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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.