The Rahat Skirt
Above, detail of a rahat skirt from a colonial print, personal collection.
Below, Nubian rahat skirt, early 20th century, Sudan, made of animal hide, plant fibre, glass beads and cowrie shells, courtesy of the Redpath Museum, Montreal, reproduced in a fascinating article by Marie-Louise Labelle:
Setting the Scene
This week’s article is the fifth in the series of brief posts dedicated to aspects of Sudanese women’s attire and adornments. Today I look at a garment with a complex legacy; the Sudanese leather / grass / straw skirt, known in Sudanese Arabic as the rahat. Once worn by most unmarried girls in northern and western Sudan as their only garment until their wedding day, today the rahat is confined to traditional northern Sudanese jirtig wedding rituals where, if worn at all, it is displayed over the bride’s elaborate wedding robes.
Over recent decades, the cultural symbolism of the rahat and its acceptability has proved fluid, shifting with the ebb and flow of colonial, religious, political and feminist – African womanist understandings of identity and canons of modesty as they are reflected in dress. The rahat has been both frowned upon and reclaimed enthusiastically by Sudanese women themselves, some of whom have spoken affectionately of the rahat and its role in jertig wedding rituals on TV and radio, urging brides to stay loyal to a tradition some fear is fading among younger generations.
Above left, a colonial photograph of a young girl; the myriad graceful strands of her rahat skirt echoing her delicate plaits.
See more in this series of posts:
Above, Griselda El Tayib’s account of the history of the rahat, from Regional Folk Costumes of the Sudan, to the backdrop of a colonial era print, personal collection. Note the long straps of the rahat reaching down to the ankles. Griselda El Tayib goes on to relate that on a young woman’s wedding day, an “especially beautiful” rahat was worn.
Above, women displaying a richly tasseled rahat at an Omdurman crafts exhibition, colonial era.
“In Omdurman, as girls grew older, they used to wear a simple shift over the leather rahat, which is still to be seen far out in the rural areas, but no longer in the three towns. Today very young girls wear just a cotton skirt, later a shift or dress until they are about twelve or reach puberty. Then they begin to put on a tahir…”
Anne Cloudsley, writing on 1960-70s Omdurman, observing that the rahat, while still occasionally worn in rural areas, was no longer seen in the three town of the capital (Women of Omdurman). Right, a colonial era photograph of young Omdurman girls wearing their rahat skirts.
The complexities and caveats surrounding reproducing images taken from colonial perspectives are touched on below. To avoid any cultural offence, where appropriate, I have cropped or edited some images. See more on the potentially “distorting prism” of the colonial gaze in Sudanese clothing through the modern lens
Below, a modern rahat skirt on display at one of our literacy circles, where critical discussion of marriage customs is encouraged.
The Rahat Skirt
Curating the Past for the Future
The Colonial Gaze
The Cutting of the Rahat
Above, An Egyptian / Sudanese leather and cowrie shell rahat, pre-1883. The rahat is believed to be one of the oldest types of fibre/leather skirt in northeastern Africa and Sudanese rahat were exported to Egypt for many years; British Museum Collection
Curating the Past for the Future
In 2016, second-year Glasgow University textile conserver, Hannah Sutherland stepped into new territory when she agreed to undertake the conservation of an artifact affectionately known as “the bird’s nest”. She recalls the skirt was made of “many leather strands knotted onto a single horizontal strand; plaited cords, leather tassels, shells and beads for the decoration. When it came into the studio the dress was folded in half, which had allowed the leather strands to tangle together: There was also dust present on the beads and shells”.
The rahat Hannah so meticulously restored is one of several held in British museums and as colonially acquired artifacts, the manner of their acquisition and the context in which they are displayed have become the subject of scrutiny and reappraisal.
Another museum rahat below:
The Colonial Gaze
Photographs and references to the rahat recur in colonial accounts of life in Sudan. The example above is from the short story, The Dervish Rosary, Land of the Blue Veil, by Allan Worsley, 1940. The rahat is also mentioned in other passages of the book.
Although a desire to focus on perceived exoticism and “otherness” may have motivated much of colonial interest in the rahat – the “deforming prism” of the colonial gaze, the practicality and beauty of the skirt were also acknowledged. So much so that colonial educators such as Ina Beasley, superintendent and later controller of girls’ education in Sudan, and “model of Victorian propriety” saw in the rahat a solution to low school attendance by girls who didn’t have sufficient clothes to attend regularly or, in colonial eyes, sufficiently modest clothes to attend. The rahat, in Beasley’s view could replace the labour-intensive care required of cotton clothes and so inexpensively “solve the problem of the underdressed schoolgirl” at a time when Sudanese dress had not yet become standardized.
However, as Marie Grace Brown notes in her fascinating study of Fashion and Body Politics in Imperial Sudan, Khartoum at Night, Beasley’s decision to adopt the rahat was to cause outrage among the Shabarga mothers of the schools she administered. For the Shabarga, the rahat was “only suitable for Arabs wandering in the desert”. Ina Beasley had failed to see that cultural transferability was not automatic or read the many cultural and ethnic nuances at play in the Sudanese gaze. Perhaps though, the real message of this episode was that Beasley’s willingness to introduce the rahat to girls in Shabarga “speaks volumes on the ongoing civility, economy, and the importance of girls’ education. Likewise, the Shabarga mothers and daughters struggled to balance modest dress and school attendance with their true sartorial selves.” Khartoum at Night, p95/6″
The Cutting of the Rahat – A Bridal Bouquet
Above, an illustration by Griselda El Tayib’s Regional Folk Costumes of the Sudan, p139. She notes, “in the 1960s brides were still wearing the tayara over the jadla. long strands of thread that hang down the back like hair. The rahat is worn under her dress….Today the rahat is worn over the dress or not at all.”
Writing in the 1980s in Sisters under the Sun, Marjorie Hall and Bakhita Amin Ismail relate what they view as “the most symbolic act in all the wedding festivities”- the cutting of the rahat, worn under the bride’s “short coloured wedding dress”. The throwing of the cut rahat tassels to the wedding guests has been likened more than once by Sudanese women commentators to the bouquet thrown by the bride at western weddings:
“When she has completed her dances, the groom steps forward and lifts the hem of her dress in order to cut off seven tassels of the rahat, which he holds up for all to see and then throws to the guests….When the rahat has been severed the groom gives the bride’s mother a gift of money which can be as much as 100 Sudanese pounds to denote the handing over of the bride.” “It is only when the rahat has been cut by the groom that the bride is considered to be his wife.”
Sisters under the Sun, Marjorie Hall and Bakhita Amin Ismail, Longman, 1981, p168
Colonial Account of the Cutting of the Rahat
“Bride dancing at the subheya in 1936, the traditional bridal dance consisting of a number of arous (bridal ) songs accompanied by clapping, ululations and the beat of bongos. She wears a rahat skirt with a hagu belt. On her arm is a sin fil (ivory) bracelet. She is also wearing a cylindrical leather amulet…” Griselda El Tayib, as above, p138.
From Sudan Notes and Records, Volume V, 1922.
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Below, a literacy and numeracy game at one of our literacy circles, held before the pandemic.