“We are oppressed at home, oppressed on the street, at university, at work, on public transport,” Wifaq Quraishi (protestor) said. “All of these things made the girls go out to demonstrate on the street.”
The Sudanese Revolution was all over the news in 2019 and many different media platforms covered the uprising, stating numbers, describing the situation and discussing about different theories on what was going on. However, many tend to forget that the Sudanese Revolution is essentially about people, about their long story of fighting for change and for a better future. We may read about numbers or facts, but behind this, there is a narrative of people with a fueling passion for their freedom that had long been deprived from them. In 2018, women, who had been the most repressed, got together their strength and fought on the frontline of the demonstrations. Not only for the future of their country but for their own rights too.
In order to understand why the population of Sudan decided, in December 2018, to rise up against the long-time president Omar al-Bashir, there is a need to go back in history.
The rise of Omar al-Bashir took place in the late 1980s and 1990s. He came to power in 1989 with the help of the army and Islamist hard-liners by arranging a coup against the former Prime Minister, Sadiq al-Mahdi. Nevertheless, he was only appointed president in 1993, two years after he and his Islamist allies imposed the Sharia laws in the country, inflaming the discord between the Muslim north and Christian south.
In 2003, the first uprising against the al-Bashir government occurred. This resulted in one of the bloodiest humanitarian disasters of our times. The demonstrations were led by the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) rebel groups in Darfur. The aim of the demonstration was to confront the government that allegedly mistreated the non-Arab population. The government countered the uprising by executing an ethnic-cleansing offensive against the region’s non-Arabs. The conflict has never really ended and is one of the issues brought up in the Draft Constitutional Declaration, in August 2019.
A very important event is the secession of South Sudan in July 2011 that has not only been the origin of political and social instability, but also economic complications for the northern region of the country. In fact, when South Sudan gained independence, it also gained control over oil fields, accounting for three-quarters of Sudan’s oil production.
The government took some measures that caused price hikes in January 2018 which made protestors take to the streets. In December, the Sudanese demonstrated again for steep price rises and shortages. Nonetheless, their focus soon shifted on making Omar al-Bashir step down. The response of the government was blatantly aggressive: as a reaction, some of the protestors were killed.
This was the beginning of the third Sudanese Revolution that is still going on. Today, the world can still bear witness to the long process of a strong population resisting against an oppressive government.
April 2019 was the month of highest tension in Sudan. On the 6th of April, outside the military headquarters in Khartoum, a sit-in protest rose to life. To clear the sit-in, the security forces killed protestors for the following five days from that date. Furthermore social media was blocked, cutting the population away from the world. On the 11th of April, Omar al-Bashir was arrested by the army, with a three-month state of emergency enforced.
During this month, women took their place in the demonstrations. A symbolic figure is Alaa Salah, who was photographed standing on a car dressed in a thobe as the women did in the 1970s to the 1980s when they rose up against former dictatorships. This became the emblem for the fight of women in their struggle for justice in the country as the costume also refers to the Nubian Warrior Queen.
Tensions soon rose as the TMC’s intention with the negotiations seemed to be to disperse the peaceful sit-in at the headquarters led by the civilians and use violence to do so. The 3rd of June, the TMC together with the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) shot and used teargas on the protestors in order to break up the sit-in. The numbers are vague, but around 100 people were killed. The Internet was blocked as an attempt to prevent the international community and the people from knowing how many protestors fell victims to the massacre.
Families were terrorised, women repeatedly raped, protestors injured and killed by the military forces, but nothing could stop Sudanese Revolution from happening. Bodies were thrown into the Nile as an effort to hide the atrocity of June the 3rd, but no one can and should not forget what happened.
During most of June, small-protests were still organised to revolt against the TMC, even though the internet was blockade and violence perpetrated by the military was very much in force. The result of the resilience from the population led to negotiations in July 2019, this time mediated by the African Union and Ethiopia. The transition from the Sudanese Revolution to democracy formally began the 5th of July 2019.
But what has been the role of women in all of this?
The estimations state that up to 70 percent of the protestors had been women since December 2018. That is why the Sudanese Revolution has often been called the “Women’s Revolution”.
The reason why women have taken up the fight alongside the men, originates from the Omar al-Bashir regime. Indeed, the Sharia Laws implemented by the government meant many restrictions on women and their rights.
The so-called ‘mortality laws’ regulate everything from how women have to behave in public, to their everyday life, and how they have to be in their households. As a consequence, child-marrige, early, and forced marriage is legalized. Indeed, one in three women are married off before they are eighteen. Women are expected to cover their hair, the way they dress has to fulfill certain standards and travelling in public is also dictated by the laws.
Moreover, women have also been subjects of rape and genital mutilation. Threatened by public flogging and imprisonment, the Sudanese women were the most oppressed by the Omar al-Bashir regime and thus, perhaps, the most vital protestors for the Revolution to work.
During the protests, the women were the most fearless as they, yet again, took upon the role of being the most targeted by the government and still were stubborn enough to stand on the frontlines. The tactic pursued to get them to stop was “if you break the women, you break the men”, which consequently led to women being raped and exposed to violence from the military forces. During the demonstration, at most 15 women declared they had been raped.
What about the future of women in Sudan?
The protestors have made it clear that the most important goal is to strive for a civil-led transitional government. However, if the sharia laws should stay in place as it has been before is another subject that hasn’t been entirely covered by the civilian side. As of May 2019, the TMC was clear about its wish for sharia laws to be part of the legislation of Sudan.
On the 20th of August 2019, the TMC was dissolved and the Sovereignty Council was appointed instead. Even though this was seen as a step forward towards democracy and gender equality, all of the appointed members were men, with the exception of only two women.
The sacrifices made by especially women have not been fulfilled and the Sudanese Women’s Union (SWU) argued even before the transition that Sudanese women “claim an equal share of 50-50 with men at all levels, measured by qualifications and capabilities”. On the 22nd of August, the SWU carried out a protest in front of the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA) in Khartoum.
Although the Sudanese Revolution has more or less ended, the women of Sudan have not stopped fighting for their freedom. The third revolution is not about how many have participated, it is about the courage of the people to keep on going when everything seems impossible.
The Sudanese women have shown beautiful bravery during the Sudanese Revolution, but their combat is far from over. This, in conclusion, can be considered as the ultimate confirmation of their peculiar resilience.