Long-shot female candidate tells Sudan women 'yes they can'

OMDURMAN, Jailan Zayan- Sudan's first female presidential candidate knows she stands no chance against President Omar al-Beshir, but says her ambitious bid will allow future generations of women to strive for the country's top job.
Fatima Abdel Mahmud, a 66-year-old Soviet-educated professor of medicine and public health, was Sudan's first female minister in 1973 under President Gaafar Nimeiri.

Fatima Abdel Mahmud
Fatima Abdel Mahmud
Her small Democratic Socialist Union Party wants equal rights for women in Africa's largest country, where the perception that women lack the qualities and experience to hold high office is deeply rooted.
In a dusty lot in Khartoum's twin city of Omdurman, a dozen women, dressed in colourful traditional "thobe" sat faithfully for three hours waiting for Abdel Mahmud, or "the Prof" as she is affectionately called, to address the "rally."
A couple of men fiddled with wires, after an electricity cut brought total darkness to the makeshift football field, a corner of which had been reserved for the event.
Abdel Mahmud has taken her campaign across the vast country, relying on personal funds and meager donations from party members to pay for her travel.
She had been rallying all of Friday in the East Nile suburbs of Khartoum on the last day of campaigning for Sudan's first multi-party elections since 1986. Voters will choose their president, as well as legislative and local representatives in the polling that begins on Sunday.
Abdel Mahmud wants free education, free health services, better development, but most of all equal rights for women.
"We want to empower women to take on positions of responsibility on all levels," said Abdel Mahmud, dressed in a mustard and brown thobe, peering at her supporters over tiny spectacles.
"We don't want symbolic representation. We want (representation) based on merit and activity and work," said the professor who wants to see Sudan go through "peaceful democratic change."
"I stand here as your candidate for the presidential election," she said to the raucous cheers of the small crowd who had braved the dry heat and the air thick with grit.
But supporters and members of her party concede that her chances of beating Beshir amount to zero.
"She doesn't want Omar al-Beshir's position. She knows she can't have it. But she wants women to see that one day they can be president," Asma Mohammed al-Hassan, a member of the party's politburo told AFP.
The election has been marred by a growing opposition boycott and allegations of fraud by Beshir's National Congress Party whose opponents accuse of diverting state funds for his personal campaign.
"She has to run, even if the other opposition parties have dropped out. It's a matter of principle. She can't send the message that she's given up because others have," Abelmoneim Abdelgassem Habib Allah, a party member told AFP.
Abdel Mahmud herself, a women's rights activist since her days as a student in Moscow, says the goal of her campaign is to raise awareness, not to run the country.
"I want to send a message to Sudanese women that they can hold positions of power," a weary Abdel Mahmud told AFP.
"I want to open the door for future generations of women. (The campaign) is an investment for their future," she said.
Current law provides women with a quota of 25 percent representation at all levels of government. However, this has not been fully implemented, and there is only a handful of female ministers and advisors.
In parliament, women control 16 percent of the 450-seat national assembly, but in this election a quarter of the seats have been reserved for women.
On the streets of Khartoum, meanwhile, some don't see the push for female representation as a top priority.
"Right now, we have bigger problems. The country is going through big changes," said Abdelrahman who only wanted to be identified by his first name.
"I do believe women should be part of the process, but right now, let's just focus on the country being alright," he told AFP.
The three-day election is a prelude to a 2011 referendum on independence for south Sudan, leaving many residents of the war-ravaged country anxious about their future.

Sunday, April 11th 2010
Jailan Zayan

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