The Women's Revolution: Female Activism in Sudan

The Women's Revolution: Female Activism in Sudan

. 6 min read

After 30 years of military rule under an oppressive dictatorship, Sudan finally overthrew its President, Omar al-Bashir, in April 2019. Throughout his rule, al-Bashir was responsible for widespread rights abuses. He sent child soldiers along with militias to fight the war in Yemen. In the Darfur region of Sudan, he killed between 200,000 to 400,000 people in his ethnic cleansing campaign against the non-Arab population and allowed the military to rape the civilian population. He also allowed the military to bomb villages during his anti-insurgent campaign in South Sudan.

Women, in particular, had to endure years of injustice under al-Bashir’s rule. In 1996, al-Bashir passed the Public Order laws that prohibited women from violating certain dress codes and standards of behavior. For example, women could be whipped for choosing to wear pants or not covering their hair, and they were not allowed to spend time with any non-relative man. Additionally, Sudan has one of the highest rates of female genital mutilation (FGM) in the world, and Sudanese law allows fathers to force their daughters to marry as young as age 10.

The end of al-Bashir’s rule is a significant step in combating these widespread rights abuses. Notably, this victory would not have been possible without opposition activists, especially women, who constituted 70 percent of the protesters.

A 2016 report from Human Rights Watch indicated that Sudanese authorities have historically silenced women activists with libel and rape threats. In light of these attempts to silence women activists and render them invisible to the public eye, it is critical to document and share their stories. Doing so ensures that women are not solely portrayed as the passive victims of oppressive regimes, but as individuals who actively drive change.

A Legacy of Resistance

The protests in recent years were not the only time that al-Bashir saw political unrest since the beginning of his rule in 1989. It is helpful to place these attempts at resistance in the context of a broader historical timeline. After al-Bashir assumed power, he instituted Sharia law in Sudan. This decision ultimately created a source of tension between Sudan’s northern Muslim population and its southern Christian population. When non-Arabs started to rise up against al-Bashir’s dictatorial rule in 2003, he launched a campaign of ethnic cleansing.

In response to these longstanding tensions, South Sudan seceded in July 2011, taking ownership of the majority of Sudan’s oil fields. As a result of rising commodity prices, more protests broke out in January 2018. When these protests evolved into resistance against al-Bashir himself, the government cracked down on the opposition, marking the beginning of Sudan’s Third Revolution.

When protesters gathered in front of the military headquarters in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, the government responded violently, cutting off access to social media and killing many protesters. The army finally arrested and overthrew al-Bashir in a coup on April 11, 2019. Afterward, the Transitional Military Council (TMC) took control of the government and was met with further resistance from protesters who wanted to establish democracy in the country. Just as al-Bashir had responded violently to protests, so did the TMC, which sent troops to attack the opposition. It was not until July 5 that the TMC announced that civilians and the military would share power over the next few years. They signed this power sharing agreement in August 2019 and formed the sovereign council, a new ruling body. This political transition, made possible by many women protesters, has been referred to as the “Women’s Revolution.”

The Stories of Sudan’s Female Activists

Women played an instrumental role in the protests leading up to the overthrow of al-Bashir on April 11. These female activists hoped to overturn the many discriminatory laws against women and promote gender equality in Sudan. These efforts should not be misread as attempts to criticize Islam. Rather, women were criticizing how the government used religion to oppress its citizens. “They imprisoned us in the name of religion, burned us in the name of religion,” said one 22-year-old protester, Alaa Salah. “But Islam is innocent. Islam tells us to speak up and fight against tyrants…the bullet doesn’t kill. What kills is the silence of the people.”

Women like Salah refused to remain silent in the face of state-sanctioned gender discrimination under al-Bashir, using protest as a way to challenge his regime. The government responded to their efforts with violence and targeted female activists. “Break the girls, because if you break the girls, you break the men,” said one official. According to protester Rifga Abdelrahman, some women were “beaten up, their hair shaved off, insulted, treated in a way that no Sudanese girl should be treated.” One protester, Wifaq Quraishi, recalled how soldiers forced her to undress and then photographed her, threatening to use the pictures as blackmail. However, the stories of women like Quraishi are not narratives of victimhood. Quraishi’s choice to share her story should be seen as a reclamation of agency—a way to assert her own personhood in the face of a government that attempted to silence her.

Despite the military’s violent response, many women have taken a similar path as Quraishi and refused to be silenced. Another protester, Lina Marwan, was at a protest when she was arrested, taken to jail, and beaten with sticks. Despite her experience at the hands of the military, she continued protesting, participating in the demonstrations in Khartoum. Marwan reflected on one of her memories from the protests, when one of her friends’ fathers—who had previously been opposed to his daughter’s participation in the protests—came to join them in the demonstrations: “at that moment, they were fighting for the same thing” and “they weren’t afraid anymore.” One woman, Khadija Saleh, had been abroad for six years, but she still returned in order to participate in the protests: “I came back from a safer place because I want a better future for this country.”

While women like Saleh and Marwan participated directly in the protests, other women found different ways to contribute. For example, one grandmother, Awadia Mahmoud Koko, persuaded a group of restaurants and tea vendors to donate food to the protests. She then oversaw a group of female volunteers who cooked food for the protests in Khartoum. Another woman, Khalda Saber, who worked at a primary school at the time of the revolution, contributed to the revolution by inspiring teachers to join the protests: “I was telling them that there is nothing to lose, compared with what we have already lost. I was telling them that we have to take to the streets, demonstrate and express our rejection to what’s happening,” she said. Even though she was arrested, detained, and beaten by security officers, eventually spending 40 days in detention, Saber still joined the protests at the military headquarters in Khartoum. It was the unrelenting dedication of women like Salah, Abdelrahman, Marwan, Saleh, Quraishi, Koko, and Sabar that gave Sudan’s Third Revolution its nickname: The Women’s Revolution. Sharing their stories is a way to pay respect to their efforts and challenge the notion that men are the primary drivers of revolutionary change.

Rights after the Revolution

In the wake of the revolution, the transitional government has repealed some of the discriminatory laws that were in place under al-Bashir. Since his overthrow, the government has repealed the Public Order laws that regulated how women can behave and dress in public. The government has also made FGM illegal, threatening anyone who conducts the operations with fines and three years in prison.

Although these legal changes represent significant milestones in the fight against gender discrimination, they are not enough to stop rights abuses that many women face. Perpetrators who conduct FGM operations do not always face prosecution because those who have seen or undergone the procedure are afraid to share their story. Furthermore, many think of FGM as a necessary prerequisite to marriage and are reluctant to challenge it. Now that al-Bashir is out of office, some degree of cultural change is necessary to challenge rights violations. For example, one young woman in Kenya, named Nice Leng’ete, has been convincing elders to replace FGM with a different tradition. “It’s just the cut that’s wrong,” said Leng’ete. “All the other things—the blessings, putting on the traditional clothes, dancing, all that—that’s beautiful. But whatever is harmful, whatever brings pain, whatever takes away the dreams of our girls—let’s just do away with that.”

Despite women’s participation in the protests prior to the power-sharing agreement, there is also still much progress to be made in ensuring women’s representation in the new government. During the negotiations leading up to the power-sharing agreement, men excluded women from critical meetings. The current Sovereign Council has 11 members, but only two women hold positions. Women are still fighting for greater representation while the transitional government develops its new legislative council and selects new governors.

Just like in the case of the Public Order laws and FGM, both women and men must commit to challenging the culture of male domination in order to increase female representation in government. Building upon the momentum of the Women’s Revolution is critical. Increasing female participation in government would aid further promotion of women’s rights as well as send a continuing signal that women can be part of Sudan’s new generation of leaders. There are significant cultural and legal barriers to overcome, but Sudanese women have shown they are ready for a fight.

Sydney Young

Sydney is the former Director of Interviews and Perspectives at the HIR. She is interested in health, human rights, and social justice issues.