Photographer Ebti Nabag noticed how second generation Sudanese women in Canada had a complicated relationship with the Sudanese traditional garment, the tobe. Her sensitive photographs of mothers and daughters in their most comfortable states is a testament to changing traditions in the diaspora between generations.
This is Worldtown [TIWT]: Can you explain a bit about the tobe and the role it plays in Sudanese identity?
Ebti Nabag [EN]: The tobe meaning “bolt of cloth” is the national dress for women in North Sudan. Sudanese women are expected to wear the tobe once married. The 15-foot long material comes in many colours and patterns. The style of tobe that is selected by the woman is governed by the age of the female, and the type of occasion she is wearing the tobe to. A young, newlywed female at a social gathering is more likely to wear a vibrant, heavily beaded tobe, while an elderly woman might feel a subtle colour and stitched design is more appropriate.
The tobe represents modesty, it represents womanhood; marriage and fertility, it is an indicator of economic status depending on the style, and embellishment of the design, or lack of. Above all, the tobe is patriotic and is the most valuable gift to gift a Sudanese woman after gold.
TIWT: How have you found the tobe to have been adapted in the diaspora?
EN: The garment has adapted differently: to the mothers the tobe is a reminder and a link to Sudan. The tobe is freely donned by the women in the community centre, at weddings whether Sudanese or not, and social gatherings. It is a piece of home that they can have with them anywhere they go. Seniors tend to be the only ones who are seen wearing the tobe in public spaces such as the mall, restaurants etc.
As for the daughters, the garment t is worn occasionally during weddings, or formal parties. For them there is an extensive thought process behind the decision to wear a tobe.
TIWT: How did this project come about? Why did you want to document the connection mothers and (second generation) daughters have to the tobe?
EN: This projected originated in my personal experience. My mother constantly asked my sister and I for our opinions on which tobe to wear for her outings, and how to match it. It first started off as a chore, but later opened my eyes to how important the tobe is to my mother.
While I was finding out how valuable this garment is to my mother, a friend of mine was getting ready for her wedding. My friend was not pleased with her mother spending a large amount of money purchasing tobes (plural) for her. She preferred [her mother] bought her something she would actually wear. It was then clear to me that our connection to the tobe is quite different than our mothers.
TIWT: How is this connection different from their mothers?
EN: Our mothers embrace the tobe and see it as fundamental to the identity of a Sudanese woman. The mother’s connection to the tobe was fueled by their experiences growing up in Sudan. When women were given the right to education, the tobe was the thing that protected the modesty, and integrity of the woman as she traveled from home to school. The tobe is what linked the woman from the domestic space of the home to education and work. While some might view this as a way to regulate and control women, I believe most women viewed the tobe as their ticket to public spaces, and continued to celebrate the garment. The tobe also served as a platform for women to express their political views. The process of naming each new style of tobe was an indicator of women being active participants in Sudanese society, a society that tried to exclude women from a rapidly changing Sudan. Example ‘The Diplomatic Corps,” “The Political Corps,” , ““The Sound of Music” (1960s”.
For the daughters, Sudanese heritage does not occupy a large portion of their lives. Growing up in Canada allows them to embrace a dual identity, in this case Sudanese-Canadian, can play a role in the decision of embracing the tradition or rejecting it. Identity is a very nebulous dynamic—a fluid idea, that can be linked to generational change and relocation.
TIWT: Who were the women who participated? How did you find them?
EN: Being an active member of the Sudanese community helped me start a conversation about this tradition and get my questions answered. During a community gathering,
I would ask a group of women a question such as “how would you feel if your daughter didn’t wear the tobe after marriage?” Women would then chime in with their remark. I had similar conversations with the younger women using the same discussion technique. It was then easy for me to ask the mothers and their daughters to participate in the project.
TIWT: Is there any story that stood out in particular as portraying the pain of loss in the diaspora? (i.e. losing tradition, losing identity).
EN: What stood out the most to me is the fact that the essence of the tradition has been overshadowed by the [status symbolism] of the tobe. A fashionable tobe in Sudan can range anywhere from 127-212 Canadian dollars. During my 2015 visit to Sudan, I heard a woman ask the owner of a tobe shop if he knows of any second-hand purchasers for her used tobes. The owner replies, “No, but you can donate them to this store around the corner.” Upset the woman replies, “Donate what?, they’re in great condition and some are only worn once.” To my surprise, the rest of the women in the store weigh in on the conversation and their shared dilemma. This luxury market has worked its way into benefiting from the tradition and while doing so it divided the women in social events.
In terms of in the diaspora, one of the last discussions the mothers and daughters had was around the longevity of the tradition. The daughters were asked if they will pass the tradition down to their daughters. It was interesting to hear them say yes, it is something they will do their best to pass down. After all it is their roots. The mothers on the other hand were doubtful of its longevity with future generations, in and outside of Sudan.
TIWT: What is your own personal relation to the tobe?
EN: My personal connection to the garment is my mother. Seeing a woman in a tobe is an automatic reminder of my mother. Without my mother holding on to this tradition and including me in her tobe selection process I would not have any connection to the tradition. Her tobes are what is valuable to me. This is my relationship to garment now. It might change in a few years, it might not.
TIWT: You’ve previously photographed the tobe in abstraction, can you speak a little about why you’ve chosen to do that?
EN: I began the project by producing abstract images of the tobe. The photographs are captured in a way that exalts the tobe. They strip the tobe from its context to show a beautiful abstraction unbound from meaning. It is photographed against the sky, isolated from any human elements. This helped divert any presumptions that a viewer can have if the tobe is worn by a Sudanese woman and is then an obvious cultural symbol. Photographing it as an abstraction gives the audience the freedom to interpret the garment in any way they wish. My first photographs of the tobe were created to capture its beauty, something that we—the younger generation—tended to overlook. The images became a conversation starter for the piece by raising questions about what this garment represents and why first-generation Canadian women have a tenuous relationship with the tradition.
The conversation between the mothers and daughters was loaded with information and contrasting views about the garment, that is why I wanted the images to be unbound and free.
TIWT: What were some of the most surprising things you found about this?
EN: The colonial exchange between Sudanese women and manufacture Tooal, Broadhurst, and Lee based in Manchester is something that stood out to me. Sudanese women bragged about having their tobes made in London, or Switzerland. In the late 1950’s Tooal, Broadhurt and Lee solicited suggestions of tobe names from members of the leading activist group, the Sudanese Women’s Union. This colonial exchange resulted in names such as Aspou Al-Mar’a “Woman’s Week.” Manufactures went through great lengths to anticipate the desires of their distant customers and the women anticipated high quality material tobes, and new fashion trends.