A popular uprising recently ousted Omar al-Bashir and his Islamist cronies from power after having ruled Sudan with an iron fist since 1989. Sexual abuse and torture orchestrated by the Bashir’s regime has become a feature of its authoritarian rule, where national security forces as well as government backed militias use rape as a means to control and oppress. The most recent example of this tactic was displayed when peaceful protesters who had gathered outside of the military headquarters in Khartoum at the end of Ramadan in June 2019, were met with brutal force, including sexual violence. Sudan introduced a reform of its rape law in 2015 when Bashir was still in power. Despite these legal changes to the 1991 Criminal Code, justice and accountability for sexual violence continue to be a popular demand in current post-revolutionary Sudan, especially in the context of Sudan’s armed conflicts. In the words of a female protester; “Women have demands to hold accountable and punish the perpetrators of sexual abuse in Darfur and other parts of the country” (Al-Nagar and Tønnessen 2019).


Building on extensive interviews (in English and Arabic) carried out in Khartoum between 2006-2017, we explore the normative and legal resources, including Sharia, that Islamist women inside and women’s rights activists outside of the regime used to advocate for the rape reform which was enacted by Sudan’s National Assembly in February 2015.  Despite being described as a weak reform, it was nonetheless a milestone. While the Islamist women inside and women’s rights activists outside the regime made similar demands for reform in parallel, the framing strategies differed substantially between a politicized “rape in war” frame and a de-politicized “constitutional” frame.


Legal mobilization, defined as a means of seeking social change through legal norms, discourse, or symbols, may seem paradoxical given the authoritarian nature of Bashir’s rule. Considering the fact that Bashir is indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for systematic use of sexual violence in the Darfur conflict which erupted in 2003 (and which despite several peace agreements still is not resolved), it would obviously not be in the former President’s interest to document rape cases through the domestic court system as it would potentially strengthen ICC’s case against him (Tønnessen 2017). Therefore, there was no genuine belief that a legal reform singlehandedly would provide justice for victims of sexual violence in Darfur or beyond the war struck region of West Sudan. Analysing the two different framing strategies, we claim, the underlying motive of the two legal mobilization campaigns were displayed. Considering the political unwillingness to treat rape cases in domestic courts, we understand women’s rights activists’ legal mobilization campaign as a form of resistance against the symbolic effects of violence instigated by the Islamist state’s particularistic interpretation of Sharia. It forms an important part of a growing opposition against the Islamist state where a central strategy has been to showcase its un-Islamicness. Meanwhile, the Islamist women set out to reform Sudan’s law in alignment with a Constitution blessed by the ruling Islamist party in a bid to restore Islamic justice. They present impunity for rape in the Sudanese Criminal Code law as an unintended consequence which is in contradiction with principles of Islamic justice, and at the same time they work to reinstate the legitimacy of the Islamist state.

Liv Tønnessen

Director of Center on Law and Social Transformation and Senior Researcher