Meet Nahid Toubia
In mid-1984, Dr. Nahid Toubia was the only female doctor arrested in a group of 20 doctors who were picked up by security agents from their homes and from hospitals they worked in.
Sudan was at a crossroad. The economic situation was desperate. Bread queues were long and electricity rare. Operating rooms were deserted as doctors were unable to operate and it became an ordinary occurrence for people to die from treatable diseases.
With the health system failing, doctors who were organized under the doctors’ syndicate at the time had to find a way to protest what they saw as a healthcare system in crisis.
Toubia was the secretary of the doctors’ syndicate in Khartoum at that time and their position was to get all doctors in Sudan to resign en masse as a sign of protest. During this period, she played a crucial role as a member of the committee working to collect the resignation letters as part of a civil action to protest the deteriorating economic situation and the political deadlock.
“There were 419 doctors at the time. After six months of meeting with doctors in different hospitals and getting the syndicate branches in different states to start working, we were able to convince all of them except 30 Islamist doctors. It was not easy as most of the doctors especially the female doctors who were the majority were uneasy about being involved in politics.” Toubia recounts to us her recollections from this period, sitting in her office in Khartoum in October 2018.
The resignations were submitted in one file and the masterminds behind this initiative were quickly arrested.
As the only female detainee at the time, the officers had nowhere to take her.
“They took me to Kober prison, but the prison guards said that they had no place for women, then they took me with the others to Omdurman prison and the guards refused to accept doctors into their wardens.”
Eventually, she was taken to Al-Sharqi police station where there was no water or electricity and she slept on the floor of one of the offices.
On the second day of her detention, she cleaned the storage room, moving the petroleum canisters and stored items to a side and carving out a corner for herself to put her mattress on the floor. She put a single flower brought to her by a friend in a Pepsi-cola bottle and sat there reading a book brought to her by her father.
“I made the place homely to me, I am quick to adapt,” said Toubia with a smile on her face.
That same day, the news came in, the doctors would be charged with grand treason which is a capital crime and their stint in prison looked like it could drag on for a long time.
On the third day of her detention, the World Health Organization declared Sudan unsafe due to the unavailability of health facilities and services and threatened to shut down the airport and declare the country a crisis zone.
“The government was terrified and they had no choice but to let us go and they did,” said Toubia.
The whole country was following their news closely and upon their release, students from the University of Khartoum marched in a protest against the deteriorating situation in the country and as they marched, they carried the released doctors on their shoulders. They were heroes and Nahid Toubia became a heroine in her field.
On her “becoming”
Nahid Toubia was born Nahid Farid Toubia in the post-office neighborhood of Khartoum North (Khartoum Bahri) in 1951. She is a middle child , one of 7 siblings, four girls and three boys. She was born to a white collar worker working at Al-Gezira Agricultural Scheme then at the National Cash Register Company. Her father then became the general manager of the latter.
She attended school in Khartoum where the family moved in 1966. Her father built the family house on street 5 of Al-Amarat, the same address where she now lives and works.
At the age of 16, she joined the University of Khartoum for one year before she went to Egypt to study medicine at the Faculty of Medicine.
“I think I was fulfilling my mother’s dream. She married after completing high school and wanted us to go to university and she had close friends who were doctors and was very fond of me studying medicine,” Toubia explains.
In Cairo, Toubia immersed herself into the cultural scene. She would buy books the minute she received her stipend from the Sudanese embassy in Cairo and from her father in Sudan. She read plays and went to the theatre.
It was also in Cairo where she found feminism.
“I always knew that I was different, I had feminist tendencies, but didn’t have the language to explain this. I remember going to a talk by Nawal Al-Saadawi in the 1960s and she was saying things no one spoke about at the time. I remember crying when I saw her speak publicly.”
Feminist discourse became key to Dr. Toubia’s future work and her involvement in working on female genital mutilation and reproductive rights.
When she returned to Sudan from Cairo, she began her internship at the Khartoum hospital. That same year, a Sudanese medical board examination to allow doctors to specialize in surgery came into existence. Beforehand, Sudanese doctors would study and be examined by a committee from the British medical board.
“I was excited and said to myself and to others that I will specialize in surgery because I can do it and I applied to the Sudanese board and was rejected. I heard that the head of the committee, Dr. Omer Beleil, told people that we cannot allow a woman and a Coptic Christian to become a surgeon,” she recalls.
Toubia fought hard. She shared her frustration with Dr. Ahmed Abdelaziz, a senior surgeon at the time who fought to get her a place and he succeeded. However, unlike her male counterparts who were selected in the batch, she had to pay.
When she completed the two-part exam, Toubia scored the highest marks and received honors.
“They had a party where they celebrated us, but until today, I have not received my honors certificate.”
The feeling of being discriminated against and her general frustration led Toubia to the United Kingdom where she completed her surgical training and became the first female surgeon in Wales.
“When I was a registrar in Wales, they had no female registrars,” she explains.
She stayed in the United Kingdom working long shifts as a surgeon, until an article on circumcision by Fran Hosken caught her attention.
“I did not like her approach, but her article made me curious. Every morning, I would go to the library and conduct research on circumcision until I got a desk there and began going there every morning and worked the night shift in the hospital just to pay the bills.”
It was in that library that Toubia worked on her paper on what came to be known as female genital mutilation and found her passion working on reproductive health.
Longing for home and after a solid work experience in the United Kingdom, Toubia came back to Sudan to work in the pediatric surgery section at Khartoum hospital and became active in the doctor’s syndicate as they organized the doctors for the collective resignation mentioned above.
She continued her work and research on FGM.
Then, the BBC found her paper which was one of a small number of papers available on FGM. A team came to Sudan to produce a documentary on the topic and interviewed her.
“I did the interview and kind of forgot about it, but then it appeared in pirated videos that were available for rent at VCR shops in Khartoum and the video quickly spread and I began receiving calls and invitations to give talks.”
From then on, Toubia was carrying her VCR machine and the pirated video and driving her blue Toyota to speak to audiences about FGM all over Sudan.
“I remember getting an invitation from a cultural club that met in downtown Khartoum to speak about this issue and present my video and that night, I could not sleep. I kept asking myself what narrative I would share with my audience. Will I tell them that FGM is an attempt to control the sexuality of women or will I just give them a narrative about it being part of harmful traditions?”
By the time Toubia appeared on Al-Baladiya avenue that evening, her mind was set. She asked them to prepare a chalkboard and began drawing the female reproductive organ and spoke about the importance of the clitoris.
FGM in the big apple
In 1985, a few months after her detention, an uprising happened and the incumbent dictator, Jafar Al-Nimeri, was overthrown.
She left Sudan again, this time to New York City where she founded the Research, Action & Information Network for Bodily Integrity of Women known as RAINBO and taught at Columbia University.
RAINBO was a pioneer as it was the first collective effort to work on FGM, in specific, as well as on sexual and reproductive health and rights, in general, that was for and led by African women.
Through RAINBO, she changed the narrative on FGM and turned the issue into one of human rights violation as opposed to a health issue.
“13 years later, I felt like RAINBO did 80% of what it set out to do and and I didn’t want it to become another money-making machine and shift our focus to appease the new donor drive.”
Toubia remembers how tired she was after running RAINBO for over a decade and attempting to adopt another daughter. Years before that, she adopted Samar who is now in college in the UK.
When Samar came into her life, she became part of RAINBO as Dr. Toubia created a work space that is child-friendly and brought her child to work with her.
When she came back to Sudan in 2007 after years of living in New York City, she wanted to do two things.
“I wanted to sleep in my father’s house and take a break from working and I wanted to save my daughter from the British educational system.”
A warrior needs to rest after a fight and she did for a few months as she invested energy into renovating her father’s house. By that time and until today, she is the only family member living in Sudan.
“When I decided to get back to work, I knew I wanted to work in my area of passion, reproductive and sexual rights and health and at the time, it was a taboo issue; you could not speak about it.”
Toubia decided to channel her energy into founding the White Ribbon Alliance chapter in Sudan to work on maternal mortality and in launching TedX women in Sudan.
By 2014, she had curated and led three successful TedX events in the country. The same year, her daughter graduated and she had to make the decision of where she plans to spend the third part of her life.
“I have the liberty to be based anywhere, I could have gone back to New York City or London, but I wanted to be based in Sudan.”
She renovated the first floor of her father’s house and it was where the Institute for Reproductive Health and Rights (IRHR) was born.
The IRHR is the first to speak about reproductive and sexual rights in the country and now runs a national network focusing on sexual and reproductive health and rights.
It seems that her whole life has been leading to this institute and she hopes that she will share her knowledge on the subject-matter and inspire a movement that can continue a long fight for sexual and reproductive health and rights.