimately, a woman’s independence and freedom to make choices for herself varies significantly depending on the attitude of her husband or closest male relative and whether or not her choices align with community opinion. Generally, women in rural and conflict areas face a higher risk of societal and official discrimination and violence. 

 

Engagement

Sudanese Arab couples usually meet at social functions, workplaces and universities where they are socialising in the public eye. They can talk over the phone, but private face-to-face interaction is usually kept hidden from families to avoid drawing suspicion. The Western form of dating is not culturally accepted in Sudan. 

 

Engagement proceedings are very drawn out and prolonged in Sudan. Once a prospective bride has told her mother she would like to marry a man, there are multiple stages of negotiation as members of each family indirectly assess whether the other is interested in becoming related. When it becomes clear that both parties are interested, the families will meet and get to know one another, after which open discussions of engagement can take place. The engagement period usually lasts anywhere from three months to a year and a half.

 

Marriage

In Sudan, marriage is thought to strengthen religious and family ties. Therefore, it is very rare for a Muslim Sudanese person to marry a non-Muslim. In some cases, interfaith marriage is not legally permitted.1 People generally have freedom to choose their own partner, but arranged marriage does occur in some places. In these cases, each member of the couple is usually allowed to have the final say as to whether they want to accept or decline the match made by their families. 

 

Muslim boys and girls are legally allowed to marry once they have reached puberty.2 Meanwhile, the set age for non-Muslims is 13 for girls and 15 for boys.3 Human rights activists are pushing for these ages to be raised.4 Urban Sudanese women generally hope to be married by the time they finish university at age 21-22. Women from rural areas and lower socioeconomic brackets tend to marry earlier, from age 16 onwards. Boys generally set this age higher at roughly 30.

 

The reasoning behind the age difference between men and women is that the men are expected to financially provide for their wives. Thus, a man needs to be entirely self-sufficient and economically secure by the time he gets engaged. He also needs to be able to afford the bride price of both ‘mahr’ (money paid to the woman’s family) and ‘shila’ (material gifts such as jewellery, perfumes, etc.). Due to the high cost of marriage, many men are unable to afford to become engaged, resulting in a growing trend of unmarried women.

 

Polygamy may be practised in some areas of Sudan, whereby the man has up to four wives. However, a man is only allowed to take multiple wives if he can afford to provide for each of them properly (such as providing them their own individual living quarters and kitchen). Endogamy is also another traditional practice; however, this is declining. When it does occur, the preference is generally for a child to marry a cousin from their father’s side so that the family name is preserved through the male lineage. 

 

Divorce is generally considered to be shameful by many Sudanese. However, cases of divorce are increasing significantly in urban areas. In the case that a divorce is successful, dowries (mahr) have to be returned to the man’s family. Sudanese women often face challenges finding a partner to remarry.

 

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1 Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 2016
2 Personal Status Law of Muslims, 1991
3 The Marriage of Non-Muslims Act, 1926
4 UNICEF, 2016
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