'Fighting for our stolen rights': Sudanese women call for social justice revolution

'Fighting for our stolen rights': Sudanese women call for social justice revolution
After years of systemic discrimination and violence, Sudanese women are now imagining a Sudan without Bashir's regime – a Sudan with social justice and equality.
8 min read
08 March, 2019
Women are calling for an end to the discrimination and harassment endemic under Bashir [Twitter]
When Sara, a 31-year-old Sudanese architect working in a Dubai university, returned home to visit her family last November, little did she know that just a little more than a month later, protests would sweep across Sudan calling for an end to President Omar al-Bashir's 30-year regime and hundreds of demonstrators would be detained – including herself.

While the first protests, which many Sudanese are now calling a revolution, targeted the rising cost of living, they quickly spread calling for an end to a regime which has been called corruptoppressive and responsible for war crimes.

Sara and Nadia, 22-year-old architects from Khartoum, are among hundreds of young women who have taken to the streets of Sudan since December 19, when the protests began.

Now, Sudanese women are dreaming of a future with an equal place in society.

"Bashir's regime tortured, killed and raped thousands of citizens throughout 30 years. They took our freedom," Nadia told The New Arab.

"When this regime falls we will have an end to discrimination against women."

Sara's family had forbidden her from attending protests, fearing harassment by the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS). Nevertheless, six days after protests began, she went anyway. As soon as she arrived, the police began firing tear gas and live ammunition at protesters.

When this regime falls we will have an end to discrimination against women

"I was running blindly... I couldn't see or breathe. One of the protesters who I didn't know was trying to help me – he was literally carrying me since I couldn't run. But we took a wrong turn to a side road and we got caught," she told The New Arab.

"They brutally threw me into the police car. I was verbally harassed then assaulted. They threatened me with rape all the way to the police station. During my detention which lasted five hours, they didn't beat me, [maybe] because I was hysterically crying and I was beaten so bad when I was caught that my clothes were covered with blood… It was a very bad experience to me that I think I'll never recover from it."

Women have not been exempt from Bashir's crackdown on protesters, which has become increasingly brutal since unauthorised demonstrations were officially banned and a state of emergency was announced in late February.

"Women in particular are arrested by force and harassed while in detention and humiliated verbally and physically," Jena, a member of the Sudanese Students Association told The New Arab.

"There have been incidents of women being beaten, having their faces branded, and their hair cut off inside detention centres, even though peaceful protest is a right enshrined in the law."

Such violations are not the first in the history of Bashir's regime. In fact, systemic legal discrimination, pervasive harassment and the use of rape as a weapon of war by regime forces are among the many reasons why people say they are protesting to overthrow the regime and build a state based "freedom, peace and justice" – one of the protests' most common rallying cries.

"Women are leading the protests because they are demanding their stolen rights. They went out [onto the streets] in order to regain their dignity as human beings, and they went out resisting violence, racism, discrimination and exploitation. They went out to demand social justice, and a state based on the rule of law," Jena said. She added that women make up roughly 50 percent of protesters.

Women's leadership is particularly clear at Ahfad University, where the all-women student body has regularly led protests despite threats of expulsion.

Women are leading the protests because they are demanding their stolen rights

The Ahfad University chapter of the Sudanese Students' Association told The New Arab it meets in secret as the university bans political activities. The group led a pressure campaign against the university until it dropped plans to expel students for participating in protests.

Now they say at least 70 percent of the student body has been involved in protest action.

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Five members of the association were detained last week, although they were later released without charge, including Sara. Three other Ahfad students were not so lucky. After their arrest, they were sent to one of the regime's new emergency courts, where they were fined 1,000 Sudanese pounds ($21) each on March 7. The money for the fine was donated by those who attended their sentencing.

But the women of Ahfad's most influential protest happened on March 2, when students donned the traditional white thobe en masse demanding the return to a past where Sudanese women were honoured political leaders and members of society.

A few days later, Sudanese social media was awash with women posing in their white thobes and a hashtag proclaimed the month to be #WhiteMarch.

"The white thobe was originally worn by women before Bashir's rule. It symbolised simplicity, peace and beauty," an Ahfad student told The New Arab on condition of anonymity.

"I believe us wearing it now connects us with the past that everyone is fighting for. The white thobe is also a symbol of violence against women by the government."

Women such as Maheira Bint Aboud, who remains an enduring symbol of the Sudanese struggle against colonial rule, and Alaaza Mohammad Abdullah, who was the first woman to lead a political protest in the country, paved the way for political figures. This includes Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim, an icon of Sudan's women's rights movement, who led Sudan's first women's strike while still in school, calling on the administration to drop its decision to replace science classes for girls with sewing and housekeeping lessons. She later became the first woman to be elected to parliament in the region.

Despite this strong tradition, women in Sudan face an abject struggle to claim their rights. The day before International Women's Day, demonstrators across the country organised a protest under the banner of "Sudanese Women's Day".

The day saw widespread protests, but also with it came increased arrests and brutality from security forces.

At least 38 people were arrested at Ahfad University alone, where the presence of security forces was overwhelming, according to the student who did not wish to be named.

Among the issues many Sudanese women wish to tackle is female genital mutilation (FGM). Sudan has one of the highest rates of FGM in the world – 87 percent of women aged 15-49 have been circumcised, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). While pressure from international organisations and women's rights groups has led to a fall in FGM rates, the practice still continues.

Sudanese law allows for forced marriage and the marriage of children over 10. Twelve percent of girls are married before the age of 15, and 34 percent are married by the age of 18, according to UNICEF. Those rates increase to more than 50 percent in the conflict zones of Darfur and the Blue Nile.

The country also does not recognise marital rape. All three of these issues were highlighted in the case of Noura Hussein, a Sudanese woman sentenced to death last year after killing the man who raped her after she had been forced to marry him.

Even more widespread is the injustice women face under the public order law instituted by Bashir's regime, which took power in a military coup in 1989 and claims to govern with Islamic sharia law.

Women are punished for wearing "clothes that are obscene or contrary to public morality" with flogging and fines under the law. Such "obscene" clothes include trousers and knee-length skirts.

Although the law targets all genders for "indecent" behaviour, including brewing alcohol and dancing at private parties, women are disproportionately affected. Thousands of women are flogged every year.

"This regime has some of the worst laws against women," said Nadia. "We want freedom from oppression, equal citizenship, women's rights and an end to 30 painful years of Bashir's regime."

While women face beatings and harassment during protest-related arrests, and possible torture in the NISS's so-called "ghost houses", harassment is also a daily occurence on the streets.

"The government has brainwashed men in to thinking that being Muslim means oppressing women," the Ahfad student said.

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Another rallying cry at protests has been an end to war. Women faced the use of rape as a weapon of war among other brutalities in the war in Darfur. Bashir and other regime figures have been indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes, genocide and crime against humanity for the conflict.

After years of systemic discrimination and violence, Sudanese women are now imagining a Sudan without Bashir's regime – a Sudan with social justice and equality.

"The freedom of peace, justice and revolution is the choice of the Sudanese people to bring down Bashir's murderous and rapacious government," Nadia explained.

"When the regime falls, and it's inevitable it will, I envision a Sudan… where everyone has freedom of speech, freedom of mind but most importantly the right to live as a respected human being," the Ahfad student adds. 

"It's not a secret to anyone that Sudan is rich with resources, whether agriculture, heavy metals or oil, we have the potential to blossom under proper management."

Social attitudes are already changing as many begin to plan a post-Bashir Sudan, said Sara: "I've seen a lot of awareness and recognition towards women issues… I see girls talks freely and discuss their opinions openly and surprisingly men listen without judging."

Jena adds, "The situation of women will change for the better, because they have suffered what they have suffered in Darfur, the Nuba Mountains and the Blue Nile from the scourge of war, and systematic violence and ethnic cleansing by Bashir's regime.

"We are fighting for these women who have been deprived of their rights… who are raped by their husbands, who are subjected to genital mutilation in the name of religion and customs and traditions."

Mel Plant is a journalist at The New Arab. 

Follow her on Twitter: @meleppo