Khartoum, Asharq Al-Awsat—Unsurprisingly, you won’t find any male students in the lecture halls of Sudan’s famous women’s university. The students here are more concerned with fulfilling their potential than attracting the attention of the other sex. These young women, known for their grace and poise, have come to be known as “Ahfad girls.”
The president of the university Professor Gasim Badri reflects the relaxed atmosphere of the university in his casual dress and demeanor. “Everything in the university is relaxed, there’s no pretentiousness,” Hanin, a student in the medical sciences school, says she told her father when he commented on Ahfad University’s prestigious history of enlightenment and culture.
Students of Ahfad are known for much more than their elegance. They’re proud of their university, its modern curriculum, and the fact that it stands out as a pioneering in independent women’s college. Students are particularly proud of the specializations offered at the university, which seek to address the needs of society, and the fact that it is home to Sudan’s first Gender Studies institute.
The idea for the university, located in Omdurman, can be traced back to the pioneer of women’s education in Sudan, Sheikh Babiker Badri. His grandchildren then developed that dream from a small women’s school in a remote village on the banks of the Blue Nile to full scale university renowned for its commitment to academic rigor and research.
Since its beginnings as a school for girls in Rufu’a in 1907, Ahfad University has seen several different phases in its history, including a move to Omdurman in the 1930s.
After the death of Babiker Badri, his son Yusuf Badri took over administration of the school. During his time the school became Ahfad University for Women in 1966. At the time the college consisted of the school of family sciences and a secretarial school. Later a school of psychology was added, and a school of childhood development. In 1995, the college became an independent university, which now has 7000 undergraduate students currently enrolled.
Based on its philosophy of producing graduates to meet the nation’s needs, the university offers a number of specialities not found in other institutes of higher education in Sudan such as an Early Childhood Development Center, a Center for Nutrition Training and Research, and a School of Rural Extension, Education, and Development. Ahfad University also has colleges of medicine, pharmacology, rural development, management, psychology, and computer and technological sciences.
Ahfad University is one of the few universities in the world that offers education exclusively to women. While there are women’s colleges in the Gulf there are few that are not part of larger institutions. The Sudanese therefore consider the existence of Ahfad University a point of pride.
The university has a long history. After he returned to his family having survived the 1898 war between Anglo-Egyptian and Sudanese forces, the young soldier Babiker Badri settled in Rufu’a on the banks of the Blue Nile, south of Khartoum. There he set up a secular school unlike the rest of the traditional religious schools. In addition to being deeply religious, he had the radical idea that women should receive some education, perhaps, the University’s website speculates, because he had thirteen daughters.
Fearing a popular backlash, the British colonial administration denied Badri’s requests to establish a school for girls several times, eventually relenting in 1907. Babiker subsequently began teaching nine of his daughters and 8 local girls in a mud hut. On his death, his son Yusuf Badri continued to expand, becoming dean of the new Afhad University in 1996.
Today, Yusuf Badri is considered the true founder of the college. Upon his death in 1995, his son Gasim Badri took over and expanded the curriculum, leading to it being granted full university status by the Sudanese authorities in the mid-1990s. Today, Ahfad University for Women is the oldest and largest private university in Sudan. It may be the only private women’s university in Africa.
The university’s philosophy is based on preparing women to assume responsible roles in their families, communities, and in the nation. In keeping with this objective “the Ahfad experience” embraces a combination of academic courses, on-the-job training, individual research, and community extension activities. This combination of activities is designed to prepare women from all parts of Sudan to become agents of change in their families and communities and to assume leadership positions in society.
Through its scientific curriculum and work programs the university attempts to implement Babiker Badri’s vision of integrated religious instruction and secular education and improving health, nutrition, child care, and social development to prepare men, women, and young people for life in a modern society.
However, the university has always aimed to create an apolitical environment on campus. This policy sets Ahfad University apart from other higher learning institutions in Sudan, which have a long history of political activity by the students that often leads to school closures due to student protests. At Ahfad, controversial politics are not allowed on school grounds, though the school does not interfere with the students political activities outside of school.
Commitment to world class education and preparation for leadership positions for women in a non-political environment has remained the basic purpose of AUW. In keeping with its philosophy of preparing women for leadership positions, campus-based instruction is in English.
Professor Gasim Badri, president of the university, told Asharq al-Awsat that his university specializes in all matters related to the family, including mother and children’s health, child development, and health sciences. The university is also interested in reproductive health, nutrition, rural development, and improving the welfare of women and society as a whole.
Badri added that his university is emulating universities in the developed world in order to achieve his goals of developing graduate schools and advancing infrastructure. The university has produced graduates that play significant roles in enriching society some of whom have become governmental ministers in Sudan, Comoros, and South Sudan.