Modern Lens

A week in my grand-mother’s tobe

Fatima Khalid Khidir Sultan, in her university in Khartoum. Photo ©Fatima Khalid Khidir Sultan

Shortly after I started TexMeroe, I saw on Twitter the beautiful picture of a young Sudanese woman wearing a traditional white tobe and posing for the camera in her university’s garden. Fresh from reading Khartoum at Night, I had recently discovered the primordial role of the tobe for the emancipation of women throughout Sudan’s modern history. So her image really resonated with me. I got in touch with her – oh marvel of social media! – and she started telling me about the origin of this picture and her experience wearing the traditional garment. Nowadays, young men and women attending universities in Khartoum are dressed like any other students worldwide: jeans and t-shirts basically, sprinkled with a few shirts and longer tunics. The tobe is confined to important social and family events such as weddings. Choosing to go to school dressed in a long and enveloping white tobe is far from insignificant and she certainly must have stand out among her fellow students! Here is Fatima, recalling her week wearing her grand-mother’s clothes:

“I’ve always loved our traditional costume, the tobe. I really like how beautiful and diverse they are, how they come in all colors, designs and interesting patterns, and how gorgeous women look wearing them. Growing up I got to learn that the tobe wasn’t only worn by married women, like nowadays, and that it was worn as a uniform at universities and schools too! The female students used to wear a white tobe. Ever since, I always wondered how it felt to wear it on a daily basis: I had worn a tobe only once at a traditional day at my university and it wasn’t that comfortable. I thought to myself “why wonder when I can try it myself?”. So that’s exactly what I did. I decided to get a white tobe like the ones the students used to wear back in the day and wear it for a week.

©Fatima Khalid Khidir Sultan

I got the tobe from my grandmother who was really excited about the idea. It’s not every day that your granddaughter asks for a tobe, and she was very proud of me. My mom was excited too, to see me experience something she herself did not do when she was a student. She made a lot of suggestions and her advice really helped a lot.

So I started going to my university wearing the white tobe every day for a whole week! It was hard at the beginning as it limited my movements to some extent. There is a particular way to wear it and I was not used to it, since I wear pants most if the time. But I got used to it eventually. People’s reactions were lovely and they were very supportive too. As a matter of fact, the following week, many girls from my class decided to wear the tobe together for a whole day! It was really nice to see that I had such an impact on them.

The experience was really fun! I felt like a queen walking around wearing it. For some reason, the tobe gives you a sophisticated attitude: with its many folds and complicated wraps, you have to be careful with your movements so that it won’t fall off or look messy. It was really great trying the tobe! I also became good at wearing it which I am proud of. Shout out to all the awesome women who used to wear the tobe on daily basis!”

 Fatima Khalid Khidir Sultan

I am really happy to have come across Fatima and her great initiative, and I hope we will soon meet in Khartoum. Reading about her personal and social experiment, we are reminded of the importance clothing take in our daily life. Her tobe embodies so much more than her desire to look a certain way: it speaks about transmission between generations and women’s status. The tobe also accompanies Fatima as she moves through space and influences her behavior, changing her from an every-day student to a “sophisticated queen”!

Tags : clothingcultural identityfashionmodernsudan
Elsa Yvanez

The author Elsa Yvanez

I am an archaeologist, researcher and post-doctoral fellow at the Centre for Textile Research, Copenhagen University.