Imagine a university whose students are all women, which is secular and which has placed working with the community at the very heart of its mission - and is located in an Islamist North African country.
Ahfad University for Women (AUW) would seem unusual in any country, but its location in Omdurman near Khartoum in Sudan, a country better known for long drawn-out civil war and a controversial Islamist regime than for playing home to progressive institutions of higher education, makes it extraordinary.
"Ahfad is women-only not for religious reasons but to give women an institution of their own," says Gasim Badri, president of AUW and grandson of the founder Sheikh Babiker Badri, attending the Talloires Network Leaders Conference in Madrid on 14-16 June. "At most universities women came as an addition to male-dominated faculty and student bodies; here this is definitely not the case."
It is one of 20 universities from around the world profiled in the book The Engaged University: International perspectives on civic engagement which was unveiled at the conference on 15 June.
Founded in 1907, AUW began life as Sudan's first school for girls, opened a university college in 1966 and attained full university status in 1995. "We have schools of medicine, business and pharmacy - the usual departments you would find in a co-educational institution - but this university is unique because its curriculum is geared towards the needs of our students and to be able to serve women in the community," says Badri.
Serving the community and promoting national development are an explicit part of AUW's mandate - Badri defines AUW as "funded by the community, run by the community to serve the community" - and the curricula reflect this. While they are in line with international standards, there is a strong concern to make curricula community-oriented and highly relevant to the specific conditions in Sudan.
All students, regardless of their specialisation, are required to participate in community-based learning and research projects, typically by doing a placement in a village during the summer holidays. This means around 850 students per year, working together in groups of 25-30 people, for periods of one to six weeks at a time.
"Students of medicine will work on health issues, nutritionists on nutrition, but they will also try and help change negative social habits that affect women such as early marriage or female genital mutilation, or they may provide training in income-generating activities," says Badri. Students write a collective report on their return and may also carry out needs assessment during their stay in rural communities. "Their presence in the villages can also serve to motivate some girls to come to Ahfad," says Badri.
Faculty are expected to show a similar commitment to the ideal of community service in the most practical of fashions. New recruits are asked to sign a contract whereby they agree to support the university's founding principles of civic engagement. Since 2001, all faculties regardless of subject area are expected to take part in rural extension programmes for four successive years. From then on, lecturers are expected to dedicate between six and 10 hours every week to civic activities which can consist of relevant project work, research, training or consultancy. These activities can also count for up to 30% of criteria for promotion.
Gasim Badri reports that some faculty are more enthusiastic than others about the requirement for active civic engagement, though more due to lack of familiarity with this kind of work than concerns over their status. "When the faculty are graduates of Ahfad, there is generally no problem," he says. "When they were trained at other universities, we have to make more of an effort to get them into the mould of Ahfad."
When asked if a secular, women-only institution such as AUW ever runs into problems with the Sudanese authorities, Badri laughingly replies that this has been a feature of the institution's story from the outset. He describes how the opening of the Ahfad school for girls planned for 1904 was held up for three years by the refusal of the British administrator to grant an operating licence.
"Different governments have always tried to put obstacles in the path of Ahfad but we always prevail," says Badri. "They may not like our way of doing things, but we do not get involved in politics and our institution has a good reputation in the country."
Under the authoritarian rule of Omar al-Bashir AUW has experienced few problems and has established good working relations with the Ministry of Higher Education, although Badri reports the existence of "reactionary forces within the government who see us as secular therefore a danger to their moral stance". This has in the past led to accusations that AUW is somehow not really Sudanese.
"They say we are westernised but I always reply that government universities such as the University of Khartoum were set up by the British. So Ahfad is actually the only institution that is truly Sudanese - it was started by Sudanese and works according to Sudanese tradition and that is why it has been able to survive all the upheavals," says Badri.
I think the Ahfad University for Women established the culture of women's rights in Africa.
Abdelhameed M. Ali
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