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Ibrahim El-Salahi Pain Relief at The Saatchi Gallery, London

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Shield me, God, from this old man. Let the needle fly and pierce his eye.” Traditional murhakah (corn grinding) marriage song, mocking an aged suitor, quoted by Professor Abdullah El Tayeb in Changing Customs of the Sudan.

Above, poster for the exquisitely filmed 20-minute short, Al-Sit.

Al-Sit”, often translated as “the mistress of the house”, refers to an older Sudanese woman who enjoys respect and authority both in her family and the wider community. See Grandmother’s School for the pivotal role older women play in literacy and education in Sudan. See “Muslim Like My Grandmother” for a homage to the broader contribution of older women in Sudan.

All sources consulted for this post provided below.

Above, Al-Sit of the film’s title tenderly reassures her neighbour’s son, Babekir, that she will find a good wife not only for him, but perhaps even, she adds with a broad smile, for his aging father, played by Abdallah Jacknoon.

Confidante, marriage broker, arbitrator, Al-Sit is a matriarch to be both respected and feared. But how does a woman become a matriarch? And how do the other women in her family negotiate their own status as more than mere foils to an always astute, often wily and sometimes disparaging ally-opponent? These are just two of the fascinating questions explored in the film.

Russian-Sudanese director, Suzannah Mirghani’s award-winning short film (2020), inspired in part by her grandparents’ life stories, explores with profound compassion the interplay of arranged marriage and matriarchal power and the impact of both on three generations of Sudanese women to the backdrop of a culture enduringly patriarchal in attitudes and values. Nafisa, pictured right, captivates with a wordless eloquence and still self-containment beyond her years. Her futures unfold before our eyes in luminous, dappled interiors as the threads of tradition and authority are spun, tensed and severed. As Nafisa contemplates her arranged marriage to Nadir, a wealthy young Sudanese emigre returning to his home village bearing gifts of Quality Street and dreams of progress, we watch as she steps out of the shadows to shape her destiny. Will Aisha, Nafisa’s mother and Al-Sit’s daughter-in-law win her mother-in-law’s vital approval for the wedding? Will Nadir (played by Mohammed Magdi) pass muster or does Al-Sit have marriage ambitions of her own for her beloved granddaughter?

Trailer with English subtitles and longer excerpt with Spanish subtitles below.

Left, Nafisa’s watchful gaze. Throughout the film we see Nafisa peering through doorways and chinks in earthen walls, listening intently to the muffled words of others as her future is negotiated. But she is a far from a passive observer and will later exact a delicate revenge on those she loves and who love her.

Arranged marriage of daughters, often at young ages is still common in Sudan, motivated by numerous complex circumstances. See Child Marriage for latest research finding on early marriage in Sudan and the empowering role of women’s literacy in breaking intergenerational cycles of early / child marriage.

“Let your son choose his own wife but choose a husband for your daughter” Mothers often play key roles in re-enforcing child and arranged marriage practices with their own daughters Sudan -girls-child-marriage

Above, in the family reception room, the table laden with traditional emigre gifts, Nadir boasts that his bride’s clothes will be made of the finest cloth. As he proudly presents a sample of fabric to impress his prospective parents-in-law, he brusquely brushes Nafisa, waiting to offer tea, aside, mistaking her for a servant. An instant, borne with quiet dignity by Nafisa. In a world where the seemingly throwaway act can take on epic weight, will Nadir trespass further on his hosts’ dignity?

Scroll down to the end of this post to watch interviews with Suzannah Mirghani.

When advised to change the film’s title -“Al-Sit” being associated in the Arab world with famous women such as the legendary Egyptian singer, Um Kalthoum – Mirghani insisted on keeping the name, reclaiming it to celebrate Sudan’s own women of power, status and agency. And her diverse cultural heritage, fond memories of her Sudanese childhood with her grandparents, the “critical distance” her “hybrid identity” has afforded her, inform her work, which is at once intensely Sudanese and universal, raising complex questions on the nature of identity, the immutability of tradition and what progress means in post-colonial Sudan – all with subtlety, humour and lightness of touch. Themes to be explored in more depth in her coming full length sequel, Cotton Queen, for which Al-Sit can be seen as a “proof of concept”.

“I have always been wary of the mythology of racial or national purity, and constantly question the idea of a solid identity ….Peoples are complex, complicated, changeable, unreadable creatures, and so our identities are always fluid and unfixed.” Sudanese-Russian Director, Suzannah Mirghani on her rejection of reductionist formulae of identity. A Woman’s Gaze on Women – Salaam Gateway

Mirghani is also committed to enriching our vision of Sudanese life as it is reflected in the arts by placing women’s thoughts and aspirations centre stage in her work. A recasting of the very male rural world of Tayeb al-Salih through the eyes of women protagonists.

Above right, respected stage actor, Rabeha Mohammed Mahmoud, majestic as Al-Sit and the superb Mihad Murtada as Nafisa. Despite the recent creative revival of Sudanese cinema, only five young women auditioned for the role of Nafisa, reflecting enduring cultural ambivalence surrounding women’s place in the cinema.

Woven through the film as a central motif are the soft buds of the cotton plant and its spinning spools of thread. Farmed by the village, harvested by its singing girls, cotton becomes a symbol of self-sufficiency and financial independence challenging the legacy of British colonial exploitation, the hold of industrialization and traditional cinematic associations with slavery. Cotton or “White gold” is seen as economically empowering. Al-Sit’s status and authority derives in part from being an owner of cotton plantations and she will brook no challenge to her domain. Into this world steps the young Nadir, sweating but proud in his shiny polyester suit, impatient at what he sees as village inertia, eager to impose ideals of progress gleaned from possibly a no less imperialist vision.

Below, Nafisa spinning cotton while her grandmother, Al-Sit, recounts the story of her own marriage to a much older man. “A thread will break where it is weak”, the Sudanese proverb reminds us.

“Countries are not so much about the formal state as they are about the culture, the people, the songs, the food, the stories, and my memories growing up. Stories of daily life, of family relationships, and of community kinships are the ones I am most interested in telling when it comes to my films, regardless of the larger questions of national belonging.”

Suzannah Mirghani

Above, some of our women’s literacy participants attending literacy circles with their children.

Child marriage affects every aspect of a girl’s life. Girls who marry early are denied their childhood.  Once married, these girls have little or no access to education and economic opportunities and they and their families have little or no access to education and economic opportunities and their families are more likely to live in poverty.  Child brides also face a higher risk of experiencing dangerous, life -threatening complications in pregnancy, contracting HIV, and suffering domestic and sexual violence. Child marriage deprives girls of their right to choose if, when and whom to marry and what type of family to create. it also deprives girls of their rights to education, to health, and to live in security.

“Amnesty International The Devastating Impact of Child Marriage on Girl

Child Marriage

Videos and Sources

Watch the trailer (with English subtitles) below:

Watch a three-minute clip from the film with Spanish subtitles here:

Below, A BBC Arabic interview with the director. She speaks in English and is subtitled in Arabic.

Below, interview with Suzannah Mirghani. Although the questions are in Arabic, Suzannah replies in English for greater clarity.

Further Sources

Espresso Video with Suzannah Mirghani

Meet the Talented Sudanese Film Maker

Behind Award-Winning Film Al-Sit; 500 Words

Below, Al-SIt running rings around her son and daughter-in-law.

This is a cultural post for

Women’s Education Partnership

See Community Literacy, Latest News and At a Glance for more about our work.

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