Sudanese women at the forefront against the Khartoum regime
Women were the first victims of the Islamic-military dictatorship of Omar al-Bashir. Now they are playing a leading role in the protests in Sudan.
Turqa, a 17-year-old protester, is full of rage. There is hatred and the need for justice, if not revenge, in her big, almond eyes. “On February 16, I was arrested in Omdurman,” she says amidst the commotion of the crowd. “Security forces hit me. I had a severe trauma on my head and lost a lot of blood. They also shaved my head in order to humiliate me.”
Turqa is not the only woman to face harsh treatment. Dozens of women and girls are telling similar stories of violent arrests, threats of rape, humiliation and ponytails cut with razor blades. In a recent report, Human Rights Watch (HRW) described how women have been deliberately targeted by the regime’s security forces in their response to the protests. Since December, more than 45 women have found themselves behind bars.
Security forces loyal to al-Bashir felt threatened by women “because they were aware of their power and the strength of their commitment,” says 21-year-old Amani, wearing dark sunglasses. A few weeks ago, she lost an eye after being hit by a sting ball grenade launched by the police. “I have no doubt that it was a voluntary act on their part,” she says.
In a little cafe hidden under a tree a few steps away from the sit-in, Amani gulps down a ginger tea and quickly gathers her things: she has to go. The revolution is not over yet.
Jehanne Henry, associate director in Human Rights Watch’s Africa division, recently drew attention to the “significant role played historically by Sudanese women in the arena of political activism” and confirmed that there is no reliable evidence proving that women are more active during this revolution than in any previous protests in the country.
Icon of the revolution
Sudan has a long history of female activism. Women of the urban North were among the first to start civil society organizations in the country. The most important was the Sudanese Women’s Union, founded in 1952. There were other pioneering groups as well, such as the League of Cultivated Girls, the Association for the Advancement of Women and the Republican Sisters.
“In addition to these exclusively feminist organizations, Sudanese women also joined the Communist Party, which was then the only political party in Sudan that allowed women to become members. The activists were also strong supporters of the nationalist movement. In 1953, when Sudan’s independence was looming, hundreds of women organized a march from Khartoum to Omdurman,” explains Marie-Grace Brown, professor of history at the University of Kansas and author of “Khartoum at Night: Politics and Fashion Politics in Imperial Sudan”.
“Unlike what happened in Egypt, for instance, the Sudanese woman doesn’t feel like she is breaking a taboo by going out on the streets. For her, the mobilization is a natural thing,” says Marc Lavergne, a Sudan specialist and researcher at CNRS. “One has to really get over the general idea that because the woman is veiled and wears a toub [it] means that she is disengaged and submissive.”
The toub, a traditional Sudanese garment, is not just a simple accessory: it’s a symbol with strong political meaning. In the 1940’s, toubs were the working uniform of women in middle-class and upper-class. The activists have now adopted it, and it was brought up-to-date a few weeks ago by Alaa Salah, a young protester who, dressed in white, became an icon of the revolution after a video of her leading chants on al-Qiyada went viral.
“During the Bashir years, the regime tried to make women abandon this coat, which comes in very colorful versions, for a black one seen as more Islamic, more decent, but to no avail,” Lavergne adds.
Despite the political legacy of Sudanese women, al-Bashir’s regime had deprived them of some of their social and political freedoms. Al-Bashir was highly influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood and acted to limit the presence of women in the public sphere by leveraging moral, personal and criminal laws against them. According to the United Nations Development Program’s (UNDP) Gender Equality Index, Sudan fell from 109th out of 147 countries in 1995 to 129th last year–20 places in less than 25 years.
Lubaba al-Fadol is one of the many Sudanese women committed to seeing Sudan close the gender equality gap. She led the Women’s March on May 1 in Khartoum and wants to remind the military as well as the leaders of the Association for Freedom and Change, which is leading the protest movement, that women will not just help the next group of men get into positions of power.
“Until now, women accounted for only 20 to 30 percent of high-ranking positions in the country, in ministries and in parliament. Today, we want to reclaim equality. We are demanding 50 percent. Mothers and daughters, we had the courage to take to the streets. We want to be represented,” she said.
(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 5th of May)