In Sudan, the price of revolution is paid for by women's bodies
On Thursday 23 December, thousands of Sudanese women and activists marched in a number of cities around Sudan to protest against the sexual violence and rape of women and girls during a demonstration against the military coup.
Three days earlier, on 19 December, tens of thousands had gathered in Khartoum to commemorate the third anniversary of the 2018 December Revolution. The protest also aimed to demonstrate continued popular resistance to military rule: widespread resistance to October’s military coup has resulted so far in 48 deaths and more than 1,200 injured.
As the 19 December demonstration was coming to an end, it emerged that women and girls had been sexually assaulted and raped during the event. These attacks are situated in a context of organised violence orchestrated by the coup authorities. Their failure to form a transitional government was cemented as PM Abdalla Hamdok resigned shortly after the protests.
"Rape as a political weapon has long been used in the context of conflict and war, and in Sudan's history in particular: 17 years of war in Darfur show the history of sexual violence as a tool in conflict"
The UN announced it had been informed that 13 women had been raped, and the Sudanese governmental Combating Violence against Women Unit (CVAW) documented 9 cases of rape and gang rape in the vicinity of the presidential palace. One of the victims was a ten-year old girl who was raped by at least ten men, all wearing the official uniform of the military forces.
Rape as a political weapon has long been used in the context of conflict and war, and in Sudan's history in particular: 17 years of war in Darfur show the history of sexual violence as a tool in conflict. Thousands of women and girls were sexually assaulted and raped – and this abuse continues today.
They stand as witnesses to the deliberate and systematic use of rape for political ends. Sexual violence was used similarly during the war in the Nuba mountains and in the civil war against the South Sudanese before their independence.
Justice has always been absent when it comes to confronting aggression against women's bodies, and the state fails abjectly to deal with these crimes with the seriousness they merit. In fact, their continued prevalence shows how embedded they are, viewed as tools to be used, alongside bullets, tear gas and sound bombs, as state-sanctioned weaponry against those bodies which make demands and protest.
For this reason, the attacks on women in Darfur were never treated seriously, and no one was punished for them. No institutions providing psychological support and rehabilitation to survivors were established, nor a legal framework to ensure perpetrators were punished and to prevent the atrocities from reoccurring. The state didn't attempt to restructure itself in ways which would protect women, and the result is what we are witnessing now.
Rape during the demonstrations - Why?
Conceptually speaking, in the context of the "demonstration", the bodies protesting there are viewed as active bodies, with the drive for political and social change as their impetus: the act of protest itself emphasises this agency over the body. However, this relationship can be redrawn to impose the control of those with material power over those protesting.
In this way, rape is an attempt to cancel the control of women over their bodies. These relentless attempts also aim to forcibly distance women from political protests and public life in general – women's active participation has been prominent since the initial demonstrations of the Sudanese revolution in December 2018.
"Militarisation itself is directly connected to a socio-cultural characterisation of masculinity, whereby masculinity is centred and celebrated as a parallel to violence in cultural terms"
Soon after the rapes following the 19 December demonstration were reported, Emergency Order No. 4 was issued, conferring impunity and wide-ranging powers to security personnel, and giving them the right to interrogate, imprison, and violate citizens' privacy under the pretext of the state of emergency the country was in.
Militarisation, masculinity and violence
Militarisation itself is directly connected to a socio-cultural characterisation of masculinity, whereby masculinity is centred and celebrated as a parallel to violence in cultural terms. This is done through stories, songs, poetry, and social narratives concerned with gender.
These ideas are normalised through their unquestioning acceptance by other institutions, and on top of all this a model of violence takes shape, which is supported by impunity and a lack of accountability.
On 3 June 2019, the mass sit-in outside the Sudanese Army General Command in Khartoum was violently dispersed. This sit-in represented the intensifying revolutionary mobilisation of the country. In the aftermath of the dispersal, more than 70 cases of rape were recorded.
13 Sudanese women tell @UNHumanRights they were raped by security forces this weekend amid protests in which two more people were killed. Sudan's political and military leaders must act to address this violence & protect civilians as protests continue. https://t.co/0Twjj6b4S2— Samantha Power (@PowerUSAID) December 21, 2021
Sexual violence was used in that context to punish protestors who had raised their revolutionary demands right up until the moment of the dispersal itself. Rape in this case attempted to break the revolutionary sense of self which rejects violence and which adheres to peacefulness and to the goals of transforming and rebuilding the state.
In states of emergency, like the one we are living in now, many freedoms and rights are deemed disposable and brushed aside, as security personnel are given the green light to abuse the powers granted to them without accountability. Here, militarisation meets with violence, and violations against the basic human rights of security and safety are legitimised.
The challenge: Building a state which protects women
Here we must acknowledge that the human body is the primary site on which and through which power is exercised. Here we recall 30 years of ongoing attempts to suppress the female body, such as by the imposition of strict conditions attached to its presence in public spaces, through laws like the public order law, which stipulated conditions for women to appear in public spaces: what they could wear, where they could go, and even the kinds of jobs they could have.
"The state's stance vis-à-vis violence against women is one of complicity and silence - the absence of laws criminalising sexual harassment, marital rape and domestic violence testify to this"
These laws, in addition to personal status laws, established the state's authority over women's bodies. That is why Sudanese feminists have never stopped protesting against these humiliating laws.
Due to these laws, women often prefer to remain silent in the face of crimes against them, because blaming the victim is still commonplace. Instead of pursuing the perpetrators, women are targeted with accusations. They are questioned on the clothes they were wearing, their presence in said place, and at said time. Questions like this are an attempt to justify shifting the blame onto women.
Sudanese feminists' perceptions of the post-revolutionary state have always included protection, because women's bodies are still a site for the struggle and the quarrels between political factions, the conservatives on one side, and the military, who builds its political capital on violence.
Therefore, the state's stance vis-à-vis violence against women is one of complicity and silence - the absence of laws criminalising sexual harassment, marital rape and domestic violence testify to this – it is a stance in which the burden of proof for sexual violence and rape lies upon the female complainant.
Furthermore, for years, Sudanese criminal law failed to distinguish between extramarital sex (labelled zina in legal terms) and rape. Women's inability to prove that they had been raped would see them accused of sex outside marriage and punished with 100 lashes.
Later, amendments were made to the article in question (Article 149), due to pressure from a feminist-led coalition who lobbied for the law to distinguish between rape and extramarital sex. However, the burden of proof still lies on the victim who files the complaint. During the two-year transitional period, the civilian state authorities took no steps to change this.
"Sudanese women have never stopped protesting against the sexual violence waged against them. Nor have they stopped protesting against militarisation, or the state-sanctioned violence which aims to silence them and remove them from public life"
The mass protests in more than 12 cities around Sudan condemning this violence make it clear that women are holding fast to their rights to security, safety and participation in public life. This feminist solidarity is also fighting the idea that issues of sexual violence are just women's issues: on the contrary – these issues lie at the heart of the state-building agenda itself.
In reality, Sudanese women have never stopped protesting against the sexual violence waged against them. Nor have they stopped protesting against militarisation, or the state-sanctioned violence which aims to silence them and remove them from public life.
They realise now, more than ever before, that only a form of civilian rule that adopts a feminist agenda - which includes demilitarisation of the state and the just redistribution of state resources and the provision of services and essentials to all citizens – will make protecting women a priority and prioritise establishing institutions which will work to ensure women’s safety and dignity with the seriousness needed.
Wini Omer is a Sudanese journalist and feminist activist who focuses on Sudanese civil society, social justice and women's rights and protections.
Follow her on Twitter here.
Article translated from Arabic by Rose Chacko.
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