Alaa Salah quickly became a symbol of the of the 2019 revolution in Sudan. (Photo: flickr.com/duncan c)

Alaa Salah, who was dubbed as an icon of the 2019 revolution in Sudan was shortlisted to the Nobel Peace Prize. Even if she did not receive this recognition, it is timely to acknowledge the role played by Sudanese women in the 2019 revolution and to highlight their continued struggle for freedom, dignity and justice.

Throughout the country, women led the chants for freedom, justice and peace. Female demonstrators led the way in occupying the streets in the face of arrest, sexual assault, teargas, live bullets and harassment by security agents calling them prostitutes and worse. Even after security forces killed and raped peaceful protesters during the Khartoum massacre on 3 June 2019, women from a diversity of classes, generations, religions, educational levels and ethnicities have continued to protest. Especially young women were at the forefront. They protested in various ways; in the streets, through art and poetry, and social media. Many did so despite the fact that their parents and husbands forbade it. “My mother forbade me from participation in demonstration, but my brother supported me, and we go together”, says one female protestor.

While international media outlets have portrayed women’s participation in the revolution as exceptional, it represents a long trajectory in Sudan. Before the 2019 revolution, there had been several anti-government demonstrations, in which women took active part, in 2011 and 2013. Unlike its Arab neighbors in northern Africa, the Sudanese people have ousted military dictatorships before, in October 1964 and in May 1985. Although poorly documented, women played an active part in both uprisings. Women are often made invisible in the scholarship of Sudanese history.  I have together with MNSAM member and researcher Samia al-Nagar conducted fieldwork in Khartoum among female protestors during and after the revolution to understand why women were so visibly involved in the 2019 revolution. We see this research as part of a larger effort to put women center stage in historical processes that has hitherto excluded and sidelined them.

Women’s participation was not spontaneous or momentary. Women formed the majority of the protestors because women as a group became disproportionately disadvantaged under the Bashir regime which demanded adherence to strict public morality laws. The Islamist regime of Bashir also codified the most conservative family law in the region where, among other things, the minimum age of marriage is set at 10 years and it stipulates that women need to permission of male guardians to work outside of the marital home. Many protesters saw these regulations as oppressive and contrary to the dignity of women. “I’m against all of the laws of this regime…especially the public order law which has tortured the Sudanese woman and limited her thinking, freedom and movement,” said one female protestor. Such laws matter to women from diverse backgrounds. According to the Women’s Cooperatives Union of Food and Beverage Vendors in Khartoum, public order laws have badly affected  women from marginalized areas and migrant women work in Khartoum’s informal labor market – as tea ladies, dressmakers, or as street vendors selling nuts, sweets and grilled meat.

Women’s rights activists have long argued for abolishing discriminatory laws legitimized as Islamic law by the regime of Bashir. According to the women’s rights activist Asha al-Karib;

 

The world-admired Sudanese revolution is marked by unprecedented contribution and participation of women throughout the country, including women from all walks of lives. The participation of women is not a by chance event, as Sudanese women own a strong history of resistance in the face of dictatorships and patriarchy. Women were very active resisting the hegemony of the previous regime and its laws and practices”

 

The transitional government of prime minister Abdallah Hamdok abolished state public order laws in November 2019 and amended the Criminal Law in July 2020 and among other things removed the stipulations on Islamic dress in the public morality laws. However, it is a long road ahead before women have equal rights within Sudan’s national laws. Sudan remains among a handful of countries that have not ratified the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). In order to put women’s rights center stage in the transitional period, women demand gender parity in all governing structures going forward.

Despite this visible role in the revolution, women have largely been side-lined in the formal political process in the aftermath of the revolution. Only two women appeared in the negotiations in August 2019 between Forces of Freedom and Change (coalition representing the protestors) and the military council which was de facto running the country at the time. Female protesters and women’s rights activists were disenchanted by what is widely perceived as an attempt to sideline women from an important historical moment and opportunity for change. Women continued to protest what they label a patriarchal mentality rampant in Sudanese politics featuring slogans like “You thank us in demonstrations and forget about us in negotiations”; “I am a 100% protesting female, but am outside the power structures”.

This patriarchal mentality is reflected also in the FFC Central Council which is responsible for policies and nomination; it only includes 3 women and 23 men.  Although Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok is widely recognized as a supporter of women’s rights, he relies on the FFC coalition for nominations to governing structures in Sudan’s post-revolution.  The appointment of female ministers and state governors has thus far been underwhelmed women’s rights activities in the country.

At the forefront of the demand for gender parity are women’s groups, including new organizations of female youth activists that has been established in the wake of the revolution like the Noon movement and the Civil and Political Sudanese Coalition (MNSM) which is an umbrella organization for women from civil society, political parties, unions and forums. Despite frictions within and between women’s groups, they seem to stand united in the call for inclusion into political decision-making during this crucial time of political transition. Alaa Salah speaking on behalf of MNSM and other women’s group stated before the UN security council in October 2019 that the demand for gender parity is pivotal;

Given women’s pivotal role in working towards peace and development, in the promotion of human rights, and in providing humanitarian assistance to communities in need, there is no excuse for us not to have an equal seat at every single table. If we are not represented at the peace table, and if we don’t have a meaningful voice in parliament, our rights will not be guaranteed, and discriminatory and restrictive laws will remain unchanged, continuing the cycle of instability and violence. After decades of struggle and all that we risked to peacefully end Bashir’s dictatorship—gender inequality is not and will never be acceptable to the women and girls of Sudan”.

Although women were at the forefront of the revolution, their marginalization in its aftermath is a reminder that Alaa Salah and groups like MNSM are pivotal to ensure that women’s rights are center stage in the negotiation of a democratic and peaceful Sudanese future. As women’s rights activist and journalist Reem Abbas puts it in an interview with the Elephant - Speaking truth to power, “women’s revolution is not over”.  Women’s revolution continues not only to secure a seat at the table, but to break down the patriarchal mentality represented in the government as well as in society.

 

This Sudan blog post is written by Liv Tønnessen, research director at CMI.