Wrapped in the Fabrics of Home:
A Photo Essay exploring the Evolution of the Sudanese Traditional Toub

In Beauty by Iman Abbaro

Bint el Nile print by Iman Abbaro 
Model: Shaza Elnour

I often think of the elder Sudanese women around me when I think of their resilience to stand in beauty. I think of my mother, my haboba (grandmother), and of my aunts. I think of the way they have gracefully embraced tradition throughout generations—specifically the tradition of the Sudanese toub from its vibrant colours to the way it elegantly flows like water, the toub is an extremely powerful symbol for the women of my native land. 

Zenab Hassan wearing a yellow toub. Photographed by Iman Abbaro on film (Kodak Gold 200)

The English translation of the term toub is “bolt of cloth”. It is a fifteen-foot rectangular material that contains colours and patterns. While the purpose of the heavily beaded chiffon toub are for newlyweds, older women choose to wear toubes with less vibrant colours and more stable fabric. Ebti Nabob’s paper Movement in Tradition: Toub touches on the historical significance of the Sudanese toub. Nabob notes that “in its essence, the toub represents modesty, simplicity, and cultural identity” (Nabob 2016, p. 4).  

Zenab Hassan wearing a yellow toub. I specifically chose the colour yellow because it reminds me of Sudan’s independence flag. Yellow is an extremely vibrant colour, and its warmth reminds me of the revolutionary Sudanese women I’ve surrounded myself with and of the desert on which it stands. 
Photographed by Iman Abbaro on film (Kodak Gold 200)

The toub was the gateway for women’s access to Sudan’s public spaces. It gave them the ability to express the political views in a society that often tried to exclude its women. Between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the toub was only worn by married women. Nabob states that “women strategically and creatively named new styles of the toub to enter political conversations within Sudan, [as well as] conversations about the larger world” (Nabob 2016, 11). This is a sentiment that is clearly seen throughout Sudan’s history. 

Here,my grandmother is wearing one of her favourite toubs. I always remember my haboba (grandmother) by her unique toubs. To her, the toub is something that has always made her feel beautiful throughout the different stages of her life. Shot by Iman Abbaro in 2017. 

The toub can be worn in many different contexts, and each style has its own significance. From protests demanding political reform, to celebrating milestones, to mourning; the toub is always the go-to garment for Sudanese women. While younger Sudanese women wear more colourful toubes, elder Sudani women wear more neutral styles to represent modesty and humility. When a woman is in mourning, she will wear either a white toub or one with neutral colours. They often wear this style for a long period of time to respect the departed. 

This is a photograph of my parents on their wedding night. Here you can see my mother dawning the traditional red toub in the Jirtig ceremony. 
My mother always talks about how the toub makes her feel beautiful and empowered. 
To her, the toub is a celebration of her heritage. 
Photographer unknown.

In Sudanese culture, marriage is a large milestone in a woman’s life. This is why the red toub has such a great cultural significance. It is worn by a bride during the Jirtig, one of the seven wedding ceremonies. The bride often has gold jewelry and henna on her hands and feet to compliment her toub. During this ceremony, the bride and groom sit on a red stage as mothers and grandmothers apply spiritual oils and powders on their faces. The bride also performs a dance for her groom, also known as ragees aroos. The Jirtig is a significant part of a Sudanese woman’s life because it is the beginning of a new chapter.

Alaa Salah, speaking at a protest through poetry during the 2019 Sudan Uprising. The widespread use of this image played a significant role in the removal of Sudan’s former president Omar al-Bashir. Here, the white toub continues to have not only a cultural, but also a socio-political significance. Image captured by Lana Haroun in Khartoum, Sudan

As mentioned above, the white toub is traditionally worn by a woman when she is in mourning. However, the white toub has come to be known as the symbol of equality. The white toub became a symbol of protest throughout different female-led movements in Sudan. It was worn by women who led the independence movement in the mid-twentieth century, as well as women who led the 2019 Sudan Uprising. “The twinned history of fashion and activism grounds women’s ownership of [an] unfolding political movement” (Grace 2019). In the past and present, the white toub has intentionally been worn by Sudanese women whenever they led socio-political movements and continues to be a symbol of resistance. 

Shaza El Nour wearing a red toub with green and orange flowers. 
I chose this toub to reflect the radiance Sudanese women illuminate
through their presence. Shot by Iman Abbaro on film (Kodak Gold 200) 

The Sudanese toub is so much more than a garment. It is so much more than our national dress. It is a celebration of our heritage and challenges the notion that modesty cannot be a form of empowerment. It is a garment that celebrates the beauty and evolution of Sudanese women. The toub goes beyond a tradition that is constantly evolving. It’s the beauty in the community of Sudanese women.

It is a timeless revolution.