The women’s movement in Sudan has never had a unified agenda. The military coup has complicated the situation even further for activists. Any hopes women’s rights activists may have to push their agenda seem to be shattered. Other demands, other dreams, other needs have now taken center-stage. But where others see obstacles and disagreement, researcher and activist Samia El Nagar sees a silver lining.


‘We are many, and we are strong’
Samia El Nagar


So many things have happened since protestors took the streets in cities all over Sudan in December 2018. The people in power may have changed, but the protestors demands are still the same: Justice and freedom for the people. All along, women have taken center stage with their chants and zaghrudah. The world will never forget the by now iconic photo of the Sudanese engineering and architecture student Alaa Salah, standing on the rooftop of a car reciting poetry and chanting. Dressed in a traditional thoub she contributed to revive the memory of the Nubian queens in Sudan’s ancient kingdom of Kush – the kandaka.

The women of Sudan have great stakes invested in their country’s future. And they have taken great risks; many female protestors have been subjected to violence and sexual assault. Some, sadly, have even lost their lives fighting for a cause that is bigger than themselves. They have found unity in the calls for democracy. But where has this rendered the fight that up until December 2018 was at the forefront of many of these female protestors’ agenda? The fight for women’s rights?

A new momentum brought on by the coup
Women’s rights activists in Sudan had high expectations to the outcome of the December Revolution. There was a feeling of optimism, and a conviction that freedom and justice would prevail. Female activists played an active role in the local resistance committees that were crucial in organizing protests. They organized informally, formally, consolidated existing alliances and formed new ones. Some of the already existing alliances, like the No to Oppression against Women Initiative, was all of a sudden on everyone’s lips. From being a national initiative that was originally created in 2009 because the female Sudanese journalist Lubna Ahmed al-Hussein was arrested for wearing trousers, the organisation went to being an international symbol of women’s role in the protests against then president Omar Al Bashir’s regime.

Another big name, MANSAM, an alliance of political women’s groups, civil society organisations, youth groups, and individual affiliates, was one of the organisations that signed the January 1 declaration creating the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC), the alliance that negotiated with the Transitional Military Council (TMC) after the toppling of Omar Al Bashir. MANSAM, along with other women’s rights activists, called out the lack of representation of women in the negotiations.

The result of the negotiations disappointed many women’s rights activists. Sudan has been through a dramatic turn of events since, and the positive changes women’s rights activists were hoping for have yet to materialize.  

Yet there is a new momentum. The current military coup has brought the local resistance committees back to life. And the women’s movement again plays a crucial role. But not without a risk. Female protestors are met with sexual and gender-based violence, live bullets and arrest by the notorious security forces. Amira Osman, the chair of the No to Oppression against Women Initiative, was detained and taken to an unknown location by the security forces two weeks ago. But women simply refuse to be pushed back from the streets.

-The local resistance committees are stronger and more active than ever before, says Samia El Nager, an independent researcher in Khartoum.

-We are strongly voicing our concerns in the streets. We express our resistance holding up posters in the streets. We publish public statements denouncing the military coup-makers. They are not our legitimate rulers. Our message is clear: There will be no compromise, no negotiations, and no partnership with the military.  


Samia El Nagar argues it is possible for the fragmented women's movement in Sudan to come together. (Photo: Private)


Although the Khartoum protests may be the ones getting the most attention in international media, women are taking part in the protests all over the country. And El Nagar points to an alarming fact that has largely gone unnoticed by the same international media: The security forces have tightened their grip also outside Khartoum. General Abdel Fattah al Burhan, heading Sudan’s current military regime, has seized the opportunity to appoint more people in the security forces, and there have been increasing insecurities for women in some states. Some women activists have had to flee their homes.  

-The situation is especially dire in Darfur and the Blue Nile state. Women and girls have been raped.

A fragmented women’s movement coming together
El Nagar is member of the local resistance committees in Khartoum and is now working side by side with a handful of young, female and male activists.

-In fact you could argue that the resistance committees have been revived and are now organizing themselves to develop a charter, she says.

-We are many, and we are strong.

She is impressed with the courage of young protesters and by how outspoken are the young women activists are.

But is the women’s rights movement in Sudan too fragmented to succeed? Reviewing the contemporary history of the Sudanese women’s movement, we can say there is a generational gap between the country’s young and older activists. The younger being more radical and advocating for sexual rights and freedom and reform of the personal status law, while many of the older generation of women have focused more on gender equity and empowerment. Their differences have been thought to be irreconcilable. There are also other dividing lines historically fragmenting the Sudanese women’s movement. El Nagar pinpoints some of them:

-There have been disagreements in priorities and goals between female activists in rural and urban areas, and between women who are part of the political parties and women who are engaged in civil society. The displaced and poor women have different agenda and relatively limited opportunities. The women’s groups who signed the Juba agreement as members of the revolutionary groups though had been working closely with women activists in the different region sharing peacebuilding as a common priority but after the coup they are definitely out of the equation.

-What is the single most damaging feature to a unified women’s movement right now is that some women leaders have put personal interests above those of the women community, she says.

Women’s rights activists in Sudan come from all walks of life, have different life experiences, and also sometimes differing goals. Where some want gender equality, others opt for gender equity. Where some want a clean break with patriarchal traditions and customs, some want to stick to an Islamic interpretation of the relationship between man and woman.

Still, El Nagar argues that it is possible for the women’s activists in the different regions to come together to discuss the best way forward, and that this is the time. Inclusivity is key.

-We need to ask ourselves what it entails to be an advocate for women’s rights, and we need to include everyone. All over the country, there are women that could and should be included in the fight for women’s rights but are not. What about all the housewives who everyday struggle to make ends meet? Many of them are not mobilized. What about all the disabled women? Some of them are participating, but far from the majority. They all have valuable experiences and should be included, she says.  The millions of rural and displaced women need to be given specific consideration.

It is time to come together because of the bigger cause, and because women’s rights are inextricably linked to this cause: The fight for freedom and justice is the fight for human rights. The fight for human rights is the fight for women’s rights. You could argue that without women’s rights in place, you can’t even have freedom and justice. Neither can you have a true democracy.

The feeling that freedom and justice would prevail would also mean freedom and justice for women. Because: How can you distinguish between freedom and justice and women’s rights? The one is the other. Without women’s rights you can’t even have freedom and justice. Neither can you have a true democracy; the demand that has become a mantra for the protestors in the streets of cities all over the country. The protests against the military coup continued after Prime Minister Hamdok came back, only to resign after a month. And they are continuing. The protestors demand a civilian government. They demand democracy.

This is what the future power holders of Sudan need to keep in mind. At all times. Freedom and justice would never be achieved if half of the population is kept out of the equation.

Working towards influence
Inclusiveness is not enough though. You need to be wise about it too, and sometimes with a pragmatic streak. To succeed, the women’s movement will have to find ways to work strategically to get influence.

-There is a significant difference between having goals and having a strategic approach to how to reach your goals, says El Nager.

But first the women’s groups who still, according to El Nager, tend to see their particular group as a stand-alone unity, have to establish platforms where they can come together to discuss openly and close the gaps between generations, between regions and between politics and civil society. And they have to acknowledge that all the talk about fragmentation and disagreement could be an inaccurate diagnosis that leads nowhere.

-The differences between young and old do not simply follow from the fact that we belong to different age groups, but because we have been exposed to different sets of ideas and concepts. We all have something to learn from each other. Older generations of women’s activists have a tendency to try to dominate the debates, leading the younger ones to shy away from the discussions. Younger activists are inclined to don’t want to engage in conversations with government officials because they feel it is a waste of time, whereas the older activists may want to choose a more pragmatic approach. Only through respectful and open dialogue can we build a bridge.

Some have feared that unifying for a common cause will de-radicalize the fight for women’s rights. Too many compromises may hurt the cause. But in a country with patriarchal systems; where the political institutions are geared towards keeping women out, women’s activists need a unified front if they are to get anywhere. Coming together is not about demanding that everyone agrees on a common goal. Coming together is about adopting the best strategy in the face of what can sometimes feel like a solid wall. 

And El Nagar will work hard to create these platforms for dialogue. Given unity, given inclusiveness, given opportunity, there is no doubt in her mind that women can come together to contribute to achieving justice and freedom for all Sudanese.

In Sudan’s close past, strong women represented a threat to the Islamist regime. Now, strong women represent a threat to the current military regime. This is perhaps more than anything what binds the past and present of the Sudanese women’s movement together. Sudanese women have never accepted to be threatened to silence. The strong will, the determination and perseverance are precisely what give El Nagar hope for the future.

-We are determined. And as long as we have the youth on our side, we will win this battle.