The Sudanese national dress for women, referred to as a toub/thoub is a long piece of cloth (usually4.5 meters) that is wrapped around the body and looped over the head and tossed over the right shoulder. It is probably the single most defining symbol of Sudanese women in the past and today. Despite the country’s variety in cultural diversity the toub is adorned by women all across Sudan ( with slightly varying styles). Women in chad, Niger parts of Mali and Mauritania also wear similar garments. I always found it uncanny how although Sudan and Mauritania are on opposite sides of the continent they wear the toub in a very similar manner. A lot of the times you cannot distinguish a Sudanese woman from a Mauritanian one. It also bears some similarity to the Indian sari, as in some styles the toub is tied around the waist and looped around like some Indian styles.
It is a dress that many Sudanese poets, singers and artists spent quiet a bit of time describing. The title of my blog post are lines from Mohamed Wardi’s (famous Sudanese singer) lyrics. It roughly translates to “My country the beloved…Jalabia (white long tunics worn by men) and Toub ( garments worn by women). Many songs, poems and visual art pieces describe or convey the way it is modest yet allows for women to retain some elements of femininity. Like Mauritanians, Sudanese women are preferred to be “round” so that their curves are accentuated when wearing the toub. Skinner women are often encouraged to put on a bit more weight so the toub “sits well on them.”
I came across this Aljazeera English piece(2:49) on this unique dress, how it has changed through time, and what it means to Sudanese women of all generations. Watch below:
Although it was adorned by all women several decades back, it is now mainly worn by married women. Toubs make up an essential part of the Shailya (dowry) or gifts from the groom to his bride. Now a days toubs are what women are using to make statements. Growing up outside of Sudan, I only saw these toubs in special Sudanese events (weddings, Eid, etc) and women scrutinized the details and styles of each toub. Every so often new styles come out with very interesting names. It is essential that women precisely match the color of the skirt,shirt and accessories otherwise it is seen as somewhat taboo to wear mismatching colors. For those who run in elite circles it is taboo to be seen with the same toub twice.
During the 1950s the toub became a symbol of female empowerment. At a time where very few women were allowed to work outside the home, as the clip alludes, women marched in the streets with their toubs to demand they get equal working opportunities. Today the national work dress code for women in all public institutions is a white toub. Today women make up a significant portion of the work force and have risen to positions of prominence; a key indication is the number of women represented in the National Council of Ministers.
Many young women today opt not to wear the toub, particularly in universities, but it still remains very much part of the culture and many look forward to owning their own set of toubs. While many see their national dresses as somewhat restrictive and sadly backwards because they do not fit the Western ideal, I am happy to see that Sudanese women embrace their toubs and take pride in wearing them. Seeing a women in a foreign country walking down the street, or at an airport, etc wearing a toub puts a smile on my face and instantly elicits a feeling of comfort.
In the very limited literature and references that are found on this Sudanese garment, it is always stated that it migrated from India or influenced by the Roman toga. In all instances this literature assumes that this dress was borrowed from elsewhere. As I was digging in and trying to better understand my history, and life of the Nubians, I came across a surprising discovery. Nubian civilization is characterized by 3 stages; where each marked a transition in the civilization and relocation of the capital. This rich history is often forgotten/overlooked and many always assume that the Nubian civilization was a transition from pharaonic traditions, when in reality the first phases of this civilization predated the pharaohs by several centuries. During the second major phase of Nubian civilization (Meroitic Period), jewelery, frescos and paintings etched on pottery that were discovered depicting women of the Royal Court wearing transparent loose robes of linen that reached down to their ankles. These clothes had folds that were draped over the right shoulder and folded down the back. This description is very similar to modern-day Sudanese toubs. Also during this period, women were depicted as obese, as a sign of beauty (R. S. Bianchi, Daily Life of the Nubians (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2004). For more info on Nubian civilization customs and dress. There is no doubt that designs and styles of the modern-day toub were influenced by the Indians and Romans as many sources suggest, but I am pleased to find this is garment was conceived by the Nubians and carried forward today by modern-day Sudanese and women across the Sahara to Chad, Niger, Mali and Mauritania. It is refreshing to see that as opposed to the common notion that it was brought to Africa, this is something that was 100% home-grown. Has anyone considered if the Nubian garments influenced the Romans and various Indian civilizations?